By Rich Myhre
SEATTLE – Rashard Lewis provided a huge lift from the perimeter, but what the Seattle SuperSonics needed most Friday night was what Vin Baker delivered on the inside.
Well, that and a lovely last-second hoist by Gary Payton.
In a game that was everything that is good about the NBA, the Sonics held off the pesky Cleveland Cavaliers – but just barely – with a thrilling 102-100 decision at KeyArena. The sellout crowd of 17,072 saw a game that seemed near to being a Seattle blowout once or twice, but turned into a dandy nail-biter through a frantic and fun fourth quarter.
The game was decided by two plays, both literally in the final second. With the score tied in the closing moments, Payton put Seattle in front with a 20-foot shot from just left of top of the key. Payton, working one-on-one against Cleveland’s Andre Miller, backed the Cleveland guard just inside the 3-point stripe before lifting for a shot that dropped cleanly through the net with 0.9 seconds remaining.
Trailing by two, Cleveland used a timeout to diagram a play to tie or win. Deciding against a desperation 3-point attempt, Cavs coach John Lucas instead called for a lob pass to the basket for 7-foot center Chris Mihm off a high-post screen. The ball was there, but Mihm was sandwiched by Seattle’s Lewis and Desmond Mason. All three players got a hand on the pass, which was tipped away as time expired.
“This was a great game to be part of,” Mason said. “It was the type of game you want to play in. It was just fun being out there and being part of it.”
The victory, Seattle’s third in its last four games and the ninth in 11 games, was accomplished without head coach Nate McMillan, who is in Raleigh, N.C., looking after his ailing mother.
“I have to believe this one was for Nate,” said associate head coach Dwane Casey, who guided the Sonics in McMillan’s absence. “We had talked about not letting him down, with him back home taking care of an emergency. We wanted to make sure we left it all on the line, and we did.”
The Sonics were led by the forward tandem of Lewis and Baker, and both put forth memorable efforts. Lewis made his first six 3-point attempts, including three in the first quarter, before finally missing a fast-break attempt from the left wing with 5:20 to play in the game. It left him two shy of Seattle’s record for consecutive 3-point goals, set by Sam Perkins on Jan. 15, 1997, against Toronto. That mark is also an NBA record, shared with Utah’s Jeff Hornacek from a Nov. 23, 1994, game vs. Seattle.
Baker, meanwhile, had perhaps his best game in a Sonics uniform since the 1997-98 season, his first in Seattle. The Cavaliers opted to defend Baker with single defenders and he shredded that strategy, pouring in 32 points on 12-for-17 shooting from the field to go with eight free throws. Baker added five rebounds and three blocked shots.
“I can’t say enough about Vin Baker,” Casey praised. “Tonight he gave us 37 minutes and he worked the whole time he was in there. He did an excellent job. It was like the Vin Baker of old.”
“My confidence is definitely coming,” Baker said. “I’m making steps toward getting back to where I want to be. Physically I feel great. This is the best shape I’ve been in in a long time, maybe the whole time since I’ve been here (in Seattle).”
Baker, though, nearly erased all his good work with one errant pass. With just over a minute to play, and with Seattle holding a 99-97 lead, Baker ended up with the ball after a rebound scramble. Wanting to get the ball to a guard, he fired a cross-court pass that was intercepted by Miller near mid-court.
It was a race to the basket, with Baker and Miller moving stride for stride from opposite sides of the floor. Baker soared and blocked the shot, and when the Cavaliers gathered the loose ball and went back to the rim again – this time, Lamond Murray – Baker again went up to get a fingertip on the dunk attempt, knocking it away.
“As soon as I threw it away, I knew that was going to be a big part of the game,” Baker said. “I was either going to be the goat or the hero.”
“Vin came back and saved us two times,” Payton said. “And we needed big plays like that.”
At the other end, Seattle missed two shots from the field, snagged two offensive rebounds, and Baker was finally fouled with 16 seconds left. He made the first of two chances, giving the Sonics a 100-97 margin. Murray then knotted the score with a 3-point goal from top of the key with seven seconds to play, setting the stage for Payton’s game-winner.
Said Payton: “That was one of the best games I’ve played in in a long time.”
Both teams blistered the nets from long distance. Seattle was 9-for-14 from the 3-point line, a season-best 64.3 percentage, while Cleveland was 14-for-23 for 60.9 percent.
“I don’t think you’ll see another NBA game the whole season where both teams have that many attempts and shoot 60-plus percent,” Casey said. “It was just an excellent basketball game.”