By RICH MYHRE
SEATTLE – Is the honeymoon over?
Well, no one has packed their bags yet or called a cab for the airport. But based on events Tuesday night, the bloom is off the rose in the relationship between the Seattle SuperSonics and their new head coach Nate McMillan.
The Sonics, who won four of their first five games after McMillan replaced Paul Westphal last week, were aiming to make it five of six against the Detroit Pistons. It seemed like a good bet, with the balance scale apparently tipped in Seattle’s favor. Not only was this a Sonics home game, but the Pistons were coming off a sound beating in Vancouver the night before.
Instead, the Sonics started poorly and finished poorly – and they weren’t all the good in the middle, either.
Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse scorched Seattle with 41 points, former Sonic Dana Barros delivered 11 crucial points down the stretch, and Seattle missed its last seven attempts from the field in a dismal 112-99 loss.
Afterward, McMillan did not tiptoe in his remarks to the media.
“We reverted right back to where we were a week ago,” said an obviously disappointed McMillan. “The focus was not there for the start of the game and throughout the game. Our execution was terrible. We went right back to the bad habits we had … when coach Westphal was here.
“It looked like we played (Tuesday) night and they were rested,” he sighed. “Why that happened, and why the effort and focus weren’t there,we have to question ourselves.”
The flaws were many and they were happening at both ends of the court, McMillan said, though he seemed particularly upset with Seattle’s defensive effort. The Sonics were not contesting shots, not double-teaming properly and not performing the proper defensive rotations. All symptoms of ho-hum effort.
“The energy and the focus have to be there, and I don’t care who you play or where you play,” McMillan said. “You’re professionals and you’re playing against other professionals. (The Pistons) can play, and if we don’t come ready to play … then we don’t stand a chance of winning games.”
Certainly the statistics back up McMillan’s critique. Detroit shot a crisp .500 percent from the field (40-for-80), got to the free throw line more often (33 attempts for the Pistons, 26 for Seattle), and finished with a 44-36 rebounding advantage.
Guard Gary Payton finished with 29 points to lead Seattle, but there was scant help elsewhere. Forward Rashard Lewis was next with 15, but he had a disappointing shooting night (5-for-16) even though he nabbed a team-best nine rebounds.
Sonics forward Vin Baker, who returned to duty after missing two games with a leg injury, had another dubious outing against the Pistons. Baker played just six second-half minutes and was conspicuously taken from the game with 5 1/2 minutes to play with Seattle trailing 97-87.
“I’m basically changing lineups to find something that will work or get us started,” McMillan said. “We needed to make some changes. The unit that was out there had tried and I was basically trying to find somebody who would give us a lift.”
With Patrick Ewing manning the middle, the Sonics quickly carved the deficit to 99-97. The momentum seemed to have swung to Seattle – and then just as quickly it vanished. Detroit scored on three straight possessions, including a Barros 3-pointer, and the Sonics missed their chances. Suddenly the lead was 106-97, there was under two minutes to play, and fans were moving toward the KeyArena exits.
“We just didn’t get it done,” Ewing said. “We didn’t execute our offense. We didn’t play well on defense. It’s too early for this to happen. I mean, it’s only the second month of the season. In my mind, we took a step backwards from all this stuff that we had accomplished last week.”
With a 6-9 start under Westphal, Seattle obviously dug itself into an early-season hole. The Sonics are one of only four sub-.500 teams in the powerful Western Conference and they simply cannot afford to kick games like this if they hope to be in line for a top playoff by season’s end.
“Detroit is a good team,” McMillan said. “But if the energy, focus and effort are there, we should win this game. And if we want to be in the running at the end of the season, we have got to win these games.”
It was the third straight game that an opposing player has put up big numbers on the Sonics. On Saturday, Denver’s Antonio McDyess scored 37 points in a 103-92 Nuggets win. The next night, Golden State’s Antawn Jamison erupted for 51 points, though the Sonics posted a 118-102 victory.
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