The Taunts fell on Jason Kidd like verbal shrapnel. Sometimes it was just one voice, other times a host of them shouting in unison. Behind one baseline at Boston's FleetCenter, four teenagers stood to display the letters K-l-D-D written in duct tape across their torsos, which were covered with the type of white-ribbed tank tops you see on The Sopranos, the ones often referred to as wife-beaters. Perched above the tunnel to the locker rooms, preteen boys waved posters made to look like large police mug shots of Kidd, complete with a booking number.
The displays were tasteless. They were crude. And they made Rod Thorn supremely confident. "The more of that the better, as far as I'm concerned," the Nets' president and general manager said with a small smile as he surveyed the raucous, anti-Kidd crowd before the tip-off of Game 3 of New Jersey's Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics last Friday. "This kind of stuff only makes Jason play better. Just watch him tonight."
As Thorn predicted, Kidd came out all business. After a week-long wait by Celtics fans for Kidd to come to town and a buildup fit for a prizefight—including comments about the domestic-assault charge against Kidd (subsequently dropped), inflammatory remarks from a respected Boston Globe columnist and enough drama that 36 media members crammed into a FleetCenter hallway for a five-minute pregame Q and A with Nets coach Byron Scott—Kidd tore down the floor as he always does, like a motorcyclist weaving through rush-hour traffic, and hit his first two jump shots. Nothing but twine. But then he began to miss. Badly. First a midrange jumper, then a couple of forced three-pointers. The man who had carried the scoring load for the team as it advanced to the 2002 NBA Finals, who was not only its engine but often its chassis and wheels as well, couldn't buy a bucket. He finished with nine points.
A season ago this might have crippled the Nets; this time it didn't even faze them. Behind the play of the Jasonaires, especially the rapidly improving forward tandem of Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin, New Jersey cruised to a 94-76 victory, breaking the spirit of the Celtics and their fans. On Monday night Kidd returned to his usual transcendent self, racking up 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists as the Nets completed their sweep with a 110-101 double-overtime victory in Boston to advance to the conference finals, where they will face the winner of the Detroit Pistons- Philadelphia 76ers series.
New Jersey's impressive play is almost—emphasis on almost—enough to inspire thoughts that the East could provide a worthy contender in the NBA Finals, especially given the bad fortune plaguing the West. True, the Nets' regular-season finish was lackluster, and yes, their half-court offense can be underwhelming, but their dominance of the Celtics was faintly reminiscent of the way the Los Angeles Lakers swept New Jersey en route to a third straight tide last June. Given the high standards the Nets are setting, whichever team represents the East should be, if not a beast, then at least not a sacrificial lamb.
New Jersey has to be considered the conference favorite because of Kidd, the guy who makes every fast break TiVo-worthy. The difference from last year is that he now has significant backup in his frontcourt. Through Monday, Martin and Jefferson had averaged a combined 38.0 points on 51.6% shooting and 15.7 rebounds in the postseason. When asked if he was surprised by the duo's play, Boston coach Jim O'Brien shook his head. "No, they're great players," he said. "The Nets came in with three guys who can absolutely murder you in every phase of the game."
Kidd says he and his two young running mates have developed into "a unit both on and off the court," and talks like a proud father of how each forward is feeding off not only him but also the other. "It's a beautiful thing to watch," he says. "Last year was their first go-around in the playoff's, so my job was to put the ball in the basket and bring them along. This year they've worked on their games, and they're more focused. They've really grown up."
Rewind to the start of last year's postseason, when the 6'9", 234-pound Martin was being touted as the Flagrant Flyer. He had earned a reputation as a hothead while racking up an NBA-high six flagrant fouls in the regular season, and his play was raw and erratic. This season the third-year forward has shown greater self-control, drawing only one flagrant call, while refining his game. Along with an improved jump hook, he has sharpened his jump shot to the point where he's dangerous at 20 feet. KMart's preference, though, is to take it to the rack. More often than any other player in the league, he leaves his feet in the lane without any apparent plan of how he'll release his shot, yet his hang time is so absurd that he can devise all manner of floaters and finger rolls before softly returning to earth.
Martin now uses perceived slights as motivation. When he wasn't chosen as an All-Star reserve in January, he said it "just added fuel to the fire," presumably the one that continuously smolders inside him, and went on a box score rampage, averaging 26.5 points and 15.3 rebounds in the next four games. The most noticeable improvement this year has been in his rebounding, something he attributes to, of all things, an old Charles Barkley commercial he saw during the All-Star break on NBA.com. In it the Chuckster intones, "When the ball comes off the glass, you can either watch it or you can go get it." Says Martin, "I thought, Huh, simple but true. So I took the advice and ran with it." By the end of the season, he had increased his averages to 16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds (up from 14.9 and 5.3).
More kindling for Martin's furnace arrived last week, when he was omitted from the NBA All-Defensive team. That he came in 10th in the voting for forwards behind players such as Brian Grant, Clifford Robinson and Jermaine O'Neal—"There were a couple of people on there I couldn't believe," Martin says—seemed ludicrous considering that when the announcement was made, he was in the process of befuddling Celtics All-Star forward Antoine Walker, who shot 34-3% for the series, a low number even by his unmarks-manlike standards. The key, Martin says, was not leaving his feet on shot fakes and staying in front of Walker, whom he compares with Dirk Nowitzki as a defensive challenge because both are skilled at handling the ball and shooting from the perimeter.