Like the luggage they carry from one frosty city to another, the Seattle SuperSonics lug the weight of playoff expectations, a burden they cannot shrug off until late April when the playoffs roll around again.
In the meantime, they are replicating the results of the past two regular seasons while working to build the kind of cohesion that will carry them through a tightly contested playoff series.
They’ve already hung together during Detlef Schrempf’s 19-game stay on the injured list, compiling a 14-5 record en route to posting the second-best record in the league, 33-12.
In many ways, the Sonics are ahead of last season’s pace even though their record at this time last year was identical.
From all accounts of a variety of players and coaches, bench players are spirited and accepting of their limited playing time.
From all accounts, young All-Stars Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp have matured on and off the court, shouldering more responsibility for the team’s successes and failures.
Their recent slips could simply be part of the maturation process, as coach George Karl sees it, or a disturbing warning.
Kemp missed the team’s shoot-around last Monday in Portland and didn’t arrive in the locker room at The Rose Garden until 5:55 p.m. for a 7 p.m. start.
He said his flight was canceled and he couldn’t catch another one until midafternoon.
Teammates David Wingate and Vinnie Askew inadvertently made him look bad because they were able to catch flights from Seattle to Portland on Monday morning.
Then on Thursday, Kemp failed to set a pick on a potential game-tying play in the Sonics’ 103-100 loss to Dallas.
Karl criticized Kemp for a “looseness and coolness” against the Mavericks, but said “everyone” was responsible for the botched play.
Since Kemp reportedly - practices are closed to the media - exerts himself whole-heartedly in practice and is usually on time for practices, games, buses and planes, his Portland miscue appears to be just a bump in an 82-game season.
Payton, on the other hand, is more difficult to predict. With few exceptions, he has played superbly all season. His relentless defense has generated dozens of crucial plays, including stripping Michael Jordan of the ball to seal a victory in the Sonics’ first meeting with the NBA-leading Chicago Bulls.
His willingness to take clutch shots helped the Sonics wrap up a road victory at Portland.
When the sixth-year guard is not smothering opponents, scoring off fastbreaks and dribble drives, the results have been disastrous. He was held to eight points each in lopsided losses at Orlando and Chicago, the Eastern Conference teams most likely to block the Sonics’ championship quest.
In a 113-87 loss to the Bulls, Payton missed part of the first half because of foul trouble, then repeatedly passed up close-range shots.
Afterward, he said: “I wasn’t in the flow of the game enough to take those shots. I wasn’t going to take those shots cold.”
Karl said at the time, “Basically, that’s the first time this year he’s had some frustration because of the referees. He has to learn to stay in it.”
Losing to the Bulls in Chicago is one thing, Thursday’s loss to a Mavericks team with a 15-27 record and minus two injured starters was unacceptable for a team with title aspirations.
In an otherwise sound first half, in which he scored 15 points on 66 percent shooting, Payton ignored calls from the bench for “one shot” and launched a 3-pointer with 22 seconds showing on the 24-second shot clock and 17.7 seconds left on the game clock.
Payton’s shot found its mark for a nine-point lead, but his mistake of timing gave Tony Dumas the opportunity to counter with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that gave the Mavericks a boost going into halftime.
In the second half, Payton’s lack of attention to the Sonics’ defensive game plan for his boyhood buddy, Jason Kidd, contributed to Kidd’s season-high 36-points.
Frustrated after Kidd drained consecutive 3-pointers, Payton exchanged words with center Ervin Johnson during a timeout with 6:30 left in the third quarter.
According to Karl, Johnson was not responsible for Payton’s inability to get over the top of screens set for Kidd.
In a move that demonstrated his growing leadership, Kemp got between Payton and Johnson and played mediator.
But there was no one on the court or the bench who was able to refocus Payton.
After missing a 3-pointer with 6:16 left in the third quarter, Payton didn’t take another shot the rest of the game.
He certainly wasn’t frozen out by his teammates.
Except for a few possessions when Askew or Nate McMillan took the point and Payton set up on the low post, Payton had the ball in his hands.
As his team-leading 15.7 field-goal attempts per game attest, he can create his own shots.
But Payton abandoned his hustling, breakneck style in a game that had suddenly turned into a showcase for Kidd.
It was akin to his taking the ball and going home.
For all his marvelous ballhandling skills, tenacity and charisma, Payton remains a 27-year-old, three-time All-Star struggling to become an NBA champion.
His methods fluctuate with his moods and his powerful personality overwhelms the entire team - usually in a positive way.
But when he disappears, his teammates are unfulfilled. And they don’t seem to be able to reel him in.
While Karl has been critical of Payton, he admits he treats his star players differently than the rest of the team.
He certainly fines Payton when he’s late for practice, but the message to the vast majority of team members who are consistently on time is - “I’m Gary Payton. I’m special, I don’t have to be here when everyone else arrives and I don’t have to do all the drills everyone else does.”
The Sonics earned the second-best record in the league in this atmosphere and they could win in the playoffs amid such double standards.
On a regular basis, Payton faces the challenge of consistent greatness. It can be a scary proposition. It demands a metaphorical walk across burning coals night after night after night.
Some nights, Payton makes the walk and wows us with his steals, spin moves and lob passes. Afterward, he is a model of modesty.
Other nights, he backs off and clams up.
Karl sees progress. He’s thrilled with the way Payton held together during Schrempf’s absence. And his survey of the league’s All-Stars tells him none became champions without failing first.
Payton and the Sonics experienced that sick, upset sensation twice in the playoffs.
On Thursday, a sampling of it returned.