House Of The Rising Suns -- Foul Ending Applied To Sonics' Fine Season
PHOENIX - It seemed to start innocently enough. Early in the third quarter, Seattle's Sam Perkins spiked a Mark West shot. Phoenix's Charles Barkley blew the put-back, but rebounded the misfire.
Then came the beginning of the end.
SuperSonic guard Ricky Pierce raked Barkley across the arms. Five days too late for Memorial Day, Barkley began a Phoenix parade to the free-throw line. The Suns shot free throws on seven of 10 possessions, built an 18-point lead, and wound up going to the line 26 times in the quarter.
Game 7 and the the Western Conference finals were decided right then.
"It seemed like that whole period lasted forever," Nate McMillan said after his Sonics dropped out of the NBA title derby with a 123-110 loss yesterday. "It seemed like the game was over then."
It was, because the Suns had cast their lot with well-known quantities. They went with Barkley, the league MVP, and Kevin Johnson, their All-Star point guard, and the officials went right along.
That's just the way this game is. The NBA has ridden the gravy train on tracks laid by its stars. The Sonics' basketball-by-committee, though admirable, was vulnerable to the coup that Barkley and K.J. engineered yesterday.
"We don't have that star player," McMillan said. "It's a luxury. Those kind of players do get respect in big games and crucial situations. They're allowed to do more."
Exhibit A: Barkley.
In an effort his coach called "superhuman," Barkley delivered 44 points and 24 rebounds. He collected 19 of his points from the free-throw line, where Phoenix tied an NBA playoff record with 57 makes (in 64 tries). The 57 was the highest total in a nonovertime playoff game.
"I had made up my mind at the beginning of the third quarter that I was going to take over," Barkley said. "They had been killing us in the third quarter all series long. So I went out and was just going to make things happen, good or bad."
As far as the Suns were concerned, all good. Phoenix led by only six when Barkley hit one of only four field goals produced by the Suns in the third quarter. He spent the rest of the period making 11 free throws in 12 attempts (the Suns were 24-of-26).
Seattle had nothing or no one to counter. Ricky Pierce, marvelous throughout the series, was mired in a two-for-eight shooting performance. Shawn Kemp, the other obvious go-to candidate, was stuck in the quagmire of foul trouble that plagued Seattle.
The Sonics' most reliable weapon - their defensive aggression - also was no longer available.
"This was the first time the game was called this tight all series," Sonic center Michael Cage said.
Because of that, Seattle's Gary Payton said, "we had to soften up (at) that point. We knew if we touched anybody, we were going to get a foul called."
Lacking any one player to provoke a similar response, the Sonics had only an offensive process. Yesterday, it was a painful process of elimination.
"We play so much better when there's a flow, a rhythm," Sonic Coach George Karl said. "That game had no rhythm. The only rhythm it had was them walking to the free-throw line."
Rather than blame the officiating, it's more appropriate to credit the Suns for exploiting the unwritten rules of the game.
They were relentless in pounding the ball inside to Barkley, who was equally relentless in drawing contact. They also adroitly set the stage for Kevin Johnson's piercing forays into the paint.
For the first time in the series, Sun Coach Paul Westphal took the ball from K.J. and had Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge or Frank Johnson bring it upcourt. The strategy, in Phoenix's view, frustrated the Sonics' ploy of trapping and pressuring Kevin Johnson. Phoenix saved its best move, K.J. said, for last.
The Sonics wanted the ball out of K.J.'s hands anyway, so in effect the Suns did some of the Sonics' work for them. But it's possible that because of that, Seattle's guard was down when Johnson did get the ball. He was almost as prosperous as Barkley from the foul line, where he collected 14 of his 22 points.
And the Suns prevailed despite being outshot, 50 percent to 41.7, by a Seattle team led by a last-gasp 34 points from Eddie Johnson.
The net effect of the Sonics' postseason run, perhaps, is yet to come.
"The kind of respect they got today, we'll get next year," Cage said, wistfully.
"We'll get those calls. I think we've opened up everybody's eyes. This hasn't been a fantasy trip. We earned the right to be here."
And they left the same way they came.
Collectively, and without much fanfare.
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The Suns made 57 of 64 free throws in Game 7, which tied an NBA playoff record for one game. Phoenix's free-throw leaders yesterday, with their point totals:
Barkley 19-22 44. K. Johnson 14-16 22. Chambers 6-6 17. West 5-6 11.
Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.