The team name is the same, but the faces aren't familiar. These days, the Seattle SuperSonics are sporting a beguiling new look. That bad blood that simmered so long between Xavier McDaniel and Dale Ellis? It's all history now. They'll only be making courtesy calls in Seattle from here on.
Whoever it is that's now wearing the Sonics' uniforms turned on an impressive display of shooting and dunking, Sunday night at the Seattle Center Coliseum. An early fourth-quarter run provided the difference as Seattle claimed a 103-91 victory over the Jazz.Certainly the Jazz must be wondering just who they got into a ballgame with. When they met Nov. 23 in Salt Lake, the Sonics started with a lineup of Derrick McKey, McDaniel, Michael Cage, Gary Payton and Sedale Threatt, with a notable 22-minute off-the-bench appearance by Olden Polynice. Controversial Sonic Ellis, who had been feuding with McDaniel for weeks, was on the team but out with an injury.
But this time around, there were some new names when roll was called. McKey was nowhere to be seen, riding out the night with a strained hip flexor in his right leg. The imposing X-Man himself had two months prior been dispatched to Phoenix, while Polynice was unpacking his swimsuit in L.A., having been traded to the Clippers. Ellis had ventured off to Milwaukee in the trade for Rickey Pierce.
The new faces in Sonics' uniforms were as numerous as they were impressive. Benoit Benjamin, the much-maligned immovable object in the middle, had only last week come to Seattle from L.A. in exchange for Polynice and appeared long enough to score 12 points and take in 10 rebounds in 27 minutes. Eddie Johnson, a December acquisition from Phoenix, drove the Jazz mad in the first half, scoring 19 points in 24 minutes.
Pierce, another brush stroke in the Sonics' masterpiece, was out with a sprained foot. But it was no real matter. Guard Threatt responded with a season-high 30 points, making 13 of 20 shots, as Seattle handed the Jazz their 14th road loss of the season.
"There's a lot of new faces," mused one of the old-time Sonics, Michael Cage. "I'm still not used to it. Last night (in a loss to Phoenix) we were out of sync at times. We're still a little bit helter-skelter."
Said Jazz guard John Stockton, "We never know who's going to be here when we get here."
By most indications, it should have been a good night for the Jazz to pounce on Seattle. The Sonics had just come off a nine-day road trip and lost four of their previous five games. On Saturday they took Phoenix down to the end before losing a tough 120-110 to the Suns in Seattle.
Meanwhile, the Jazz had just come off a stirring win at Golden State and moved a game ahead of San Antonio in the Midwest Division standings for the first time all year.
"I felt we would all come out flat," said Cage. "I was tired before I ever walked on the court. We were short-handed once again."
If anyone else noticed, they didn't act like it. After spotting the Jazz an early five-point lead, the Sonics then settled into a close, intense game. While both had numerous leads, neither was able to establish a convincing edge.
Once the Jazz had taken inventory at halftime and began to solve Johnson in the third quarter, Threatt got rolling. Seattle went from a 58-55 deficit to a 65-64 lead, keyed by two Threatt baskets on his way to a 14-point quarter. His two free throws at the end of the period left the Sonics hanging onto a 75-72 lead.
"It was just one of those games for me when I was really in the flow," said Threatt.
The tenor changed quickly in the fourth quarter as Seattle began to run and dunk. Benjamin slammed in one basket, Kemp drove for another, drawing a foul, and Threatt landed a jumper from the top of the key. In a 11/2-minute period the Sonics outscored the Jazz 8-0 and the outcome was never in doubt again.
Kemp, who finished with 22 points, putthe finishing touches on the win with a 14-point quarter himself that included two three-point plays.
While the Sonics were talking about the new, lethal potion they're mixing up just in time for a stretch run, the Jazz complained that they didn't play hard all night long. "You can't turn it on and turn it off," said Karl Malone, who led the Jazz with 29 points. "Everybody was guilty of it."
Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan was more direct. "I can understand missed shots, but you have to be able to compete from one end of the floor to the other. They out-competed us."
Although the Jazz shot a decent 48.5 percent for the game, they made only 30 percent of their fourth-quarter shots. Seattle took 15 more field goals than the Jazz, making better than half of their attempts.
The loss had ominous overtones. Combined with San Antonio's win at Portland, the Jazz are now tied for first place in the Midwest Division. Following a Wednesday home game against Golden State, they then depart for their longest road swing of the season - seven games.
"Unless we play a real hard game on defense for 48 minutes, we're not going to beat any of these good teams," said Sloan. And Seattle, new faces and all, is one of them.