By RICH MYHRE
SEATTLE – Never mind that it was the Orlando Magic, a sub-.500 team that was kicked badly by the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday night.
Never mind that Magic star forward Grant Hill was hobbling up and down the court, and finally had to leave the game in the waning moments.
Never mind that Orlando’s other top player, guard Tracy McGrady, had one of his poorest nights of the season.
Never mind any of that. The Seattle SuperSonics needed to find a way to win Tuesday night – somehow, someway. And they did with a 97-92 victory that was hardly a highlight-film treasure, but hugely important nonetheless.
Seattle, which absorbed back-to-back home losses to Detroit and Houston in the past six days, trailed through most of the second and third quarters to the visiting Magic. Seattle eased on top to stay late in the third period, but Orlando was still within one point, 88-87, with four minutes left in the game before the Sonics finally pulled away in the closing seconds.
Afterward, Seattle’s players celebrated not with exuberant cheers and high-fives, but with expressions of weary relief.
“This was definitely a grinder,” said Seattle guard Brent Barry. “But we needed to get a win here at home. We needed to beat a team like Orlando. They’re struggling, too, so this was an opportune night for somebody to step up and get a win. We were able to do that in the second half.”
“It was definitely not pretty, but it’s a W,” agreed teammate Emanual Davis.
The turnabout in this game – Seattle trailed 58-53 at halftime – was due to an inspiring speech by coach Nate McMillan at the break and an equally inspiring bit of play by Sonics guard/forward Ruben Patterson. McMillan challenged his team in the halftime locker room to play with renewed energy and enthusiasm, and more than anyone Patterson took those words to heart.
In the first half, “we just didn’t look into the game,” McMillan said. “I was watching our body language, and we just didn’t look like we were into it. … (At halftime) I challenged all the veterans. I said, ‘You guys have got to get this going. Our energy level has to pick up. I don’t care who, but somebody has to do it.’
“Ruben came in and really got aggressive,” McMillan said. “I think it caught them off guard.”
Patterson played just 23 minutes, but he finished with 18 points, four rebounds, three steals and two assists. He was 5-for-9 from the field and 8-for-9 from the free throw line, he dove headlong on the floor for loose balls, and he was instrumental in the defensive effort on Hill and McGrady.
“Ruben ignited us a little bit in the second half,” Barry said. Added Davis with a smile: “He’s like the Energizer Bunny. He keeps going and going and going. He’s everywhere.”
Seattle never played well enough to blow Orlando away, but some statistics give a hint of the team’s effort, particularly in the second half. The Sonics finished with a decisive 52-37 rebound margin and a 52-32 spread for points in the paint.
Hill, in just his second game since returning from the injured list after offseason ankle surgery, managed just nine points in 39 minutes. He was plainly bothered, and finally limped to the bench with 53 seconds left and the game still on the line.
“In the second half, that was the team that I know,” McMillan said. “In the first half, we didn’t execute, we didn’t play together, we didn’t do a lot of things. … I think because they felt they had played bad, and they changed and brought more energy in the second half.”
McGrady, meanwhile, missed his first six shots from the field and nine of his first 10 attempts. He rallied somewhat to finish with 20 points, but shot only 8-for-22.
With the victory, Seattle raised its record to 11-12. Tonight in Vancouver the Sonics will try to improve to .500, where they have not been since they were 1-1 in the season’s first week. The win also pushed McMillan’s record to 5-3 as Seattle’s head coach.
Davis, who missed two games with a sprained right ankle after starting the first five games under McMillan, returned to the opening lineup against Orlando. He finished with five points and five assists.
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