For a brief shining moment, it’s showtime. Late in the fourth quarter of Game One of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the Nets and the Hornets, Kenyon Martin—K-Mart to his friends—grabs a rebound in traffic and fires a bullet pass to Jason Kidd streaking down the right side. Without breaking stride, Kidd rifles an alley-oop to Richard Jefferson skying down the right baseline for a wham-bam-thank-you slam.
If basketball can be ballet, this was pure Balanchine, so surprising it took your breath away, and so perfectly executed it seemed preordained. Kareem, Magic, and Worthy couldn’t have run it any better.
But for most of this post-season, if the Nets have been doing any dancing, it’s been the kind that you’d find at the Bada-Bing, a bump and grind that reveals nothing so much as their weaknesses. During the regular season, the Nets were a guilty pleasure for the savvy hoops geeks who trekked out to the Meadowlands or caught them on cable. Most NBA teams that make a great leap forward do it by playing Soprano-style defense. The Nets blossomed by running and passing and simply playing beautiful basketball. Now it’s playoff time, however, and except for a few brief teases, it’s over. But give the Nets credit. They’ve been playing ugly, but winning ugly, too.
Rewind to the closing minutes of Game Five of the Pacers series. The Doctor was in the house—Dr. J. The same mysterious forces that led Micheal Ray Richardson astray, Drazen Petrovic to that rainy road in Split, and Stephon Marbury into Jayson Williams’s leg as if shot by a cannon, were once again conspiring to help the Nets snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The nouveaux riches Nets fans—clearly not remembering the team’s not-so-ancient history, or even Reggie Miller’s more recent heroics against the Knicks—shook the building the way it hasn’t been shaken since 1984 . . . when Bruce played there on the Born in the USA tour. (Which, considering that the former Byrne-Baby-Byrne arena is built on a swamp, is pretty frightening in itself.) The fans were getting all Van Horny, waving their white Experience the Energy balloons that looked like giant dildos, as if the sun would always be shining.
Sure, this game was exciting. So is a grade-crossing accident. And just as pretty.
Game Five crunch time told you everything you needed to know about this team. Look at the box score and Keith Van Horn seems to be one of the stars of the game. Not. He bricked two free throws that would have put the Nets up by nine. He got suckered by Reggie Miller’s half-hearted pump fake, fouled out, and gave the league’s best free-throw shooter three freebies that should have tied the game. And because Van Horn had benched himself with foul No. 6, his replacement, rookie Richard Jefferson, himself bricked a couple of free throws that enabled Reggie’s improbable take-it-to-the-bank shot. (For Trade: Demographically desirable potential former All-Star locked up to long-term deal, available to, um, balance your roster. Stats available on request. Will consider trade for malcontents, bad citizens, or cap busters with hops. Call Rod at 201-555-NETS.)
But in the overtimes, Jason Kidd seemed to discover what Marbury already knew: that there’s nobody on this team that can shoot the rock. Kenyon Martin has a few useful post moves, Kerry Kittles can get lucky once in a while, and Lucious Harris occasionally scares his defender with his son-of- Freddy Krueger mask. But on balance, the Nets are—and need to be—a one-man show. Virtually every important basket left the p.a. announcer screaming, “Jasonkidd!” simultaneously emphasizing and abbreviating that last syllable as if he were Gilbert Gottfried.
And in Sunday’s Game One, it was déjà vu all over again. The Nets began by running, getting out in transition, jumping out to a near double-digit lead. And then the basketball game started. Baron Davis looked like Kidd on steroids, adding Answer-like crossover dribbles and Kobe-like air time to peerless court vision. And the Nets’ answer, dev-league grad Anthony Johnson, thought he was Magic Johnson but played like Avery Johnson. Forced into a half-court offense, the Nets looked as lost as Jimmy Hoffa.
And so did the crowd. Playoffs or no playoffs, half of the mauve seats were empty, and the fans that were there sounded like they’d rather be playing golf. (If the Nets don’t get the downtown Newark stadium deal they’re looking for, maybe they can threaten to move the team to New Orleans. Or Charlotte.) Sly—the team’s fox-with-a-bad-attitude mascot who looked like he got kicked off Sesame Street for holding up Mr. Hooper’s store—only added to the collective bewilderment, rolling around the court on in-line skates, hurling T-shirts into the crowd with a lacrosse stick. Huh? Later he would lead the crowd in a chant of “Go Nets” that sounded way too much like “Go-nads.”
Just as it appeared that the Nets would slide quietly into the sinkhole that would all but doom their chances in this series, Jason Kidd seemed to remember something important: The other Nets? They all suck. So for the better part of three minutes, he took the ball at the end line, and didn’t let any of his teammates touch it until it was safely swaddled in nylon.
Three shots. Three field goals. Indeed, after a Van Horn turnover and Kenyon Martin offensive foul, the league’s probable MVP wouldn’t even trust his teammates to play keep-away as they protected the lead on the final possession. He just stood there defiantly at the top of the key, for what seemed to be an hour and a half, daring Baron Davis or anyone else in teal and purple to try to make him give up his dribble. The meta-message was clear: “If anyone’s taking a foul shot, it’s gonna be me.”
Said a well-pleased Byron Scott after the win, “There’s no secret what we’re going to do at the end of the game. We’re going to have it in Jason’s hands.” Yeah, right. Eight of the Nets’ last 12 field goals in Game Five, the last three in Game One, all without a miss. The underlying problem, of course, is that Kidd is a career 40 percent shooter from the field—39 percent in the post-season. And as the playoffs grind on, that’s likely to catch up with him—and the Nets. (After all, if he could morph into Michael Jordan at will, the Suns would have gotten out of the West a couple of times during his tenure there.) But for a few magical quarters, at least, the Nets and their fans think the Kidd is all right.