SuperSonics 101, Cavaliers 96

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SEATTLE (AP)—Bob Hill doesn’t like to play a zone defense. Yet it was the perfect answer Tuesday night to slow the best team in the Eastern Conference.

Ray Allen led Seattle with 22 points and dished out 11 assists, but it was a surprising zone defense and the hustle of Nick Collison and Chris Wilcox that keyed the SuperSonics 101-96 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Sick and unable to coach last Wednesday against Miami, Hill watched from home as Dwyane Wade scored 14 points in the fourth quarter of a Seattle loss. It was then that Hill decided the Sonics needed a zone defense to survive with their lack of size on the interior.

It worked perfectly against the Cavaliers.

“We’re going to use it more and more,” Hill said. “I’m not a big advocate of zone, but under these circumstances we put one it and it certainly helped us.”

LeBron James led Cleveland with 30 points, and made 13 of 15 free throws. But James missed all four of his attempts in the fourth quarter and shot only 8 of 21 overall in part because easy baskets at the rim weren’t available.

Seattle’s zone brought Cleveland’s aggressive attack-the-basket offense to a stand still, and the Cavaliers became an average jump-shooting team. Cleveland shot just 41 percent and made only three 3-pointers.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas scored 24 points with 11 rebounds, but scored 16 in the first half and Seattle’s inability to slow Ilgauskas finally caused Hill to make the defensive switch. It worked as Cleveland scored just 14 points in the paint in the second half.

“Their zone, the way they played it, as much of a time period as they played it, I think affected us at times,” James said. “You’ve got to try to look to attack it sometimes, but they had three guards up and sometimes one big up so it was kind of tough to penetrate.”

The surprising zone, combined with an unlikely trio of Collison, Wilcox and rookie Mickael Gelabale making big plays in the closing minutes gave Seattle it’s second straight impressive win.

Allen struggled to follow up his career-high 54-point performance against Utah last Friday. Allen was constantly harassed by Cleveland’s Larry Hughes, and when Allen did find space to get off an open look, his shot was off.

That was fine on this night, as the hustle of Wilcox and Collison was enough. Wilcox finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, and Collison added 14 points and 12 boards giving the Sonics needed possessions in the closing minutes to rally from a five-point deficit.

“It seemed like we found a way to raise our energy, get a little extra to make some plays,” Collison said.

The unlikely trio of Collison, Wilcox and Gelabale combined to score 13 of Seattle’s final 19 points.

Down 87-82 with 5:13 to go, Seattle chipped away behind the hustle of Collison and Wilcox. Fighting to get offensive rebounds, they were fouled and made six straight free throws.

After James split a pair of free throws with 3:01 left, Collison popped to the wing after setting a screen and made a 16-footer for a 90-88 Seattle lead on Allen’s 11th assist.

Cleveland pulled to 92-91 on Damon Jones’ 3-pointer with 1:45 left, but Gelabale hit an open 15-footer and then made one free throw after Jones missed.

James then hit a pair of free throws to get Cleveland within 95-93, but Wilcox sank a short jump-hook over Ilgauskas for a 97-93 Seattle lead. Luke Ridnour and Allen combined for four free throws in the last 30 seconds for Seattle.

“This group we have right now has a special chemistry about them,” Hill said. “Nick Collison is coming into his own and it’s really fun to see. He and Wilcox have a nice little chemistry together.”

Allen made just 6 of 21 shots in his first game since putting up the second-best performance in Seattle history. His first 3-pointer came on a fall-away, 26-footer as the shot clock expired at the end of the first half. He finished with two 3s, but his 11 assists were the most in nearly three seasons and just two off his career high.

Earl Watson scored 12 and Ridnour had 11 in a reserve role for Seattle.

Notes

Hughes returned after missing Saturday’s game against the Clippers with a left thigh injury. He had seven points in 36 minutes. … Allen moved into 74th place on the NBA career scoring list with 16,269 points, passing both Randy Smith and Paul Arizin. Next is James Worthy at 16,320 points. … Injured Seattle F Rashard Lewis said the next exam on his injured right hand is scheduled for Jan. 25. Lewis hopes to be back in February around the All-Star Game.

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Tuesday, Jan 16