It has become a rite of spring in Seattle to take the psychological temperature of the SuperSonics, a team that has developed what can only be called a playoff deficit disorder. Other cities may have armchair quarterbacks; Seattle has armchair therapists. The first-round upset losses the Sonics have suffered the last two seasons have left such emotional scars that one of the local newspapers, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ran a story last Friday in which a psychologist tried to explain how the players could visualize success and reach a postseason comfort zone, or, in layman's terms, how they could keep from choking. The headline called the playoffs the Sonics' "chance to prove they're not the NBA's Norman." That was a reference to golfer Greg Norman, who blew the Masters three weeks ago, but it could just as easily have referred to Alfred Hitchcock's fictional Norman Bates. There is no kind way to say it: In the playoffs the Sonics are psychos.
That became evident again on Sunday when Seattle, owner of a 64-18 regular-season record and top seed in the Western Conference, dropped a 90-81 decision at home to the No. 8-seeded Sacramento Kings. That outcome tied the teams' best-of-five first-round series at 1-1 and served as a reminder that for the Sonics, playoff games are the equivalent of group-therapy sessions. They exhibited some of the same symptoms in Game 2 that they thought they had worked through—disorientation and anxiety, particularly in the fourth quarter, and occasional paranoid episodes, especially where the media were concerned. "How do we keep this from becoming like the last two years?" said forward Sam Perkins after the defeat. "We can start by not reading the papers." It wasn't that the loss necessarily doomed Seattle to another early exit (even though Gaines 3 and 4 were to be played Tuesday and Thursday in Sacramento, where the Kings were 26-15 in the regular season); it was the knowledge that they had relinquished the home court advantage to lowly Sacramento, at 39-43 the only sub-.500 team in the playoffs and loser of all four regular-season games against Seattle, which left the Sonics psychobabbling to themselves.
"We just need to stay together," said Seattle coach George Karl after Game 2. "Anytime you play playoff basketball, the pressure can break you apart. The emphasis for us doesn't need to be as much on X's and O's as on maintaining our self-esteem, continuing to believe in ourselves and each other." Karl didn't need to be reminded that the Sonics failed in precisely that area the past two postseasons, when they lost to lower-seeded teams, first to the Denver Nuggets and then to the Los Angeles Lakers. Locker room altercations and bickering over playing time caused Seattle to crumble from within in those defeats. Says guard Hersey Hawkins, "When I came over here [in a preseason trade], the first thing George said to me was, 'It's not as big a circus over here as you've heard.' "
The Sonics spent the regular season telling everyone else the same thing, insisting that they were a more stable outfit than the high-strung one that had imploded the past two seasons. The calming influence of Hawkins was supposed to have helped, and Seattle's two All-Stars, forward Shawn Kemp and point guard Gary Payton, declared themselves more mature and capable of leading the team. "Because of the team chemistry, I'm more at peace, not nervous," Karl said before Game 1. "That doesn't happen to George Karl very often. George Karl is usually wired."
Karl was positively serene after the Sonics disposed of the Kings 97-85 in Game 1, despite playing without Kemp, who was serving a one-game suspension for fighting with Denver's Tom Hammonds in the final game of the regular season. Seattle's trademark withering defense, which helped harass Sacramento's All-Star guard Mitch Richmond into 4-of-13 shooting, and a brilliant all-around game from Payton (29 points, nine assists and four steals) more than compensated for Kemp's absence. But the Sonics are like the Seattle weather—no matter how sunny things appear, there's a feeling that rain is never far away.
It arrived in Game 2 when the Sonics played a fourth quarter that must have sent their fans in search of their own shrinks. The Kings outscored Seattle 25-14 in the period, with Richmond getting 11 of his 37 points in that span. Kemp turned the ball over four times—he had nine turnovers overall—and missed a dunk. And as if the karma surrounding the Sonics wasn't bad enough, smiling down on the proceedings was recently retired Princeton coach Pete Carril, architect of a first-round upset of UCLA in the NCAA tournament in March and of several near upsets in tournaments past. Carril was on hand as a guest of Kings vice president Geoff Petrie, who played for Carril at Princeton.
But Carril had far less to do with the outcome than did Richmond and Sacramento big men Brian Grant, Billy Owens, Olden Polynice and Michael Smith, who gave the Kings a 45-28 rebounding advantage. "The most aggressive team is the team that wins," Kemp said. "It doesn't matter how talented you are. I'm not saying who was aggressive on this team and who wasn't. It's not about deciding who's to blame. This team doesn't do that anymore."
That in itself represented progress, but the Sonics still gave the impression that even if they escape the first round, they may not yet be emotionally stable enough to reach the NBA Finals. "It kind of showed in their faces that they were a little tight," Smith said after Game 2. "We thought if we could pressure them a little, they might start playing mind games with themselves. After the last two years they're probably saying, 'I hope this isn't going to be a three-peat.' "
If so, the Sonics were saying it to themselves. Publicly they did their best to sound confident. "I still like this team's chances," Karl said. That was reassuring, but by the time this postseason is over, there may be six words the Sonics and their fans will hear even more: The doctor will see you now.