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The Sonics also made another addition by subtraction when guard Flip Murray, the darling during last season's hot start, went on the injured list after playing only nine minutes in this season's opener. (He returned to active duty last Saturday.) Though a gifted scorer, Murray is a Sam Cassell--style guard: Hold the ball, hold the ball, shoot the ball. Last year his reluctance to share the rock led to some tension, in particular with Barry. In this season's crisp-passing, European-flavored offense there is no place for me-firsting. McMillan has made clear: If Murray won't fit in, he will be sittin'.
The team's early success has also been the product of a clear offensive pecking order, which is as follows: Allen (23.8 points per game), then Lewis (21.0), then everybody else. That everybody else includes Fortson, he of the Belushi-esque samurai sideburns and ponytail. Acquired from Dallas for center Calvin Booth in an off-season trade, he embodies the Sonics' new ethos of muscularity in the paint: They ranked second in rebounding differential through Sunday (+3.2 per game) after finishing 26th a year ago (-3.4). Fortson rumbles around the half-court offense like a bumper car, slamming into opponents as he sets (occasionally legal) screens to spring shooters. He then plows toward the basket, where he has an uncanny knack for timing offensive rebounds, which he either tips in or otherwise takes to the hoop in the least graceful manner possible--think construction worker attempting a jet�--usually drawing a foul. (Not a bad thing, since in addition to averaging 6.8 rebounds in only 18.4 minutes at week's end, he was shooting 85.5% from the line.)
Fortson's frontcourt mates, Reggie Evans, Nick Collison and Jerome James, are equally ungainly. They flail, they fall, they cut through the D with all the ease of a blunt knife through sirloin. But they board a lot, shoot judiciously and provide constant defensive intensity. "Those big guys," says Allen, "are the key to the whole thing."
The Sonics' offense is a beautiful symbiosis between goons and shooters. In the first quarter against the Mavericks, Fortson went for an offensive board and then tumbled to the ground in a heap with Dallas forward Alan Henderson. While the Mavs cleared the rebound, Fortson got his leg tangled up with Henderson's--accidentally, of course--pinning him to the ground and causing Nelson to turn red in anger. When a Mav misfired at the other end, Ridnour sent the ball the length of the court to the slow-to-rise Fortson, who, despite having a one-on-one, kicked it back out to a trailing Radmanovic, who drained a wide-open three-pointer. Total team ball.
The Sonics' softness in recent years was hard to accept for McMillan, who as a Seattle guard from 1986 to '98 was known for his defensive tenacity. Forced last season to resort to trapping, he now uses the speedy Ridnour to harass opposing point guards--another reason he's starting--and a rotation of bigs, all of whom, as Allen puts it, "know how to use their fouls." These Sonics can extend, pressure the ball and play better weakside D. "We were always able to score, but last year we weren't playing any defense," says Lewis, who fingers himself as one of the culprits. "Instead of taking two, three games off, now I'm coming out every night. This year everybody's buying into it."
The start has been redemptive for McMillan, who had been in danger of losing his job for the better part of a year. (His contract expires at the end of the season, and Sund says the team won't talk about a new deal until then.) A stoic perfectionist, McMillan figured that things would work out if he just stuck to his principles--"playing the game the right way, respecting it and our opponents," as he puts it. McMillan is very close to his older brother Randy, whom he heard from him after the Texas trip. "He's a pretty strong guy," says Nate, "but he was talking, and then the phone went silent. I thought I heard him sniffling. I couldn't believe it. He got emotional because he'd heard his younger brother talk about what he wanted to do and then seen it actually happen. He said, 'They're playing like you.'"
At their best the Sonics are, as Sund calls them, "a combination of the Mavericks and the Pistons," able to shoot, pass and defend. Still, they are a young team--no player is over 30--built to contend in a year or two, not now. The test will come when they lose three in a row or someone is thinking more about his next contract than the teammate who's open in the corner. Even if the Sonics keep their cool, there are other questions. Can a team without an inside presence win in the playoffs? What happens when the shooters go cold?
For now the team and its fans are still getting used to the idea that such questions about the postseason may soon apply to the Sonics. As the Key Arena announcer said somewhat incredulously while the crowd filed out on Saturday, "Thanks for coming to see your Sonics, who are still in first place."