The Seattle SuperSonics thought they put those horrific first-round playoff questions behind them last season.
Now they’re having to answer them again. The ghosts of the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers don’t die easily.
Do the Sonics think they could be upset in the playoffs’ opening round for the third time in four seasons when they face No. 7 seed Phoenix?
“We’ve got a veteran team and we know how to win playoff games,” All-Star point guard Gary Payton said Monday as Seattle coach George Karl began preparation for the Suns.
“I’m not going to worry about having a big series because more than likely that’s going to happen anyway,” Shawn Kemp added.
Despite their 57-victory season and another Pacific Division title, the Sonics will go into their series against Phoenix with a lot of self-doubts. They lost to the Suns twice in four days in March.
And they were only 3-9 combined against Houston, Utah and the Lakers this season.
The Suns aren’t going to be an easy club to beat, Karl admitted.
“I think of all the teams we could have played, they’re offensively the most dangerous by far,” he said. “If we’re not intelligent on the offensive end of the court, we could lose the game.”
The first two games of the series are in Seattle. If Phoenix manages to win Friday night or Sunday night, the Sonics could be in trouble.
Payton knows he will be swarmed by Jason Kidd, Kevin Johnson and company after leading the Sonics with a career-best 21.8 points this season, 10th-best in the league.
“I can’t force things,” he said. “I don’t have to go in thinking I have to score 30 or 40 points.”
The Sonics were minus Detlef Schrempf, 34, who missed 21 games because of injuries and illness, the last two times they played the Suns. He’s back now and that will help, Karl said.
Having a week to prepare for Phoenix’s 3-point, four-guard offense will help Seattle, too.
“They usually go small,” Schrempf said. “So we’re going to try to take advantage of that. They’re going to have to double-team the post.”
The Sonics enjoyed watching the Lakers lose Sunday in Portland to give Seattle the Pacific Division title. Nick Van Exel of the Lakers had promised each Sonic $100 if Seattle won the division. After Sunday’s game, Van Exel said the Sonics were going nowhere in the playoffs.
“It’s time for Nick to pay up, that’s all,” Kemp said. “Send the money.”
Payton said: “He’s still making comments, I hear. If we play them anywhere in the playoffs, it’s going to be a war.”
Karl said he will continue to start 15-year veteran Terry Cummings, signed as a free agent in January, at center ahead of $33 million free agent Jim McIlvaine, who was a major disappointment, averaging only 3.8 points. Cummings started the last three regular-season games over him. The Sonics won all three.
The Sonics’ 12-man playoff roster did not include Craig Ehlo and Steve Scheffler. Karl kept Greg Graham, considered a top defender against 3-point shooters, over Ehlo, who averaged 3.5 points in 62 games.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.