The Sonics have jumped on top of the NBA pile so quickly and unexpectedly through the first six weeks of the season that their reputation has receded them. Based on the early returns...

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The Sonics have jumped on top of the NBA pile so quickly and unexpectedly through the first six weeks of the season that their reputation has receded them.


Based on the early returns of All-Star voting, apparently basketball fans are sluggish to give credit to those most responsible for the Sonics’ 18-4 start. The team’s two best players, guard Ray Allen and forward Rashard Lewis, are not among the top Western Conference vote-getters at their positions.


Allen, sixth in the league in scoring (23.9), is fourth in the voting among Western Conference guards with 305,147. Point guard Steve Nash, who leads the equally resurgent Phoenix Suns (19-3) into KeyArena for a 7:30 game tonight, is just ahead in third place with 330,577 votes. Houston’s Tracy McGrady (680,373) and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant (673,665) head the West guards.


Lewis, who has emerged as a more consistent force this season, does not even appear among the top 10 forwards in the West. Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett is first with 751,586 votes and Denver’s Kenyon Martin, averaging 8.2 rebounds and just 14.5 points, is 10th with 83,356 votes.


Lewis, 14th in the league with a 21.8 scoring average and 5.4 rebounds, is off the chart, somewhere below 10th.


“I think it’s a case of people not knowing what players are really going in this league,” Sonics coach Nate McMillan said. “I think for Rashard to get in, that opportunity is going to come from the coaches. I think the coaches are aligning themselves with who really is playing the best. That’s where it will come down to.


“If the coach makes an honest analysis, you can’t keep him out.”


















Today
Phoenix at Seattle 7:30 p.m., ESPN

Lewis, in his seventh season after being drafted out of high school in 1998, has scored 20 or more points in 14 of the team’s 22 games. Against the Lakers on Tuesday, Lewis scored a season-high 37 points. That’s the most points Lewis has scored since he busted loose for 50 in the second game last season against the Los Angeles Clippers (in Japan).


However, Lewis followed that 50-spot by averaging 18.1 over the next 10 games.


“This is different. He is more consistent now, which is good,” McMillan said. “So far, he has played good basketball. He has shown maturity, an understanding of what to do, how to score each night. Mentally, we knew he needed to take the next step, to focus every night to contribute to the team.


“I heard that he wants to make the All-Star team. If he’s thinking that way, you know you have to bring it every night. His focus is different than last season. He was kind of feeling his way out. He knows now that each night we need him to be aggressive.”


Lewis was forced into a larger role early last season when Allen missed the first 25 games while recovering from ankle surgery.


“Ray was injured and he had to carry the team,” McMillan said. “Then when Ray came back, he was like, ‘OK, here Ray, you do it.’ I told him he’s right alongside Ray. They are both our No. 1 options. He has to bring it every night, just as Ray does.”


Lewis can make his case tonight when the Sonics and Suns play before a national-television audience on ESPN. The Suns, with the best record in the NBA, play the team with the second-best record and a similar style.


“It’s a good game for us. Is it a big game? No. It’s an important game. Big games come in March and April,” McMillan said. “This is our first time seeing this team. Both teams are playing well. We’ll see where we are against a team that’s very similar to us.”


Asked which team is the bigger surprise, McMillan said, “Some would say us. We were picked last. I think both teams are somewhat of a surprise.”


For the Suns, Nash creates an up-tempo style that has Phoenix averaging a league-high 109.4 points.


“Nash is unbelievable, no question about it,” McMillan said. “His play for that team is making it easier for those guys. The fact that he plays every possession all-out forces everyone who plays with him to play hard.


“I expect the tempo to be fast. We want to push the ball. We want a good look. Shot selection will be important.”


Allen added that the game merely marks “how these teams stand against each other.”


When it matters is at the end of the season when playoff money is distributed and banners are raised, he said.


“It means more to say, ‘We made the playoffs and we won our division.’ To hang another banner in here (the Sonics’ practice gym) and the Key is where you get the respect,” Allen added. “That’s what really earns respect, seeing the hardware go up.”




Note


• Allen was happy to see the Mariners sign first baseman Richie Sexson. Allen said he and Sexson used to hang out when Allen played for the Milwaukee Bucks and Sexson was with the Brewers. “It was great to see the Mariners get some good talent,” Allen said. “He’s a good guy, too. He’ll be a great addition.”


Bob Sherwin: 206-464-8286 or bsherwin@seattletimes.com