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EAST VS. WEST For Jason Kidd to propel the upstart Nets to the NBA title, he'll have to win his matchup with L.A.'s Kobe Bryant

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 flambe 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

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.

Bryant, as was the case with Jordan, does not play on a
fast-breaking team even though he seems like a fast-breaking
kind of guy. Rarely is Kobe at full speed. He's at his most
dangerous, as Jordan was, when he's in glide mode, bouncing the
ball with his head up, looking for space, calculating, reading
the court, then--whoosh!--crossing over and disappearing,
leaving behind a flat-footed defender.

Kidd, by contrast, runs the floor relentlessly, as do Martin and
Kerry Kittles, Kidd's storkish backcourt partner. The Nets run
so much that they should hand Kidd spikes and a baton; the
Carril-Jordan contributions to New Jersey's offense
notwithstanding, what has gotten this onetime stooge of a team
this far has been its transition game. The best thing about Kidd
in the open floor is that he never auditions for the Magic
Johnson Highlight Reel--he makes economical passes that lead to
baskets. Too many point guards fall in love with the dribble on
the break, but when Kittles or Martin is streaking ahead, Kidd
never hesitates to deliver the ball early. If the Nets can set
the Lakers back on their heels and reel off a couple of 10-0
runs, their chances increase dramatically. However, that
requires Martin, Van Horn and MacCulloch to outbattle O'Neal,
Fox and Robert Horry for boards. Many of those long defensive
caroms that Kidd usually snatches to start the break may end up
instead in the paws of Bryant, perhaps the only guard in the
league who rebounds as well as Kidd.

For all Kidd's fill-up-the-box-score majesty, his greatest
contribution to the Eastern champions can't be measured with
statistics. It's almost as if the Nets didn't exist (or at least
hadn't existed since the Julius Erving ABA days of the 1970s)
before the deal last July that brought Kidd to the swamp and
sent Stephon Marbury to the Phoenix Suns. Kidd is his team's Mr.
Everything, its sun and its moon, the essence of its newfound
spirit. He provides a safety net for Kittles, who was a question
mark after off-season knee surgery; a role model for backup
guard Lucious Harris, who had been perceived as a player who
didn't give it 100% every night; a balm for Van Horn, whose
confidence had flagged after his scoring and rebounding numbers
dipped in consecutive seasons.

Bryant, by contrast, is not the spiritual cynosure of the
Lakers, who don't seem to require one. Kobe, like Shaq, is with
his teammates but not of them. When the two stars need to feed
off each other on the court, they simply turn the triangle into
a line. Same thing off the court: Between Games 5 and 6 of the
Kings series, for example, an edgy Bryant made a 2:30 a.m. call
to Shaq, and they talked about the importance of the next two
games, both of which resulted in Los Angeles victories.

With understandable brio, Van Horn said last week that the
Kidd-for-Marbury deal "might go down in history as the biggest
trade ever in terms of a turnaround for a team." Well, Keith,
the draft-day deal with the St. Louis Hawks that brought Bill
Russell to the Boston Celtics in 1956 was a little bigger, and
here's one from '96 that wasn't bad: The Lakers gave Vlade Divac
to the Charlotte Hornets for the draft rights to Bryant. There's
no doubt that Kidd has changed the image of the Nets, put a big
smiley face on a downtrodden franchise in a quest for its first
NBA championship. But Kidd's play aside, New Jersey will
ultimately be kid's play for Kobe and Shaq, who, in six games,
will lead the Lakers to their third straight title.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN (KIDD) COVER The NBA Finals Kidd vs. Kobe He who makes the big plays wins


COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH JUMP STARTERS Although Bryant (below) isn't a point guard, he'll often direct the Lakers' attack and cover playmaker supreme Kidd.












Horry likes to stand around and spot up, and he's a good enough
shooter that Martin, when he's guarding Horry, won't be able to
leave him to double someone else or help down low. New Jersey
needs Martin to make a difference defensively, so expect him to
check Kobe for stretches. At the other end Horry is a great help
defender. He's long, he can cover a lot of ground, and if Martin
doesn't keep him honest, Horry can disrupt the other Nets. While
Martin can't be counted on to hit his jumper, he created more
problems for the Celtics than he was given credit for. He didn't
pile up a lot of points, but when he broke Paul Pierce down,
Boston had to send another defender, and that opened up the

An NBA scout provided analysis of the Finals matchups.



Kittles isn't going to do anything but shoot jumpers and run the
floor, so the Lakers won't waste Bryant on him; look for them to
put Kobe on Kidd a lot of the time and use Fisher on Kittles. In
the conference finals Kerry had that look in his eye--he wanted to
take the big shots--but you wonder how long he can keep it up.
Entering the Finals, he was only 13 of 52 from the three-point
line, and the only way Kittles will be a factor in this series is
if he shoots a high percentage. Kittles's length won't help much
against the quicker Fisher, who is a better point guard than most
people think.




The Nets have to win this matchup to have a chance. They need Van
Horn to become their second star, alongside Kidd. You never know
with Van Horn; he hit some huge shots against the Celtics, but
he's way too up and down. He has a three-inch advantage and a bit
of a post-up game, so he might try to overpower Fox--though that's
not exactly his style. And Fox is smart. He'll bother Van Horn by
banging him. Van Horn has to really get the upper hand here. It
would shock me if he did.



The Nets will also use Aaron Williams and Jason Collins against
Shaq, but MacCulloch is going to have to play more than his
standard 20 minutes in the middle. Then they can use Williams at
power forward to help double-team. Last year's experience with
the 76ers in the Finals against Shaq should benefit MacCulloch.
He's not flashy, but he has great hands and finishes well. If he
doesn't score, then New Jersey will have to go small and hope to
pull O'Neal away from the basket. Shaq's hurting big-time. You
might think that gives the Nets a chance, but it doesn't amount
to much of one: He still went for 41 in Game 6 against the Kings
and 35 in the clincher. If the Lakers need Shaq to come up
big--and they almost always do--there is nothing New Jersey can do
to stop him.