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It’s No Choke as Seattle Wins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Updated forecast for the region: Reign.

The dry spell that had gripped the Seattle SuperSonics through much of the last three playoff runs, usually around the neck, gave way to showers of self adulation and celebration Sunday evening inside Key Arena, home to the Western Conference champions. At last.

Potential met reality with the 90-86 victory over the Utah Jazz in a Game 7 thriller before 19,072, earning the SuperSonics a 4-3 victory in the series and a meeting of another kind, with the Bulls in the NBA finals that begin Wednesday at Chicago.

“We’re here,” said Nate McMillan, Seattle’s clubhouse leader. “Nobody can say anything to us.”

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Added Detlef Schrempf: “When you look at how far we’ve come and the abuse we’ve taken, I wish this could have happened three years ago. But at the same time, this is nice because we came such a long way.”

All the way from their image as undisciplined, immature choke-artists, which didn’t come about by accident. In the playoffs alone, their failures had become the stuff of NBA legend, first the 1994 loss to the Nuggets, an implosion if there ever was one, and then the ’95 setback to the Lakers that cemented the reputation, both eliminations having come in the opening round to lower-seeded teams and with three consecutive defeats.

Then came 1996. The SuperSonics began by splitting at home against undermanned Sacramento, signaling another nosedive. But then they recovered and surged, winning the next two games for the series and following that with a 4-0 sweep of the Rockets, the two-time defending champions.

With two victories over the Jazz in the conference finals, their winning streak had reached eight, including four on the road. And after Utah snapped those runs in Game 3 at the Delta Center, Seattle came right back with a victory that provided a 3-1 margin, a lead only five teams in league history had blown.

This being the SuperSonics, they did their best to make it six. They became tentative in the clutch and lost at home Tuesday in overtime. They got trounced by 35 points Thursday in Salt Lake City.

Come the fourth quarter of Game 7, they had a seven-point lead with 7 1/2 minutes remaining . . . and pretty much lost it. The train was heading off the cliff again.

When John Stockton--playing his best game of the series by far with 22 points, seven assists and a team-high eight rebounds--rattled in a five-foot jump shot in the lane with a second left on the shot clock, the Jazz had closed within 85-84 with 1:49 remaining. Shawn Kemp made two free throws on the ensuing possession, but Utah responded again with Karl Malone’s layup, keeping it a one-point game.

“The gods were not going to let this not be a close game,” Seattle Coach George Karl said.

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The SuperSonics went back to Kemp, but only as the third option after Gary Payton and Detlef Schrempf. Defended by Greg Foster, who had gone from scrub to key reserve the last few games, Kemp got the ball deep after powering his way to great position. Foster put his arms straight up.

When Kemp went to shoot, his arms bumped with Foster’s chest. At the line with 13.9 seconds left, Kemp made two more, putting him at 10 for 11 for the game.

Down by three, the Jazz used its last timeout, then got the ball to Karl Malone. He traveled, but got away with it, and moments later was fouled by Kemp. The two free throws that could have made it a one-point game came with 8.2 seconds remaining.

The first hit the heel of the rim.

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The second hit the heel of the rim.

There went Utah’s chances. The defensive rebound was tipped to Hersey Hawkins, who was fouled immediately and made one from the line with 7.3 seconds to go for the final four-point margin.

There went Seattle’s past.

“When you struggle and then you reach that final moment, it makes it better,” Kemp said after getting 26 points and 14 rebounds, both game highs. “It’s sweeter to me now that we’ve made it after we went through so much the last couple years by losing and struggling and being criticized so much. We’ve overcome a lot, not just in one day, but trade talks, all kind of rumors.”

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Said reserve swingman Vincent Askew: “It’s a great feeling. We brought a lot of it on ourselves. We took a lot of flack because we had lost in the first round. But now it feels great.”

Just like they always knew it would.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

NBA Finals

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CHICAGO BULLS vs. SEATTLE SUPERSONICS

Wednesday--at Chicago, 6 p.m.

Friday--at Chicago, 6 p.m.

Sunday--at Seattle, 4:30 p.m.

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June 12--at Seattle, 6 p.m.

*June 14--at Seattle, 6 p.m.

*June 16--at Chicago, 4:30 p.m.

*June 19--at Chicago, 6 p.m.

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* if necessary

All times Pacific


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