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BY THE TIME Seattle's Shawn Kemp had taken his first lob pass in for a slam, and by the time Chicago's Michael Jordan had thrown his second pass out of bounds and clanged his third shot off the rim, the Sonics could tell they were onto something. They had discovered what escaped them in three previous games in the NBA Finals: they were supposed to be having fun.

After being roughed up by the Bulls in the first three games, they finally came out Wednesday night with nothing to lose. Until then, the series had been as enjoyable as an audit. All things considered, they'd rather have been in Philadelphia. In particular, they'd rather have been playing Philadelphia.So even though the Bulls cut a 23-point lead down to 13 in the third quarter, that was as close as they would get. The Sonics were on their way to a 107-86 win. They hadn't won a championship, but they did avoid a sweep - which, considering the circumstances, was a major accomplishment.

"I just want to win, get it over with and go on vacation," groused Chicago's Dennis Rodman.

Someone should have told the Sonics a long time ago they needed to get loose. For the first time in the series they were free-wheeling, lampshade-wearing loose. They spent the better part of the night acting like college kids on spring break: Nate McMillan landing a three, Kemp spinning and dunking over Dennis Rodman, Gary Payton sliding inside for a score. They'd already been written off in the press, excused on the air, forgiven by their fans. The question of winning the series was already as old as Strom Thurmond. Now it was a question of salvaging pride.

So on what was supposed to be their last day of class before summer, the Sonics finally won.

If the Sonics were feeling no pressure going into Game 4, it stood to reason. Talk of a sweep began before the series even started and picked up momentum as it went. Chicago writers advised the Sonics on how to lose gracefully before the second game had even been played. The Seattle theme "In to Win" was quickly changing to "Maybe We Can Just Get One."

"When everyone has already counted you out, it's a lot easier to play loose and have fun," said Seattle guard Hersey Hawkins.

Robbed of any drama in the series, the Seattle area papers devoted serious space to non-basketball coverage, such as where Dennis Rodman was going (to film an MTV video project and to Wild Ginger, an ultra-hip nightclub), and with whom (supermodel Cindy Crawford, Pearl Jam). They detailed how Rodman tore off his jersey after Game 3 and tossed it to Crawford, and even interviewed her on how it smelled ("It wasn't as smelly as one would think. It had a little bit of funk - good funk.).

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer employed a handwriting expert to analyze the Sonics' signatures (Shawn Kemp: lively and fun; Gary Payton: fast thinker; Detlef Schrempf: complicated; Frank Brickowski: convoluted; George Karl: strong and smart). Predictably, the handwriting expert, a Seattle native, didn't look at anyone's signature and scream "He's bad under pressure!" or "He's given to choking!"

On Wednesday the Seattle Times checked in with a column urging the Sonics to make changes over the summer.

All that was left to cover was whether the Sonics would fold up like a tripod and go home. But once the game began, the fog cleared. The Sonics served notice early they weren't interested in becoming a footnote in the Bulls' record book just yet. They came out loose and easy and trouble-free. They finally figured out that they couldn't do worse than lose.

"One thing I said when I came here four years ago is `I'd rather see you guys play crazy.' That's what I told them tonight: I'd rather see you guys play crazy and out of control than the way you were playing," said Sonics' coach George Karl.

In the second half the Sonics obliged. Kemp spun past Rodman and threw in a dramatic over-the-head dunk. McMillan, whose back injury has severely slowed him in previous games, landed a three, much to the delight of the crowd. Though the Bulls got a 23-point lead down to 13, they never got closer. It was clear the series wouldn't end in four. The Bulls were actually going to have to get serious one more time.

In reality, Wednesday's game isn't likely to change much. The Bulls are still the best in basketball and still on track to win their fourth world title. No team in history has come back from a 3-0 deficit, and Seattle isn't going to be the first. Still, while the Bulls were busy proving they are the best team in history, and trying to break records as they went, the Sonics proved something too: there's a big difference between not having a chance and not having a heart. And if ever in doubt, it's always best to get crazy.