I haven't written about basketball in a while.
The last few things I have posted (I wouldn't say written because there was minimal commentary) have been more on the political side of the ball. As I sit here with a 102 temp and watching the Celtics-Knicks playoff game I got to thinking of what my favorite playoff memory of the Sonics were.
What was that single moment of my life that was almost too amazing for words?
I wasn't alive for the 1979 championship, so I have to immediately cross that off my list. Beating Houston in the first round 10 years later did pop in to my mind because that was the first set of playoff games that I remember watching as a kid.
Then there was 1992 and the series against Golden State. We'll all remember the Kemp dunk. I don't even need to post a link, the image should already be in your minds. For the younger readers here is the link though.
Could go up a year to 1993 and the first time the Sonics beat John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Jazz in the playoffs or we could go to 1996, the beating of the Jazz again to earn a trip to the NBA Finals. That series is high on my list, but it's not the best.
In 2005, the last time the Sonics won a playoff series, it really sticks out in my mind, but not for the right reasons. This was pretty much the end of two powers in the Western Conference. As mentioned before it was Seattle's last playoffs win and their opponent, the Sacramento Kings, made the playoffs the year after and hasn't been back since.
My favorite series does involve those two teams though, but it is back in 1996 that the series took place. "The Monkey Off the Back Series" is what I will always remember it as.
In previous years the Sonics were thought to be able to have championships runs. They were a mix of youth and savvy veterans. Just the type of team you think would make a run and could eventually form a potential dynasty like the Lakers and Celtics of the 80s and compete with those Bulls teams of the 90s.
Leading up to the 1996 playoffs marked the ninth time in ten years the Sonics had made the playoffs. They had been in two conference finals (1987 and 1993), but had lost four times in the first round (88 to Denver, 91 to Portland, 94 to Denver and 95 to the Lakers).
Up until 96 the Sonics hadn't been able to put a full season and playoffs together. They were the one seed, the Kings the 8th. The Sonics needed to make a statement in this series. They had to get past this scrappy Kings team to get the monkey off their back from the last two playoff disasters.
Jobs were on the line. If Seattle lost as a one seed again you could have bet that George Karl and Wally Walker would have been fired and Payton and/or Kemp could have been out the door right behind them. Losing as one seed in two of three years would have been absolutely unacceptable and there would have been major repercussions.
On April 26th, game one tipped off and Seattle throttled the Kings. Holding them to only 13 first quarter points and up 11 heading into the final quarter. Seattle held the Kings to 43% from the field and kept the dangerous Mitch Richmond in check. Payton had 29, Schrempf had 22 and Perkins had 17 and the Sonics won, 97-85.
It was a convincing win and Shawn Kemp didn't even play!
The Kings were not going to be a problem. Just two more wins and it was over, there would be second games this year!
Game two tipped and everything looked great. Sonics were up six at half and up two heading into the fourth.
Then Mitch Richmond happened.
Richmond dominated the fourth quarter, scoring 37 points, en route to a game two upset.
The (dark) clouds (of doubt) then rolled in and settled over Seattle: Karl, Wally, Kemp, Payton and the rest of the Sonics at the middle of it. They now had to travel to Sacramento and faceoff against a team that had the confidence that they could win tight ball games, in the playoffs, on the road, against a potentially weak minded team.
The collective breath of Seattle had been exhaled and there was no pulling that breath back in.
Game three did not start out well either.
Sonics trailed 28-26 after one, 50-48 at half. Then the Kings came out hot from the locker room, outscoring the Sonics by nine in the third to take an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter.
The wheels were falling off, the Kings were about to route the Sonics and had a chance to end the series two days later in game four. You could also tell the Kings thought the game was over too. Olden Polynice was dancing at mid court, the fans were on their feet and being incredibly loud. It was said that George Karl couldn't be heard talking to his team between the third and fourth quarters.
Something he said must have slipped through in the a nanosecond of silence as the fans in Arco recharged, because the Sonics in a total team effort came out hot, they won the quarter 32-16 and won the game.
Game four wasn't as stressful. The Sonics controlled the game from the tip basically won the game by 14 and moved on to the second round where the defending NBA champion, Houston Rockets, were waiting for them.
This was the series that got the Sonics over the hump and propelled them to the NBA Finals. series that probably could have gone seven with Gary Payton and Nate McMillan being healthy. Not sure if they could have beat the Bulls that year, it to seemed to acts of God for the Bulls to lose that year as they were probably the greatest NBA team in history.
I know the irony of writing this all right now. I've always felt that this series was the biggest one of the modern era of Seattle basketball. Ask me to write this 10 years ago and you'd get the same column.