By Rich Myhre
SEATTLE – Poise was supposed to come slowly for the youthful Seattle SuperSonics this season.
But in their 2001-02 home opener, before a noisy crowd at KeyArena, the Sonics stood up to the best the mighty San Antonio Spurs could offer. Seattle eased in front in the second quarter, then used 13 points by All-Star guard Gary Payton in the fourth quarter to hold off the Spurs for an impressive 114-108 victory.
”Some nights we’re going to do well and some nights you’re going to see our inexperience come out,” said Sonics coach Nate McMillan. ”But this was one of those nights where we were in control.”
”This wasn’t a fluke,” said Seattle’s Vin Baker. ”It wasn’t like we went out to a big early lead (and coasted). They made a run at us, but we held our composure.”
Keeping their turnovers to a tolerable 11 and shooting a brisk 52.6 from the field, the Sonics refused to buckle, even when San Antonio twice closed within two points in the early minutes of the fourth quarter. Instead, Seattle pushed its margin back to double digits with 2 1/2 minutes remaining.
Then, when the Spurs ran off an 8-2 scoring burst, closing within 110-106 with 47 seconds to play, Seattle calmly withstood the challenge. Payton, on his way to a game-high 25 points, buried a pivotal 14-foot step-back jumper from the left baseline, restoring the lead to six points.
San Antonio’s Tim Duncan scored with a short jump shot, but Seattle’s Brent Barry countered with two free throws with 13 seconds left. When Steve Smith’s long 3-point goal kicked off the rim in the final seconds, Seattle’s win was assured.
”We have some work to do,” Barry said, ”but this was a great game for us to build on.”
Of Payton, McMillan said, ”He struggled throughout the game. But we were able to stay close until Gary got his game going. And then he basically took over, like he should, late in the game.”
The new-look Spurs are without starters and top subs Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson and Derek Anderson from the team that led the Western Conference with a 58-24 record a year ago. Of course, San Antonio still has Duncan and David Robinson along its front line, and that twosome created the usual problems. Duncan scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead the Spurs.
”They were a lot more aggressive than us,” Duncan said. ”They were a lot sharper than us. Their aggressiveness was higher than ours. They pushed the ball up and they shot the ball with confidence. It seemed that every shot we took, they were in our face. Little points like that are what set the teams apart.”
In addition to Payton, who had 10 assists to go with his 25 points, the Sonics got an outstanding game from Barry, who had 24 points (who was 6-for-7 from the field, including 3-for-3 from the 3-point stripe), seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and even a blocked shot. Forward Rashard Lewis contributed 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
The win evened Seattle’s record at 1-1 heading into a 6 p.m. Saturday home game against the Utah Jazz. The Sonics then head off for a five-game East Coast road trip.
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