Quietly, SuperSonics starting to make some noise


MIAMI -- After losing the season opener on the road to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Seattle SuperSonics were figured by many to be in for another mediocre year. Some were even counting the days before coach Nate McMillan's 18-year association with the club would be over.

But an interesting thing happened when the team reconvened for practice the next day in Seattle.

McMillan, whose team finished last season with a 37-45 record, chose not to show his players the tape of the game.

"I thought about showing it, but I decided it was behind us and we didn't need to look at it," McMillan said. "We basically got ourselves ready for the next game. We knew we had a bad night and we moved on. We've basically taken that approach regardless, whether it's a win or a loss."

Whatever McMillan and his players have done this season is working. After a 98-96 win here Monday night that ended the Miami Heat's 14-game winning streak, the Sonics had the NBA's second-best record (23-6) behind Phoenix.

Last night's loss in Orlando dropped Seattle behind San Antonio and into third place in the league, but the Sonics, who'll be in Washington tonight for a nationally televised game against the Wizards on TNT, are still 12-4 on the road, second-best in the league behind the Suns.

While Phoenix made significant moves in the offseason, bringing in point guard Steve Nash and forward Quentin Richardson, Seattle lost starting point guard Brent Barry to the Spurs through free agency and traded center Calvin Booth to Dallas for Danny Fortson.

Except for Ray Allen, a four-time All-Star at shooting guard, and Rashard Lewis, an emerging star at small forward, the Sonics are mostly a faceless bunch of role players that includes Fortson, guards Luke Ridnour and Antonio Daniels and forwards Reggie Evans and Vladimir Radmanovic.

"We've got a lot of guys who don't get a lot of attention, but they're playing hard, they're playing together," said McMillan, who has coached the Sonics since November 2000 after being either a player or an assistant coach with the team since 1986. "And the thing that we're doing this year that we didn't do last year is we're finishing ballgames."

About the only ones who aren't surprised by Seattle's hot start are the Sonics themselves.

"From the outside looking in you're surprised because we didn't make any big moves during the offseason, but there are teams that did and they're not doing as well," said Allen, who is averaging a career-high 24.4 points after scoring 30 last night. "It goes to show that it's not all about spending a lot of money. Your team has to have chemistry, and this team has a pretty good chemistry."

McMillan has admittedly changed his approach this season, going with the same starting lineup the entire season. It has meant starting young players such as Ridnour, Evans and center John James while using the more experienced Daniels, Fortson and Radmanovic off the bench.

The players have come to appreciate the stability.

"I think there is a different mind-set," said Daniels, who came to the Sonics last season. "I think the roles are more solidified. When you know and understand your role, it makes it much easier to execute your role."

Said Ridnour, the team's No. 1 draft choice in the 2003 draft: "I think we were experimenting last year and we never got into a routine of winning."

Winning certainly helps keep players happy in their roles. After losing to the Clippers on opening night, the Sonics reeled off nine straight wins, their longest streak since 1996-97. Their start is the best since 1997-98, when the Sonics began 29-6 en route to a 61-21 record.

Except for two losses to the Boston Celtics, Seattle has proved that its turnaround is not at the expense of the league's lower-echelon teams. The Sonics have beaten the Spurs twice, with one of those wins coming during a sweep of San Antonio and Dallas on back-to-back nights last month.

They've blown a late lead just once, failing to hold a seven-point advantage in the last three minutes Dec. 17 at home to the Suns.

Whether the Sonics can keep winning is still up for debate. Much of their offense is based around creating fast breaks and shooting threes. Entering last night's game, Seattle led the league in three-point percentage (.387), and Allen was fifth in three-point shots made.

This wide-open, perimeter-oriented game might work during the regular season, but teams who build their offense around jump shots are often exposed quickly in the playoffs.

"We know we've got to get better," McMillan said. "We're still the worst rebounding team in the league. We've got to execute a half-court offense when teams take away our perimeter game. We've still got to become a better defensive club. There are still areas we have to improve to give ourselves a chance to win."

The Sonics might have a way to go, but they have certainly come a long way since opening night.

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