Are we watching the beginning of the end?
That’s what it looks like one week before the beginning of the NBA playoffs.
Don’t be fooled by Tuesday night’s 108-88 victory over the broken-down San Antonio Spurs; the Sonics are drifting into late April like sleepwalkers in a mine field. They’re playing as if they’ve lost confidence and, even worse, as if they’ve lost interest. This team is giving no indication it can be a championship contender.
“We’re a fragile team,” said newest Sonic Terry Cummings. “We let itty, bitty things bother us.”
This team isn’t even close to being as good as last year’s. That team wouldn’t have lost at home to a Shaqless Los Angeles. That team wouldn’t have lost at home to Phoenix or Orlando or Charlotte. It wouldn’t have lost, in April, by 40 points at Houston.
These Sonics don’t scare anybody anymore with their half-court traps. Their lack of rebounding is one of the jokes of the NBA. And their fastbreak died at about the All-Star break.
Remember when coach George Karl was considered an offensive genius? This season there have been 11 games when the Sonics scored fewer than 90 points and three games when they didn’t crack 80.
That isn’t an offense. It’s a still life.
While Utah continues to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played; and Shaquille O’Neal’s return makes the Lakers the most dangerous seed in the West; and the Houston troika of Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler prepares for one last title run, the Sonics slouch toward May.
The players misread the season. They drifted through most of it, allowing their talents to carry them past the league’s dozen deadbeat teams; believing Shawn Kemp would emerge from his deep funk and announce himself ready for the playoffs; believing Nate McMillan would return from all of his physical problems and be the same player he was before the pains.
They played as if they thought they could flip a switch and become the championship contender of a season ago. They played as if they believed that the lessons they learned last May didn’t have to be applied until this May.
Make no mistake, this still is a very talented team. It has won 55 games.
If Kemp somehow awakes from his seasonal slumber, the Sonics could make noise next month. After watching this team for the past five years, we know its unpredictability is its only predictability.
But championship contenders don’t lose games - games that are recognized as message-senders - by 40 points, 10 days before the playoffs.
This team that made all of the wrong moves in a deconstructionist summer seems to have hamstrung itself for the future.
The team that began training camp thinking it had all of the answers, has nothing but questions as it ends the regular season.
Was that loss to Houston a harbinger of the rest of this decade? Is the slide to mediocrity about to begin? What do the Sonics do with Kemp?
There is a bad feeling about this April; a feeling that we’ll look back on Kemp’s depression; McMillan’s pain; the 40-point loss to the Rockets, the clumsy mistakes of Jim McIlvaine and we’ll remember it as the beginning of the end.