In two games last week Dennis Johnson, the team's leading scorer, missed 15 of 21 shots. In the fading seconds of a brutally tight game in Detroit, first Johnson traveled and then Fred Brown drop-kicked the ball out of bounds with no defender within six feet of either. And at New Jersey the team committed 14 turnovers in the first quarter. Nonetheless, Seattle came away with two cherished road victories, 94-93 and 102-81, because the speedy Williams—the third man in Seattle's rotating-guard system—quick-footed it to the rescue with 19 and 27 points.
"They know how to win on a bad night and that's why they're champions," said Piston Coach Dick Vitale, momentarily forgetting himself, which is not all bad when a man coaches the Pistons.
"Their confidence makes them 25 to 30% better than last year," said Net Coach Kevin Loughery.
On closer inspection, the Sonics are a fine blend of experience ( Silas, called "35" by his teammates out of disrespect for his age, is in his 15th NBA season) and youth (LaGarde's infantile appearance gets him "carded" in drinking establishments); of jive and solidarity; of shooters, passers, rebounders and defenders. Especially defenders. Blocked shots by Sikma and Dennis Johnson helped save the Detroit game. Against the Nets, John Johnson and, again, Dennis Johnson, embarrassed the New Jersey scorers, Bernard King and John Williamson, by harassing them into a combined nine-for-33 shooting night. Above all, the Sonics are consummate role-players. What Silas says about newly acquired veteran Guard Dick Snyder holds true for all Sonics: "Dick knows how not to deviate from his role."
The most pleasant surprise of the young season is the role LaGarde has played in the middle. As a collegian at North Carolina, LaGarde was hard-pressed to draw attention from the likes of Mitch Kupchak, Walter Davis and Phil Ford. Then in his senior year he tore up his knee and missed the Tar Heels' run at the national championship (without him. they finished second). Several pro teams shied away from LaGarde because of the knee; probably only because Nugget Coach Larry Brown is a Carolina man did LaGarde wind up in Denver. But the knee never came around, and LaGarde suffered through a terrible season both mentally and physically.
"Basketball has always been a key to how I felt about myself," LaGarde says. "When I lost my quickness and jumping ability. I forgot how to play. I wasn't an athlete anymore. I felt I was nothing."
Seattle, which had obtained Webster from Denver the previous year, gave up its first-round draft choice for LaGarde, thinking of him as a backup for the Eraser. While Webster spent the summer contemplating Gulf + Western's zillions, LaGarde rehabilitated his knee. And he became a basketball player again, shocking the apprehensive Sonics with his talent. "I heard he wasn't a player," says Brown. "Imagine my surprise."
Not to mention the surprise of others who saw LaGarde outplay Webster in Madison Square Garden in a 120-109 victory or who witnessed his 32-point performance against San Antonio in a 133-117 romp.
LaGarde is a player. First of all, his perpetually blank, fishmouth expression hides a savvy mind and sharp instincts. Although LaGarde can hit the 12-foot jumper, he prefers to drive in close, where he is much quicker than most NBA centers. He is a deceptive shot-blocker. He has running and jumping skills similar to those of his college teammate, Kupchak, now a Washington Bullet. Wilkens says that on good legs LaGarde can be better than Kupchak.
"I see Tommy in the Dave Cowens mold," says Silas. "He does the same type of things. Great leaper. Nice touch. Intelligent. Aggressive. Unscared of anybody or anything inside. You got to like him. Tommy will be an outstanding player in this league for a long time."