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1993 Playoffs Retrospective Part III: Seattle SuperSonics Demand To Be Taken Seriously

In this edition of our series, we look at the moment when a young team on the rise served notice to the world that they were a legitimate title contender.

kemp payton
kemp payton

Depending on how far you extend the 1993 Playoffs/2011 Playoffs analogy, the Seattle Supersonics were the Oklahoma City Thunder of 1993. I realize making this analogy is incredibly painful for Seattle basketball fans, so I want to apologize up front. As a concession, I'll admit that the analogy actually breaks down once you get past the surface. Both teams were built around dynamic young stars that were poised to rule the NBA for the next 15 years. In Oklahoma City in 2011, it's Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. In Seattle in 1993, it was Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.

But the two teams had completely different team-building philosophies. Whereas Oklahoma City chose to load up on young players and have them grow together, the Sonics traded and signed a bunch of veterans to fill in along their two supreme talents. Their other key players in 1993 included 30somethings Ricky Pierce, Sam Perkins, Eddie Johnson and Michael Cage, as well as 28-year old backup guard Nate McMillan. The end result was a team whose two faces were under 23, but one who featured only one other regular (Derrick McKey) under 26. (That McKey was dealt after the year for veteran scorer Detlef Schrempf only underscores this point).

This wasn't your ordinary "young team," something they proved in a 1992 playoff upset of Golden State in the first round and a 55-win regular season in 1992-93. But life in the NBA has a funny way of placing obstacles in front of "teams on the rise" like this. Seattle's opponent in the first round of the 1993 Playoffs was the Utah Jazz. The Jazz slumped in 1992-93 after reaching the 1992 Western Conference Finals, and at this point, they were essentially a two-man team of Karl Malone and John Stockton. They dropped from 55 wins to 47 and finished behind Houston and San Antonio in the Midwest.

Nevertheless, the Jazz were an especially tough matchup for Seattle. They disposed of them easily in the 1992 playoffs, and won two of the first three games in this first-round series. Stockton often proved too savvy for Seattle's half-court traps, and Malone overpowered Kemp inside. Big center Mark Eaton, while declining, also was able to deter most of Seattle's drives to the basket. As long as Utah controlled the tempo, they had the advantage.

For the Sonics to advance, they needed to stand up to the bully on the playground. The Sonics won Game 4 in Utah in a game punctuated by Perkins blocking Mike Brown (no, not this Mike Brown), then taunting him while he was on the ground in a very un-Sam Perkins-like fashion. (He called it "jaw jacking," which is apparently a step beyond trash talking). Game 5 was back in Seattle, and the "crazy" Sonics fans were ready for their team to pounce.

Ultimately, though, the Jazz didn't quit and controlled the early parts of the game. This presented the Sonics with an unexpected obstacle. Much like Kevin Durant's scoring explosion at the end of Game 5 vs. the Nuggets last year, the Sonics defeated that obstacle in a breathtaking display of basketball that struck fear into everyone watching. I can't promise that's the last Sonics/Thunder analogy of the piece.

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Pregame: We're live from the Seattle Coliseum, which was one of those old-style NBA arenas that was small and cramped, but also really damn loud. When NBA fans vent about wanting to go back to the "good old days," they're really talking about venues like this. Dick Enberg and Cotton Fitzsimmons are on the call for NBC, with Fitzsimmons filling in for Magic Johnson. This is a good thing.

Enberg keeps going on and on about how Sonics coach George Karl wants his team to play "crazy" to get the crowd going. NBC's cameras reinforce this with some great shots of the Sonics crowd.

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Enberg was an annoying cliche machine during his NBA broadcasts, but this time, his babbling is legit. That Sonics crowd puts even the best Oklahoma City crowd to shame.

The Sonics will start Payton, Pierce, McKey, Kemp and Perkins, while Utah counters with Stockton, Jeff Malone, David Benoit, Karl Malone and Eaton.

First quarter

10:52: Utah's first two scores are dunks by Benoit after the Sonics fumbled rebounds away. Today, someone would have noted how the Jazz should be ecstatic that the erratic Benoit got confidence from scoring twice early. Fitzsimmons says they were just two dunks. He's like Jeff Van Gundy without the tangents, stupid rule changes and media criticisms.

8:20: The newly-confident Benoit elects to take a hanging 14-footer with a man in his face instead of resetting the offense. Jerry Sloan yells at Benoit through the voice of Dick Enberg.

7:50: Mark Eaton is a large man.

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7:05: Jeff Malone gets a bailout call and hits two free throws. In 1992-93, Malone averaged 18 points, two rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. In 2010-11, Nick Young averaged 17 and a half points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists, and he's at least young and with some upside. So why did people think Jeff Malone was anything more than a limited player back then? It's impossible to overstate the upgrade the Jazz made the next year when they traded Malone for Jeff Hornacek.

6:00: We cut to the following Nike commercial:

"It wasn't easy growing up. I wanted to be the next Michael Jordan. And the next Oscar Robertson. And the next Jerry West. And the next Iceman. But I couldn't make up my mind which "next" I wanted to be. So I became the first Harold Miner. As you can see, that's not too easy either."

The joke writes itself. Miner (pun intended) detail: Harold was born in 1971, well after Robertson and West's primes. Hard to believe he truly grew up wanting to be them. Also, Miner averaged 10 points in 18.9 minutes per game for a losing team in 1992-93. This would be like giving Jordan Crawford a Nike commercial.

4:00: McKey has a wide open 15-footer that he will turn down until the end of time.

3:00: Former Bucks point guard and big Jazz disappointment Jay Humphries scores, but I was distracted because I was trying to time that Jazz possession with an hourglass.

1:02: Unofficially, that's four straight Jazz possessions completed with the shot clock inside of five seconds.

18.1: Eddie Johnson checks in and banks in a three, which Enberg says was an accident. Johnson was quite the character for those Sonics teams. Great bench scorer, insightful, good leader, but also phenomenally quirky. He said before the game that his job is to score more on the road, and therefore was hoping he'd only have to score "8-10 points" for Seattle to win. Fitzsimmons, who coached Johnson for many years in Phoenix, has called BS on Johnson twice already -- once for that "8-10 points" quote, and once to say that Johnson would claim he called glass on that shot.

0:00: End of one, 18-17 Jazz. This one is ugly. Or, as Enberg says it, "Not brilliantly executed offensively, but building towards something special." That's one fairly large turd Enberg is polishing.

Second quarter

11:15: Just to illustrate how ugly this series has been.

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9:31: Fitzsimmons' roast of Eddie Johnson continues. "Anytime Eddie Johnson blocks a shot, you know it's going to be tough to score." Take notes, Jeff Van Gundy: it's far funnier to give a former player of yours playing in the game a hard time than a former player of yours who is your broadcast partner.

8:50: McMillan just scored the second and third points of the quarter. For both teams combined.

7:10: Johnson, who claimed he only needed 8-10 points in this game, already has five shots in about six minutes. He misses a runner, after which Enberg jokes that he "had his tongue wagging" wanting the ball, or something. During the timeout, Fitzsimmons calmly informs him that roasting Eddie Johnson is his shtick.

6:49: Looks like Benoit is ready for his closeup.

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4:08: Current Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin hits two free throws, and it's a seven-point Utah lead. You could time Jazz possessions with a sundial, but at least they're executing their game plan. Seattle has no clue what they're doing. All their points feel like they're coming off broken plays.

3:07: Johnson hits. He now has six points on 600 shots. Meanwhile, Kemp hasn't had one play run for him. Sorry Cotton, I need to get in on this roast.

1:45: Kemp, who has been so uninvolved in this game that Enberg thought he was on the bench, just missed a point-blank layup.

1:00: McKey does his patented "dribble around and do nothing" move, and the Sonics commit a shot-clock violation. Fans boo. Meanwhile, in Houston, Larry Brown, knowing his Clippers career ended with his team's loss to the Rockets in Game 5 earlier in the day (see live-blog here), turns on the TV and thinks to himself, "I must trade for this player."

0.03: Jeff Malone hits a jumper at the buzzer, and the Jazz lead 39-30 at halftime. The crowd boos. Something needs to change, and soon. Seattle is getting pushed around in the paint and lulled to sleep by the Jazz's stall tactics. There is legitimate fear that the season is toast unless something changes. To illustrate this, Enberg uses the word "crazy" twice in one sentence, his 245th and 246th references to the word of the telecast.

Third quarter

11:39: Most important play of the game. On Seattle's first possession of the second half, McKey basically says, "F*** it," puts his head down and drives past Benoit for a lefty layup. That one play woke up the crowd and the rest of the Sonics. It was almost as if they all said to themselves, "Hey, if our most passive player is willing to go hard to the basket, then we should be willing to do so as well."

11:03: Mark Eaton cannot get out on Sam Perkins in time, and Perkins hits a three.

10:15 After a made Jazz basket, Pierce zips down the lane and gets clobbered to draw the foul. You think he does that if McKey doesn't do it earlier? Also, Fitzsimmons explains that the Sonics are going to run a "2 Fist" defense after the camera pans to this shot, as if everyone viewing is supposed to know what that means.

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9:32: Mark Eaton cannot get out on Sam Perkins in time, and Perkins hits a three.

8:33: Mark Eaton cannot get out on Sam Perkins in time, and Perkins hits a three.

8:00: There were times in Gary Payton's up and down first three years where you saw glimpses of the player he would eventually become. That coast-to-coast drive and finish over Eaton to tie the game is one of those glimpses.

5:50: Sloan tries to play Humphries and Stockton together, and Seattle responds by posting up Pierce on Humphries. I feel like I'd want to heckle Humphries if I were a Jazz fan in 1993.

4:19: Perkins throws down a lefty dunk over Tyrone Corbin. If we decided to rank the top 100 players of 1993, Perkins would be way higher on my list than anyone else's. He was the Lamar Odom of his day -- incredibly versatile, able to do so many things to help your team win. He carried Seattle in this one.

2:33: Humphries turns his head and Payton cuts backdoor for a layup and a foul. Jazz fan, 1993: "YOU S**K HUMPHRIES. YOU'RE A BUM." Humphries responds by passing up a three to throw a jump-pass out of bounds on the ensuing possession. "YOU S**K HUMPHRIES. YOU'RE A BUM."

47.2: Nate McMillan, who hasn't hit anything this series, nails a three from the corner, and Seattle leads by 10. "In this quarter, it's been a Sonic boom," Enberg predictably says. It's a 19-point turnaround in 11 minutes.

0:00: Quarter over. Message sent. Sonics lead, 69-57. They outscored the Jazz, 39-18, in the quarter. They missed three shots in 12 minutes.

Fourth quarter

11:03: Down 14, Stockton his a jumper, and Fitzsimmons wonders why he doesn't shoot more. It won't be the last time you hear Fitzsimmons say this.

10:23: Johnson scores his eighth point of the game on his 800th shot and bobs his head up and down as he goes back down the court. No snide comment from Cotton. Unfortunate, I say.

9:00: Humphries makes a weak swipe at Johnson, leaving McMillan wide open for the jumper. Let's bring the 1993 Jazz fan back. "YOU S**K HUMPHRIES. YOU'RE A BUM."

7:59: Mark Eaton cannot get out on Sam Perkins in time, and Perkins hits a three two.

7:49: Down 14, Stockton hits a jumper, and Fitzsimmons wonders why he doesn't shoot more.

3:21: Seattle keeps attacking the rim, eschewing the traditional "milk the clock" approach. The ultimate result is a bunch of inconsequential traded buckets. This one's almost over.

1:58: Jeff Malone cuts the Sonics' lead to 10. The crowd seems nervous, for some reason. Enberg says George Karl has an "agonizing two minutes left," for some reason.

1:15: Down 12, Stockton hits a three, and Fitzsimmons wonders why he doesn't shoot more.

45.1: Yes, Mr. Sonics fan, Seattle has dominated this second half. But I think you still have the score wrong.

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35.1: Jeff Malone shoots a fadeaway two-point jumper when his team needs a three or a layup, and that'll do it. Sonics win, 100-92, scoring 70 second-half points. Perkins finishes with 20 points, 13 rebounds and one creepy look at Hannah Storm.

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It looked like a torch had been passed. Seattle topped Houston in the next round, then probably would have topped Phoenix if not for Charles Barkley and the referees. But as we all know now, the Sonics suffered humiliating first-round playoff losses the next two years, and only broke through when the Bulls were at their peak. Utah, meanwhile, bounced back strong the next two years after the Hornacek-Malone trade and eventually hung around to reach the Finals twice. Like we said at the top, the NBA works in funny ways sometimes.