New Jersey's finest
By Jim Armstrong
Special to Page 2

OK, so times are a little tougher than usual. So they lost their big man for a while and they aren't sitting atop their conference looking down at the pretenders. Doesn't really matter. You know, in the end, they're going to be there. They're going to be right back where they left off last spring: in the NBA Finals.

The Nets, that is.

Little did we know, as we marveled at the Lakers' freshly minted dynasty, that they were going the way of courtside regular Dyan Cannon: As good as they looked, their best days were behind them. Or that the Nets, that perpetual lottery team from Swamp Woebegone, had it all ahead of them.

Jason Kidd
Have you noticed? Jason Kidd is averaging a career-best 20 points per game.

Who knew?

Well, now that you mention it, Dikembe Mutombo knew.

"This team is for real," says Mutombo, acquired in the offseason to contend with Shaq. "The NBA is a funny league. It's hard to say which is the team to beat, who's the best, but we've got a shot. We can beat anybody."

Question is, can anybody beat them? Don't look now, but the Nets, the pride and joy of turnpike exit 16, were no fluke. They may not be the Boss -- Springsteen, not Steinbrenner -- but they're no one-hit wonders, either. If this keeps up, they're going to have a victory parade down the Jersey version of the Canyon of Heroes -- the parking lot at the Meadowlands.

Good news. If it happens, there figures to be plenty of good parking available. It seems the only people who appreciate the Nets are the ones who have to play against them. The team's long-suffering fans were so convinced last season wasn't an aberration, the Nets rank 23rd in the league in attendance at 14,570. That's 72.7 percent of capacity, 27th among the NBA's 29 teams, ahead of only Atlanta (61.8) and Cleveland (53.4).

Net Nation? You could fit the season-ticket holders in a phone booth. You'd think another 2,000 people would show up on the off chance Jimmy Hoffa would come up from the basement to buy popcorn.

Then again, can you blame them? This is the Nets we're talking about. The team Yinka Dare was going to make famous. You had to wonder if they'd go retro this season, if Jason Kidd's looming free agency would prove more of a distraction than an incentive. You had to wonder if the Knicks, as sorry an outfit as they are, would reclaim their rightful place on the back cover of the tabloids.

If you didn't wonder before the season started, you had to when Mutombo went down with torn ligaments in his right wrist. The Lakers had lost nine of their first 12 games with Shaq out of the lineup. What in the name of Wendell Ladner were the Nets going to do without Mutombo?

Richard Jefferson
Call him Mr. Efficiency: Richard Jefferson is shooting 53 percent.

Flourish, as things turned out.

They were 10-6 with Mutombo in the middle. They're 23-9 with him in a cast. In other words, as Mutombo eases his way back into the lineup -- he began rehab last week -- the Pacers and Pistons can forget any notion that they might finish with the best record in the East.

As usual, Kidd has been at the center of the Nets' universe. The irony of it all is that, unlike last season, you don't hear his name much, if at all, in most MVP debates. But here he is, a month from his 30th birthday, having the best of his nine NBA seasons. He even shoots first and passes second every now and then, except in commercials. That explains his 20 points a game, not bad considering he once averaged 11 and never has averaged 17.

Then there's the marvelously athletic forward tandem of Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson. Martin was so upset by his All-Star snub, he put up 64 points and 27 rebounds in his next two games. Jefferson? He was the steal of the 2001 draft. The Rockets selected him 13th, then traded him in a package for Eddie Griffin, the seventh pick, and now he's second in the league in field-goal percentage.

Mutombo's return will change things on the defensive end, but doesn't figure to affect the offense much, if at all. At 36, he no longer is the player who averaged 12.3 points, 12.2 rebounds and 3.4 blocked shots in more than a decade of travel on NBA courts. Before the surgeons came calling, he was averaging 25 minutes and six shots a night.

So why did GM Rod Thorn, fresh off a conference championship, send two starters -- Keith Van Horn and Todd MacCulloch -- to the Sixers to get him? Simple. So he could match up with Shaq in the Finals.

Give Thorn this: He got it half right.

At least, on this corner of the Internet, the Nets are the team to beat in the East. But we'll see, and soon.

"It's early," says Mutombo. "I judge the league in the first two weeks after the All-Star Game. That's when some guys hit the wall and some guys play off the wall."

Jim Armstrong, a sports columnist for the Denver Post, will be a regular contributor to Page 2.



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