Last season, when they came roaring out of the seventh playoff spot to make the Western Conference finals against the Lakers, the Seattle SuperSonics seemed the bright-eyed innocents of the NBA playoffs. This season they are more like the Pistons of the Northwest, a physically intimidating bunch that lurks in the shadows, ready to make trouble again. The Sonics won only 44 regular-season games and again finished seventh in the conference, but everybody knew—off last year's performance—that they certainly were capable of bigger, and badder, things in the postseason.
Seattle's opponent in the first-round Western playoff series is of a different breed. The Denver Nuggets favor speed over strength, sinew over muscle, spontaneity over pattern. Their "passing game" offense, choreographed by that mad genius of a coach, Doug Moe, is frantic, what with players cutting this way and that in a perpetual-motion frenzy. The offense is fun to watch, but it has never seemed, well, stable enough to make Denver a true contender. Nevertheless, Moe coaxed 54 wins out of the Nuggets this season, good enough for a second-place conference finish, and-Denver swept into the playoffs with a 16-2 record in its final regular-season games.
The series was considered unpredictable, with the overachieving Nuggets rated perhaps a slight favorite over the Sonics, a much harder team to read. But as the teams split two games last weekend at Denver's McNichols Arena, some of the questions produced answers. To wit: If the Sonics distribute the ball among their top three scorers, Dale Ellis, Xavier McDaniel and Tom Chambers, they are the better team. If the Sonics disrupt Denver's motion offense before it has a chance to get into high gear, they are the better team. And, if the Sonics continue to batter Denver on the boards and maintain their physical advantage without getting into a lot of foul trouble, they will certainly be the better team.
The Nuggets won a sizzling Game 1 Friday night, 126-123, but they were lucky and they knew it. Seattle made only two of six free throws in the final 1:31 and, for the game, converted only 21, compared to Denver's 41. No one was sure how the Sonics would come out for Game 2 on Sunday afternoon because their powder-keg nature makes them equally capable of explosion or implosion. Denver found out early. Seattle raced to a 22-8 lead, stretched it to 66-41 by halftime and never looked back in a 111-91 victory.
"They played two great games, much better than we played," said Moe. "Let's face it, we're fortunate to be even with them at this point."
And when one analyzes the teams, mano a mano, the Nuggets would seem to be fortunate just to be alive. Consider Seattle's 6'9" rookie, Derrick McKey. The Nuggets simply have no one like him, an off-the-bench wild card who plays defense, rebounds, runs the floor and even has three-point shooting range. Let's move to the obvious. There was the 6'10" Chambers towering over the Nuggets' 6'7" Alex English, intimidating the usually reliable scoring machine into a woeful 6-of-18 shooting performance (16 points) in Game 2. O.K., so that particular defensive matchup sometimes left Seattle's 6'7" McDaniel guarding the Nuggets' 6'11" Danny Schayes, but McDaniel is the Sonics' Darth Vader, a bulldog of a player who doesn't back down from anyone. The X-Man had a game-high 17 rebounds in Game 2 to go with his 23 points.
And there was the lean and mean 6'7" shooting guard, Ellis, posting up the smaller Nugget guards, either the 6'3" Fat Lever or the 5'11" Michael Adams. Even when Moe stuck his sturdiest defender, T.R. Dunn, on Ellis, the Sonic player had a three-inch advantage. Ellis wheeled his way to 24 points in Game 2, and when he was cut off by a Denver double-team, he found the open man, as did Chambers and McDaniel. All three finished with five assists each, only one less than point guard Nate McMillan, generally considered the only Sonic with the inclination to give up the ball.
The Nuggets saw what was in store for them early in Game 2 when Ellis and Chambers executed a perfect pick-and-roll, with Chambers getting the bucket. A couple of possessions later, Chambers was double-covered and gave Ellis a bounce pass that led to a basket. This is how the Sonic offense should operate, but often does not.
The problem is more easily recognized than corrected, however. Chambers, McDaniel and Ellis all have a scorer's mentality, and quite often the Sonic offense is the poorer for it. "Sometimes they get caught up in taking the shot," was the way McMillan diplomatically put it. It is indeed a mixed blessing to be the only NBA team with three 20-point scorers on the floor.
"Obviously, the kind of ball movement we got today [in Game 2] is something that I've been harping on all season. I hope we learned something," said Seattle coach Bernie Bickerstaff.