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They’re Masters of the Obvious, and What Else?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“I think Michael Jordan is a big part of their offense.”

--SuperSonic guard Gary Payton, on the Bulls.

There, now that that’s settled.

Obviously having read the scouting report, the Seattle SuperSonics tackle the task of stopping him, and them. It may have to come to that--tackling.

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The SuperSonics shouldn’t waste time, either, seeing as they may have only four chances. They had better start tonight, when the NBA finals open at the United Center with the Bulls as huge favorites by oddsmakers, and most everyone else, even though the teams split two regular-season games.

As if stopping the Bulls isn’t daunting enough, Seattle also has to worry about making a few baskets. Pretty much at the same time.

“In a lot of ways, my nightmare begins with Chicago because they’re a great basketball team,” SuperSonic Coach George Karl said Tuesday. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity to play a team that won 72 games, but I guess the team that should play them is the team that won 64.”

Now to see how they will play them.

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The Glove or the Barehand?

Karl announced that Payton, the NBA’s defensive player of the year, the man known as “the Glove” because his aggressive nature while guarding opponents practically makes him part of their attire, won’t be matched up with Jordan. Hersey Hawkins will.

Preferring to keep Payton out of potential foul trouble, Karl will start him on shooting guard Ron Harper, no easy matchup in itself, since Harper has quickness and a two-inch height advantage and is a good offensive rebounder. Even if Harper doesn’t get many boards, Payton will have to stay with him, delaying his own release downcourt to lead Seattle’s hoped-for transition game.

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But no one is sure this is a permanent assignment. When the SuperSonics beat the Bulls in November, 97-92, Karl moved Payton onto Jordan when it mattered, in the fourth quarter of a close game. Payton then turned in a key play with Seattle clinging to a 94-92 lead, stripping Jordan of the ball as he was about to head to the basket.

“You can’t stop him,” said Hawkins, who also faced Jordan twice in the playoffs when he was with the Philadelphia 76ers and once when he was with the Charlotte Hornets. “I’m just going to do the same things I’ve done in the past, and that is to make him work hard for everything he gets.”

Like the trophy as MVP of the finals?

Why it will work: A simple theory. Concede Jordan his points and focus the defense on the other Bulls. The one advantage the SuperSonics have here is depth. Besides the starters, they could throw three reserves who can all defend--Vincent Askew, David Wingate and Nate McMillan--at Jordan in an attempt to wear him down. McMillan, however, may miss Game 1 because of continuing back problems.

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Why it won’t work: Utah’s Jeff Hornacek torched Hawkins in the Western Conference finals. Hornacek is a good player, but Jordan is the best--stronger, faster and just as dangerous from the outside.

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Group Hug

Karl, having decided against going with McMillan’s suggestion of a 1-3-1 zone, perhaps because it’s against the rules, predicts a return to form.

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“We’re going to go back to playing like we like to play, and that’s double-teaming,” he said. “In the Utah series, we didn’t double-team much. I think we’ve got to get back to playing more Sonic basketball, so I think we’re going to be trapping them a lot.”

It’s their staple. It’s also what makes them so difficult to play, this team of big-time athletes that uses rotations, traps and switches in smooth order and turns opponents into a scrambled mess.

“They take you out of the things you’re accustomed to doing,” Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan said.

So who guards Jordan? Who gets Pippen?

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Everyone.

Why it will work: Because it has twice already. In the first regular-season meeting, the Bulls got only 74 shots, 10 below their average, although part of that was the absence of Dennis Rodman and his offensive rebounding. But the SuperSonics also generated 21 points off Chicago turnovers. In the second game, the Bulls won by 26, but still committed 23 turnovers that became 25 Seattle points.

Why it won’t work: The Bulls have far too many capable ballhandlers--Jordan, Pippen, Toni Kukoc at 6-feet-10, Luc Longley at center, even Rodman--to get shut down over an extended period by a defense built to cause confusion.

It’s as Seattle’s Detlef Schrempf said: “They’re a different team. They don’t really have a point guard. Pippen brings the ball up most of the time. It’s not like you have a [John] Stockton that runs the offense. They run the triple-post offense, everybody’s moving, everybody gets involved. You can’t trap over there and try and get the ball out of his hands. This is a different team, so we have to make some adjustments.”

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No Small Forwards Here

Pippen is 6-7, but is averaging 8.7 rebounds in the playoffs and had 9.5 in the regular season against the SuperSonics. But Schrempf, who missed one of those games because of injury, is 6-10 and moves well.

If Schrempf can deny Pippen the ball, the SuperSonics will make up ground.

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“If we can neutralize him a little bit and put all the load on Michael, I think we have a good chance,” Payton said.

Why it will work: Schrempf has the size and agility to stay close. He is also enough of an offensive weapon that Pippen will be forced to expend some energy on the other end of the court.

Why it won’t work: Same reason. Schrempf will be run into the ground trying to defend Pippen, greatly reducing his impact on offense. Schrempf has been playing guys like Chris Morris, Bryon Russell, Robert Horry, Walt Williams and Billy Owens in the playoffs. None of them is even an all-star. Now he gets the best at the position.

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Meanwhile, Back on Offense . . .

The SuperSonics can do more with the ball than run. Kemp is a dangerous post threat, especially if the Bulls decide to play him straight up with Rodman, about two inches shorter and known to sell out on defensive rotations to concentrate on rebounds. Others from the front line--Schrempf, McMillan, Sam Perkins--are comfortable in three-point territory.

That can stretch a defense, even a good one. Seattle didn’t stumble into 104.5 points a game during the season, after all. Its 48% three-point shooting was tied for third-best in the league, behind only Utah and Washington.

Why it will work: If Rodman loses his cool or gets in foul trouble, the Bulls are in their own trouble. Next thing you know, it’s Kukoc or Bill Wennington on Kemp. And when Rodman gets suspended for three games . . .

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Why it won’t work: Jordan, Pippen and Rodman were all voted first-team all-defense by the league’s coaches. As in, three of the five first-teamers came from the same team. Besides, the SuperSonics don’t need anyone’s help to run into the center divider. They averaged 17.6 turnovers during the regular season, tied for second in the NBA behind only expansion Toronto. In the playoffs, when every possession holds great importance, they’re at a shocking 18.1.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

NBA FINALS

Chicago Bulls vs. Seattle SuperSonics

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Tonight’s Game

* Time: 6 p.m.

* TV: Channel 4

* Radio: KLAC (570), XTRA (690)

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* NO RESPECT

The Seattle SuperSonics, who thought Sunday’s inspirational victory meant something, have discovered they are being taken as seriously as the Washington Generals on a Globetrotter tour. C5

REMAINDER OF SCHEDULE

Game 2--Friday at Chicago, 6 p.m.

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Game 3--Sunday at Seattle, 4:30 p.m.

Game 4--June 12 at Seattle, 6 p.m.

*Game 5--June 14 at Seattle, 6 p.m.

*Game 6--June 16 at Chicago, 4:30 p.m.

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*Game 7--June 19 at Chicago, 6 p.m.

* if necessary; All times Pacific


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