Up, down Sonics a test of patience

  • RICH MYHRE / Herald Writer
  • Monday, December 11, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports


Herald Writer

SEATTLE – If Charles Dickens returned as a sports journalist, he might bring back some well-known words to describe these Seattle SuperSonics.

How about the best of times, the worst of times …

That memorable phrase aptly summarizes the Sonics with new coach Nate McMillan. In seven games under McMillan, who replaced Paul Westphal on Nov. 27, Seattle has been both awesome at times, dismal at others.

In that stretch, the Sonics have defeated Pacific Division powers Portland and the Los Angeles Lakers (twice), with two of those three games on the road. Of course, that good news has been offset by losses against Denver, Detroit and Houston, all teams at or below .500. Two of those three setbacks were at KeyArena.

By the numbers, Seattle is 4-3 in the McMillan era and 10-12 on the season heading into tonight’s KeyArena clash with the Orlando Magic. The Sonics are six games back in the division race and are tied for 10th in the Western Conference, almost exactly where they were when Westphal was fired.

Which begs the question – are the Sonics making any progress?

“We’re definitely headed in the right direction,” McMillan announced Monday, adding, “I’ve seen improvement. I expected it to take some time, but I’m anxious. We have to learn to win together and learn to execute at both ends of the floor.”

The Sonics, McMillan went on, still have several “young guys learning to play the game.” That youth helps explains Seattle’s recent roller coaster ride. Sure, the Sonics have a veteran trio in Gary Payton, Vin Baker and Patrick Ewing, and Brent Barry is in his sixth NBA season. But forwards Rashard Lewis and Ruben Patterson are only in their second seasons in Seattle’s regular rotation. Guards Emanual Davis, Shammond Williams and rookie Desmond Mason, and forward Jelani McCoy are in their first.

No other Pacific Division rival has as many young players in prominent roles as Seattle.

“If you look at us on paper, you’d say, ‘Well, they should be good.’ But we have guys who are learning,” McMillan said. “It’s like on-the-job training. We depend on those guys and they’re playing big roles, and we’re counting on them to make the right decisions.”

That inexperience often shows up in foolish decisions. It might be a missed defensive assignment, leading to an easy opponent basket. Or a senseless offensive foul. And even technical fouls for griping or illegal defense – and Seattle gave up six free throws for these sins in Saturday’s seven-point loss to Houston.

“To be a good team and to win in this league, the little itty-bitty things will always hurt you,” McMillan said. “You can play great for 47 minutes, and in that last minute you can blow up on an assignment … and it costs you.”

Another obvious factor has been the coaching switch. McMillan has implemented a new starting lineup and rotation, a new defensive scheme, and he is encouraging a more up-tempo style than Westphal favored. Like the process of gaining experience, these changes take time.

“When Nate took over, it was like going back to training camp,” Barry said. “We started talking about a whole new philosophy of how we’re going to play. So to see inconsistency in some of the games we’ve had it’s not surprising at all.”

Sounding more and more like a coach, McMillan says he has been gnawed by the recent losses. Certainly the games against Detroit and Houston, both at home, were contests the Sonics could have won – and probably should have won.

“It hurts me to lose the games we lost,” he said. “Learning to win and learning to execute and learning to keep your head will take time. Yes, of course, it feels good to beat those teams. But it feels worse to me to lose these other games, even though for the most part the effort was there.

“I can see them concentrating and focusing. Every now and then they’ll take a step or half a step back, and you have to bring them back. But that’s a part of change,” McMillan said.

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