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Saturday, March 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:21 AM

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Sonics

Sonics hang on till end, but Pistons have last say

Seattle Times staff reporter

Of all the Sonics, Ray Allen knows Richard Hamilton better than anyone. He helped recruit him to the University of Connecticut more than a decade ago and has been a mentor to him ever since.

In the offseason, he shares shooting tips with Hamilton and has helped the Detroit Pistons guard become one of the deadliest shooters in the league.

Knowing all that he knew, it's inexplicable that Allen somehow lost track of Hamilton in the waning moments of Detroit's 98-96 victory Friday night.

"We just got caught slipping, or sleeping, I should say," Allen said. "We were so focused on the pick-and-roll coverage. And then he cut baseline, and we turned — everybody turned — and we got to contest the shot, but it was too late."

With the score knotted at 96-96 with 20.9 seconds remaining, Detroit's Chauncey Billups began the possession at the top of the key, where he proceeded to dribble out the clock. The Sonics were focused on a pick-and-roll between Billups and Rasheed Wallace, and coach Bob Hill designed a defense during the previous timeout to negate the play.

"We were switching everything, so we had it covered," Hill said. "The way he [Billups] was going, I thought he was going to take the shot. ... I never saw Hamilton."

With Seattle's attention on Billups, Hamilton waited until the final five seconds before streaking along the baseline and losing Allen behind Tayshaun Prince's screen.

After receiving a pass from Billups, Hamilton ripped the hearts out of the Sonics and a raucous sold-out crowd of 17,072 at KeyArena with a rainbow jumper from the corner with 0.2 seconds left.

"I call it my 7-footer shot, because if a 7-footer is running at you, then you got to get it over him," said Hamilton, who scored 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. "I practice that shot all the time — before games, in practice, all the time."

Seattle's defensive gaffe marred what was otherwise an impressive outing. The Sonics outrebounded Detroit 48-33 and shot 48.8 percent from the field, but fell to 22-37.

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"If that's the best team in basketball, we're not far away," Hill said.

Despite the defeat, the improvements that Hill has promised were clearly evident as new additions Earl Watson and Chris Wilcox (14 points and eight rebounds) played significant supporting roles and the stars — Allen (31 points), Rashard Lewis (20 points) and Luke Ridnour (16 points) — shined brightly.

For the second straight game, Ridnour converted a timely shot in the final minute and was nearly the star.

Trailing 93-91, Ridnour drained a three-pointer from the top of the key. And when Hamilton matched his shot on the other end to put Detroit up 96-94, the Sonics guard hit a pair of free throws that tied the score at 96.

"This is how we should have been playing for the entire season," said Ridnour, who dished out five assists and had four turnovers. "You almost don't want to say that or want to think about that, but this is what we were capable of all along.

"We've just got to make the best of the rest of the season. If we keep playing like this, we're going to win some games."

As good as the Sonics were, they weren't good enough to subdue the Pistons, who received 21 points each from Billups and Rasheed Wallace, 11 from Prince, and 10 from reserve Antonio McDyess.

Detroit, playing the third of a four-game road trip, appeared to tire at times. Rasheed Wallace missed open jumpers, Ben Wallace missed 7 of 8 free throws, including three air balls, and Detroit's defensive grip on the Sonics began to loosen.

The Pistons have the NBA's third-best defense, allowing an average of 89 points per game, but the Sonics controlled the first half with a precise half-court offense and timely baskets. Allen staked Seattle to its biggest lead, 43-33, with two free throws with 3:16 left in the half.

Despite all of their good work early on, the Sonics trailed 50-47 at the break because Billups led a rally in which the Pistons ended the half on a 17-4 run. He drained two three-pointers and scored 10 points during the run.

Neither team held more than a five-point lead in the third quarter, which set up the final dramatic moments.

"The last two games, they've become a team," Hill said. "I think they deserved to win this game. It just didn't happen."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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