SI Vault
Bruce Newman
March 17, 1980
The defending NBA champion Sonics are near the top in the standings, but will they be able to peak for the playoffs?
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March 17, 1980

Yet Another Mountain To Climb

The defending NBA champion Sonics are near the top in the standings, but will they be able to peak for the playoffs?

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Fred Brown had barely touched his salad, had picked at his broccoli all evening, and he kept halfheartedly pushing a dead duck around his plate as if he had known its family personally. Every time Brown speared a morsel with his fork he looked it over unenthusiastically, as if he thought somebody might be trying to slip him yesterday's brisket of monkey. Finally he shoved his plate away. "We're definitely not as hungry this year," he said, referring not to the duck, but to the Seattle SuperSonics, of whom he is captain. "Last year we were building a mountain, and when you're working that hard you can't help but be hungry. This season has been different."

With the start of the NBA playoffs less than three weeks away, the question most often asked around the league these days is whether Seattle, the defending champion, will be doing any serious mountain climbing this year. Or, to put it another way, are the Sonics past their peak, so to speak?

What makes all this so fascinating is that Seattle is trying to become the first NBA team to successfully defend its title in the past 11 years. Nobody has won back-to-back championships since the Boston Celtics—who else?—did it in 1968 and '69. "We all know we want to repeat," says Guard Dennis Johnson, "and everybody in Seattle knows we want to repeat. Now we've got to quit talking about it and make it happen."

There have been times this season when it appeared that the Sonics were off somewhere looking for their lost intensity, and for a few fairly thrilling moments in late February it was anybody's guess which players had contacted their answering services and left wake-up calls for the playoffs. After sleepwalking through four losses in five games during one particularly gruesome stretch two weeks ago, the champs looked like chumps and seemed about to yawn so hard through the rest of the regular season that they would break their game faces.

Since then, however, Seattle has won four of six games, including two out of four last week on the road, where the Sonics have put together a fairly impressive 22-16 record this season. Even more encouraging should have been the fact that Seattle was seven wins ahead of last season's regular-season pace, with seven of the last eight games to be played at home in the Kingdome. Yet, in spite of all these positive vibrations, joy in Sonicland last week was not exactly what one would describe as unconfined. That's probably because no one was sure if this year's playoffs would be a boom or a bust, especially considering that the opposition, notably Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, appears to be much stronger than it was last season.

If anything has surprised and troubled the Sonics more than their periodic lapses of concentration, it has been the lack of fear they've inspired in teams that are supposed to tremble at the mere thought of playing the defending world champions. But noooooo. Seattle has a 7-7 record against such non-juggernauts as Chicago, New Jersey, San Diego and the late, great, lately not-so-great, Washington Bullets—teams with a combined won-loss record of 119-161 this season. "These other teams want us bad," says Brown, in a familiar lament of champions. "It bothers me to see them thinking that we've gotten so cocky they can beat us." Coach Lenny Wilkens, too, has been concerned by the Sonics' inability to beat weaker teams consistently. "We have to let those teams know they can't play with us," he says.

Los Angeles Forward Jim Chones got downright nasty about it recently and implied that Seattle is over the hill. "I think everybody is hung up on what the Sonics did last year," Chones said. "I don't think they are as good a team as they were." Then, just to make sure every one got the picture, Chones contributed 16 points as the Lakers devastatingly shot down the sub-Sonic Seattleites 131-108.

Being pounded so ruthlessly by its main challengers was bad enough from Seattle's point of view, but adding to the worries engendered by the loss was the fact that the Sonics gave such a pallid, unemotional performance in so critical a game. Emotion may seem like an odd word to use in any discussion of the NBA regular season, which can turn even the most animated player into a zombie. Standard procedure, as almost any San Antonio Spur can tell you, is to maintain the absolute minimum level of intensity throughout the interminable pre-playoff action without actually having Hot Rod Hundley declare you legally dead. When Seattle tried to light some emotional flares for its showdown in Los Angeles, the Sonics discovered they had neglected to keep their powder dry. "The L.A. game was a good slap in the face," says Center Jack Sikma. "We realized we were fooling ourselves, figuring we could dance right into the division title." Dance, indeed. The Lakers and Sonics have been cheek-to-cheek for months; at the end of last week L.A. had a half-game lead in the Pacific Division.

Still, Sikma, who has blossomed into the fifth-best rebounder in the league—11.1 a game—and one of the most complete big men in the NBA, concedes that it is much more difficult to psych himself up for defending the Sonics' title than it was to get up for winning it in the first place. "I know I'm playing with a degree less emotion than last year," he says. "But it's not like you can throw a switch and just turn it on."

"In this league, it's very, very hard to flip switches on and off," Brown says. "I think guys forget what made them win, what got them on top. It's very easy to forget those things after you've won a world championship."

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