The crowd of reporters around David Wingate’s locker had coaches, teammates and even former teammates rolling their eyes.
“Hey, ‘Gate,” hollered Frank Brickowski, here as a tourist after spending last season with the Seattle SuperSonics. “Barbara Walters, line one.”
The Sonics couldn’t have had a more unlikely rescuer in the 116-92 victory over Phoenix that decided their best-of-5 NBA first-round playoff series Saturday afternoon.
And they couldn’t have been happier - which explains why they gave him a game ball after his 19-point, 10-rebound performance spurred the Sonics into the Western Conference semifinals against Houston.
“I’ve never seen our team do that,” said coach George Karl.
The presentation was made by Nate McMillan, whose torn knee ligament is opening the door for Wingate’s increased minutes.
“David’s the kind of guy who contributes and stays positive, whether he plays zero minutes or 20 and whether or not he scores a point,” said McMillan. “So it seemed like the thing to do.”
Just as it seemed like shooting was the thing for Wingate to do - since the Suns weren’t bothering to guard him.
He had back-to-back buckets to close the first quarter as Seattle built a 33-23 lead - but 14 of his 19 (a career playoff high) came in the fourth period, as Seattle beat back Phoenix’s last rally.
After trailing by as many as 22 points, the Suns had pulled to within five points, 81-76, on a Wesley Person 3. But Wingate countered with a 3 of his own, Detlef Schrempf followed with another 3 and Wingate shook free for a layup off an inbounds pass to stretch Seattle’s lead back to 13 points.
“Phoenix has been pulling guys off their bench all the time and hurting us,” said Karl. “We finally pulled someone off our bench and hurt them. Sam (Perkins) hurt them at the beginning of the game and David hurt them big time. Those shots he made were double daggers. Not only did they go in, but they didn’t think they should go in. They weren’t even defending him.”
Wingate didn’t take that as an insult, necessarily.
“They’re not going to pay a lot of attention to the guy who doesn’t play that much,” said Wingate, who had scored in double figures just once this season - against Sacramento in March. “It was just that the opportunity presented itself this game. I just took the shots that were open.”
That, said the Sonics, had been a problem.
“We’ve been getting on him the last few games,” said Shawn Kemp. “He’s always so unselfish that he tries to pass the ball and set other guys up. We have to get on him about shooting the ball when he’s open.”
Wingate still only took seven shots in his 21 minutes - but he made six, and got some other opportunities at the foul line.
“The coach has never told me not to shoot - if I’m hesitating, it’s my doing,” Wingate said. “And they get on me when my hesitating causes a problem for the offense.
“It’s not like I don’t work on shooting. But some nights you’re needed to score and other nights you’re needed to play good defense and rebound.”
Chances are, the Sonics are going to need Wingate to score more in the next series, with McMillan sidelined.
“It’s going to be tough, because I always said if we’d had Nate healthy last year we would have won it all,” Wingate said.
“Getting the game ball means something, especially when it comes from Nate. It means you’re not only scoring, but working defensively and doing the little intangible stuff that people don’t even see. To have it come from Nate, that’s real pleasing.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo