By Frank Hughes
The News Tribune
AUBURN HILL, Mich. – Just when it seemed as if things could not get worse for Seattle SuperSonics power forward Vin Baker, he played against the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night.
And less than 24 hours after his coach said he did not give any effort, one teammate insinuated he did not have any heart.
In the fourth quarter alone, Baker missed all three of his shots, all four of his free throws and fumbled away what could have been a potential winning shot, allowing the Pistons to escape with a 95-91 victory at The Palace.
Afterward, nobody used any names, but it was quite obvious about whom comments were directed.
Granted, rookie Vladimir Radmanovic missed a costly free throw in the final few minutes. He also threw the pass that Baker lost. And that certainly was pointed out.
But it was Baker’s six-point, six-rebound outing that led Brent Barry to voice the current feelings of the entire team.
“It’s not confidence, it’s heart,” Barry said. “You have to want to go make the game-winning shot, the winning free throws, the winning rebound, the winning play. Those are things as kids that you always think about.
”Now to be on this stage, to be an NBA player and have the opportunity to do it, I don’t care whether it is the regular season, a playoff game or for the world championship, your focus has to be there. It’s your job. When it comes down to winning time, make the play.
“You can look at young players, ” Barry said, ”and say, ‘Well, hey, they haven’t been in that situation before.’ But that excuse only lasts about the first month and half of the season. If you are veteran player, and you have been around this league, you should know what it takes.”
Baker was not in the locker room after the game.
The loss wasted a tremendous outing by point guard Gary Payton, who had his 13th regular-season career triple-double of 21 points, 15 rebounds and 12 assists, as well as Rashard Lewis (21 points) and Barry (17 points, six rebounds).
It was Seattle’s fourth consecutive road loss and dropped its record to 9-12 as it heads home to play the struggling Miami Heat on Friday night.
Baker was not the only frontcourt player to struggle. Center Calvin Booth picked up five fouls in eight minutes.
But Baker’s blunders are more pronounced because of his history – particularly, his recent history. When Baker picked up three first-half fouls for the second straight game, he begged Sonics coach Nate McMillan to keep him in. Instead, McMillan subbed, hoping to have Baker around late.
If he had it to do over again, McMillan probably would have let him play on.
With 4:38 left in the game, things seemingly came unraveled for the Sonics.
First, Lewis fouled out after hacking Corliss Williamson. Art Long tried to persuade referee Violet Palmer to give him the foul, but she issued it to Lewis anyway.
As Lewis stood on the sideline about to take his seat, he mockingly winked at Palmer and mouthed, “Thank you.”
It appeared to take even Payton by surprise, because he went over and soothed Palmer.
As Williamson went to the free throw line, Payton called a timeout, and Palmer blew the whistle and issued one. Then the Sonics said they didn’t want a timeout, so Williamson went back to the line and made his first free throw.
As he was about to shoot the second, McMillan told Payton he wanted a timeout. Payton was incredulous because of what had just happened with Palmer. But after Williamson made the second, Payton called timeout, then he turned to referee Hue Hollins and said something that drew a technical foul.
Earlier, Hollins had called Payton for his fifth foul, a charging call on Jon Barry. Payton tried to talk to Hollins at the time during a timeout, but Hollins told him to go away. Whatever he said to draw the technical after Williamson’s free throws, he apparently was still angry about the previous call.
The game could have gotten out of hand for Seattle, but the Sonics fought back and actually took a 90-87 lead on Payton’s 16-footer. Jerry Stackhouse tied the score on a 3-pointer with two minutes left.
Then Baker was fouled with 1:48 left. He clanked one free throw. He clanked the second.
Stackhouse turned over the ball, and Radmanovic got fouled. He clanked the first. He made the second for a 91-90 lead.
The ensuing play turned the game. Williamson drove and Baker tied him up.
Williamson then gathered himself and laid it in. Hollins called a jump ball.
The other officials said the ball was knocked loose, so Hollins allowed the bucket and the Pistons led 92-91 with 45 seconds left.
For some reason, Baker threw up a 20-footer with 14 seconds on the shot clock and missed. Barry fouled and Detroit made one two for 93-91 with 25 seconds to go.
On the next play, Radmanovic drove the baseline and fed to Baker under the basket. In his hands, he fumbled it away and Stackhouse recovered the ball.
“If we execute, we win,” McMillan said.