Beauty and the East

Can the Nets Survive a Bashing by the Ugly Stick of Playoff Ball?

In any other year, the biggest story of the Nets' season would be the security tape of Jason Kidd getting the assist on Jayson Williams's Valentine's Day Shot. But this year, the Nets are no longer cursed. They're in a golden state—as opposed to most years, when they're vying with Golden State for the top lottery pick. They lead the Eastern Conference by three games and are on pace to win close to 60. They're the biggest thing to happen to New Jersey since Big Pussy came back from the dead. But are they for real? Well, yes and no.

OK, give me one reason why I should watch the Nets. You want to see something really beautiful? You do appreciate beauty, don't you? Well, watch the Nets. Not only are they playing good basketball, they're playing aesthetic basketball. They run like it was Rucker. They share the love and move the rock. Pick and roll? Alley oop? They're down with that, too. On a good night, it's a little like Showtime East—remember coach Byron Scott standing around and watching Magic and James Worthy run the break? In short, the Nets play the game the way it was meant to be played.

Then why are they playing in front of just 10,000 people a night? New Jerseyans don't appreciate beauty.

Why aren't they on national TV? Because they're the Nets.

OK, they're pretty, but are they good? Last week's mini-meltdown notwithstanding, this record wasn't compiled with mirrors. They've won close games. They've won road games. They've beaten teams like the Spurs. They've beaten the Knicks like a rented ferret. The Nets not only could win the East, but they should, and they deserve to. This is not a mirage.

How did the Nets get this close to the promised land? The short answer is Jason Kidd. Much as I would have liked to see him flop—bringing a spouse abuser in for his leadership skills seemed a tad hypocritical—Kidd has made Rod Thorn look like Stephen Hawking. He's been every bit the all-NBA point guard, rebounding like a forward, clamping down on D, and, most of all, seeing the floor like a miniature Magic Johnson.

Does that mean that Stephon Marbury is a bust? It's way too early to give up on Marbury. Only 25, he's really a less selfish, but no less explosive Allen Iverson. And if a smart GM snatches him from the Suns and builds around him the way the Sixers built around the Answer, Steph could very well end up in the finals before Jason Kidd.

So Kidd deserves all the credit? Kidd's brilliance aside, a bigger reason for this team's success is that for the first time in years—since the Calipari-led Nets gave the Bulls a mild fright in the first round a few years back—this team has managed to keep its best players on the floor instead of the trainer's room. Kerry Kittles may not be Kobe Bryant, but he's better than Lucious Harris, and Keith Van Horn may not be Dirk Nowitzki, but he's still better than Aaron Williams. So center Todd McCullough's foot problems notwithstanding, the MVP of this team might just be the strength and conditioning coach.

Should Byron Scott be coach of the year? Sure, although to understand how much that particular honor means, you'll note that Don Chaney and Phil Jackson have each won the award exactly once. And while Scott's system has been working brilliantly, he's never coached a playoff series before, and he hasn't dealt with adversity well—just look at the team's 2-16 record when trailing entering the fourth quarter. And the playoffs are all about adversity.

How will the Nets fare in the playoffs? The problems the Nets will face are, as Walt Frazier might say, multitudinous. The run-and-gun game just doesn't work in the playoffs—that's why the Kidd-led Suns never got past the second round.

Why don't running teams win? Running is an anomaly in the league. And the Nets have benefited heavily from the element of surprise. But good teams can and do adjust to it, both over the course of a game and certainly over the course of a series, and they'll force the Nets to play a half-court game. Just look at the recent Western swing, in which teams defended the break better, forced the Nets into a half-court set, and held them to 40.8 percent shooting from the field.

But didn't the mid-'80s Lakers win? While we remember the lane-filling feeds and the rim-shaking dunks, the Showtime Lakers were a brilliant half-court team, with Magic playing the two-man game with post-meister Kareem and kicking out to the aforementioned Mr. Scott.

What are the Nets' other problems? They lack a go-to guy. Jason Kidd might win the MVP award, and he might just deserve it. But he is also a 38 percent shooter. His biggest games have occurred against porous opponents, like the Knicks. Good defensive teams like the Lakers and the Sixers take away the passing lanes and force him to shoot. The result is one of those 4-for-15-in-an-8-point-Net-loss kind of games.

What about Keith Van Horn? The only thing that's worse than Van Horn's haircut is his game. Marbury was right about him—he wouldn't even make the NBA's All-White-Guy Team. Van Horn is a tweener in the worst possible way. He's the league's least muscular power forward, only playing there because small forwards exploit his Lurch-like foot speed (even the Meadowlands organist sees this, playing the Addams Family theme when Keef lumbers to the basket). He doesn't have the bulk to be an effective post presence. And while Kidd's passes have made him look like a decent spot-up shooter, Paul Pierce he ain't. The Nets should dump him while the dumping's good.

What about Kenyon Martin? Now that he's healthy—he was limping most of last year—My Favorite Martin has blossomed into one of the league's better power forwards. But think of him as Charles Oakley on steroids (figuratively, of course), picking up his points on putbacks and finishing on the break. To make it to the next level, he needs to (a) find a couple more post moves, and (b) chill out enough so that he doesn't become the Eastern Conference's version of Rasheed Wallace. Neither of these things will happen by May.

But won't the Nets be the top seed in the East? Yes, most years, the top seed in the East—think Sixers, Pacers, and all those Bulls teams—makes it to the finals. This is not most years. Look at the Nets' dance card. Their first-round opponent could very well be the defending conference champion Sixers. Or Vince Carter's Raptors. Or the vastly improved Pacers (message to Scott Layden: That's how to rebuild a team). Or the battle-tough Heat. Indeed, entering the season, any one of those teams would have been among the favorites to win the conference. Any of them can outmuscle New Jersey in an ugly playoff-style tussle. If by some miracle the Nets should survive three rounds of Eastern Conference WWF hoops, the Lakers, or whichever Western team knocks them off, will toss them around like a doggy toy, kind of like the way the Knicks got gnawed by the Spurs.

So what's going to happen? Let me peer into my crystal ball. The Nets are going to win the conference—the Bucks are too flaky, the Sixers too injured, and the Pacers too ungelled to make a run over the last 20 games. They'll play the Raptors in the first round. It'll go five games. Vince Carter will receive an honorary degree from DeVry on the morning of the deciding game. He'll miss the three-pointer that could have won it. The Nets win! The Nets win! There's a giant victory party. Jayson Williams shows. I hear a loud noise . . . things are suddenly getting hazy.

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