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Sonics Require A Virtue Greater Than Courage

This must be what basketball is like in heaven - minus Dick Bavetta, of course, and the post-game whining.

In heaven, there are no December yawners against the Raptors, no Rodmans, no Van Exels, no Peter Vecseys.

No farce, only drama. Only relentless suspense. Could be Charles Barkley bricking the free throws that should have brought down the curtain, could be Hersey Hawkins with a bullseye that brings down the house. Could be Hakeem Olajuwon stepping in front of Sam Perkins and betting the farm it won’t cost him his sixth and disqualifying foul.

Could be Matt Maloney. Again and again, Matt Maloney. For goodness sakes, GUARD THIS GUY.

Or it could be we’re looking at this all wrong.

For if the Seattle SuperSonics can expend this much courage in losing, is it really necessary for them to win?

The pronounced Seattle bias to the shared playoff history of the Sonics and Houston Rockets is about to change. By doing in the home team twice in KeyArena - including a brilliant 110-106 overtime duel Sunday - the Rockets lead the NBA’s Western Conference semifinals 3-1, with two chances to win it in Houston. It would be a first for the Rockets, to beat Seattle in a playoff.

It would be a first, for either team to go quietly.

“When has this team not responded?” asked Sonics coach George Karl. “When has this team not played with heart?”

Heart, he said, not smarts.

There may never be a testament to the Sonic heart like the surge that carried this game into overtime - Seattle down eight, 5 1%2 minutes to play, with Shawn Kemp, who does most of the heavy lifting, having fouled out. The moment of truth, of course, was the frantic 3- pointer launched by Hawkins, with Maloney flying at him, that bottomed out with 2.4 seconds to play.

“If we’d won the game, it would have been a great shot,” said a morose Hawkins in the Sonics locker room. “All it did was make us play five more minutes and get me more tired.”

And more frustrated.

“It is more demoralizing,” Hawkins said, “because if we make a shot or a play here or there, it turns the whole thing around. We’re probably one or two plays from being up 3-1 ourselves.”

Uh-huh. But the Rockets have just as much heart - and they’re making the plays.

The dire straits were duplicated in overtime, only with Houston in an early and perilous hole - psychologically, as much as anything. But just as surely, the Rockets scratched their way out and prevailed on Maloney’s eighth and final 3-pointer. Before that, Barkley had carried the Rockets with seven overtime points.

“I had to,” said Barkley, whose missed foul shots with 11 seconds left in regulation had caused all the trouble. “I almost blew the game for my team.”

Agreed Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, “That’s what sports is all about - performing under pressure, getting a chance to redeem yourself. Anybody who’s played has had a time where he didn’t come through. Nobody’s perfect.”

Did somebody mention the officials?

Amazingly, this series had been blessedly free of the kind of zebra-bashing cluttering up the biosphere in Utah and L.A. - at least until Karl decided to soil his team’s effort in search of violins and Kleenex.

“You saw a great game that was determined by a lot of tough calls against us in the overtime,” he claimed. “We had three or four tough calls in the overtime and that’s tough to overcome. One, OK. Two, maybe. But when you go to three or four, it’s pretty frustrating.”

He started clicking them off - a supposed offensive foul on Mario Elie that didn’t get called, a three-point play by Barkley “that doesn’t exist as a foul, period,” the charge on Perkins “and probably one other one.”

Probably. Probably a conspiracy.

Apprised of this in the Rockets locker room, Barkley went into full bellow.

“Do you believe that guy?” he roared. “Do you believe the audacity after watching that Barney Rubble (unmentionable) blow his whistle out there?”

Since Barkley had called onion-skinned Bavetta - who tried to turn the technical foul into an art form - “Barney Fife” during the game, we’re presuming referee Bill Oakes must be Rubble. Which would make Don Vaden, what, Barney Google?

“I would not complain about the officiating unless I had on an ugly blue uniform,” said Barkley, who had just taken his off.

Yadda, yadda, yadda.

The truth is, the foul on Perkins was no more fatal than the Sonics’ inability to finish easy shots, run the way they want to and a stubborn refusal to believe they can be beaten by the harmless-looking Maloney.

“We’re not playing the same defense they’re playing,” said Payton. “They’re not leaving Hawk and our shooters. When we double down, we leave their shooters. When they double down on us, they’re leaving one specific person - somebody in a corner, somebody who’s not going to hurt them. We’re always coming from the top.”

To Tomjanovich, however, it’s not a matter of strategy, but of chemistry.

“The common denominator is that the team comes first,” he said. “That’s (Olajuwon) passing the ball out to Matt for that last 3. That’s why role players become big factors in these games, because we’re an unselfish team.”

Yep. But an unselfish Sonic - Payton - found a role player for Seattle’s last crack. It’s just that David Wingate missed his 3.

“You’re supposed to play with heart,” reasoned Hawkins, “but if we don’t make the plays now, we go home.”

And now the only suspense is how soon.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review