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December 20, 2004
The supersurprising Sonics are off to a torrid start--and doubters (this can't last!) are beginning to believe
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December 20, 2004

Suspiciously Good

The supersurprising Sonics are off to a torrid start--and doubters (this can't last!) are beginning to believe

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Forgive the good people of Seattle if they're not sure what to make of their SuperSonics right now. Some, such as the local sports radio host who last Friday proclaimed them "the most positive story in the history of Seattle sports" have clearly drunk the mochacinno. Others are more hesitant to embrace the team, and who can blame them? After all, these Sonics look suspiciously like the ones who went 37-45 in 2003-04 and were a consensus pick to miss the playoffs this season. Yet through Sunday their 17-4 record was second in the NBA only to the Phoenix Suns' 17-3. If one morning you started up the minivan and it drove like a Mustang, you'd have a hard time believing it too. � The evidence is compelling, however, that these Sonics won't fade away. Just listen to the vanquished. After the Sonics dumped the Mavericks 107-102 in Dallas last Thursday--the night after snapping the San Antonio Spurs' 21-game home winning streak 102-96--there was a lot of head-shaking in the losers' locker room. Seattle swamped Dallas with a torrential offense, jacking 84 shots and hitting 10 of 23 three-pointers, in essence out-Mav-ing the Mavs. "You don't want to get into a shootout with them," said Dallas guard Jason Terry, letting out a long, low whistle. "They're deadly from all over."

Guard Darrell Armstrong appeared to be in shock as he looked over the final box score. "They just kept firing," he murmured, "and firing ... and firing."

Added swingman Josh Howard, "They can pass, they can shoot, they got guys who aren't going to quit. They fo' real."

Or are they, the suspicious Sonics fans wonder, remembering the team's 8-2 and 6-2 starts the past two seasons? After all, only two nights after completing their Texas two-step, the Sonics took the floor at Key Arena against the persistently mediocre Boston Celtics. Emboldened by a nearly full house and the presence of local baseball hero Ichiro Suzuki--who appeared in some sort of pleather rock star getup--they launched an assault on the rim. Or rather, at it. Seattle shot a jarring 32.6% and lost its first home game 98-84. "I just wish," Sonics forward Danny Fortson said with a grin while appraising his teammates, "that one of you mother------- could have made a shot."

Fortson's comment, profane if not profound, is at least on point: Outside shooting is what makes Seattle tick. Led by Ray Allen (40.7% from three-point range at week's end), Rashard Lewis (39.1%) and Vladimir Radmanovic (40.8%), the Sonics were averaging a league-high 39.9% from behind the arc while shooting 79.3% from the line (fifth best) and averaging 100.7 points (also fifth). But is a team that relies so heavily on marksmanship worthy of the praise lavished by Mavs coach Don Nelson (who calls the Sonics "the new bully of the West") and his Portland Trail Blazers counterpart Maurice Cheeks ("I could see Seattle or Phoenix making the Finals")? A team that lost its glue player, guard Brent Barry, to the Spurs in free agency? A team that has a lame-duck coach as well as seven players in contract years? A team that lost to the Los Angeles Clippers by 30 on opening night--which, as omens go, is like a marathoner needing a breather in the first mile?

Well, yes, once you factor in Frodo and the Samurai.

on the flight home last spring after the final game of 2003--04, coach Nate McMillan listed his ideal starting lineup were the new season to begin the next day. Recalls McMillan, "I decided right there that my point guard was going to be Luke Ridnour."

As a rookie out of Oregon last year, Ridnour suffered from inconsistent shooting (41.4%) and wavering self-confidence, and his minutes fluctuated accordingly (34 one game, a DNP-CD another). Fans knew him mainly because of his floppy hair, which along with his boyish looks and slight build--a spindly 6'2", he gained 10 pounds over the summer to bulk up to 175--earned him the nickname of Frodo. His contributions this season, however, have been more like those of Frodo's tireless helper, Samwise Gamgee. A native of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Ridnour grew up playing on the same courts where John Stockton lofted jumpers, and he displays a Stocktonian facility for distributing the ball. It was this quality, along with his speed, that excited McMillan, who says he saw Ridnour as "an extension of me."

So this season, with a more poised (and, sadly, more close-cropped) Ridnour at the helm, the Sonics are a running, slashing team that rarely if ever posts up. Their offensive system is predicated on motion, back screens, quick passes and forays to the basket by Ridnour and backup point guard Antonio Daniels that free up the team's sharpshooters--whom McMillan likes to see launch from inside the arc as well. After a 103-95 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 16, he was peeved that the Sonics had hit as many threes (18) as twos. "We can shoot the three, but that's not the game plan," he says. "We're an attacking team. I tell my guards, If you stop attacking, I'll take you out."

This leads to yet another unlikely aspect of the Sonics: They're better off without Barry. Though he was a team leader as well as a superb passer and shooter, Barry, like Allen, preferred to hang on the perimeter, which meant the backcourt had no one adept at the drive-and-kick game. Had Barry stayed, it also would have been tougher to find minutes for Ridnour, who has gained confidence (9.1 points per game, 5.8 assists and 40.9% from downtown at week's end) in part because he knows he'll get playing time. "It's tough to keep five guards happy," says G.M. Rick Sund. "When we lost Brent, it solved that problem."

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