Who Was the Seattle SuperSonics' Greatest Rival, Really?

NBA.com

It can be hotly debated who the Sonics' true rival once was. Was it the team in Portland? Maybe the team in Houston or Phoenix? Was it the Jazz of Utah?

Was the I-5 Rivalry an imaginary thing?

When people talk about the I-5 Rivalry between the Sonics and the Trail Blazers, I never really understood it. The Sonics and Blazers have combined for 51 playoff appearances in their 85 years of combined existence. Of those 51 playoff appearances, only 19 resulted in both the Sonics and Blazers being in the playoffs at the same time. Pretty good chance that the Sonics would have met the Blazers quite a few times in the playoffs, right?

The Sonics and Blazers met exactly four times in the playoffs, each winning two series. The Sonics won the first two in 1978 (4-2) and 1980 (2-1), with the Blazers winning the last two in 1983 (2-0) and 1991 (3-2).

The Sonics do have the all-time playoff win mark though, 8-7.

They also lacked that marquee must-see match-up. Payton vs. Porter was lopsided, Kemp vs. Kersey was... lacking, Benjamin vs. Duckworth was laughable.

I know that only 174 miles separate Portland and Seattle, but just because two teams are close doesn't mean there is a rivalry. Chicago to Milwaukee is only 92 miles, but there isn't a rivalry between the Bulls and Bucks; a scant 81 miles between the Warriors and Kings, yet they aren't rivals either.

Even though there is a lot of trash talking between the fans and the two teams genuinely do not like each other, the Seahawks-49ers... spat isn't a rivalry. Yet.

If I am going to base this off playoff battles, then the Sonics' rival has to be the Lakers. The Sonics and Lakers battled in the playoffs seven times. The Sonics defeated the Lakers in 1978 (2-1) and 1979 (4-1), but then lost to them in 1980 (4-1), 1987 (4-0), 1989 (4-0), 1995 (3-1) and finally in 1998 (4-1). We in Seattle might have a lot of animosity toward those in purple and gold, but they're 21-8 against us all-time in the playoffs. So the Lakers were never a rival; we were just a speed bump to them.

The Lakers' one true rival is and will forever be the Boston Celtics.

Other teams we can rule out would be Dallas (1-1 series, 5-4 playoff games), Golden State (1-1 series, 5-5 playoff games), Denver (1-2 series, 8-8 playoff games), Sacramento (2-0 series, 7-2 playoff games) and San Antonio (0-3 series, 5-11 playoff games).

Then just to round out the playoffs, the Sonics faced both the Bucks and the Timberwolves once in the playoffs each, beating both.

In thinking this piece through in my head, I thought I would end up with the Houston Rockets as the team that was ultimately our main rival because we played them so many times in the playoffs (six times total, second only to the Lakers) and had so many memorable playoff games. The conclusion after doing some research, though, is that the Sonics were their Lakers. Seattle defeated Houston the first five times they played each other in the playoffs, winning 14 of 21 games total.

Then in 1997 the Rockets defeated the Sonics 4-3 en route to another Western Conference Finals trip. Seattle was 18-10 against the Rockets in the playoffs.

The first three times the Sonics and the Suns got together the winner ended up going to the NBA Finals. The fourth time, neither went to the Finals. In fact, neither made it past the second round that season. It did, however, provide this shot, which I practiced in my driveway thousands of times.

In case you have forgotten or were too young to witness it, in Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference Finals, there were 100 free throws shot, 65 fouls called and three players who fouled out. Phoenix shot 64 of those free throws, Seattle had 38 of those fouls called and the three players disqualified because of fouls were Shawn Kemp, Nate McMillan and Eddie Johnson.

Outside of 1993, Phoenix was never really on our radar, except briefly in 2005, when we should have played them in the Western Conference Finals, but that's a different story for a different day.

Oh, just for fun, I ran a simulation of the '93 Sonics vs. the '93 Bulls in a seven game series ten times. The Sonics won the series seven out of the ten times, usually four games to two.

I've always maintained that if the Sonics beat the Suns, they would have won the championship that season. I think if they win that 1993 Finals, they don't lose to Denver the next year, and instead we're talking back-to-back titles.

The Sonics were 2-2 against the Suns in the playoffs all-time.

If you know me, you know who I'm picking for the Sonics' main rival, but first a story that some of you have requested a few times.

In the summer of 1996, I was visiting my grandma with my dad, brother and sister in Spokane. One of the last days we were there we went to Pizza Hut for dinner. It was a hot night and the place was fairly empty. I noticed a certain man a few tables away having dinner with his family, smiling, laughing, having a great time.

I was overrun with the red waves of hatred.

The man eating and having a good time with his family was John Stockton, point guard for the team I considered the Sonics' mortal enemy, the Utah Jazz.

Our families finished up dinner just about the same time. My dad knew who he was the whole time and, being polite, waited for him to finish up his meal before he asked for an autograph. Mr. Stockton was nice, gave one to my brother and sister with a smile. I hung back, wishing I had worn my "Sonics Western Conference Championship" t-shirt. He asked if I wanted an autograph as well.

With a cold stare, I replied, "Not from you."

I then walked away and waited for my family by the car.

The Sonics and Jazz met in the playoffs a total of four times, splitting the series two a piece. The games were relatively close with the Sonics winning 10 of the 22 games played in the playoffs.

There is one thing that Sonics-Jazz could offer that none of the other series or "rivalries" could: four all-timers at their peaks going toe-to-toe. Payton vs. Stockton and Kemp vs. Malone are things of legend. You could go down the line with match-ups and, in a way, the Sonics-Jazz were nearly an inverse mirror image of each other. Run-and-gun against slow-and-controlled. It was the perfect match-up in every way of players, coaching, styles and philosophies.

You could never say that about the Blazers, Suns, Rockets or any other team.

Then again, by my same playoff logic the Jazz and the Blazers are on the same footing. The Blazers were so much more likable, though.

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