For most of this season and the playoffs, the Seattle SuperSonics had unshakable confidence in their own invincibility. Sure, the Sonics seemed to have the perfect blend of experience and youth, finesse and physique, but there also was that almost mythical goodness emanating from Coach Lenny Wilkens that seemed to make everything work no matter who was wearing the green, white and gold uniforms.
After all, this was the team that barely lost the NBA championship last year, then lost one center, Marvin Webster, to free agentry, and another, Tom LaGarde, to injury; stuck a second-year forward, Jack Sikma, in the pivot and replaced him with a forward, Lonnie Shelton, who had led the NBA in fouls during his two years in the league. And it still won the Pacific Division championship, then beat Los Angeles in five games to reach the Western Conference finals.
Thus, no less an expert than Rick Barry, who plays for Houston when not pontificating on television, said before the series with the Phoenix Suns, "The Sonics will win because they believe they will win."
But then something happened. After romping to home wins in Games 1 and 2 by scores of 108-93 and 103-97, the Sonics began to play as if they had Space Needles stuck in their throats. They had won that second game despite guards Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson shooting a combined 7 for 39. And their third big gun, Sikma, went 4 for 17. But these failings only wound up infusing the Sonics with more confidence.
"This was probably their best shot," said Seattle Forward John Johnson, speaking of the Suns' improved performance in Game 2. "If they play a better game in this series, I'll be pretty surprised."
But the Suns flared and played three better games, and by the time Game 6 rolled around in Phoenix—"Whoever thought there would be a Game 6," said the Sonics' veteran forward, Paul Silas—Seattle was one game, no, one shot, from being eliminated.
But somehow Seattle's faith in itself prevailed. The team's confidence had eroded badly—J.J. had long since eaten his words—and with good reason. In Games 2 through 5 the Sonics had shot miserably. Sikma, a 46% shooter in the regular season, was 14 for 56, mostly against a 6'7" rookie named Joel Kramer, who is better suited to playing forward. And what's worse, Seattle was slipping behind on the boards—to sweet, gentle Phoenix.
With the loss of rebounding advantage went Seattle's chance to control Phoenix' fast break. And when that break is run regularly by the blazing Walter Davis and his associates, the Suns are almost impossible to beat.
But in Game 6 last Sunday, Seattle scrapped as only it knows how. Moreover, the Sonics picked that game to shoot 54% from the field, seven points better than their regular-season average, and devastate the Suns on the boards 43-27 in a 106-105 win that sent the series back to Seattle.
For his part, Sikma lived up once more to his old nickname. The Banger moved the 203-pound Kramer all over the floor with relative impunity, and he also came out of his slump, hitting for 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.