By Rich Myhre
SEATTLE – With three big men on the bench with injuries, the Seattle SuperSonics expected to have trouble competing inside against the visiting Golden State Warriors, the NBA’s top rebounding team.
So the Sonics turned to Earl Watson, their smallest player in Friday night’s game, for the spark they needed in a much-needed 100-91 victory at KeyArena.
Even as Seattle was getting punished on the boards – Golden State finished with a decisive 47-31 margin – the Sonics were getting the job done on the perimeter. And the 6-foot-1 Watson, a rookie point guard from UCLA, was instrumental in that outcome, totaling 13 points, five steals and four assists in 25 minutes. He played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter, a privilege usually given only to All-Star teammate Gary Payton among the Sonics, as Seattle held off a late Golden State rally.
“The guy plays with heart and intensity, as I think a guy coming off the bench should play,” said Sonics coach Nate McMillan. “You can’t come in and pace yourself. You have to come in and make something happen, and he’s been able to do that for us. He really changes the tempo of the game when he comes in.”
Two of Watson’s steals came in the final period, leading to fastbreak layins, one his own. He also drew a flagrant foul from Golden State’s Chris Mills – the Warrior forward plowed Watson over on the baseline, leading with a forearm to the chest – earning two free throws, which he made, and ball possession.
“The kid’s a nice player,” said Golden State coach Dave Cowens. “We liked him (as a possible draft pick) because we thought he had a special ingredient, and that’s toughness. He’s also improved his shooting. He’s surprised everyone, because in college he wasn’t known as a shooter. (The Sonics) are doing a good job with him, working on his game.”
“He did a great job tonight,” Payton said.
For his part, Payton was typically brilliant against the Warriors. A year ago, Payton reached 30 points in two of four games against Golden State, and he did it again on Friday. In addition to his 30 points, he had five rebounds and five assists in 44 minutes.
Also stepping up handsomely was forward Rashard Lewis, who had eight of his 18 points in the last 3 1/2 minutes of the game. With Lewis matched against Golden State rookie Troy Murphy – a nice prospect, but rather slow afoot – the Sonics isolated Lewis on the wing time after time to take advantage of his quickness advantage. It was Lewis who slipped past Murphy along the baseline, then soared for a rim-rocking dunk with 2 1/2 minutes to play. It was a play that helped the Sonics start to pull away in the closing minutes with an 8-4 scoring burst.
The Sonics were hampered by the absences of big men Vin Baker, Calvin Booth and Peja Drobnjak, all out with injuries. For players 6-10 or better, Seattle was left with only Lewis and newcomers Jerome James, Art Long and Antonio Harvey. And James, Seattle’s biggest player at 7-1, played just 11 minutes because of foul trouble.
Not surprisingly, the Warriors went to the boards vigorously and they were rewarded time after time, particularly in the first half. Golden State went to the locker room at halftime with an astonishing 31-12 rebound advantage. Even more remarkable, the Warriors had more offensive rebounds (16) than Seattle’s total in the first two periods.
“That was how they were staying in the game,” McMillan said. “We knew they were going to pound the boards, and they did. That’s what they do best.”
The Sonics kept Golden State forward Antawn Jamison, the team’s leading scorer, largely in check. A year ago, Jamison scored 51 and 38 points in his two Seattle appearances, but in Friday’s game he managed just 16, shooting just 7-for-20 from the field.
The victory was a nice turnabout for Seattle, which had dropped four of its last five games to fall into the Pacific Division cellar. In each of those defeats, the Sonics were outplayed in the late moments of close games.
“These guys will learn how to win,” McMillan said of his team, which has won 12 straight at home against the Warriors. “They will learn how to play. Even with this win, we still did some (bad) things down the stretch. But as I told them, they did enough good to win this game. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about making the right plays at the right time.”