Originally created 02/15/99

Unbeaten SuperSonics to face major tests this week



SEATTLE -- This is the week the Seattle SuperSonics will find out how good they are.

Winning their first five games against Portland, Dallas, Denver and Golden State (twice) is nice. But victories against Utah and the Los Angeles Lakers would mean a lot more.

"We have a lot of games coming up that figure to be tough," new coach Paul Westphal said. "We hope to win them all but we can't expect to win them all."

Led by All-Star point guard Gary Payton, the Sonics are off to their best start since the 1993-94 season, when they won their first 10 under George Karl.

In Saturday night's 105-92 home win over Denver, Payton scored 28 points, had a season-high 16 assists and grabbed nine rebounds. He abandoned his jump shot, driving into the teeth of the Nuggets' defense and attempting 20 free throws.

"Gary is playing as well or better than anybody in the NBA," Westphal said. "He makes a lot of big plays offensively and defensively -- and when we need them."

The Sonics have come out strong after the long NBA lockout and Karl's firing. The popular coach was dismissed after Seattle followed a 61-victory regular season with a dismal showing in the playoffs against the Lakers.

Team president Wally Walker also didn't bring back Sam Perkins, Greg Anthony and Jerome Kersey, all Karl favorites.

And, admitting a blunder, he gave up on center Jim McIlvaine and traded him to New Jersey. Then he signed free agents Olden Polynice and Billy Owens, who played at Sacramento last season.

Owens started the first four games at Hersey Hawkins' old spot at shooting guard before going on the injured list with a broken left little finger.

Starting with Payton, Polynice, Vin Baker and Detlef Schrempf against Dallas was Rashard Lewis, 19. Lewis didn't remind anybody of Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' young star, but he scored eight points and had five rebounds in 15 minutes.

The Sonics were growing old under Karl. They're going to get younger under Westphal, who also has plans to use 7-foot rookie Vladimir Stepania this season.

Payton is looking forward to this week, when the Sonics are at home Tuesday night against Utah and Wednesday night against Sacramento before traveling to Salt Lake City to face the Jazz on Saturday. Seattle is back home against the Lakers next Sunday.

"It's way too early," Payton said when asked to evaluate his team. "We just need to keep winning and beat someone other than teams trying to rebuild."

Five games into the season, Baker still doesn't look like an All-Star forward and hasn't made a free throw, while Schrempf, 36, is starting to show his age.

But Polynice is rebounding and playing solid defense, two things McIlvaine didn't do for the Sonics. And Hawkins and Dale Ellis, 38, give Westphal scoring punch off the bench.

Hawkins broke out of a shooting slump with 20 points against Dallas and Ellis added 17. Combined, they were 9 of 10 from 3-point range.

"Being able to have these two is quite a luxury," Westphal said. "Most teams would like to have just one of them."