Afterward, some of the Rockets tried to dismiss the loss as an aberration. "It was just one of those games," guard Kenny Smith said. "Some days you're dancing with your favorite girl and all your moves are right, all your spins are right. And some days you just drop her." But the lopsidedness of the Sonics' victory indicated that Houston needed to make some fundamental changes in its approach. Seattle is uniquely suited to disrupting the Rockets' bicycle-wheel offense, in which Olajuwon is the hub, either scoring inside or whipping the ball back out to three-point shooters like Elie, guard Sam Cassell or forward Robert Horry, who are positioned around the rim of the wheel. The Sonics' quick, athletic defenders, such as Payton, McMillan and forward Detlef Schrempf, can double- and sometimes even triple-team Olajuwon yet still rotate fast enough to harass Houston's outside shooters if Olajuwon passes the ball back outside.
"To beat this team we have to be more creative," Olajuwon said after Game 1. "We need people to penetrate and draw them into the lane and then kick the ball back out. There is no question that we need to make some adjustments." It must have been gratifying for the Sonics, whose mental toughness is so often called into question, to hear traces of doubt coming from the other locker room for a change.
While the Rockets had major work to do at practice the day after Game 1, Payton used the day mostly to rest and recover. He is one of those players who save themselves for the 48 minutes when the score is being kept. He barely tolerates practice—"Nobody ever won a championship in a drill," he says—unless his teammates can get him into a yapping contest that makes his competitive juices flow. And it's not uncommon before a Sonics home game to see Payton padding around the locker room in his bathrobe, headed for the whirlpool, while his teammates are going to the court to shoot around. His disdain for workouts has caused friction in the past with Karl, for whom practicing is like attending church. But they have come to a meeting of the minds, and Karl is now one of Payton's biggest supporters. "I can't imagine a better point guard for our style," he says. "There are some great point guards in this league, but there's not one I'd rather have playing for me than Gary."
After the season Payton will become a free agent and command a salary that will probably be more than double the $2.7 million a year he currently earns. Although the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks have been mentioned as potential suitors, several people close to Payton believe he is likely to stay in Seattle because the system is tailor-made for his talents and because the Sonics, realizing they can ill afford to lose him, will be prepared to dig deep into their bank account.
But the dollars can't buy the Olympic gold medal that Payton almost certainly would have earned had he been selected for Dream Team III, which will compete this summer in Atlanta. He had the résumé to gain a spot on the team ahead of Glenn Robinson of the Milwaukee Bucks. But Payton's talkativeness made him less attractive to the selection committee, which generally picked the stars least likely to cause an international incident.
It was not the only time Payton has been slighted. This season the fans chose Jason Kidd of the Dallas Mavericks as the Western Conference's All-Star Game starter ahead of him, and he has never had the sneaker-commercial visibility that one might expect for a player of his flair. This pattern goes as far back as his senior year at Oakland's Skyline High School, when St. John's withdrew its scholarship offer to him in favor of another player. (Payton ended up at Oregon State, where he became SI's college player of the year in 1990.)
Perhaps Payton is simply getting used to such snubs, but it's more likely that his increasing maturity is helping him to handle them. "Some people might not like my style, and maybe that's kept me from getting as much recognition as some other people," he says. "But I look at somebody like Sam Cassell. He's gotten noticed because of what he's done in the playoffs, what the Rockets have done in the playoffs. That's the way it could be for us. This year the playoffs could be our stage." And wouldn't that be something to talk about?