While the Seattle SuperSonics were forging a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference final series, subpar performances by Detlef Schrempf, Vincent Askew and Nate McMillan were easy to overlook.
Now that Utah has won two of the past three games to cut the lead to 3-2, heading into the sixth game tonight in the Delta Center, performances are under examination.
Besides poor production from that trio, there is the question of the Sonics’ poor execution late in their 98-95 overtime loss Tuesday.
In a season during which disagreements were rare and complaints mostly remained private, Askew said Wednesday that his turnover-prone, poor-shooting playoff performance is a byproduct of reduced playing time.
“When you’re playing 14 to 18 minutes that’s definitely a factor,” Askew said. “There isn’t a player in the league who can get in the flow in 14 minutes.”
Askew’s playing time is down from 25.0 minutes per game during the regular season to 18.8 in the playoffs. Only reserve center Sam Perkins has been playing substantially more in the playoffs than in the regular season, up from 26.5 to 31.2. Everyone else is playing about the same.
Sonics coach George Karl hasn’t discussed the situation, Askew said.
“You gotta give me some kind of explanation,” Askew added.
Asked if he asked for an explanation, Askew said: “No, I’m not going to ask for one because we’re winning and I don’t want to be a distraction.”
At the same time, Askew is certain his reduced playing time won’t affect the outcome of the series, which he predicted will end tonight.
“We should have won and we’re going to win,” he said. “… We believe in each other.”
Karl, who finished his interview session prior to Askew’s comments about playing time, agrees with his swingman about the team’s cohesion and attributes the change in this series to human nature.
Series leads of 2-0 and 3-1 created a complacency that Karl wants replaced with combativeness.
“Losing refocuses us,” he said. “Every team drifts a little bit. You don’t win 64 (regular-season) games without superior interior strength.”
The Sonics have shown that strength while avoiding consecutive losses since Nov. 18 (at Indiana) and 21 (at Toronto).
Karl is determined to maintain his players’ confidence.
“The one thing we talked about this morning is realizing that we’re still on top. We have to look at the positives even though it was a difficult loss (Tuesday) night.”
As the series continues, however, the Jazz are increasingly comfortable against the Sonics’ defense.
After holding Utah below 40 percent shooting from the field in the first two games, the Sonics have allowed the Jazz to convert at a 45 percent rate the past three games, including a series-best 46.2 percent from the 3-point line in Game 5.
Jeff Hornacek, a former walk-on at Iowa State, has given the Sonics the most difficulty from beyond the arc. The 10-year veteran blitzed the Sonics’ defense with 62 percent shooting from the 3-point line and is averaging 21.8 points in the series.
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has stuck with Hornacek, Karl Malone and John Stockton, but shown no reluctance to change the rest of his lineup. Center Felton Spencer and small forward Chris Morris have become phantom starters because Sloan has no patience with their mistakes.
“If they’re having a tough time, I’m going to get them out of there,” Sloan said. “I know I’m hurting some feelings, and during the regular season we could carry them out there a little longer. But right now, we don’t have the time.”
Former 12th man Bryon Russell has picked up Morris’ minutes because of his superb defense on Schrempf and because he provides scoring punch with quick drives to the basket and outside shooting.
Most recently, Sloan has reclaimed seldom-used center Greg Foster from the end of the bench and given him minutes usually accorded to Spencer, Adam Keefe and rookie Greg Ostertag.
Karl has taken a different tack, mostly sticking with the rotation that helped produce a club-record 64 regular-season victories.
In the playoffs, Karl has done little to alter playing averages, with Askew and Perkins the exceptions.
Along with declining playing time, Askew has seen his scoring average dip from 8.5 per game to 4.4.
Schrempf’s scoring average also is down, to 13.2 from a regular-season average of 17.1, but Karl remains confident in his small forward.
“I have no problem with Det,” Karl said. “He’s a pro. He’s going to be fine. I have all the confidence in the world in him. … Det is wonderful. Even on an off night, I don’t see bad in Det. … He’s much more valuable than what you see in the stats.”
The stats show 19 turnovers in the past four games and an average of 4.0 turnovers in the series. Schrempf is shooting 40.7 percent from the field, 35.7 percent on 3-pointers.
During the regular season, he averaged 2.3 turnovers and 17.1 points on 48.6 percent shooting from the field and 40.7 percent from the 3-point line.
“It’s a combination of things,” Schrempf said. “The last two games, I didn’t see the ball very much. I haven’t had my rhythm shooting.”