Nets sure could use Van Horn right about now

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New Jersey Nets have a problem in this NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. They can't score!

In Game 1, they got 89 points. Then it went down to 87 and 79. As progressions go, look for the Nets in Syracuse by Game 6.

"Our offense didn't work for us," Dikembe Mutombo was saying before Wednesday's Game 4. "That's the reason we lost (Game 3)."

That offense didn't work for several reasons. One is Richard Jefferson, who's slashing game has been eliminated by not only the permitted harder hits of playoff basketball, but a concerted effort of the Spurs' defenders, especially their big men, to get back on D. The offense didn't work because the Nets like their field goals from about an inch away. So when the Spurs stepped back into a zone from time to time, the Nets couldn't find any nets, bottoms certainly, and their field-goal percentage dropped to 38.7 percent for the series.

What they needed was a guy who could shoot a jumper, perhaps a forward with a size mismatch to complement Kenyon Martin. So when Martin bangs inside he can step outside against a smaller Spurs defender like Bruce Bowen.

Someone, oh, like ... Keith Van Horn?

Yes, that's who the Nets are missing, their favorite Finals whipping boy from last season -- someone who could spread the defense and be enough of a threat to get the Spurs out of that zone and hit some jumpers.

Let's face it: The Mutombo trade was a disaster. It had good intentions in adding a big guy to combat the big guys in the West the Nets hoped to inevitably see. Look, the Nets went for the championship. And that's the right way to think.

It didn't work out. And it could cost them in the series they really do have a chance to win. This isn't the Lakers or Kings. The Spurs remain very beatable. OK, Tony Parker has been terrific. But he could be very unterrific by tomorrow. He's been like that all through the playoffs. If you were building a roster from the two teams, you might pick three Nets before you got to another Spur after Duncan.

But the Nets are handicapped by their roster.

Though Mutombo had a marginal effect in the Nets' Game 2 victory, it's clear coach Byron Scott doesn't want to play him. He did so reluctantly in Game 2 after being second-guessed by everyone but Willard Scott. Willard wondered where Mutombo was, too. So Scott gave in. Byron, that is.

But he doesn't want to play that way. The Nets need to run. Run Nets run. See the Nets walk. See the Nets lose.

Mutombo can't run. He inhibits the Nets more than he helps them. They play a slashing, back-cutting kind of game in the halfcourt that Mutombo only clogs. Where are those Martin baseline lob passes for dunks? Where are those slice cuts in the vaunted Princeton offense? Mutombo is a liability on offense. Aaron Williams, quietly losing his playing time in the Mutombo Finals experiment, fits the Nets aggressive offensive style better.

And by the way, since when do you sit a player virtually all season because of injuries and adjustment -- and through the playoffs -- and then discover him in the Finals?

And poor Jefferson. Nobody wants to call a foul for him. Poor baby. He attempted more free throws than any Net this season. But it's his first season as a starter in the Finals. More pressure. More responsibility. Fewer calls.

So Richard isn't happy. The referees really respect that.

Jefferson also isn't a very good shooter. He made six 3-pointers in 80 games. No one's getting up on him. Take that shot, R.J.! He really doesn't want to. He's just a not-quite-ready-for-Finals, prime-time player.

It was a nice plan to say the Nets could move Jefferson into the starting lineup and lose little by trading Van Horn -- and actually gain some. Jefferson is a better defender. He runs the break better with Kidd. He's ready to start. And then you get Mutombo for, really, nothing.

But you also lose something. That burst of energy, enthusiasm and aggressiveness that Jefferson brought with him from the bench. Rodney Rogers can't do that with all the weight he's also carrying. In fact, the Nets' bench adds almost nothing. Lucious Harris is a nice shooter to have, but it got so bad for Jefferson in the 84-79 Game 3 loss that Scott had to sit him most of the last half of the fourth quarter to try to get the Nets back in the game.

Jefferson is going to be a very good player. He just isn't yet. He's become a very good regular-season player. But is it worth wasting this chance while he learns the next level?

OK, Van Horn wasn't great in last year's Finals. But the Spurs aren't the Lakers, either. Martin played the big bad bully after the sweep by L.A. and basically blamed it all on Van Horn. So it wasn't surprising to see Van Horn traded. Even Nets management doesn't want to mess with Martin.

But how would the Nets look now with Van Horn?

They're averaging 85 points in the three games and losing by five points with Jefferson averaging 9.7. He could easily do that coming off the bench, especially with matchups against Spurs reserves like Manu Ginobili. Van Horn could make a big difference. He can't defend that well. He'd probably play the Spurs' small forward, Bowen, who wants no part of shooting. Bowen is a fine defender, but what an option that could be for the Nets to have a 6-foot-10 Van Horn to post up and relieve Martin, the team's only true low-post threat.

The Nets tried to put Jason Kidd in the post several times late in the fourth quarter on Sunday to both get Kidd going on offense and take advantage of Parker's smallish size. The Spurs' zone and help defense didn't give Kidd many opportunities.

It's easy to be tough on Van Horn. He backs away from shots from time to time, and he isn't as aggressive as you'd like. Coaches can see his advantages in quickness and shooting ability and grow frustrated when he won't use them. If only Keith would ... so he gets traded.

But the alternative has been horrible for the Nets in the Finals. Mutombo flops around, getting in the way of the offense, and Williams gets a reduced role. Jefferson is asked to do more than he's capable of, and the Nets' half-court weaknesses are exposed. It's hardly over, but Van Horn could have made a big difference for the Nets.

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.