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Sports

Green is back in style

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review

SEATTLE – The detail of NBA scouting reports is mind-numbing. On locker room greaseboards across the league are etched plays, tendencies and formulas in hieroglyphics decipherable only to the likes of Will Hunting.

Inquire how to defend Shaquille O’Neal, for instance, and you are liable to get a lecture on mass, angle and volume.

Or not.

“He’s just another big lug to me,” shrugged Danny Fortson.

And the harder they fall, right?

Speaking of making the confounding into the simple – ladies and gentlemen, your Seattle SuperSonics.

With a 108-98 victory Sunday evening at KeyArena, the Supes completed their two-game noogie on the Miami Heat in the space of just a week, carving up the Shaq Show with that fine old hardwood chestnut, the pick-and-roll, and the 27 points of Vladimir Radmanovic, who must have thought he’d stumbled into a game of H-O-R-S-E.

Count it as just one more conundrum for the Sonics’ rivals – the notion of getting beat by Vladimir Radmanovic. The Heat – and every other team – must go back to the drawing board to reconcile that now.

The almost back-to-back encounters between two of the NBA’s current penthouse tenants provided a rare injection of January amusement to a schedule that mostly just slogs along until playoffs heat up in May. O’Neal himself must have been bored last Monday when, after Seattle’s 98-86 win in Miami, he went off on minor screed about Fortson, whose defense he likened to a combination of overcooked pasta and half-baked ham.

“Bill Russell and Bill Walton would be ashamed to watch this game,” he charged, “big men flopping around like that.”

There were some other nuggets before Sunday’s meeting, too – about not being able to resort to the odd flop “because I couldn’t go home and look at my boys if I did that” and some stuff about physical play in which he contended that “when I pinch your nipple, it hurts the same as when you pinch mine.”

We haven’t seen any of that on SportsCenter, but then they only show the dunks.

O’Neal is one of the NBA’s great entertainers and loves to play up his outsized appeal, but for a guy 7-foot-1 and 325 pounds, he has his share of little man’s issues, too. Just what the 6-8, 260-pound Fortson is supposed to do in his defensive role other than serve as a footstool to the rim seems to be lost on the Diesel.

In any event, it wasn’t the worst thing O’Neal ever said about him.

“He called me a bum one time,” Fortson reported.

Take it personally?

“Nah – I was kind of a little mad at him,” he said. “But down inside, he’s a good guy. He has a good heart. Those things he said a couple of years ago, I don’t care anymore. I got over it.”

Possibly that’s easier when you can get over on the big fella, too.

For the longest time Sunday, that didn’t look likely. Spurred by O’Neal’s new sidekick, the remarkable Dwyane Wade, the Heat jumped out to a modest lead and found Shaq or Eddie Jones any time they needed to turn back a Seattle surge. It wasn’t until late in the third quarter that the Sonics took any kind of lead at all – and when they managed to push it to 10 points midway through the fourth period, it took Miami all of two minutes to take it all back.

But other than that hiccup, Seattle’s defense was magnificent for the game’s last 20 minutes, and that included Fortson doing battle on Shaq, who managed just one field goal the entire fourth quarter – on a rebound jam. Collectively, the Heat missed their last seven shots of the game and had but a single free throw in the final five minutes.

“Danny really changed the game,” Sonics coach Nate McMillan said, “not only making Shaquille work but creating second opportunities for us.”

Indeed, Fortson – who whose 18 points and 10 rebounds in just 22 minutes were a virtual wash with Shaq’s 28 and 11 in 38 minutes – has changed the entire season for Seattle.

It must be Fortson. He and rookie Nick Collison, who also waged some overmatched war with Shaq on Sunday, are the only new arrows in the quiver.

“Their effort is fabulous,” Heat coach Stan Van Gundy said. “What really makes it difficult is that they have our bigs up on pick-and-rolls. Now their guards come off and shoot the ball and it’s hard to get a body on their bigs and they make a great effort to go and get the ball. It’s why they’re the No. 1 rebounding team in the league.

“They just took us apart with pick-and-rolls in the second half.”

That Fortson has been such a catalyst in Seattle makes it even more curious why four different NBA teams – Dallas being the latest – have given up on him.

“I knew I could (play on a regular basis),” Fortson said. “Don Nelson knew I could, too, but for whatever reason it didn’t work out very well there. But the past is in the past.”

And the future, well, the Sonics are opening up new horizons almost daily. In their matchups thus far against the NBA’s best teams – Phoenix, Miami, San Antonio, Dallas and Sacramento – Seattle is 6-1, having beaten the Heat and Spurs twice.

For anyone who saw the Sonics’ exhibition against Utah in Spokane in October or the regular-season opening disaster against the Clippers, this still doesn’t track. But the evidence is mounting.

“You always talk about what goes in the playoffs and what doesn’t work,” Van Gundy said. “Well, what wins in the playoffs are good teams.

“People have done it all different ways and you can go back and prove that. To say that one style of play won’t win in the playoffs doesn’t make sense. They’re a team that’s going to have to be dealt with. They’re a definite contender and anybody who says otherwise, based on their style of play, really hasn’t paid attention.”

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