|Friday, January 18
Updated: January 21, 11:04 AM ET
Nets play the game the way it should be played
By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They gathered together for boardroom meetings and telephone conference calls, the Sterns and Colangelos, the NBA elders desperate to bring the beauty back to basketball. The passed rules for zone defenses; hand-checking was outlawed; and the list of changes grows longer every season.
"To me, we play ball the way it was meant to be played -- the way it used to be played," says the architect, Nets GM Rod Thorn. "Not the way it's been played in modern-day. Maybe it dates me, but I like that."
The beauty of the basketball these Nets play has nothing to do with rules changes -- the zones, the defensive three seconds, none of it. As the season marches on, these Nets have grown to understand that playing as five separate fingers can't come close to the punch of a tight, closed fist.
"What we have ... this is very rare," Nets coach Byron Scott says. "It comes once in a blue moon. When you get it, you've got to bottle it and keep it as long as you can."
As the week begins, they hold the best record in the Eastern Conference at 27-12 heading into a three-game Western Conference trip. They beat last season's victory total of 26 with Saturday night's vanquishing of the Rockets. Thorn is the NBA's executive of the year, Scott is the coach of the year, and just maybe, Jason Kidd will make people think long and hard over that MVP vote. Comeback player of the year? Kerry Kittles. Most improved? Kenyon Martin has a shot, right?
There's Martin, scoffed at as a legitimate No. 1 overall pick. There's Keith Van Horn, the over-hyped white star. There's Kittles, the gimpy-kneed guard picked over Kobe Bryant. There's Richard Jefferson, the rookie traded for lottery pick Eddie Griffin. And there's MacCulloch, the back-up center delivered $34 million to be a frontline starter.
"We've all got our reasons," MacCulloch says.
Together, they want to be the ones to bring the Nets something they haven't had since 1983: A playoff series victory. It hasn't happened since the 76ers of Moses Malone and Dr. J were defending champions, and the Nets stole a best-of-five series by winning three times at the Spectrum. If they're a No. 1 or No. 2 seed, why should they limit themselves there?
Still, it'll be far easier winning the regular season Eastern Conference title over the postseason. Ultimately, these Nets haven't been hardened on past playoff runs and, yes, it could cost them come springtime. There's no substitute for knowing the way playoff ball grinds the game to a stop, turning those free-flowing fast breaks and alley-oop dunks into winter memories. Maybe a team will yet catch the Nets for the No. 1 seed, but they'll do it wishing they had Jersey's chemistry and camaraderie.
"It's like I've been traded to a brand new team," Van Horn says.
It's sounds strange, but the NBA wanted a league of Nets. When would that ever seem sensible? This is the game they wanted played, the way they wanted it. They packed themselves into those boardrooms, passed rules on zones and defensive three seconds and tried everything to bring back the beauty of basketball. In the end, it turned up in the most absurd of addresses: On the break off Turnpike Exit 16W, where good basketball no longer comes to die.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (Northern N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.