SEATTLE – Another game, another setback, another missed opportunity to clinch the Northwest Division title.
For 10 dreary days, the storyline has stayed the same for the slumping Seattle SuperSonics.
So it was again on Monday night. Though the short-handed Sonics battled gamely throughout, they fell behind in the early moments of the second half and were never able to erase the deficit on the way to a 90-78 loss that was the team’s fifth in a row, a season high.
In Denver, meanwhile, the surging Nuggets breezed past Golden State 122-106 to keep Seattle’s magic number for wrapping up the division championship at one. The Nuggets have also closed to within four games of the Sonics in the Northwest Division standings with five games remaining for both teams.
“It’s real frustrating,” admitted forward Reggie Evans in a somber Seattle locker room. “It hurts. Even though we played a little better (than in the previous four losses), we still can’t be satisfied when we compare it to what we’ve been doing this whole season.”
“I thought we really fought and really competed,” said forward Nick Collison. “This one could be a little tougher to take because we felt like we played well and we still got beat. But what else can we do? We just have to go out and try to get a win on Wednesday (against Dallas).”
Once again, the Sonics were without All-Star forward Rashard Lewis, who missed his eighth straight game with a deep bone bruise on his right foot; guard Antonio Daniels, who sat out his third game in a row due to a sore right knee; and forward Vlade Radmanovic, who will likely miss the rest of the regular season with a stress fracture in his lower right leg.
Also wearing street clothes on the team bench was forward Danny Fortson, who missed his second game with a nagging shoulder injury.
With one starter and three top reserves on the sidelines, “we almost have to play almost a perfect game (to win),” Collison said.
On this night, the Sonics were far from perfect. The 78 points was their third-lowest total of the season, and Seattle shot a mere .341 from the field (28-for-82), also the third-lowest mark of 2004-05. One of those who struggled offensively was All-Star guard Ray Allen, who was just 7-for-22 from the field and 1-for-9 from the 3-point stripe, though in fairness he was hounded by Houston defenders – they could focus almost solely on Allen with so many of Seattle’s other offensive weapons on the sidelines – throughout the game.
Two other Seattle starters, center Jerome James and forward Damien Wilkins, were a combined 2-for-16 from the field.
For Wilkins, it was a doubly discouraging night. He had a poor offensive game, and at the other end he drew the primary defensive assignment on All-Star Tracy McGrady, Houston’s top scorer. McGrady came in with a 25.6 scoring average and he padded that mark with 38 points against the Sonics to go with 11 rebounds and four assists.
“He played like an All-Star,” McMillan said. “I thought Damien worked hard to try to deny his catches and force him to work, but (McGrady) made some tough shots. He’s been playing well lately and tonight he had a huge night.”
Both teams started slowly and the score was just 37-37 at halftime, but in the third quarter Houston ran off five quick points for a lead it never lost. After falling behind by double digits late in the period, Seattle opened the fourth quarter with seven unanswered points to draw within one, 71-70, putting a stir in the sellout crowd of 17,072.
The comeback quickly fizzled. Methodically, the Rockets pulled away behind McGrady and 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming, and with two minutes left the outcome was clear.
“We’ve lost five in a row, but we’re not making excuses about certain people being out,” Evans said. “We still have to make it happen. … You want a rhythm going into the playoffs. You don’t want to have your head down, like you’ve run out of gas. So now we’ve got to fill up this tank again and get going. We have to pick our heads up.”
“There’s nothing we can do about (the injuries),” McMillan added. “Guys are injured and we have to go with the guys who are in uniform. … It’s hard because we’re losing. We’re feeling it, but what can you say? We just have to play better. We can’t sugarcoat anything because it’s all right in front of us.”
Ahead for Seattle are home games against Dallas on Wednesday and New Orleans on Friday, the last two regular-season contests at KeyArena this season. The Sonics then close their schedule with road games next week at Minnesota, Dallas and Houston before preparing for their playoff opener, likely April 23 at KeyArena.