The Gulp War


“The Nets are going to win,” said the guy at my tennis club without a tinge of irony. “You know why? Because of the white guys. You look back at history. You don’t win without white guys.”

Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, John Paxson, and Steve Kerr, we now know that Michael couldn’t have done it without you. If that theory is correct, then surely the Lakers are in for a fall, because if there’s anything that’s certain about the NBA finals, it’s that Todd McCulloch and Keith Van Horn will outplay Mark Madsen and Stanislav Medvedenko.

Indeed, if there’s been a rite of spring in the New Jersey swamps, it’s been Keith Van Horn flapping his arms like a giant pterodactyl after hitting a jumper. (Never mind that Van Horny doesn’t just reserve his act for game clinchers, but trots it out even when he’s two for six in the second quarter.)

And don’t forget, as Richard Jefferson pointed out on the eve of the postseason, as he answered one of those R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find-out-what-it-means-to-me puffball questions, the Nets did beat the Lakers this season. “Of course, they didn’t have Shaq,” he adds by way of a truth-in-advertising coda. Still, the Nets maybe, possibly, if everything falls right, and the white guys come up big, could win the NBA championship.

After all, Dr. J’s descendants have been sold short all season long. To put this run in perspective, look at this team as a new-school version of the turn-of-the-decade Detroit Pistons, a team led by a visionary point guard and a variety of role players that took advantage of a power vacuum in the East. And kept one of the all-time great teams from three-peating. This season, Jason Kidd has been as good as Isiah Thomas ever was. Until these playoffs, the rap on Kidd has been that he hits the open jumper less often than he hits his wife. (Oops, sorry about that, T.J.) It’s not so much that Kidd sees the game better than anyone else—and he does—it’s that he feels the game. He has near perfect pitch when it comes to understanding when the super-soft Van Horn, the fragile Kerry Kittles, or the overachieving Lucious Harris are feeling it, and when he’s the only one on the floor capable of hitting the side of a barn. Indeed, Kidd has made the team’s inconsistency all but a blessing—on any given night opponents don’t know which of Kidd’s playmates will be nothing but nyet, and who will be nothing but net. I know I’d sleep better if we had this kind of decision-making in the White House.

And like those Pistons, the Nets have been winning with defense. Defense? You bet. This isn’t classic Rodman/Laimbeer (or for that matter Charles Oakley/Alonzo Mourning /Antonio Davis) Eastern Conference defense, but they’re far from soft. They play a subtler, more athletic brand of defense, not unlike the D that powered the break for the Showtime Lakers. Byron Scott’s crew gets back in transition better than Rudy Giuliani, and can switch to a zone almost effortlessly. And when it comes down to one-possession time, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson and even Jason Collins have learned to temper their enthusiasm on the defensive end—an all-too-rare commodity in the NBA, even in the playoffs—with technique and discipline.

During this remarkable run, the Nets have seen first-hand just about all the bad things that can happen to you in an NBA game—a Reggie Miller three-pointer at the last millisecond, a 24-point fourth-quarter lead vaporized like Baltimore in that Tom Clancy movie, fans ragging on the point guard’s wife. And they survived. If Paul Pierce had hit one more free throw in Game Four, this story might have been a postmortem. But he didn’t and it isn’t.

The conventional wisdom is that the Nets got a bad break when the Kings choked away Game Seven against the Lakers. While a Sacramento-New Jersey final may not have done much for the bigwigs at NBC, basketball purists would have eaten it up. Both teams would have run like War Emblem and found the open man in the half court. It would have been pretty. And the Nets would have lost. Scott, a former Sacramento assistant, has the Nets playing the same brand of hoops as the Kings, and with Chris Webber and Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, Sac simply would have had too many weapons.

The bad news is that the Lakers are proven, battle-tested, and ready for prime time. They’ve got, arguably, the best inside-outside tandem in the history of the game, and Shaquille O’Neal may be the toughest matchup problem the league has ever seen. (Just watching Kenyon Martin trade elbows with Shaq should be worth the price of admission.) The good news is that these aren’t the 2000 Lakers, who won 72 games, or the 2001 Lakers, who almost ran the slate in the playoffs. Shaq and Kobe are still around, but not at 100 percent. And the supporting cast couldn’t have been more bizarrely second-rate if L.L. Cool J., Roy Jones, and Paul Simon were filling out the roster. I mean, could Rick Fox, Robert Horry, and Derek Fisher break the rotation on the Knicks? So if the Nets can play zone and hold Shaq and Kobe to a combined 70 points and 25 rebounds—hardly a given—they’ve got a shot.

The 2002 Lakers smell a lot like the 2001 Yankees. They’re the prohibitive favorites, the defending champs, looking to extend a streak, and they fought back from a historic hole to get here. And you remember how that one turned out for the Yankees.

The problem for the other half of the YankeeNets is that this isn’t baseball. Two hot starting pitchers can turn around a short series, but this is basketball, and the Lakers can and will find a way to counter Jason Kidd. Shaq’s rebounding may even neutralize Kidd’s running game. And in the half court, Kidd’ll be guarded by the league’s best one-on-one defender in Kobe, and if Kidd does happen to penetrate, he’ll get a 370-pound greeting card in the lane. At least until Todd McCulloch can hit enough jumpers to make Mr. O’Neal pay attention. (Stop laughing, please.)

Indeed, if there’s a white guy who’s likely to make the difference in this series, it’s Phil Jackson. Here’s a guy going for 10 championship rings, and yet he gets no props. The last time he lost a playoff series, Byron Scott was still playing. Forget the New Age bullshit, Jackson is all about knowing when to kick butt (dressing down Kobe and Shaq in Game Seven against the Kings for loafing on defense) and knowing when to Zen out. Unlike Isiah Thomas or Paul Silas or Jim O’Brien, Jackson’s watched his team go down by 13 in the final quarter of a Game Seven. And because he didn’t panic, his team didn’t either. Unfortunately for the Nets, and the guy at the tennis club, the Lakers have the only white guy that they need to complement Shaq and Kobe.