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Payton Steps Up Play to Lead SuperSonics to Division Title

From Associated Press

With the Pacific Division crown on the line on the last day of the regular season, Gary Payton simply wouldn’t let the Seattle SuperSonics lose.

“That’s what it was,” he said. “A lot of the guys on the bench were telling me to step up, that I’m the leader of the team. And I knew I had to do that.”

Payton scored 22 of his 27 points in the second half Sunday, including a key three-point play with 59.1 seconds to play, to lift the SuperSonics to a 90-82 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers at Portland, Ore. The win gave Seattle its third consecutive division title and fourth in the last five years.

“I’ve won so many of them now that it doesn’t make that much difference to me,” Payton said. “I’m just happy for the young guys. Now they’ve got to understand that it’s over with. We won it. Let’s get ready to play basketball because all of that can go down the drain if we lose in the first round.”

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The SuperSonics tied with the Lakers for the division title because both had 61-21 records, but Seattle is seeded No. 2 in the West because it won the season series with the Lakers, 3-1.

New Jersey 114, Detroit 101--The Nets, dispirited and literally down to their last legs at East Rutherford, N.J., summoned enough strength to make the playoffs for the first time in four years.

The Nets, despite going into their biggest game of the season without their two best players, claimed the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

It was the Nets’ fourth chance of the week to clinch a postseason berth, and they finally did it on their last try with an inspired effort from Kendall Gill, who scored 27 points, rookie Keith Van Horn had 25 and Kerry Kittles added 22.

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Phoenix 120, Houston 93--Cliff Robinson scored 32 points at Houston in Clyde Drexler’s final regular-season game.

The fourth-seeded Suns finished the regular season 56-26 and will get the home-court advantage against the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. The Suns won the season series with San Antonio, 3-1.

Drexler, who will retire at the end of the season to coach at the University of Houston, had 11 points and nine rebounds. But he failed to make a three-point basket that would have tied the club record of 23 consecutive games with at least one.

Atlanta 101, Miami 89--Steve Smith scored 30 points to lead the Hawks to victory at Atlanta but it wasn’t enough to give the Hawks a home-court edge in the first round of the playoffs.

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Atlanta’s 50th victory was offset by Charlotte’s victory over Orlando, meaning the Hawks will open the best-of-five first-round series Thursday night against the Hornets in North Carolina.

Miami, which won the Atlantic Division, will meet the Knicks in the first round.

Charlotte 89, Orlando 76--The Hornets earned home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs by bouncing back from one of their most lackluster defeats of the season at Charlotte.

Reserve guard B.J. Armstrong powered the decisive run in the second quarter and Glen Rice scored 17 of his 26 points in the second half.

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The Magic (41-41) finished without a winning record for the first time since 1992-93, when they also wound up with a .500 mark.

Anthony Mason had 10 points, 11 rebounds for the Hornets.

Philadelphia 107, Toronto 78--Allen Iverson’s 26 points led the 76ers to a season-ending victory at Toronto.

Philadelphia (31-51) improved on last season’s record by nine wins but again failed to qualify for the NBA playoffs.

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San Antonio 96, Denver 82--The Spurs completed the best single-season turnaround in NBA history, defeating the Nuggets at San Antonio for a 36-game improvement over last season.

The Spurs, who will open the playoffs Thursday night at Phoenix, eclipsed the previous record of a 35-game swing by the Spurs during the 1989-90 season. They won only 20 games in 1996-97 after a season-ending injury to David Robinson.

Denver ended the season with an 11-71 record, tying the second-worst since the NBA went to an 82-game schedule during in 1967-68 season.

Vancouver 112, Sacramento 108--Tony Massenburg had a career-high 34 points and the Grizzlies began overtime with a 6-0 run to defeat the Kings at Sacramento.

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Shareef Abdur-Rahim had four of his 23 points in overtime and the Grizzlies, who broke a four-game losing streak, held the Kings without a point for the opening 3:56 of the extra period.


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