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What got Seattle on top last year was its defense, which was at once the stingiest and the most physical in the league. Though the Sonics' drop has only been from first to third in the team-defense statistics, there have been prolonged and at times costly lapses this season. Three weeks ago in Kansas City, Seattle blew an eight-point lead with less than three minutes remaining and wound up losing to the Kings 107-105. "I don't think we're as aggressive this year," says Lonnie Shelton, Seattle's 6'8", 245-pound power forward. "Last year we beat people up all the time, but this season we don't always go into a game thinking we're going to be the most physical team out there."
Perhaps the best gauge of how important defense can be to the Sonics' game occurred last week in a 127-111 loss at Phoenix. After breaking to a 34-24 advantage in a near-flawless first quarter, Seattle relaxed defensively against the Suns' sharpshooters and found themselves trailing 63-59 at the half. Seattle then scored the first 11 points of the second half before Shelton picked up his third and fourth fouls in the space of a minute and, as has often been the case, was forced to the bench. Shelton, who has averaged only 30 minutes a game, scored just four of his 18 points in the second half. More important, without his defense and imposing presence on the boards, Seattle's running game sputtered to a standstill, generating no fast-break baskets during the entire half.
Wilkens, for one, feels the Sonics' defense may have been a casualty of the championship. "For two straight years we played defense like nobody ever has," he says, "and I'm not talking about slowing the ball up to keep the score down. But when you have the kind of success we've had, I wonder if you're willing to work hard enough to play that way."
On paper, at least, it seems that whatever shortcomings the Sonics may have developed on defense have been offset by the team's increased offensive production. In 1978-79 there were only three teams in the NBA that scored fewer points than the Sonics, but this season Seattle ranks 11th in the league. However, that apparent improvement may have contributed to the Sonics' recent difficulties.
Both Dennis Johnson (19.1 points a-game) and Gus (Skindome) Williams (22.4) are having the best offensive seasons of their careers, and with Brown, the ageless sideman in this estimable trio, they give Seattle an average output from the backcourt of 53 points. Johnson may now be the most versatile guard to play in the NBA since Jerry West; he provides not only scoring but also defense and rebounding. Williams and Brown are both offensive virtuosos—Williams scored all 16 of Seattle's points during one stretch of a game with Denver this season—and each of the threesome seems confident that any shot he takes is a good one, if for no other reason than that he is taking it. Occasionally this cockiness produces disastrous results, as in a 101-98 overtime loss to Philadelphia two weeks ago in which the Seattle guards shot 15 of 51. In last week's defeat by Phoenix, Williams and Johnson went 13 for 39.
"When there's not much time left on the shot clock," says Philadelphia Back-courtman Lionel Hollins, "their guards tend to take it upon themselves to do something, and usually it's from the outside." Dennis Johnson, in particular, has often been guilty of galloping overconfidence. "Sometimes he gets so psyched up he wants to tear the other team apart all by himself," says Wilkens.
Wilkens felt that urge at times during his luminous 15-year playing career. Certainly he never felt it more strongly than when his Hawks were about to play the defending world-champion Boston Celtics. "I couldn't wait, literally couldn't wait to get out there on the same floor with them," Wilkens recalls. The Celtics not only had eight good players when no other team had more than four, says Wilkens, but they also established their incredible reign of 10 championships in 12 years at a time when there were only eight to 10 teams in the NBA and the schedule permitted more leisurely travel. Today the league has more teams, more talent, better scouting and an arduous schedule that makes winning a championship less a beauty contest than a test of survival. "Some teams will be good, some will contend more than once," says Wilkens, "but I don't believe we're ever going to see a dynasty again."
John Johnson, the Sonics' lynx-eyed forward, was less concerned with talk of dynasties last week than he was about the breakfast of champions—in this case, cornflakes, bananas and cream—that he had just sent back to the kitchen because the cream was warm. "We're not a damn machine," said Johnson. "We can't play well every night. When you win a championship, people put you on a pedestal. They expect you to maintain that same kind of efficiency year round."
A few days earlier in a game against Utah in Salt Lake City, a heckler got on Johnson about his shooting as Johnson checked into the game. "See you a few bricks later," the loudmouth told Johnson. J.J. looked at the man, held up his unadorned hand and said, "I've got this [championship] ring I want to show you after the game."
"That was last year," the heckler called back.