Saturday, June 1
Updated: June 4, 7:39 PM ET
Oh my God! Nets are going to the Finals
By Mitch Lawrence
Special to ESPN.com
BOSTON -- As bedlam was erupting inside the visitor's dressing room in the FleetCenter, Joe Taub, one of the New Jersey Nets' owners from back in the bad old days of the '80s, grabbed a hat bearing the inscription, "2002 Eastern Conference champs."
"We've waited a long time for this," Taub said.
Now the Nets, for so long the Clippers of the East, for so long fixtures in the lottery, for so long the laughingstock of the NBA, are going to the Finals. What's that Richard Jefferson, the Nets' precocious rookie, said when Keith Van Horn drilled his nail-in-the-coffin three late in Game 6 in Boston?
"Oh my God!"
That could be the Nets' playoff slogan.
The day after Christmas, they went into first place in the Eastern Conference and stayed there right through the final day of the regular season. Yet no one thought they'd ever be flying to the West Coast on Monday for Game 1 of the Finals.
Except for themselves.
"We thought we had a good chance to go to the Finals because we were in first place for a long time," Todd MacCulloch said. "We proved we were the best team in the East over the long haul. So why not think we could win the East and get to the Finals?"
As long as Jason Kidd was making the team bus, it was possible. Coming off a 26-win season, the Nets turned it around when they dealt Stephon Marbury for Kidd last summer. During a season when he competed for the MVP for the first time in his career, Kidd was a one-man fix-it crew.
Before he came to Jersey, the Nets were an awful defensive team. This season, they finished in the top five in field-goal percentage defense and points per game allowed. Last year, they were outrebounded in 58 games, going 17-41 in those. This year, thanks to Kidd's presence on the glass, they were ourebounded only 32 times and went 20-12 in those.
When they made the trade, the Nets knew what they were getting in Kidd, in terms of his triple-doubles, professionalism, toughness and playmaking.
"You can be playing poorly, but with Jason as the orchestrator, you always have a chance to stay in the game because of him," team president Rod Thorn said. "He'll make enough plays to try to keep you in it. You're never out of a game because he's constantly looking to get the ball to people."
But Thorn admits he had no idea he was also getting a late-game scorer. Kidd's clutch shooting has been the real bonus in the deal.
"What Jason has added this year -- and it's something I've never seen from him before, on a consistent basis -- is that he's made so many big shots for us down the stretch of games," Thorn said. "He's made incredible shots all year long. When he was in Phoenix, he'd pass the ball off or not make those shots. Honestly, I didn't know he could do that."
That's been the real bonus in the trade. Kidd has come up with big shots in every series so far. Game 5 against Indiana. Game 4 against Charlotte. And in Game 6, when the Nets closed out Boston to win the Eastern Conference finals.
"He's been a real difference-maker for the Nets," Boston's Erick Strickland said.
Along the way, the Nets have gotten some big plays and big breaks, too. You need a little luck when the farthest you've been in the playoffs was the second round, just once, back in 1984.
The black cloud had been around the Nets since they sold Julius Erving to the Sixers in Oct. 20, 1976, on the eve of their first NBA campaign. But it finally lifted when Kerry Kittles drilled his late 3-point shot in Game 3 against Indiana.
"If he doesn't make that shot in Indiana, we wouldn't be talking about this run today," Thorn said. "Our season would have probably been over the next game."
That night, the Nets, forever unlucky, got their first stroke of good fortune. At game's end, Reggie Miller had a chance to send the Nets down to a 2-1 series deficit, but he missed a wide-open 18-footer as time ran out.
"I mean, how many times is Reggie going to miss that shot?" Thorn said. "He just doesn't miss those kinds of shots at that time of the game."
The Nets dodged another Miller bullet, his miracle, if somewhat late, 3-pointer that tied Game 5 at the buzzer. Twice in the first overtime, they trailed by three. They also gave up Miller's jaw-dropping running dunk to send the game into the second OT. They stared into the abyss and lived another day.
Then against Charlotte, they didn't have to face Jamal Mashburn, who killed them for 25 points per game on 52 percent shooting in the regular season. In Mashburn's absence, the entire scoring load was placed on Baron Davis' young shoulders. It was taxing enough for Davis to have to keep up with the mercurial Kidd. But by the fourth quarter, he had little energy to make big shots or plays.
What can you say about the Boston series, except that most observers had the Nets dead after their historic collapse in Game 3. They blew a 21-point lead to open the fourth quarter and ended up falling behind in the series, 2-1.
"It didn't look real good," Thorn said. "But to come back and play at a terrific level for the rest of the series, it tells you that we've got talent, but we also have guys who compete and have heart."
Nobody will give them much of a chance in the Finals. Like everybody else, they don't match up with Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant. And the Kings have more scoring options at their disposal than the Nets have seen in their entire playoff run, combined.
But they do have players who have spent a season proving everybody wrong.
"We've all had a lot to prove, not just to ourselves, but to our peers around the league, and to other people," Kittles said. "Jason has had to prove he can get a team to the second round. He's had to prove he can keep a team together in tough times."
Now Kidd needs to prove he can get his team past a big, talented group of frontcourt scorers. Those kinds of players always ended his playoff runs in Phoenix, four out of five times in the first round.
"I would love to win a championship," he said. "Maybe there won't be any critics or doubters. We're gonna see what happens."
The Nets winning it all?
All together now: "Oh my God!"
Mitch Lawrence, who covers the NBA for the New York Daily News, writes a regular NBA column for ESPN.com.