One season wonders | 2005 Sonics
In 2005 Sonics showed us what they are really made of…
In the 1990s Seattle was one of the elite franchises which always posted great regular season records and then battled each other in the playoffs. The highest point for SuperSonics came in 1996 when they advanced to the NBA Finals where they eventually lost to the Chicago Bulls. The last season when they were title contenders was 1997-98 and since that they had become a mediocrity. There were no huge expectations in the fall of 2004 just before the start of the regular season. In 2003-04 Sonics posted a 37-45 record and their biggest additions in summer were Danny Fortson and Robert Swift so not a very promising situation. In their first game of the season on November 4, 2004 they got beat by the Clippers and the margin was 30 points…
What was the core of that 2004-2005 Sonics team?
Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were the leading scorers. Jerome James was their starting center, he led them in blocked shots although he saw little playing time. Reggie Evans was the best rebounder of the team and started at forward. Luke Ridnour started at point guard and he led the team in assists. Vladimir Radmanovic and Antonio Daniels were key players for the Sonics and they played more minutes than James and Evans. Danny Fortson, Ronald Murray (missed almost half a season), Damien Wilkins (missed more than half a season) and Nick Collison also contributed and played about 15 – 20 minutes every game. Then there was the reserve center Vitaly Potapenko who also saw some playing time and that’s about it.
At first sight – a good lineup but it lacks interior players in order to make some noise in the playoffs.
After they lost the opening game, Sonics just went nuts. They started to blow out teams. First, they defeated the mighty San Antonio Spurs by a margin of 19 points and then went on to crash Denver and Sacramento. The winning streak continued and they had won 8 out of their first 9 games. Ray Allen won the Player of the Week Award and Seattle continued to pile up wins. With shooters like Allen, Lewis and Radmanovic on their lineup, Sonics had become the best 3-point shooting team in the league. After 3 weeks played, Seattle climbed up to the top spot in nba.com power rankings.
Even though the Sonics were red hot, not everyone believed that they are for real but as they continued to play extremely well, haters started to shut up. The Texas road trip, during which they defeated both the Mavericks and the Spurs, converted many into believers. Seattle started the season with a 17-3 record but then cooled of a little bit and entered 2005 with 20 wins and 6 losses.
SuperSonics managed to defeat Shaq and the Miami Heat twice in the first 10 days of 2005. It was common that they beat the title contenders but lose to teams with subpar records – they had already lost twice to both Boston and LA Clippers. They were still one of the best teams in the league and in February Scottie Pippen picked them to come out of the Western Conference.
Long distance shooting was still the Sonics main weapon.
Ray Allen and coach Nate McMillan missed some games in February and there were some trade rumors swirling around Allen as well. There were people who thought Seattle should trade Ray Ray to make the Sonics better in future. However nothing like that happened and both Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen participated in the All-Star game. At this point it was about 99% clear that they will win the divison title.
As the regular season was getting older, Sonics remained the biggest surprise of the league. They didn’t break down as many expected but continued to win and they were 40-16 (3rd best record in the NBA) in early March. Both of Seattle’s scoring leaders really turned it on in March – Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen combined for seven 30-point games in that month. Jerome James was playing really good also and had the game of his life against Detroit (16 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 25 minutes). On 25th of March Ray dropped a season-high 40 points on the Knicks and 4 days later after a win over Memphis, Seattle finally clinched a playoff berth.
Then Seattle started to struggle. Their record worsened from 48-20 after the game against Knicks on March 25 to 52-30 at the end of the regular season as the SuperSonics won just 4 out of their last 13 games of the regular season including a 6-game losing streak. It’s certainly not a good sign to hit a slump just before the start of the playoffs but Seattle was ready for the first round of the playoffs in which it would face the Sacramento Kings.
For the Sonics the 2005 NBA Playoffs started on April 23 in Key Arena. Seattle was in front for all of the first and the second half. They even had a 21-point lead in the second half but in the end they won only by 5. It seemed that the game was over by the time Seattle was up big in the third quarter but instead it came down to the wire. However, win is still a win and the fact was that, by taking game 1, the Sonics had taken control of these first round series. 3 days later Sonics increased their lead by beating the Kings in the second game as well. The scenario was quite similar to that of the first game – Seattle once again blew a big lead towards the end of the game but this time Sacramento didn’t come as close as they did in the previous game. Ray Allen and Jerome James were undoubtedly the two best players in those two wins. Ray combined for 54 points while Jerome also scored at least 17 points (on great percentages) and grabbed at least 9 rebounds in each of the two games. He also had 5 blocks in the first game. Everyone on Seattle’s roster was contributing and they were going to the West coast with a commanding 2-0 series lead.
Ray (33-5-5) and Jerome (22-9) played extremely well once again but it wasn’t good enough to win as the Kings took game 3. Mike Bibby and Kenny Thomas both had huge performances and the Sonics lost this game by 12 points. So now game 4 had become even more important because there is a big difference between going back to Seattle tied at 2-2 and being up 3 games to 1. Sacramento was up early in game 4 but Seattle fought back with Ray Allen leading the way. Allen’s brilliant performance (45 points on 60% shooting) allowed the SuperSonics to take a 3-1 series lead.
Jerome James had another big game with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. Rashard also chipped in with 19 points and 8 rebounds. Still this game was all about Ray Allen as he was simply unstoppable. So Seattle needed just one more win to advance to the second round for the first time in many years. The mood was great as they returned home for a game 5 against the Kings. Sonics were leading for basically the whole first half but then Sacramento made a 19-3 run in the third quarter. However, after that the SuperSonics made a run of their own and the score was close late in the 4th quarter. Ultimately, a clutch layup by Ray Allen sealed the deal and the series were over.
So the Sonics had advanced to the second round and everyone was celebrating. Ray Allen carried most of the offensive load and the performance of Jerome James was the biggest surprise. By the way, he celebrated the win by waving around a garbage bag after the game what seemed kinda odd. Lewis and Ridnour had their ups and downs in these series but they also played quite solid. When San Antonio Spurs beat the Denver Nuggets in the first round, it became obvious that Seattle will have to face the Timothy Duncan squad in the second round. That’s scary!
If Kings were a respectable playoff opponent then Spurs were something else – a real powerhouse and also NBA champs as recently as 2003. Game 1 turned out the way that it was supposed to. Spurs went in front early and never looked back to win this game by 22 points. Even worse was that Radmanovic and Ray Allen both injured themselves. Suddenly it felt that all the hopes were gone not to mention that they were already little even before game 1.
However, at least Ray was back for game 2 and played quite well. Rashard Lewis and Antonio Daniels also had solid performances but once again San Antonio was just too much for the Sonics. Their big three (Parker, Duncan and Manu) combined for 75 points on 60% shooting. Radmanovic didn’t play and that hurt the team because he was one of the guys who was able to produce 20 or more points if his shot was falling. It was obvious that those Sonics weren’t playing to their full capability and they returned to the Northwest being down 2 games to zero.
Seattle couldn’t afford to lose three games in a row so they had to turn it on this time. Unfortunately their leaders weren’t able to carry the offensive load – Allen and Lewis both shot very poorly. Fortunately it was Seattle’s defense that allowed them to finally win a game against the Spurs. SuperSonics just outrebounded and outhustled the Spurs. This game was very close for almost all of the time and the final possession belonged to San Antonio but Tim Duncan missed his shot and Seattle luckily came away with a victory. Anyways, now they were back in the series but still it was crucial for them to win the next game too. The bad news: Rashard Lewis injured his toe late in the game.
Sonics made a nice little run early in game 4 and were leading for basically all of the first half. They were up 6 at halftime. It was the third quarter when Seattle, behind huge shots from Allen and Ridnour, extended their lead to 16 points. They closed it out in the 4th and the final result was 101-89. Great game for Allen (32 pts on 60% shooting), Ridnour (20 pts, 6 ast, 3 stl), Damien Wilkins (15 pts, 6 reb, 5 stl) and Antonio Daniels (19 pts, 7 ast). Seattle, even without their second and third leading scorers (Lewis and Radmanovic weren’t playing), was able to beat San Antonio pretty convincingly. Not many expected that the Sonics would be able to put up a good fight with the Spurs, especially when shorthanded, but they proved all the haters wrong and the series were now tied.
San Antonio started to show who are the favourites in game 5 by getting in front early but then the Sonics put together a very good second quarter and tied the game. Unfortunately for them, this game was all about Manu Ginobili as he played spectular – Manu collected 39 points and had a great all-around performance. No one stepped up for Seattle like that. Nick Collison provided a spark off the bench but that’s about it. Allen and Daniels both played decent but apparently not good enough. Also San Antonio took care of the ball very well – they made only 9 turnovers. Sonics lost by 13.
Rashard Lewis was in street clothes as game 6 tipped of. Seattle led after the 1st but then there was a lead change in the next quarter and San Antonio was leading after two quarters played. Then the Sonics got back up again and it came down to the last minute of the game. Antonio Daniels was having a great game and Ray Allen had scored 25 (just an average game for him) …Seattle knew that if they let San Antonio win, their season is over… The game was tied with 14 seconds left and it was Spurs ball. Ginobili made a nice pass to Tim Duncan who was open down low. Tim made the basket and SuperSonics were down two with just 0.5 seconds left. Then Ray shot a difficult turnaround 3-pointer and it almost went in…
This is how their season came to an end…
So how did Seattle manage to put together such a great year? 52 wins in the regular season, beating a respectable Kings team in just 5 games and giving the next NBA champions a good fight in 2nd round even without some of the key players.
Last time they had a winning record was in 2001-02. Only Lewis, Radmanovic and Jerome James remained on Seattle’s roster from then until the 2004-05 season. Sonics also never had a winning record after the 04-05 season. They didn’t even come close to 52 wins.
It is interesting that Ray Allen didn’t play his best in 2004-05. 23.9 points per game seems a lot but he averaged more points in 05-06 and 06-07 – in those seasons Seattle never won more that 35 games. Even more shocking is that he shot a career-low .428 percentage from the field. Also he has made 90% or more of his free throws every year from 2002 until now, except 2004-05 when his free throw rate was 88%.
However, 2004-05 was the breakout season for Rashard Lewis as he averaged more than 20 ppg for the first time in his career. On the other hand – Lewis played just as good or maybe even better in the next two years which he spent in Seattle.
The same here with Antonio Daniels! Yeah, it was the only season in which he scored more than 10 points a game (11.2) but scoring was the only area of his game which he improved. Radmanovic played slightly worse than he did the year before and this wasn’t the best season for Ridnour as well. Also Ronald Murray performed worse than he did in 2003-04 and in 2005-06. Even for Jerome James it wasn’t really a breakout season if we don’t count the playoffs.
So why did this miracle season occur? I would say – defense, hustle and heart. Also rebounding, good free throw shooting and taking care of the ball. And maybe some luck as well.
The 2004-05 season was the lone bright spot in the last few years of the existence of SuperSonics franchise. In 2008 they were moved south and transformed into the Oklahoma City Thunder. The fact that the Sonics franchise doesn’t exist anymore makes me want to end this story on a sad note.
I found this qoute on The Seattle Times
Ray Allen’s layin sealed Seattle’s playoff series victory over Sacramento in 2005.
It was Jerome James’ backhanded shot at the Sacramento Kings in 2005, however, that remains my most memorable moment in my three years covering the team as a beat writer.
James paraded around the court wearing a black trash bag around his neck as if it were a cape, a nod to the tale he told of stuffing the contents of his locker into a garbage sack after the Kings cut him in 1999.
It was an absurd celebration that marked the high point of an absurdly improbable season. No one saw this coming in the 2004-05 season. Not the 52 regular-season victories. Not the division championship. And most certainly not the 17.2 points and 9.4 rebounds James averaged in five games of Seattle’s first-round playoff series victory.
The year began with coach Nate McMillan, Ray Allen and at least five more players in the final year of their contracts and when the Sonics were blown out by the Clippers by 30 points in the first game of the season, the question was how long until the team came apart.
Instead, the Sonics came together. They won the next nine in a row and after each game gathered at center court in a huddle that became the signature for the bond they shared. The first-round victory over Sacramento remains the team’s only playoff series victory in the past 10 seasons.
Now, Allen has won a championship with the Celtics and McMillan is coaching a burgeoning powerhouse in Portland. Even James punched his ticket, getting more than $30 million from the New York Knicks.
Three years later, the Sonics are on their third different coach since then and headed out of town. Maybe James’ plastic trash bag is still lying somewhere at KeyArena to help pack up.
Danny O’Neil, Seattle Times staff reporter