If a movie were to
be made about the 2005-06 New Jersey Nets, it would be titled The Forgotten.
The supporting actors would include raspy-voiced coach Lawrence Frank, who
despite his .572 career winning percentage is known more for his limited
stature (at 5'8") and seasoning (at 35 years old); quick-trigger guard
Vince Carter, who is trying to outrun his controversial past; and fast-rising
forward Richard Jefferson, who may one day get his All-Star due. Then there
would be the film's leading man, Jason Kidd, 33, who still slips defenders like
a man 10 years younger yet who also slips too many conversations about the
NBA's top players. "Every year people want to throw a new name out there
like Dwyane Wade or Tony Parker," says Jefferson. "It's ridiculous.
Night in and night out, nobody brings it like J-Kidd." � Night in, night
out for the past month, no team has brought it like the Nets, who were riding a
league-best 12-game winning streak through Sunday that included double-digit
victories over Dallas, Phoenix and Miami as well as a road win over Detroit.
During that stretch, Kidd has averaged 9.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.5
assists. For a player fourth in career triple doubles, those numbers are hardly
shocking. What they don't show, though, is his impact at the defensive end. In
the 79-74 win over the Pistons on March 26, Kidd held an MVP candidate,
Chauncey Billups, without a field goal for three quarters. In a 110-72 rout of
the Suns one night later, Kidd held the MVP favorite, Steve Nash, scoreless for
the first time in more than three years. So how exactly did Jason Kidd get
bumped from the discussion about the game's elite players? "Maybe I'm not
flamboyant enough," says Kidd, who for the first time since 1995 was
snubbed by All-Star voters during an injury-free season.
speaking, New Jersey is more indie production than megaplex blockbuster; it is,
after all, the only division leader that isn't on TNT's schedule. Which isn't
to say that the performance of the Nets--and Kidd, in particular--is lost on
critics who value character development over special effects. "He's the
best point guard on the planet, hands down," says Memphis Grizzlies forward
Shane Battier. "When you're [consistently] that good, you can be taken for
have the flash of Baron Davis or the unorthodox style of Steve Nash," says
Milwaukee Bucks assistant Lester Conner. "But does that matter? He's still
one of the rare players who can make everyone on the floor better."
As for Kidd's
detractors, you can count on Frank to use their assessments as a motivational
tool. The Nets' coach rarely wastes an opportunity to cut out clips with
negative remarks, as he did last month with a newspaper column that failed to
include Kidd in a list of the top five point guards. That mild dis can likely
be attributed to Kidd's struggles last season, when he was recovering from
microfracture knee surgery, a procedure from which Chris Webber, Penny Hardaway
and Amar� Stoudemire have been slow to recover.
Perhaps the best
measure of Kidd's value to the Nets--and his place in history as a premier
point guard--has been his adaptability. After years, and highly successful ones
at that, of playing I-throw-it-up-and-you-slam-it with Jefferson and Kenyon
Martin and Kerry Kittles, Kidd has made the transition to a more controlled
style that better suits Carter, who was acquired early last season after making
it clear he wanted out of Toronto. With his clock-killing dribbling and
slightly (O.K., very) questionable shot selection, Carter seemed an ill-suited
sidekick for an up-tempo playmaker like Kidd. Not so. Averaging 26.0 points
during the winning streak, Carter has exhibited energy seldom seen during his
last years as a Raptor. In the third quarter of an 86-74 win over the Grizzlies
on March 29, he pulled down a rebound and sprinted 94 feet before taking a
bounce pass from Kidd and throwing down an emphatic one-handed dunk. "With
Vince you have to accept that sometimes he'll aim at the rim and hit the
logo," says Kidd, "but he can also make a lot of shots that no one else
than their offensive efficiency is the Nets' newfound defensive dominance.
During their streak, they were holding opponents to 81.0 points a game,
astonishing numbers considering that, of the starters, only Kidd and Jason
Collins are above-average defenders and that Carter and 22-year-old center
Nenad Krstic are mediocre at best. But a renewed commitment to individual
defense spearheaded by Kidd has helped the Nets--who rarely send double
teams--control the rim and limit second chances. "When they defend like
that, combined with their scoring," says Philadelphia 76ers assistant John
Kuester, "they're the scariest team in the league."
That isn't news to
Miami, which swept New Jersey in the first round of last year's playoffs. In a
90-78 win over the Heat on Sunday, the hallmarks of the new Nets were on
display: the half-court wizardry of Carter (43 points), a suffocating defense
that held an opponent under 80 points for the sixth time during the streak. It
was the Nets' third win in four meetings with Miami this year and perhaps a
message that this show's run may be extended deep into June.