The seattle supersonics refer to the gods more often than a Greek literature professor does, and in times of trouble they sometimes turn to the voodoo of a guy named Otis the Witch Doctor. There are more unseen forces at work around the Sonics than in an episode of The X-Files. But Seattle would probably be more at home in a segment of Unsolved Mysteries, because not even the Sonics themselves can figure out why at one moment they appear to be championship material and at the next they look like...well, if the term chokers is too distasteful, let's just say they sometimes appear to have obstructions in their throats roughly the size of the Space Needle.
The Seattle players no longer dispute the notion that they are utterly unpredictable. "You never know with us," says forward-center Sam Perkins. "Some funky stuff goes on." But there is a difference between the Seattle teams that flamed out in the first round of the NBA playoffs in 1994 and '95 and those that avoided—though narrowly—similar upsets last year and last week: The Sonics now seem to embrace their tendency to back themselves into a corner. Where they once seemed uncomfortable walking a tightrope, they are now thrill seekers. "We're not afraid to fail anymore," says forward Shawn Kemp. "We actually like having our backs against the wall. We play better that way."
The best evidence of this is that Seattle is 5-1 over the last two years in games in which a loss would have ended its season. The two most recent of those victories came last week against the seventh-seeded Phoenix Suns, who were on the brink of upsetting the second-seeded Sonics in their best-of-five first-round series. The Suns led two games to one before Seattle recovered to win Games 4 and 5 and advance to the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinals against the third-seeded Houston Rockets. Seattle and Houston had identical 57-25 records during the regular season, but Houston won three of four from Seattle and thus had the home court advantage. The Rockets made the most of it on Monday, easily winning 112-102 at the Summit. Game 2 was scheduled for Wednesday in Houston.
To earn the right to face Houston, Seattle had to withstand a three-point heave by Suns guard Rex Chapman that miraculously swished through with 1.7 seconds left and sent Game 4 into overtime in Phoenix. "When that shot went in, I thought the gods must be against us," said Sonics point guard Gary Payton after Seattle rallied to win 122-115.
Then the Sonics had to survive a near collapse in Game 5, during which they allowed the Suns to cut a 22-point halftime deficit to five before Seattle pulled away for a 116-92 victory. "We're better for having gone through this series," Sonics coach George Karl said after Game 5. "You saw a team with chances to break apart, but we never did."
Karl wasn't just practicing spin control; Seattle's recent playoff history suggests that if it doesn't crack early, it doesn't crack at all. The Sonics take time to hit their playoff stride, as they showed last season when they struggled in the first round against the Sacramento Kings but then swept the Rockets and eventually extended the Chicago Bulls to six games in the Finals. "Anytime you're trying to be a champion, there are steps that have to be taken," says Karl. "We still have our problems, but we've taken a step."
The next step will be a doozy. Seattle will need all the mental toughness it can muster to overcome the experienced and well-rested Rockets, who had five days off after their first-round sweep of the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Houston team that Seattle swept in last season's playoffs didn't include forward Charles Barkley, who averaged 20.5 points and 14.0 rebounds in the teams' four meetings this season.
As the playoff series proceeds, Barkley will try to help the Rockets gain an even greater psychological edge. "The best thing you can do against the Sonics is make them think," he says. The Seattle players realize that. They know that having their psychological temperature taken has become a rite of spring, that in the playoffs their fans stop gnawing on their nails only long enough to reach for the antacid. "We're probably going to have that rap of being kind of shaky psychologically until we retire or until we win a championship," says forward Detlef Schrempf. "Everybody pulls out the psychological terms when they talk about us, like we should be in therapy. We might have our lapses, but we're not going to psych ourselves out or lose the mental battle anymore."
Still, Karl concedes, "we haven't been as together and unified this year as we were last." Seattle's turbulent season included a 22-day holdout by Kemp at the start of training camp that was the result of Kemp's unhappiness over the Sonics' salary structure, particularly the seven-year, $35 million contract given last summer to free-agent center Jim McIlvaine (who played eight minutes against the Suns). Then there were the injuries to Schrempf and guard Nate McMillan that caused the former to miss 17 games and the latter 42, and Kemp's repeated tardiness and lackluster play near the end of the regular season. "After three or four different nightmares, to win the Pacific Division and be where we are shows how tough-minded we can be," Karl says.
But occasionally vestiges of the old, contentious Sonics reappear. After Chapman burned Seattle for 42 points, including a playoff-record nine three-pointers, in Phoenix's 106-101 win in Game 1, Payton caused a bit of locker room tension when he criticized his teammates for leaving Chapman open. That brushfire was put out, but getting rid of the outmanned yet persistent Suns wasn't nearly as easy.