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Originally published April 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 16, 2005 at 12:18 AM

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Sonics win first Northwest Division title

At long last, something to celebrate. After a two-week wait in which they lost six straight games, the Sonics secured the Northwest Division...

Seattle Times staff reporter

At long last, a chance to celebrate.

After a two-week wait in which they lost six straight games, the Sonics secured the Northwest Division last night on their seventh attempt and ended a season-high losing streak in their final home game of the regular season.

In beating the New Orleans Hornets 97-72, the Sonics won their sixth division title and their first since 1998, when they ended a run of three consecutive Pacific Division crowns.

The postgame celebration included players tossing their sneakers into the stands, the unfurling of a championship banner, many of the sold-out crowd of 17,072 dancing in the aisles long after play ended and the ceremonial dumping of Gatorade on the coach.

"It's a great feeling, it really is," said Nate McMillan, still drenched during his postgame interview and sporting a championship cap. "I talked about how we wanted to do this to this coaching staff, and we knew exactly what we wanted to do and we did it and it worked. These guys made it happen.

"For me, it's right there. I thought the run for the title [in 1996] was great. To beat Utah [to reach the NBA Finals], I don't know if it can rank higher than that. But my first coaching division championship, the way it happened, the players and the staff, it's great."

Who will the Sonics play?

If the playoffs began today Seattle, the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, would play the No. 6 seed, either Houston or Denver. Another possibility is Sacramento, which holds the No. 5 seed but is only a game ahead of the Rockets and Nuggets.

Unlike the other division titles, this one will be remembered as the least expected, by a Sonics team that had been picked to finish among the worst in the Western Conference.

"It's like a high, a rush. I can understand why MJ [Michael Jordan] and [Scottie] Pippen worked so hard after they won their first one," said Jerome James, who was flanked by sons Mason, 2, and Dallas, 4. "This is so sweet. You wait all of your life as a professional athlete to accomplish something like this.

"It's what all the sweat and tears, all of the hard work, the pain pills, surgeries and ice and film and all of that crap and fussing and cussing and fighting and pulling and everything combined — it's worth it all today. To see my teammates and to be in this room of brothers and to enjoy each other on this level. The camaraderie, the love, the passion. It's like church."

Expectations began to rise for a team that finished 37-45 last season after their 17-3 start, and Seattle began anticipating winning the division around the All-Star break when it was 35-15.

Two weeks ago, the Sonics held a 9 ½-game lead over Denver, but the Nuggets strung together victories and threatened to steal the crown if they kept winning and the Sonics kept losing.


The Sonics' Antonio Daniels, right, fires a pass around David West of the Hornets in the fourth quarter.

"This is how we wanted to do it," McMillan said. "We wanted to earn this division and not get caught up with what Denver and the rest of these teams were doing.

"They came out tonight and were professional. They played the game the right way and earned this Northwest Division title."

Denver (48-31) has not lost in its last 10 games, but the Sonics (51-28) no longer have to worry about the Nuggets. Now they must focus on winning one of their remaining three games to ensure home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

Seattle travels to Minnesota today and will play the Timberwolves tomorrow and at Dallas on Tuesday before finishing the regular season at Houston.

"We were always the underdogs and we're still the underdogs," Antonio Daniels said. "Everybody wants to play us in the playoffs. Well you know, let them keep saying that."

Last night's celebration began with roughly four minutes remaining, but the Sonics seized control of the game in the second quarter. They led 25-23 after the first, then used a 25-9 run to build a 50-32 lead and were never seriously threatened again.

"I wasn't going to let this game slip," said Ray Allen, who led all scorers with 32 points on 12-for-19 shooting. "I was going to do what I had to do to make sure we succeeded. We questioned things that we did in a lot of our losses."

Daniels added 13 points for the Sonics, and Luke Ridnour and Ronald Murray each had 10.

The Hornets (18-61) were the perfect opponent for the Sonics — they had just nine healthy players, had lost five in a row and were drubbed by Seattle in 17- and 18-point defeats earlier this season.

Lacking depth and desire, the Hornets had just one player score more than 11 points — forward Lee Nailon, who led New Orleans with 15.

"After we won the game, seeing that banner hanging up in the arena feels like we accomplished something," said Rashard Lewis, the longest-tenured Sonic, who has endured five non-playoff seasons in his seven-year career. "Like we gave something back to Seattle. They finally got a good basketball team that they can watch and they can enjoy."

Before last night's game, Allen huddled with Lewis and reminisced on the season.

"We were saying how being an All-Star doesn't mean anything," Allen said. "It's so individual and you really can't celebrate. But when you win a division, or conference or a championship, it's ... words can't describe.

"You forget about those two-a-days in training camp. You forget all of those times you didn't want to practice, and it's all worth it in the end."

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