Throughout most of the NBA season the feeling was that come the Finals, the Western Conference champ would squash its Eastern counterpart flatter than a bug on a doormat. It's stating the obvious, of course, to suggest that such a squishy scenario could still unfold. The Los Angeles Lakers are prohibitive favorites to three-peat, possessing home court advantage, championship nerves and renewed confidence after a bump-and-grind seven-game Western finals against the Sacramento Kings. But as Continental Airlines Arena, which is not usually a hoops hotbed this time of year, prepares to get all spiffy for its first Finals—it is set to host Game 3 on Sunday night—there appears to be more than a sliver of hope for the East. What a grand thought: Jason and his Argo-Nets in full sail on the Jersey swampland!
The postseason is about marquee players making marquee plays, and right now no star's name is writ larger, or illuminated brighter, than Jason Kidd's. The first player since Magic Johnson in 1983 to average a triple double in a conference final, Kidd was stupendous as the New Jersey Nets beat the Boston Celtics in six games to claim the conference title last week. Did the Eastern champ's prospects first rise in Game 4, when the 6'5", 220-pound Kidd sacrificed his body to draw three offensive fouls in the fourth quarter? Or was it after that game, when the normally placid Kidd made a triumphant gesture to the crude FleetCenter fans who had harassed his wife and son? Or was it perhaps during the decisive stretch run in Game 6, when Kidd, storming the lane, flipped a blind, backward shovel pass to a cutting Aaron Williams? Consider: It was largely due to the brilliance of point guard Mike Bibby that Sacramento nearly beat L.A. Doesn't that suggest that Kidd, who is bigger, stronger and savvier than Bibby, might prevail?
Here's a more important question: Will Kobe Bryant allow him to?
Strictly speaking, Kidd and Bryant, the Lakers' shooting guard, are not matched up against each other. But they will most assuredly be scrutinizing each other's facial pores by the time the Finals are over. When Los Angeles needs someone to handle the ball under pressure, Bryant brings it up. When the Lakers need someone to stymie an offensive-minded point guard, Bryant provides the D; he often checked Bibby in crunch time. "We need to throw a lot of people at Jason," said L.A. forward Rick Fox on Sunday after his team's 112-106 Game 7 overtime win over the Kings, "and Kobe will certainly be one of them."
And Kidd will be called upon to body up on Bryant. He can't do it for long stretches—that would be like asking the chef to roast the pheasant, then flamb� the bananas Foster at the table. No player, even one as indefatigable as Kidd, can guard Bryant and still effectively direct an offense. But New Jersey coach Byron Scott knows that Kidd is his best hope against Bryant and that the competitiveness of the series, which was scheduled to begin on Wednesday in L.A., depends on how the backcourt stars fare against each other. (And you thought the matchup between Todd MacCulloch and Shaquille O'Neal was the pivotal one.)
Both Kidd and Bryant are supreme playground players who thrive in classic—dare we say old-fashioned?—half-court systems. Much of what the Nets run was installed, with Scott's blessing, by assistant Eddie Jordan, who was influenced by former Princeton coach Pete Carril when they shared time on Sacramento's bench from 1996 to '98. The offense emphasizes fundamental basketball: passing, backdoor cuts, screening away from the ball, scissors movement off the high post, a dribble exchange or back pass that triggers the attack. "Aesthetically pleasing," is how New Jersey's offense was summed up by Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who, despite having started kindly, is a good bet to offend the entire Garden State with a remark or two during the series.
In Carril's scheme five players touch and shoot the ball, and isolation is a tactic for the Gulag, not the basketball court. The Nets' top three scorers during the season averaged 14.9, 14.8 and 14.7 points, in the persons of Kenyon Martin, Keith Van Horn and Kidd, respectively. (As a reflection of Kidd's prime-time nature, his average in the playoffs had zoomed to 19.3 points through Sunday.) Martin is, in fact, the least prolific leading scorer for a Finals team since Kleggie Hermsen averaged 12.0 points per game for the 1947-48 champion Baltimore Bullets. This is just a wild guess, but it's unlikely that Martin knew he was challenging a mark held by somebody named Kleggie.
In the second half of the season New Jersey ran more pick-and-rolls (definitely not part of the Princeton offense), with Kidd controlling the ball. That is a perfect tactic for a canny decision-maker like Kidd, especially after the defense has been forced to worry about backdoor cuts. The only problem is that the pick-and-roll often yields an outside shot rather than a drive to the basket, and the Nets, Kidd included, are erratic marksmen. Jackson was driven to distraction during the Sacramento series by the reluctance of his frontcourtmen, Shaq included, to come out and challenge Bibby when he came off screens. New Jersey will try to pull O'Neal out by doing the same thing. But if the Nets are firing blanks, thereby allowing Shaq to camp near the basket and wait for rebounds, they don't have a chance.
Like Kidd, who prefers wide-open spaces, Bryant sometimes gets frustrated by the constraints of the Lakers' triangle or triple-post offense, which was refined four decades ago by L.A. assistant Tex Winter, a demanding Yoda. Winter, often discontent, charts each shot and notes, with a little F, every time a player forces a shot in the triangle, or, as Winter puts it, "shoots under duress." Bryant still earns too many F's—four in the first quarter alone on Sunday. Winter can't recall an F-free game, but when he coached under Jackson in Chicago, Michael Jordan came close several times. After the same period of time with the offense, says Winter, "Michael was considerably smarter than Kobe in what we want to be done. But you have to remember that Kobe is only 23 and that Michael was several years older when he really became proficient with the triangle."
Geometrical nuances aside, Bryant is a phenomenal half-court player, with the footwork and gamesmanship of a player who's been in the league 16 years, not six. He posts up with utter confidence, pretzeling his body to create space. He has an uncanny ability to keep his pivot foot planted while stepping through with his other leg to elude a defender. (He's that rare superstar who doesn't need a break from the refs on traveling calls.) He's terrific at the fadeaway jump shot, a skill that Jordan didn't master until much later in his career.