Penny Hardaway was frustrated. The New York Knicks guard had managed to stay in front of Seattle's elusive Rashard Lewis as he pulled up to fire a three-pointer during a March 13 game. Hardaway had even gotten a hand in Lewis's face.
It was textbook defense.
SuperSonics forward Rashard Lewis has both post-up moves and a good jump shot at his disposal. The Wizards face the Sonics Sunday in Seattle.
(Elaine Thompson -- AP)
Despite that, Lewis's shot fell precisely where he wanted it to. The Knicks' coaching staff howled. A fed-up Hardaway wheeled around and snapped, "What?"
What else did his coaches expect him to do? Lewis, known as one of the toughest matchups in the game, could sympathize. "When I've got my jump shot going and I've got my post-up game going, the only thing that can stop me is a double team," the 6-foot-10 forward said.
And who can afford to put two guys on Lewis when Ray Allen, his fellow all-star teammate, may be open near the arc, guards Luke Ridnour and Antonio Daniels may be free to slice to the basket or Vladimir Radmanovic is uncovered as he shoots three-pointers?
This is the riddle that the Washington Wizards (37-30) must solve tonight when the two teams play in Seattle in a matchup of two of the league's best offenses and most improved clubs from last season.
Like the Wizards, the SuperSonics (48-20) like to shoot the ball from the perimeter, are loaded with scorers and have been hobbled of late by injuries.
A host of Wizards have missed games this season because of injuries, including guard Larry Hughes (thumb), forward Kwame Brown (foot) and forward Antawn Jamison (knee tendinitis). Injuries are just now beginning to plague the SuperSonics. A week ago, the team announced that Radmanovic will miss at least a month with a stress fracture in his right leg. Lewis was forced to leave Thursday's game against Portland with knee tendinitis and Allen is nursing a sore ankle. Nonetheless, the team is hotter than ever. Winners of seven of their last eight, including five in a row, the SuperSonics continue to overwhelm opponents with their firepower.
In Thursday night's 96-91 victory over the Trail Blazers, Radmanovic sat out and Lewis played just 10 minutes, but Seattle received a 21-point scoring effort from seldom-used rookie forward Damien Wilkins. "We've got a lot of guys who come off the bench and do a lot of scoring that's helping open it up for me and Ray [Allen]," said Lewis. "We've got a lot of guys that are knocking down shots, and that helps me and Ray take our men one-on-one."
The team's depth has helped it overcome its injuries, but Seattle has also had to overcome doubts about itself. Earlier this month, there were reports of infighting on the team as some players accused Allen and Radmanovic of hogging the ball and caring more about their own statistics than team victories.
Also, questions about the stalled contract negotiations between the team and Allen, as well as those between the team and Coach Nate McMillan, have become a distraction at times, some players have said.
McMillan is tired of talking about it.
"Hey, I'm not thinking about Ray's contract or my contract or any of these other guys' contracts," he said. "The focus is tonight. We've taken that approach all season long. I know it's difficult for some guys to not think about the [offseason], but it's something we have to try and focus on."
Before the team's win over the Knicks on March 13, the SuperSonics had lost three in a row for the first time this season. During that mini losing streak, forward Danny Fortson lashed out at McMillan during an intrasquad scrimmage. Fortson argued a call with one of the referees the club employs to officiate scrimmages, and McMillan stepped in to mediate. Fortson began screaming at his coach and was kicked out of practice. The team suspended Fortson for a game, and both he and McMillan later said the issue was behind them.
The coach is in the last year of his contract and the club has yet to offer him an extension. He has received kudos for the team's high-octane style of play, which is based on fast breaks and three-point shooting. Earlier this month, New York Knicks President Isiah Thomas called McMillan one of the "bright young minds" of the coaching ranks, and some in the New York media have speculated that Thomas may try to bring him to New York as coach of the Knicks.
McMillan sparked new speculation about his relationship with Seattle's management when he offered a cryptic response after being asked if he believed he had the support of the front office.
"Don't make a difference," said McMillan, who played for the SuperSonics for 12 years before retiring in 1998. "I have this job. I'm going to do it the way I want to do it."
As for Allen, he says that he and Lon Babby, his District-based agent, have tried all season to strike a deal with the SuperSonics, but that the two sides have not spoken in months. He says that with so many questions about the team's future, he hopes that his teammates play with a greater sense of urgency now that they are headed to the playoffs this season.
"I don't want to just accept what's going on and say that's good enough," Allen said. "We can be so much more. . . . There's a lot of guys who never play in the playoffs."