Of course they peeked.
Wouldn't you if you had just defeated Miami and Cleveland and redeemed a 30-point loss to the lowly Los Angeles Clippers?
So the Sonics, everybody's underdog when the season started, tore a small corner off the wrapping for their postseason surprise, restlessly wondering what could be inside. After some allowed themselves to dream of home-court advantages, top seeds and maybe an in-your-face slam for all those doubters out there, they sort of bopped into Tuesday's game against Denver.
And got smacked themselves.
"It kind of slowed us down a little," forward Danny Fortson said of the 116-110 overtime loss.
Fortson said the early thoughts about the playoffs could have played a part.
"It's one of the first things I said when we were in the locker room," he said. "Our mental focus of the game was more relaxed. We were bitten in the butt for doing that." Still, the facts are there. If the Sonics can defeat the slumping Minnesota Timberwolves at KeyArena tonight, they'll have a 9½-game lead in the Northwest Division. Under the NBA's new playoff system, the top team from each of the three divisions in both conferences receives an automatic berth. Those top three teams are then ranked by record and given home-court advantage in the first round. The best record receives home-court advantage in the remaining rounds.
If the season ended today, Philadelphia (18-20) would be a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs while Detroit (23-15, tied for the Central Division lead but losing out to Cleveland on a tiebreaker) would be slotted fourth. And if the season were to end today, the Sonics (27-10) would be the No. 3 seed in the West and host the No. 6 Lakers (21-16) in the first round.
Crazy, isn't it?
"We haven't been here in a long time," Sonics coach Nate McMillan said.
The last time the Sonics were a contender, dot-coms were booming, flannel was acceptable, and McMillan was in uniform. The Sonics have missed the playoffs in four of the past six seasons. But Seattle joins Phoenix, Orlando and Cleveland as leading newcomers to the postseason party after spending last season below .500. Orlando brought up the NBA's rear with a 21-61 record.
Now, the Suns (31-9) lead their division, the Cavaliers are tied with the Pistons on top of theirs and the Magic (21-17) would be a six seed in the East.
The oddity will be magnified tonight if the Timberwolves continue their funk. Last season they were two games from reaching the NBA Finals, finishing with a franchise-best 58-24 record during the regular season. Now, they're 19-19 and out of the playoff picture — if it ended today.
It's a scenario none of the Sonics expected when the league changed to a six-division lineup.
"It looked tough," guard Ray Allen said. "With Utah getting (Carlos) Boozer, Denver and Kenyon Martin, Minnesota coming back and who knew about Portland, we were sitting at the bottom. But that's just on paper."
Instead of the Northwest Division being one of the toughest, it's actually the weakest, aside from the Atlantic Division. The Sonics would be the division's only representative in the playoffs.
"I'm excited the table is reversed a little," Allen said. "(But) we're still learning what it means to be at the top. We've been on teams separately that have been at the top, but we're still learning what it means collectively."
And it's still January. The All-Star break hasn't hit, so things can change.
The Denver loss was one of the worst games the Sonics played this season, turning the ball over 16 times while forcing only six turnovers, and it could be the turning point to the season.
Meanwhile, Minnesota, which is 3-7 in its past 10 games, remains loaded with talent and is one trade from turning its season around.
"In my opinion, nothing has really changed," McMillan said. "I told the team we're still not in the position to be talking. We gotta play ball. You got two months to go. Try to get to the break; don't start that break too early."
I have to admit, it has been a great season so far, but in our last couple of games, we have been slacking quite a bit. Lets flare our season back up Sonics!