It was 10 or 15 minutes after practice had officially ended Monday and Gary Payton and David Wingate were engaged in a heated 3-point shooting contest.
Most of the rest of the team watched intently, some cheering on Payton, others Wingate, with barbs being traded back and forth that made the shootout more resemble a roast.
With the Gund Arena practice floor filling with laughter, Sonics coach George Karl turned to reporters standing nearby.
“This is a team that’s bickering, huh?” he said. “This is a team that hates each other, right?”
Karl, of course, has himself much to blame that that perception ever existed, having used words like “bickering” and “finger-pointing” to describe his team after a home loss to Utah that preceded the All-Star break, another in a string of lackluster defeats against good teams in the first half of the season.
Since then, however, the Sonics have won six in a row heading into a game tonight in Cleveland against the Cavaliers, having beaten Houston, the Lakers, New York and Utah. The Knicks and Jazz were two of the hottest teams in the NBA before facing Seattle.
It all seems to have turned around so quickly that there must have been some earth-shattering moment of collective reckoning during the five-day All-Star break, right?
Wrong, says Karl.
“I don’t think it was in that bad of shape before and now that everyone thinks we are OK, we better still be cautious,” Karl said.
Still, there’s no question the Sonics are playing better and with more, to use Karl’s words, purpose and focus.
It’s evident statistically - Seattle has held the past six teams to an average of 86 points and 42.5 percent shooting and forced 20.8 turnovers a game, evidence of the team’s recommitment to defense. It’s alos evident mentally.
“(Sunday at Utah) we had a face that we were going to win,” Karl said. “A lot of those earlier close games, we didn’t have that face. But Sunday, we were in one of the hardest buildings to win in and all game, our guys thought they were going to win.”
And win the Sonics did, despite getting only three points from Shawn Kemp. Karl figures Kemp will quickly rebound from a slump that has seen him score only 10 points in the past two games. When he does, Karl says, the Sonics will be that much better.
The only major on-floor change the past six games has been the return of Nate McMillan, who despite seemingly inconsequential stats, it a leader on and off the court.
Karl has also turned more of the offense over to Payton, who is averaging 23.8 points and 20.8 shots the past six games compared to 22.2 points and 18 shots a game before. Payton has benefited most from Mcillan’s return, as Payton usually shifts to shooting guard when McMillan comes in.
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