We were the seventh seed in the 1987 Western Conference finals going up against the second-seeded Dallas Mavericks. On paper, people looked at it and said, “Forget it. The Seattle SuperSonics don’t have a prayer of winning.”
But you know as a basketball player that at any time, anything can happen.
In high school, my team had one of the best records in the state. Three guys on that team went on to play Division I college basketball, and we lost in the second round of the state playoffs.
So as a player, you learn that anyone can beat you on any given night. You have to match intensity with intensity.
After the first game of that series, it looked like everyone was right. Man, the Mavericks came out and whipped us. They scored 151 points, and it wasn’t even an overtime game. They just lit us up.
The Mavericks had a great team. It seemed like we always had trouble beating them.
They had Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Sam Perkins, James Donaldson, Mark Aguirre, Brad Davis, Detlef Schrempf, and Roy Tarpley — those guys had a great team.
And in the first game, they came out on a mission. If anyone remembers Reunion Arena, it used to get loud as hell in there back then.
That really worked in Dallas’ favor and kind of caught us off-guard.
We had a young team for the most part, and a young team might not know how to handle a situation like that. I was in my second year.
It was Nate McMillan’s second year in the league. Dale Ellis was a relatively young guy. But we had some vets, too, including Alton Lister, Tom Chambers, Clemon Johnson, and Maurice Lucas.
When people ask me what kind of team we had, I say we were high-scoring. Myself, Chambers and Ellis each averaged more than 23 points a game.
I always get asked about how the game has changed. When I came into the league, players were getting bigger and stronger, but nothing ever changes about the game.
The game is the thing. A 94-foot court. A 10-foot basket. Players have to adjust to the game more, rather than expecting the game to adjust to them. And all these rule changes: You can’t do this, you can’t do that. The things they call today, I wouldn’t be able to score 27 points per game backing down and using my fadeaway jump shot on them.
The rule changes have changed so much. They’re a hindrance to players.
In the playoffs, it’s a different game, a game of matchups. You have to make adjustments throughout. If you don’t make adjustments, it’s going to be tough to win. Some teams don’t like to do it, but you have to. No game is ever over. No series is over if you make the right adjustments.
Before Game 2, we decided we were going to make a switch.
I had guarded Perkins in the first game and Chambers had guarded Aguirre. The problem was, Chambers was supposed to come on the double on Aguirre and he wouldn’t get down on the double there quick enough. So what we did was switch and put me on Perkins; that way I would come down on the double a lot quicker.
I’m more of anticipator, anyhow, in those situations, and I could double down on Aguirre faster. We basically took Aguirre out of the game with our trapping.
The second game of that series was a lot closer. We kept our heads and didn’t let the crowd get to us. I ended up playing the point for a period and a half.
Harper was pressuring McMillan, so I’d take the ball and bring it up against Aguirre and force him to play some defense, force him to play 94 feet That’s what you have to do against a guy who can score like Aguirre.
He had a thousand moves on offense, but when you forced him to play defense and double-teamed him effectively, you took him out of the game.
With Aguirre neutralized, it was a different story. Things were a lot more even.
We hung in there, we kept our heads and didn’t let that loud crowd get to us. Our defense was a lot better, and we made some key shots and kept it close.
We got a huge performance from Johnson. Lister was out with a foot injury, so we needed Clemon to give us something. He came off the bench and got a lot of minutes. He had 20 points and was all over the boards. He was just everywhere that night.
Ellis hit some key free throws down the stretch, and we ended up winning by two points.
That really shifted the whole momentum of the series.
The Mavericks were the better team, but we believed we could beat them. After winning Game 2 — the game I’ll never forget — we proved it. We went on to stun everyone and win the series.
We didn’t stop there, either. We got on a roll and beat the Houston Rockets in the series after that.
Like I said, anything can happen.