The Sonics learned quite a few things, too, in the three days they spent at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs before the series began. Bickerstaff decided the "minicamp" was necessary for both an altitude (teams often claim to be sucking wind in the mile-high Denver atmosphere, and Colorado Springs is at a higher elevation than Denver) and attitude adjustment. The emphasis was on defense, preparing for the special challenges of the Nuggets' nonstop assault on the basket.
"We worked on getting our defense straight," said Sonic assistant coach and defensive specialist Bob Kloppenburg. "You read everything, the give-and-gos, the screen-and-rolls, by the cuts they make. Whatever they had, we had a scenario for it. The key to playing Denver is having time to prepare."
No one could deny that Seattle was the better-prepared team in Games 1 and 2. The Sonics jammed up the Denver offense well outside the free throw line and, by sending out their big men to double-team, were particularly unkind to the Nuggets' quarterback, Adams, who shot a combined 5 of 22 from the field and missed all but one of his 11 three-point attempts in the two games. That's where Denver's problems began, for it was Adams, obtained from Washington in a trade three days before the start of the regular season, who had turned the Nuggets around.
From the Nuggets' standpoint, the key to the deal with the Bullets (in which Denver gave, up veteran guard Darrell Walker and second-year forward Mark Alarie) was originally thought to be Jay Vincent, a consistent scorer who can drive or shoot from the outside. The Nuggets won't exactly admit that Adams was a "throw-in," but....
"Let's just say we had higher expectations of Jay than we did of Michael," said Denver general manager Pete Babcock. Babcock was asked if he recalled his evaluation of Adams when the point guard came out of Boston College in 1985. "Sure do," said Babcock. "It said, 'Can't play in the NBA.' " Certainly Washington wasn't worried about losing Adams. "Michael Adams?" said Bullet G.M. Bob Ferry when Adams's name first surfaced in trade talks with Babcock last spring. "I'll give you 10 Michael Adamses."
Well, one did the Nuggets just fine, Bob. Not only did Adams successfully push the ball up the floor, relieving the versatile Lever of that task and freeing him to play the off-guard spot to which he seems better suited, but he also turned into one of the league's most dangerous three-point shooters. From Jan. 28 through April 23, a stretch ending with the regular season, Adams hit at least one three-pointer in 43 straight games, establishing an NBA record. And his season's total of 139 triples was only nine behind league-leader Danny Ainge's 148. Adams ravaged team after team with his peculiar one-handed push shot, roughly the same shooting style employed—as Nugget assistant coach Allan Bristow says—"by every eight-year-old in America."
The Sonics stopped Adams's three-point rampage in Game 1 (although the streak, based only on regular-season games, will carry over to next season) and harassed him into an ineffective 1-of-6 three-point performance in Game 2. But that wasn't what worried the Nuggets. The fact that Adams is much more than a three-point sideshow—"If that's all he could do, he'd be coming off the bench," said Bristow—was proved in the first two games. The Nuggets needed him to jump-start their offense in Games 3 and 4 in Seattle this week, or they would have to put Lever back at the point and give more minutes to Dunn, putting up with his nonexistent offense in hopes of containing Ellis.
Besides Adams, the other big surprise for the Nuggets this season was the play of Schayes. In the preseason Moe figured on a three-player pivot arrangement that also involved Blair Rasmussen and Wayne Cooper. That strategy was a sure sign of trouble because in the NBA rarely does the sum of part-time centers add up to a whole. But Schayes became the full-time starter eight games into the season (the same time Moe promoted Adams to a starting role) and put together his finest season, averaging 13.9 points and 8.2 rebounds. Suddenly, Schayes is a hot commodity. Heretofore he was known primarily as a friendly guy, an expert on stereo equipment and the son of Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes of Syracuse Nationals fame (Danny's teammates call him Dolph). He will be a free agent at the end of the season, and his $425,000 salary will probably go close to—gulp!—$1 million, whether he signs with Denver or another club.
That the Nuggets needed production from Schayes was evident in Game 2. After scoring 26 points in the Nuggets' opening victory, he had only eight (and five rebounds) in the second game.
And clearly Denver would have to rely heavily on English and Lever, the club's quiet leaders. They were there for the Nuggets in Game 1 (English scored 28 points, while Lever had 18, including an 18-foot jump shot that gave Denver a three-point lead with 22 seconds left), but the two were MIA in Game 2, when together they shot a horrible 11 of 38 from the floor.