By RICH MYHRE
PORTLAND, Ore. – Nate McMillan gave his athletes a game plan before Tuesday night’s meeting with the Portland Trail Blazers and a warning about poor effort.
Play hard, he said.
The Seattle SuperSonics did that for their new coach and more, pulling away from the powerful Blazers in the opening minutes and going on to a 105-93 in the first game of McMillan’s NBA head coaching career.
It was an wholly impressive performance, which meant it was very much unlike many of Seattle’s first 15 games this season. With a new lineup and new spirit, the Sonics led this one from start to finish.
“I thought it was a fantastic effort from the entire team,” McMillan said. “This is the effort we want from these guys. We feel like if they give this effort, we have an opportunity each night to win. We pulled together and it’s a great start.
“This is not a fluke. The guys worked, and when you work as hard as they did (Monday at practice and during Tuesday’s game), the reward will be something good.”
Though statistics are often misleading, the numbers this night gave a clear picture. Seattle played energetic defense, holding the Blazers to a feeble .390 field goal percentage (30-for-77). The Sonics won a rare battle of rebounds against Portland, 47-40, while snagging 17 offensive rebounds. Offensively, Seattle shot a decent .469 percent (38-for-81) from the field, while turning the ball over just 12 times.
And, most impressively, Seattle exhibited the necessary poise to withstand a second-half comeback by the Blazers. Portland, which trailed by 22 points three times in the second quarter, closed within 76-68 after three periods. With a sellout crowd of 19,980 beginning to rock the Rose Garden, the Sonics might well have buckled.
Instead, they promptly pushed the margin back into double digits and kept it there for most of the fourth quarter.
“This is new Sonics basketball,” Sonics forward Jelani McCoy said.
“This team has been in this locker room since the start of the season,” Seattle’s Brent Barry said. “It’s a shame we didn’t come out and play with this kind of effort for coach Westphal. But at this point, we have to harness all the optimism and positives that come from Nate being the coach. We can’t worry about the negative things. It’s got to be optimistic from here on out.”
McMillan juggled the starting lineup for this game, giving the opening nod to Gary Payton and Emanuel Davis in the backcourt, Patrick Ewing at center, and forwards Rashard Lewis and Jelani McCoy. Vin Baker, Ruben Patterson and Barry, who have all started at times this season, played from the bench.
“We want to get a steady rotation,” McMillan said. “But as far as the minutes, we’ll not worry about that. If you’re producing, you’ll play. I think that’s fair and I think guys will respect that.
“I’m serious about this,” he said. “We’re going to play together and we’re going to play hard for 48 minutes. If you don’t play hard, we’ll find someone who will.”
The Sonics got a lift midway through the first period when Portland center Arvydas Sabonis toppled to the court with a sprained left knee. He did not return to the game.
If there was joy in Seattle’s dressing room, there was bitter anger among the Blazers and their fans. Portland was assessed three technical fouls and coach Mike Dunleavy and forward Bonzi Wells were ejected.
When it was over, assistant coach Bob Weiss raced to the far end of the court to retrieve the game ball, which he presented to McMillan in the locker room.
“That’s something I will put on the trophy case,” McMillan said, permitting a thin smile.
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