If Martin is the brooding guard dog of the Nets—the player who picks the pregame locker room rap music, scowls at opponents and is, says second-year center Jason Collins, "pretty much serious all the time"—then the 6'7" Jefferson is the retriever with the tennis ball wedged in his mouth who's always ready to play. He has a breezy self-confidence unusual for a player in his second year and a sarcastic sense of humor. Speaking to a group of reporters after Game 3 about the Nets' strong home record, he smiled when one suggested that maybe it was because of the press coverage. "If our beat writers weren't so consistently fair and solid," he said, "I might just shoot myself."
As a rookie coming off the bench, Jefferson showed enough promise that last summer Thorn traded Keith Van Horn to the 76ers to open up minutes for him. Jefferson responded by averaging 15.5 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 50.1% this season. He now has his own dunkapalooza Nike commercial with Vince Carter—the true sign of rising street cred—and earlier this month was reportedly chosen for the U.S. Olympic qualifying team. (Martin, who was not picked, and therefore ticked, responded by scoring 29 points that night against the Milwaukee Bucks.)
During the playoffs Jefferson has been even better. Against Boston he scored on his usual array of slams (fast break, alleyoop, windmill, reverse and chin-up) but, more important, showcased a repertoire of soft 16-to 21-footers. The Celtics' defensive strategy in the first two games was to dare him to shoot, so Jefferson took note of the spots where he had been left open and before Game 3 fired 200 jumpers from those locations. In the first half he hit five of six spot-up J's. For a player who left Arizona as a sophomore with the rap that he had an NBA body and a YMCA jump shot, the improvement portends big things. "I think we're going to have two All-Star forwards," says New Jersey reserve guard Lucious Harris. "They'll be fighting each other for a spot [on the All-Star team] every year."
Not that such a scenario would come between the two. The close relationship between Martin and Jefferson, in which Martin plays the older brother, reflects the Nets' exceptional unity. After Globe columnist Bob Ryan said during a May 4 TV spot that Kidd's wife, Joumana, was an "exhibitionist" whom he'd like to "smack"—a poor choice of words under any circumstances but especially so in this case, considering that Jason was charged with misdemeanor domestic assault of Joumana in January 2001 (the charge was dropped after he agreed to undergo anger counseling and paid a fine)—the Nets rallied around their point guard. Jefferson said anyone on the team would "jump off a cliff" for Kidd. After first calling for Ryan's firing (the Globe suspended the columnist without pay for a month), Scott compared Kidd with Magic, Michael and Larry and wondered why anyone would attack him. "My guys give me a hard time," Kidd said after Game 3, "but they support me as much as I support them, and that's what makes this team special."
Such words no doubt comfort New Jersey fans, who fear Kidd will depart as a free agent this summer. His possible lame-duck status certainly hasn't diminished his leadership role. Kidd has instituted an informal rule that if a Net hits the floor, a teammate should get there as quickly as possible to help him up. (Watch—it's often a race to see who can offer a hand first.) And unlike many teams, which do more locker room griping than on-court passing (Hello, Portland!), New Jersey doesn't tolerate complaints about playing time (as scarcely used, eight-time All-Star center Dikembe Mutombo has come to realize). "They really are like a college team," says Nets broadcaster Ian Eagle. "I've never seen anything like it at this level."
Camaraderie is all well and good, but camaraderie isn't going to defend Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal in the paint, a task that may reasonably be expected of an Eastern finalist. For that, the Nets still don't have an answer, though they may have the best chance of anyone in the East of slowing down Shaq or Duncan, with a combination of Collins, the thick-legged second-year man who started for most of the season; gritty 6'9" forward Aaron Williams; and the old (36), creaky but still 7'2" Mutombo. In the regular season New Jersey was 3-5 against the Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs, but the Nets' improved team play in the postseason bodes well. New Jersey was 8-0 in the regular season when all five starters scored in double figures, and the starters have achieved that feat twice already in the playoffs, in a pair of victories. "The Nets are the best team in the conference," says former New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an analyst for TNT. "They're the most balanced, from defense to offense to interior play. They might have trouble with the Lakers, but I think they could win against any of the three other teams."
Of course, New Jersey has to make it to the Finals before any of these scenarios can play out, but it matches up well against both Philly and Detroit, neither of which has a guard who can handle Kidd, or frontcourt foils for Jefferson and Martin. That's enough to make a 30-year-old point guard optimistic. Sitting at the postgame podium after surviving the brutal Boston crowd last week, Kidd praised the Celtics' tradition. "So much history, so many banners," he said, with the tone of one who has just visited a neighbors home only to find that it is far superior to his own. "You just want to have that for Jersey."
This year, for once, such a proposition may not be quite so far-fetched.