The Seattle SuperSonics, led by their two young All-Stars, are going to the NBA Finals instead of the Utah Jazz and their two future Hall of Famers.
The Sonics, behind Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, won Game 7 of the Western Conference finals 90-86 Sunday, advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1979 and erasing a legacy of playoff failure."I've never doubted this basketball team," Seattle coach George Karl said.
Seattle will meet the Chicago Bulls in the finals beginning Wednesday night, while Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Jazz finished one step from the championship round for the third time in five years.
Utah was seeking to become the sixth team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit, but the Jazz ended up getting beaten at their own game. The Sonics did not score a single fastbreak point, but they shot 54 percent in the halfcourt offense and got four clutch free throws from Kemp in the final 77 seconds.
Malone, plagued by foul shooting problems throughout the postseason, missed a pair with 8.2 seconds left that could have pulled Utah within one. Hersey Hawkins was fouled on the rebound, made one throw and the outcome was sealed.
"We won like men, we lose like men," Malone said. "We played hard but didn't get it done."
Kemp had 26 points and 14 rebounds and Payton scored 22. The efforts of those two helped nullify the 22 points scored by both Stockton and Malone and sent the Sonics to Chicago as the only thing standing in the Bulls' way of completing an unprecedented season.
It will be Seattle's first appearance in the NBA Finals since Jack Sikma, Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams led the Sonics to their only title in 1979.
And the victory in the deciding game should end the Sonics' reputation as a choke team come the playoffs. Seattle, knocked out in the first round the past two years, was hearing the put-down once again after losing Game 5 at home and getting blown out in Salt Lake City in Game 6.
But playing on their home court in Game 7, they pulled away in the third quarter, overcame a four-minute scoreless spell late in the fourth quarter and sealed it from the foul line - the easiest place in the NBA from which a player can choke.
A 7-0 run brought Utah within 85-84. Kemp then drew Antoine Carr's sixth foul on an isolation play in the lane, and he sank both free throws for an 87-84 lead.
Malone scored on a reverse layup with 32.2 second left, and Kemp was fouled in the lane again with 13.9 seconds left, this time by Greg Foster.
Kemp, who shot 69 percent from the field in the series, including 8-of-12 Sunday, sank another pair to restore a three-point lead.
"I knew he'd knock 'em down, and that's why he's Shawn Kemp," Payton said.
Just five seconds later, it was Malone's pressure moment from the line.
With a sellout crowd of 17,072 roaring, Malone bricked the first one off the front rim. After a timeout, he missed yet again - his sixth miss from the line in 12 attempts and his 25th miss of the series.
Seconds later, the Sonics were raising their arms and hugging each other as the buzzer sounded.
The momentum swung Seattle's way midway through the third quarter after Payton had missed his last four shots. He broke the streak with a putback for a 64-57 lead and drilled a jumper from the corner while guarded by both Stockton and Malone.
Hawkins then hit a 3-pointer after Stockton and Malone missed driving layup attempts on consecutive possessions, capping a 13-3 run for a 71-60 lead.
Seattle's lead stayed between five and eight points in the fourth quarter until Stockton drove around Payton for a layup with 5:11 left, making it 80-77. The Sonics answered with a pair of free throws by Kemp and a 3-pointer by Detlef Schrempf with 5:28 left to increase their lead to 85-77.
Suddenly, their scoring stopped.
Malone, Carr and Stockton scored from inside and Stockton hit an illegal defense free throw to cut the lead to one, but Utah was never able to take the lead for what would have been just the second time in the second half.
With the resilient Jazz out of the way, the SuperSonics can turn their attention to the Bulls, who set a record with 72 wins this season and are thoroughly rested, having not played since May 27.
"My nightmare's just beginning," Karl said. Notes: Game 2 of the Finals is Friday, and the series returns to Seattle next Sunday for Game 3. Game 4 is Wednesday, Game 5 Friday, Game 6 the following Sunday and Game 7 the following Wednesday. ... Schrempf scored 15 points and Hawkins scored 14, each making two of Seattle's seven 3-pointers. ... Bryon Russell had 13 points for Utah and Jeff Hornacek was held to 10 - 12 below his series average. ... In Karl and Chicago's Phil Jackson, the NBA Finals will feature two former CBA coaches.