Friday, May 20, 2005

So now it's over
By Zach

Moments ago, the seasonj ended for one of my favorite teams of all time. A Ray Allen fallaway three was just wide, and the Sonics came up 2 points short against the Spurs. I haven't been this upset about a loss since the 1995 ALCS. Not so much because I expected the Sonics to win, they were facing an excellent Spurs team. And not because they played the contrary, the fact that they were even in the playoffs, let alone the second round was remarkable enough, not to mention the fact that they took the Spurs to six games without two of their three leading scorers.

But this team was so much fun. Like the 1995 Mariners, they came practically out of no where to not only win the division, but capture the hearts of Seattleites young and old (and even a few transplanted natives).

I remember the first game of the year vividly. I've always been a diehard fan, I stayed up all night last year to listen to the first game of the year at 6:30 am on a school morning since the Supes were playing the Clippers in Tokyo to open the season. This year, they opened with a horrendous loss to the Clippers, and while I'd harbored hopes that they might be able to challenge for the eighth seed, that night it began to creep into my mind that the preseason predictions might be right, that the many free agents would muddy the waters looking for their shots, that Rashard Lewis was an overpayed third option, that Mr. Sonic, Nate McMillian, Mac-10, would be gone by the New Year, and that Ray Allen was gone in the offseason. Worst of all, that the Sonics would battle with the Warriors and the Hornets for the worst record in the West.

But slowly, hope grew. They beat the Spurs by 19 at home to move to 2-1. Then, they kept winning. Ray was shooting the ball well, Reggie Evans and Danny Fortson were sweeping the boards clean on defense and pounding them on offense. Rashard was taking the ball into the post and not just drifting on the perimeter. Vlade was shooting well and driving more, both great signs. The team, while never great defensively, wasn't a total sieve. They were 9-1, then 15-3, but no one was really sure how good they were. Then, they went into San Antonio and beat the Spurs for the second time that year. It would be the only home game the Spurs would lose in the regular season with Tim Duncan in the lineup. The next night, they were in Dallas, where they finished the Texas Two-Step in style. Finally, people were starting to talk about the boys from the Upper Left.

Of course, most of the talk was about how this team would wilt down the stretch, how Minnesota or Denver would overtake them in the division. How the jumpers would stop falling, how the chemistry would fail. They weren't battle tested, and most of all, no one expected them to be any good, so they clearly couldn't be.

Throughout the season, different players stepped up, matured. Luke Ridnour proved he could run the point in this league. When he faltered, Antonio Daniels provided scoring, defense, and leadership off the bench. Nick Collison showed that his shoulders were fine, and that he'd be a front court staple for years to come. Ray showed, once again, that he could do more than shoot, Rashard showed he could be an All-Star, Reggie became the Collector. As Fortson waned, Collison waxed.

As the Sonics built the Northwest Divison lead, it became clearer and clearer that this team was going to be no worse than the third seed. Then, the injuries hit. Rashard's knee, Vlade's leg. The team struggled, failed, grew. Again, the skeptics were out. The team had finally been exposed. They were a first-round exit waiting to happen. Sacramento, the playoff vets, would take care of them.

Then Ray Allen stepped out on to the stage, joined by an unlikely partner, Jerome James (aka the Waste of Space). Allen sliced and diced for 32 a game, JJ dunked on many a King, and while Vlade and Rashard didn't quite get it going, it was all good. The Sonics were rolling into a matchup against the Spurs, a team that, while talented and proven, the Sonics had beaten before.

Then, in one thirty second stretch, it all changed. Vlade, then Ray went down with ankle injuries. Radmanovic was done for the year, Ray wasn't himself again until Game 4. Two disheartening blowouts later, it was 0-2, and it looked like the offseason was looming.

A gritty effort in Game 3, complete with Lewis going out late with a toe injury, and a Duncan miss at the horn, gave the Sonics a modicrum of hope. A blowout win in Game 4, as Lewis' absence was compensated for by Daniels, Ridnour, and the Human Highlight Nephew.

Game 5, the Supes looked tired in the second half, letting Manu Ginobili and Nazr Muhammed rip them apart.

Game 6 was tremendous, from beginning to end. There will be no what-ifs here. The Spurs made one more play than the Sonics.

But it sucks that it ends this way. Any time a team starts a playoff run, you hope it won't end. Or, perhaps, it will end, but with a parade. This team may not get a parade, but they sure deserve one. They never quit, never gave an inch, and never got down.

Now, they, and I, face a long offseason. The decrepit Mariners barely warrent a thought, and somehow I can't even begin to contemplate another football season with the Fat Man and the Walking Corpse running the Seahawks. So what's left? Talking about moves the Sonics should make, of course.

First, they have to resign Ray Allen. I was against giving him the max, and I still am, in a sense. The problem is, someone's gonna give it to him now, and the Sonics can't afford to lose him, not if they want to sell tickets next year (not to mention remain contenders). Secondly, they must do all they can to keep AD. He'll get a big offer, especially to be someone's starting point guard, but if there's any way they can hang onto him, they must.

Jerome James is more troublesome. The question will be, what offers will he see? I don't mind resigning him, if it's reasonable. But the improved play of Collison, plus the idea that they might want to play Robert Swift some next year, might make keeping him unnecessary. Flip Murray is long gone, as is Vitaly Potapenko, I'd imagine. Vlade will be another question, as he wants to start, and probably could get a job at the 3 with several other teams. Damien Wilkins should be back, as the Sonics had to love what they saw out of him against San Antonio.

But the biggest question is what happens to Nate McMillian. I've been saying forever that they've agreed in principle to a deal, and were waiting to the offseason to announce it. I stand by that. He wants to come back, and the team had damn well better bring him back. You don't let Mr. Sonic walk.

The uncertain nature of the future of this team makes the loss especially hard. With the 95 Mariners, you could look at Griffey, Randy, A-Rod, Edgar, Buhner, and the rest, and say that they'd be good next year too. But who knows with this Sonics team. All I know is that they gave me one hell of a ride my junior year.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tough to find anything to disagree with you there. JJ is a hard one to figure out, but I think we all expect him to fall to earth next year. Sayonara, Flip, it was nice knowing you. Potato, ditto.

To me, the toughest question is Ray Allen. The fact he never stepped up in the 4th against the Spurs is a detriment in my opinion. Can you think of another superstar that let himself be stopped by one defensive player (i.e., Bowen)? Nobody stops MJ, Olajuwon, Kobe, Shaq, the Mailman, etc. They take games over.

Even AI, I can't recall him struggling against anyone. Yeah, he'll shoot 30% sometimes, but he'll get his shots. With that in mind, do the Sonics really want to commit their future to a guy like Allen? Especially when his career is about to enter a downward phase? An incredibly difficult question to answer.


2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seattle is the coolest!

3:21 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

I know what you mean about Ray. But I disagree with the conclusion...first of all, he's harder to get the ball to than anyone on that list besides MJ, because he's not a forward/center that you can just drop the ball into on the block...also, of course, Malone was a notorious choker. Secondly, Ray isn't in the same class as any of those players. He's not one of the 50 greatest players of all time, and we shouldn't really expect him to play like those guys.

Plus, with Rashard and Vlade down, he had no one to take any of the load off besides AD. While I love AD, his inability to shoot from the perimeter made him a decent, but not great option. Plus, with Duncan and Nazr in the middle, Bowen could play up on Ray with impunity, since he knew that Allen would be forced to make a tough shot at the basket should he get by Bowen.

But with a presumably healthy Rashard next year, and rapidly maturing and improving guys like Collison and Ridnour, he should be able to continue to make plays for years to come.

The big thing that will determine the Sonics future, in my mind, is whether Robert Swift can be a legit center in the league. Maybe not Shaq, but a guy who they can play for 35 minutes a night there, a guy who can give them some D and some O. If so, they can win a championship with a starting lineup of him, Luke, Ray, Rashard, and Nick.

7:18 PM  
Blogger booth52 said...

Just wanted to complement you on that article Zach. Good stuff.

3:56 AM  

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