Keith Van Horn could not believe his bad luck. Here it was, the fourth quarter of his first NBA playoff game—the biggest game of his young life—and he's lying on a trainer's table in the visitors' locker room at the United Center in Chicago, an IV tube sticking out of his left arm and his stomach doing cartwheels. "I was so nauseous, I could barely stand up," Van Horn, the New Jersey Nets' rookie forward, said of the combination of strep throat and gastroenteritis that forced him out of Game 1 of the first-round series against the Chicago Bulls. "I was just hoping it would pass so I could get back out there and play."
Out in the noisy arena, the party was going on without him. The Nets, down by 14 early in the fourth quarter, had come back and were giving the Bulls all they could handle. Reserve forward-center Chris Gatling, who picked up some of the slack for Van Horn, was draining shots from all over the court. Center Jayson Williams, a plastic cast on his broken right thumb, was outhustling Dennis Rodman for every loose ball. Coach John Calipari was abusing his Gucci shoes and making all the right calls.
Suddenly, just as his team's fortunes began turning, Van Horn, watching on TV, began to feel better. In a matter of minutes his cheeks, which had been sunken and pale ("even more pale than usual," Williams cracked later), began to gain a pinkish hue. His stomach, previously churning like the waves on Lake Michigan, turned relatively placid. By the time the Nets had tied the game in regulation—they would go on to lose 96-93 in overtime—Van Horn, who had accounted for 10 points and four rebounds in 16 minutes before he had to leave the game, was feeling almost well enough to pull up his socks and get back on the court. "I don't know if it was the IV or what, but all of a sudden I felt a lot better," he said.
For Van Horn, who had initially been reluctant to take the intravenous saline solution because of a longstanding fear of needles, the experience left him with two valuable lessons. One, if you want to take the big shots, you might at times have to take some little shots. And two, the postseason brought out a feistiness in his teammates, who didn't flinch against Michael Jordan and Co. despite having lost all four regular-season games against them.
Like most of his teammates, Van Horn entered the postseason lacking the experience needed to defeat a championship contender. The Nets hadn't been to the playoffs since 1994, and of their top eight players, only guard Sam Cassell had ever advanced beyond the second round. After Sunday's narrow 96-91 Bulls victory, which gave Chicago a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series, New Jersey and Van Horn were still short on experience but were at least encouraged that they had lost the two games by a total of only eight points.
However, for the Nets to make more than a token appearance in future playoffs, they need Van Horn to learn from and greatly improve on his humbling postseason initiation. The precocious rookie, mostly recovered from his brief illness, had only 10 points (on 4 of 12 shooting) and five rebounds in Game 2. His playing time was limited to 28 minutes, this time because of foul trouble. "Keith could have played better," Calipari said afterward. "But he is a rookie."
Showing no sympathy, the Bulls treated Van Horn like the neophyte he is, using Rodman or Toni Kukoc to frustrate him down low and deny him position on almost every play. "They do a good job staying off your body [so you can't feel where they are], then going for the ball," Van Horn explained. "As a result, our entry passes weren't working like they normally do."
On defense Van Horn often got lost trying to keep up with the Bulls' vaunted triangle offense. Kukoc spun inside on him several times en route to a 19-point performance, while Jordan and Scottie Pippen took advantage of missed defensive rotations to get numerous open shots. After one such miscue led to a Pippen dunk, Van Horn turned and held out his palms to Calipari in a rare show of frustration, as if to say, Where was I supposed to be?
In fairness, Van Horn missed two of New Jersey's regular-season games against Chicago because of injuries. But in the two games he did play, he scored a total of 42 points on 45.7% shooting and had 15 rebounds.
"We can learn from them in how they approach the game defensively" Van Horn said after Game 2. "We have to communicate and play hard for all 48 minutes to be successful. That's what they do, and it shows."