The way Mario Elie put it, one couldn’t help but think of the cheap and easy joke.
“The game is all about who wants to see the golf course and who wants to see Salt Lake,” said Elie, a forward for the Houston Rockets, who host the Seattle SuperSonics at 12:30 p.m. PDT today in The Summit in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.
The winner advances to the Western Conference finals against the Utah Jazz. The loser goes home with little else to do but hit the links.
While the golf course might sound inviting, the Sonics swear it isn’t to them. Not after everything they’ve gone through the past week to get themselves into the position to become one of only six teams in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a seven-game series, and only the third team to do it by winning Games 5 and 7 on the road.
Houston, meanwhile, is hoping to avoid the embarrassment of blowing a 3-1 lead a mere two years after the Rockets came back from a 3-1 deficit en route to a second consecutive NBA title.
The Sonics’ task was made easier Friday when they found out shortly before practice that Shawn Kemp would not be suspended for throwing a punch at Houston’s Kevin Willis in the third quarter of the 99-96 Game 6 victory Thursday in KeyArena.
Instead, Willis - whom Sonics coach George Karl assailed as a dirty player after Game 6 - was fined $10,000 and Kemp $5,000. Rockets players and coaches were upset that Kemp was not suspended, but both sides said it would be unwise for either team to try and retaliate because the game figures to be called even more tightly than usual due to the history of this series and the events in the Miami-New York series.
“We are all really looking forward to this,” said Seattle center Terry Cummings, who could be playing his last game today. “This is what we’ve worked really hard for the last two games not just to get respect but to show that we belong.
“We feel that if we had played the first three, four games with an understanding that we have now, we would have won this series already.”
Instead, the Sonics are playing their seventh Game 7 in team history, having compiled a 4-2 record in the six prior games, including a victory over Utah last year in the Western Conference finals.
The Sonics will also be playing their eighth must-win game in the past two years and fifth this year, having gone 6-1 and 4-0 respectively.
“It gets more challenging,” said center Sam Perkins of continually playing must-win games. “I don’t know if it gets any harder because they all have their situations. This one will be challenging because it is Houston and we are in Houston and we are playing against one of the top teams in the league. It will be fun.”
Sonics coach George Karl hopes so, anyway, which would be a change from the previous six games of this series, he said.
“It’s been a great series, but I’m not sure it’s been fun,” said Karl, who has been saddled with a flu that has left him physically weak much of the past two weeks.
Karl wants his team to play loose, free and easy today, and said he will resist all temptation to slow the game down to keep it close, a strategy often favored by road teams in winner-take-all games like this.
“Mentally, all I will talk to them about is to get their rest and try to get their gas tank emotionally and physically as full as possible,” Karl said before practice Friday afternoon.
“It’s going to be 48 minutes of an every-possession, every-play mentality. But we can’t come out and be tentative or cautious or conservative. A lot of coaches on the road like to slow it down and control the tempo, but I’m thinking exactly the opposite. I would rather it be a run-and-gun game.”
When it was run-and-gun was when the Sonics were at their best in winning Games 5 and 6, and Karl isn’t planning on making many changes from the strategy used in those games.
That means Gary Payton will again guard Matt Maloney, that the Sonics will again trap heavily at halfcourt in an attempt to disrupt the Houston offense, and that the Sonics will again hope to get Hersey Hawkins going early on the offensive end.
“My gut feeling is that (Houston coach) Rudy (Tomjanovich) and I have played all our cards,” Karl said. “I don’t know if he has an ace up his sleeve and I don’t think I have one.”
Seattle players and coaches say they need to keep the game close early, or optimally pull ahead, figuring it will come down to a few crucial plays at the end.