February 20, 2004

Fluid Jersey style shakes up faltering East

At their very best, the New Jersey Nets look like a team that doesn't like to play basketball, at least in the sense of the fair, sporting version of the game that typifies most NBA action. If this were the American Revolution, the Nets would be the colonists and their bewildered opponents, the Redcoats, who showed up for an orderly war and got killed instead.

Here's what basketball is: the point guard on one team walks the ball up the length of the court, making sure to use up enough time so that everyone on both sides is able to catch his breath. Once all have assumed their proper positions, the point guard receives the play call from the sidelines, motions with a free hand, and his four teammates commence jogging in a slow figure eight. Following closely behind each is a purposeful, well-trained defender. Overall, few shots are taken that are not appropriately defended, and the result is an equitable and orderly, low-scoring affair.

Here's what the Nets do: Jason Kidd gets the ball, runs past all but one, tosses up an "ally" for Richard Jefferson, who springs into the air, twists, catches the ball, and "oops" it home. It's giddy, it's fun, and it's explosive.

Last Tuesday, the Nets were down by 15 to the Detroit Pistons with six minutes left in the second quarter. And, with a whoosh, they were ahead—a 16-0 run to close out the quarter without a single jump shot made, hardly a jump shot even attempted, only lay-ups, dunks, and free throws.

When Kenyon Martin and Jefferson got close enough to the basket, they leaped, and sure enough, the ball was where they hoped to find it: above the rim and just a little to the side. It was delivered courtesy of Jason Kidd, who had been looking, of course, someplace else—somewhere deep within the stands at a friend in town perhaps—and his defender bought the fake. Why? Because Kidd moves so fast that you are spending all your energy and concentration just trying to keep up. You're dead tired and feeling a little dizzy, and thud, Kenyon Martin has landed. He's growling nonsense, stomping around, grabbing at his jersey to reveal a tattoo that reads "NO FEAR,'' and you are Pistons point guard Chauncy Billups. And you definitely have fear.

Under head coach Rick Carlisle, the Pistons' M.O. was defense and scrappiness, and this year their biggest name remains center Ben Wallace, a creature built for rebounding and shot-blocking purposes only. For a supposed star, it is remarkable that Wallace's 9.7 points per game average this season represents an actual increase of almost 3 points over his previous best.

After failing to lead his team to the finals, Carlisle made dubious NBA history when he became the first person to win coach of the year honors and be fired in the same year.

President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars had his sights set on then-Philadelphia coach Larry Brown and he eventually got his man. The opportunity to acquire the legendary Brown may have been the primary motivation for the move, but Detroit management still had to offer an explanation for the dumping of Carlisle on its own terms. That wasn't going to be easy considering his remarkable success.

So what was the rumor that circulated down from the front office? It was that Carlisle won too much. He was overly concerned with the regular season. He worked his players too hard, and they were worn out come playoff time. In that case, Brown had better be careful. Entering the Nets game, the Pistons, at 33-20, possessed a record second only to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference.

The Nets, of course, also fired their coach. Poor Byron Scott may have suffered a greater injustice than Carlisle. After guiding his team to two straight NBA finals, he got axed in favor of 33-year-old assistant coach Lawrence Frank. At 5'8," Frank is a gym rat in the Jeff Van Gundy mode. Compared to the Nets coach, in fact, Van Gundy is a veritable Tracy McGrady. At least Van Gundy played Division III ball; Frank never made it beyond junior high.

Yet, as a still-undefeated coach for 11 NBA games, Frank's athleticism couldn't matter less. The Nets are playing for him in a way they hadn't for Scott this season, which may just go to show that in today's NBA, general managers have no choice but to respond to the fickle nature of the players, or even anticipate their fickleness in the case of Detroit. Pretty soon, we won't be surprised. NBA G.M.s are turning into Tony La Russa. They're going to the bullpen early and often, and sometimes it works.

No team needed a shot in the arm more than the Nets. As an entirely one-dimensional team, they look as bad when they're down as they look good when they're up. They run the fast break more than everyone else not just because they are better at it than everyone else but because they honestly have difficulty playing any other way. When the wind isn't rushing in their face, and five defenders stand between them and the basket, their high-flying act turns into the behavior of a bird in captivity. They nervously shuffle from side to side, they peck here and there, time runs out, and they die.

That's the state the Nets were in early in the season, their nexus being a 110-63 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. It's tough to bounce back from a 47-point defeat, but with their pint-sized coach spurring them on, the Nets are sprinting past their competition like they did in their past two runs to the NBA Finals. Basketball is only a rumor left in their wake.