Payton Gives Spurs A Boot -- Active Play Helps Seattle Drop Bigger San Antonio

Being a product of the video generation, Gary Payton was tuned in Sunday afternoon when Portland's Rod Strickland conducted a clinic, before a national television audience, on dismantling the San Antonio Spurs.

It was Strickland posting up Avery Johnson, the 5-foot-11 Spurs point guard. Then Strickland, 6-3, challenging 7-1 David Robinson inside. The result was a Trail Blazer victory.

Showing little distaste for re-runs, Payton bolted out of the SuperSonics' locker room at halftime last night, posted up Johnson, dissed Robinson inside and pressured the point until the Spurs burst for 27 turnovers en route to a 96-89 loss to Seattle at the Coliseum.

The coup de grace, appropriately, came with less than a minute remaining. Seattle was clinging to a 92-87 lead and Robinson was hanging on with five fouls. The Sonics, nevertheless, were treating the lane as if it were Three Mile Island after the accident.

Emboldened by his eight-point, two-steal, third-quarter rampage, Payton barreled right into Robinson's neighborhood and kissed a scooper off the glass.

"I was attacking the basket because I knew that's what I had to do," said Payton, who finished with 15 points, all but four in the second half. "I'd seen Rod (Strickland) play that way yesterday. I knew if I played the way he played, we could have some success with that.

"I think we learned a lesson against Hakeem Olajuwon," he said, referring to an 86-81 loss to Houston on Saturday night. "He blocked eight shots, and we let him dictate the game. Instead of doing the same against Robinson, we went at him and got him into foul trouble."

Payton was gracious with that last bit of "we" business.

Ricky Pierce (27 points) and Nate McMillan pinned Robinson with two quick fouls in the first quarter. It was Pierce who drew Robinson's fifth with 3:25 to play. It was Payton who made Robinson pay for his resulting tentativeness.

At last check, McMillan, Payton and Pierce were guards (though McMillan is masquerading as a small forward). Which is fine for nights like last night, and most other nights over the grind of an 82-game season. But remember the old basketball maxim that guards win games, but forwards win championships.

The way things are going, the Sonics have little reason to look forward to any championships. They've just played two of the biggest teams in the Western Conference. Two teams, in fact, that they could very well end up playing in succession during the playoffs.

And all Sonic Shawn Kemp had to show was a combined 21 points, on 6-for-27 shooting. That's 22 percent, for those without calculators. Or about the kind of chance the Sonics will have at beating San Antonio or Houston, or even Utah, if they aren't able to bust Kemp loose.

"Remember, Shawn's just played against two of the best defenders in the league," Coach George Karl said. "He's just got to take his good opportunities, and finish them. He's a great player, he's going to have great games. Right now, he just needs to loosen up."

Which is easier said. Everywhere Kemp seems to venture these days, quarters are tightening. He's had to carry the load on the blocks without an effective inside comrade (still) and with many of his teammates in a current state of offensive timidity.

Kemp had a dunk last night, but it came following up a Payton miss. Teams are crowding him so much that his trademark maneuver has all but vanished from his repertoire. Last spring, Kemp's game shriveled through loss of weight and strength, but he says none of that is a factor now.

"It's going to be tough," said Kemp, who had double figures in points and rebounds in just one of the past nine games. "I just have to figure a way around all this. I don't think it's the team that has to do anything. It's me.

"I definitely have to fight my way through it in the playoffs. Teams are going to double- and triple-team me. I know that already. I'm just going to have to do other things."

Payton sees a way out, however.

"I think this is going to help Shawn and them, really," he said. "They're going to be starting in the playoffs. Everyone knows that. Until then, coming off the bench is giving them a chance to look at what's going on out there."

Then again, this is coming from a guy who watched a game on TV, imitated it and reaped the spoils. Most of the time, it's not that easy.

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The plot thickens.

Before his team dropped a 96-89 decision to the Sonics last night, Spur Coach John Lucas mentioned the possibility of meeting Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. The thought flabbergasted a couple of reporters, who had been focusing on a Utah-Seattle pairing.

Last night notwithstanding, Lucas would welcome a series against Seattle. It would make the Sonics nervous. And it could well happen.

The Spurs still have to play Denver, Phoenix and Houston, who have a combined record of 148-89 (.624). The Jazz, now trailing San Antonio by two games in the loss column, have Sacramento, the Lakers, Golden State and Minnesota, who are a combined 111-201 (.356).

Asked if he would tank games to gain a matchup against the Sonics, Lucas flashed a playfully incredulous smile and said, "I wouldn't do that."

Funny, but Sean Elliott, the Spurs' All-Star forward, sat out the last four minutes of the third quarter, then the first 11:11 of the fourth.

"I don't know why I didn't play more in the second half," said Elliott, who had 12 of his 14 points in the first half. "You have games like that. For me, this was one of them. He (Lucas) went with someone else, and he must have been comfortable with what they were doing."

Lucas said, "He had a couple of turnovers, and I wanted to take a look at a couple of other guys."

-- Sonic forward Sam Perkins played only three minutes in the second half because he pulled a leg muscle while sliding on moisture on the court.

-- The Sonics' 18 steals were their fourth-highest total this season. They had 20 and a franchise-record 23 against Sacramento, as well as 22 in a game against the Clippers. Gary Payton had four steals. The Sonics are 13-3 (.813) when he has four or more steals in a game and 22-5 (.815) when he has three or more.