Sonics in early trouble again Suns on brink, Karl on edge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHOENIX -- The three-point line might be the ruin of him -- either that, or Shawn Kemp's clock radio -- but, then again, George Karl has struck this sorry pose before.

His Seattle SuperSonics have again saved their worst for the first round, and four crises in four years confirms there is a hole in their blueprint.

Karl has a four-guard offense to solve, not to mention the erosion of a certain power forward, and he has little time to do so. Last June, his team was trapping Michael Jordan into oblivion, but now the Sonics' coach is afraid to trap Kevin Johnson or Jason Kidd, for fear of an early summer.

The seventh-seeded Phoenix Suns lead this best-of-five series, 2-1, and Karl is resorting his lineup, snipping at the referees and dialing his agent.

"I'll put it in my contract that I don't coach the first round," he said yesterday on the eve of tonight's crucial Game 4.

The Sonics captured the Pacific Division title, won 57 games, have averaged 55 victories over the past five seasons and are about to go out in the first round for the third time in four years.

They may have pushed the Chicago Bulls to six games in last season's league finals, but that was only a month after they lost a first-round home game to Sacramento, recovered to win the series in four and then celebrated with Dom Perignon.

This time, there may be no escape. It is either Kemp's fault for sleeping through meetings and practices, or center Jim McIlvaine's fault for not living up to his $33.6 million contract, or guard Nate McMillan's fault for tweaking his knee, or center Sam Perkins' fault for averaging four points in this series, or guard Gary Payton's fault for not erasing Phoenix's soon-to-be-retired Johnson.

It is either Suns coach Danny Ainge's fault for designing the offense of the 21st century or Rex Chapman's and Wesley Person's fault for draining about every three-point shot in sight, but the best moment for Seattle in this odd series was Kemp falling on Johnson's left ankle late in Tuesday's night's Game 3.

Johnson -- who Karl complains gets every referee's call when he drives to the basket -- sprained the ankle, spent yesterday at an acupuncturist and will decide at game time tonight whether he can play.

"If I were in Vegas, I'd bet he'd play," Karl said.

Phoenix's other calamity Tuesday night was forward Cedric Ceballos' courtside collapse. He spent the night in a local hospital, was ruled to be dehydrated and was expected to play -- again not to Karl's surprise.

In fact, other than the mirage of a 44-point Sonic victory in Game 2, Karl has spent this series in a self-professed purgatory. His contract runs one more season -- at which time he will probably retire and wait for Dean Smith to quit the University of North Carolina -- and it appears no one will beg him to stay.

He has complained openly that players are celebrities now and that the game is entertainment now, and that even one of his "best, hardest-working guys" knows the shoe deal of every player in the league. The game has changed, economically and aesthetically, and he can barely tolerate it.

For instance, the Suns have a four-guard offense that is foreign to every team in the league. "In the East, they walk it up, throw it in the post and play inside out," Ainge said yesterday. "We play outside out."

The three-point line is apparently too close for Phoenix to pass up. Chapman made nine three-pointers to win Game 1, Person made six to win Game 3.

Seattle, meanwhile, is too big to chase Phoenix's whippets and has fallen into the dangerous trap of taking too many threes itself. Kemp had only one fourth-quarter field goal in each of the Sonics' losses, and he is the one who was supposed to seize Jordan's throne this season.

Instead, Kemp missed three weeks of training camp to protest McIlvaine's contract, and he has suffered from what some team officials describe as depression. He has missed flights, meetings and practices, and has done nothing to change the Sonics' image as a troop of loose cannons.

Payton, who scored 34 points in Game 3, is, incredibly, their most reliable player, and this is the same extrovert who nearly fought former teammate Ricky Pierce during another first-round loss, to Denver, in 1994.

Karl, it turns out, has been more baby sitter than coach the last four years, and appears ready to turn in his pacifier.

"We're fine," the Sonics' president, Wally Walker, said. "Of course, if we lose the series, we're not fine."

Pub Date: 5/01/97

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