Wide-open race is set in push for NBA berths

Once-elite Sonics, Knicks in jeopardy

April 20, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

It was just three years ago that the Seattle SuperSonics were among the league's elite, extending the Chicago Bulls to six games in the NBA Finals. And it was just two years ago that the New York Knicks were a feared NBA power, winning 57 regular-season games.

But today, the past success of the Sonics and the Knicks seems like ancient history, as both teams are fighting for their postseason lives in what figures to be a wild finish over the final two weeks of the lockout-shortened NBA season.

After last night's games, there are seven Eastern Conference teams separated by just 2 1/2 games, all vying for four playoff spots. Out West, the rear is just slightly less congested, with three games separating the five teams hoping to grab the final three playoff spots.

For the Knicks, facing must-win games in the final weeks of the season is certainly not the position the team envisioned. The club felt it had been strengthened this season by getting more offensive-minded with the trade for Latrell Sprewell, and younger and more athletic with the acquisition of Marcus Camby.

In all, New York's payroll of $69.4 million is the highest in the NBA this season. And what has all that money purchased? A tie for ninth in the Eastern Conference (the top eight will qualify).

With half of their final eight games against three of the top teams in the East (two against Miami, and one each against Indiana and Atlanta), the Knicks' string of 11 straight playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

"We feel we have the people to be an elite team, but we are not performing up to that level," Knicks center Patrick Ewing said after his team lost at home to the Toronto Raptors on Saturday. "Forget the talking. We have to go out there and get the job done."

The topsy-turvy battle for the final playoff spots is best illustrated by the Raptors, who two weeks ago had risen to seventh place in the conference with a franchise-record six straight wins and 12 victories in their previous 14 games.

Right about that time, word surfaced that forward Charles Oakley was miffed about the team's three-year, $12 million contract extension offer. The Raptors dropped six straight games, although they've rebounded with wins Saturday at New York and last night against conference-leading Orlando. They're now tied for ninth place with the Knicks and Charlotte Hornets.

"We've got to understand how hard it is at this time of year to win games," said Toronto coach Butch Carter. "They have to know it's a war and they have to know that they'll either have a decent taste in their mouths if we make the playoffs or a very bitter taste because we didn't take care of business in these last 15 games."

If you add up the Hornets' payroll ($30.8 million), the team falls more than $38 million short of what the Knicks will spend in salaries. But after a 4-11 start to the season that led coach Dave Cowens to resign, the Hornets are 16-9 under interim coach Paul Silas, including a winning streak that reached eight games after last night's victory over New Jersey.

"This team doesn't quit," said the Hornets' Eddie Jones, who was an All-Star last season with the Los Angeles Lakers. "We always know we can fight."

In the Western Conference, the Sonics were coming off a 61-win season and had averaged just over 60 victories in five previous seasons. But the loss of coach George Karl has had a deeper impact than the team expected, and the Sonics, despite having two All-Stars in Vin Baker and Gary Payton, are three games under .500 and tied for eighth place with the upstart Sacramento Kings.

Seattle -- dubbed the "SubSonics" by one writer there -- has been in the playoffs for 12 straight seasons and hasn't had a losing record since the 1986-87 season (39-43). A sign of the team's inconsistency: During a recent four-game stretch, the Sonics lost to Sacramento, beat Portland, lost to Vancouver and beat the Lakers.

"This is a crazy season," Payton said last week after the team recorded an NBA-record-low 19 rebounds in a loss to Phoenix.

Speaking of Phoenix, with the free-agent signings of Tom Gugliotta and Luc Longley to play alongside the likes of Jason Kidd and Danny Manning, no one would have expected the Suns to be just one game over .500 (21-20) with nine games remaining. Despite Longley missing the last five games with a hyperextended left knee, the Suns have won four of those games and play at Dallas tonight.

Golden State has missed the playoffs for four straight seasons, but the Warriors (18-22) are just one victory away from matching last year's win total. New York's loss has been Golden State's gain, because John Starks -- after eight seasons with the Knicks -- is the top scorer (13.4) and assist man (4.6) for the team he began his career with.

Finally, there is Sacramento, possibly the NBA's most exciting team this season. The Kings have been in the playoffs just once in the last 12 years (1996) and have not had a winning season since moving from Kansas City in 1985.

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