Sonics devour Hornets

  • FRANK HUGHES / The News Tribune
  • Thursday, November 9, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

By FRANK HUGHES

The News Tribune

CHARLOTTE – The Seattle SuperSonics skipped Thursday morning’s shootaround.

Instead, after losing three straight games and dropping to a disappointing 1-4 record, the Sonics had breakfast together. The focus wasn’t ham and eggs, but rather who was supposed to be doing what on a team that quickly was finding itself in disarray.

Just before the regular season began, Sonics coach Paul Westphal had privately told every player his role on the team. But lest there be any confusion, he explained it again in front of the entire team Thursday morning.

Gary Payton then told his teammates that they had better begin to respect Westphal’s directions. Or else.

So, it wasn’t exactly breakfast at Tiffany’s, but it was effective. The result was a much-needed 102-94 victory Thursday night over the Charlotte Hornets at Charlotte Coliseum, snapping the Sonics’ losing streak and improved their record to 2-4.

“That was a taste of how we think we can play more often,” an obviously relieved Westphal said. “It was a good, tough win for us.”

If there was any one thing that stood out, it was turnovers – or, more precisely, the lack of them.

Seattle was last in the league coming into the game, averaging almost 22. The Sonics had 107 through five games. But against Charlotte, they cut their mistakes to 10, a huge difference from their previous games, when turnovers not only gave the ball back to an opponent and decreased shots, but also wore on the nerves.

“We finally took care of the basketball,” Westphal said. “Only 10 turnovers. I thought I was looking at a halftime stat.”

Essentially, the Sonics seemed to just slow the pace of their game. They took their time getting to spots, they didn’t force passes, they didn’t try to penetrate when the lane was clogged. In essence, they made better decisions.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” Westphal said.

In part because of the turnovers, but also because of effort, the Sonics played better, more inspired defense than they have. The jumped out at shooters. They double-teamed hard. They limited the Hornets – playing without P.J. Brown, who strained an Achilles’ tendon – to 42 percent shooting.

There was an interesting dynamic in the game. Perhaps because, as he said, he has mellowed some, or perhaps because he was part of the speech-giving at the breakfast get-together, Gary Payton seemed much more subdued than usual.

Some of it probably had to do with his 6-for-18 shooting night, but he seemed to take everything in stride, as if he had done all he could and knew it was up to his teammates to listen to the message.

Instead of Payton bringing his fiery vocal presence, it was more Vin Baker who inspired Payton, patting him on the back of the head during a timeout and whispering words of encouragement.

“I think a lot of us have to play different roles every night,” Baker said. “Sometimes when I am down, Gary and Patrick (Ewing) come to me. And tonight it was my turn to go to Gary.

“He wasn’t in his rhythm like he usually is, and it was important for me to let him know that it is all good. I just told him we’re right here. We can win this game. And I said we can’t just win this game, we’ve got to make a statement, to this league and to ourselves.”

Said Payton: “It was one of those nights. Don’t worry about that. I’m fine with it.”

It might have been the veteran players who directed the team, but it turned out to be the younger players who made the big plays.

Behind Baker’s 22 points and Rashard Lewis’ 19, Seattle – which can finish this five-game road trip successfully with wins in New Jersey Saturday and Detroit Sunday – built a 14-point fourth-quarter lead.

But Charlotte scored 10 consecutive points to trim the margin to 85-81 with 7:18 left in the game. Westphal called several timeouts to allow the Sonics to gather themselves, but the tension was obvious with every shot they missed and every shot the Hornets (4-2) made.

Lewis, who might be the team’s most consistent player this season, made a 3-pointer with 6:27 left that prompted Westphal to throw his arms in the air, in relief as much as joy.

“Rashard likes taking those big shots,” Westphal said. “We’re already used to him making those.”

After Elden Campbell missed at the other end, the Sonics fired the ball upcourt to Payton. He lobbed a pass to sprinting Jelani McCoy, who leaped and dunked Payton’s perfectly timed alley-oop.

Makes one wonder: What are the Sonics having for breakfast this morning?

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