Space Cadets

The Sonics stand around, launch three-point shots, and wish for the moon.

THE WIN MONDAY, Jan. 19, brought a welcome smell for the Seattle SuperSonics, who hadn't sniffed victory since back in the days when Howard Dean was a lock in Iowa and the president still associated "moon" with his favorite college pastime. But coach Nate McMillan got the right result with the wrong idea in Philadelphia, and the Sonics ended a four-game collapse against "competition" with a combined win-loss record of 51-98. Nate's great idea? Instead of starting one mediocre center against the 76ers, the coach sent out two.

"Right now, we're the worst rebounding team in the league," McMillan had observed prior to what proved to be a 90-81 victory. But the dueling-centers gambit turned out to be about as effective as sending out conjoined twins. One center, Jerome James, was whistled for three infractions during the first four minutes, and it wasn't long before the Sonics were behind by 19. That the Greenies eventually triumphed had little to do with rebounding, as Philly led that stat 46-42. The win owed more to a 76ers offense sitting out the second half while Seattle guys made key shots and scored 18 more than the opponents.

Does this turn it around for our home team? Not really, because McMillan still is strapped with the worst rebounding in the National Basketball Association. Even by avoiding a flub in Philly, the BlooperSonics (as they'd resembled for a week) have possible player dissension and coach demonizing with which to contend. They also have to battle division rivals. Impressive wins in early January against the Sacramento Kings, Los Angeles Lakers, and Portland Bail Raisers mean little unless Sonic players see things Nate's wayif only because he is, after all, the coach. Starting a pair of centers isn't exactly going to earn McMillan votes for NBA coach of the year. But blame for the recent four-game fiasco (I'm filing this before the Sonics' Tuesday tiff in Cleveland) can be found in any direction you look.

START WITH RELIANCE on the three-ball. The Sonics were 19-15 Jan. 13 when Ray Allen launched one from about the fifth row at KeyArena and LeBron James watched it come down though the basket. The three-pointer, among the many the Sonics would try that night, put the home club up comfortably, and I turned to another scribe seated next to me at a press table.

"How many more," I asked him, "would they have won so far had Allen been healthy all season?"

I expected him to say "three or four," which was precisely his call. We both nodded with the confidence of Dean campaign strategists circa Jan. 14. Then, LeBron (he's a one-name guy now) took over. That night the Sonic offense's idea of "using the clock and working it in close" was a try for a trey from 35 feet with 23 seconds left on the shot timer. Three nights later, the team couldn't beat the Knicks because (a) the immortal Lenny Wilkens was coaching (had been for all of about half an hour by game time) and (b) because Sonics mentor McMillan hadn't clarified his substitution policy. One can just about hear McMillan's interior monologue: "Let's see, how 'bout we pull Jerome James and Calvin Booth at center and stick in Shaquille O'Neal?"

Next came the Washington Wizards. Without Michael Jordan, this team is about as wizardly as its cellar mates, the Orlando "Magic." But against the Sonics' stand-around defense (players said they were exhausted because they had to get off of one luxury charter flight and onto another out of New York), Washington shot better than 50 percent for the first time this season. Sonics players carped at one another for being poorly positioned. Nate stated that he just wasn't getting through to these guys.

UNDER THE circumstances, then, especially after spotting Philly the big lead, it's something of a miracle that Seattle won on Monday. Local sports fans must be getting a little bit sick of watching team campaigns that wind up as fulfilling as Carol Moseley Braun's. With the Sonics, however, some of us actually dared to believe that the NBA season could lead to an extended playoff run. Then we awakened from the fantasy to remember that this is, after all, the NBA, something more to be associated with Lewis Carroll than Carol Moseley Braun. The NBA is where, as of Sunday, Jan. 18, the Atlantic Division-leading Nets were 21-17 while Midwest cellar-dwellers Utah and Memphis were 21-18.

There was a time when a .500 club such as the Sonics might back into the Western Conference playoffs, but not this year, not when all seven teams in the Midwest Division have winning records. To make it into the postseason, the Sonics will need to find defense somewhere and learn to play together when they have the ball. Standing on the perimeter and shooting the moon could be a terrific strategy for a presidential candidate, but in basketball it only gets you three pointsand only if it goes in.

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