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Rising in the East Point guard extraordinaire Jason Kidd and the improved Nets could give the West a test if they make the NBA Finals

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-I-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 title 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

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 playoffs, 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 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
unmarksmanlike 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.

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,
alley-oop, 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 neighbor's 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


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN JUMP START Kidd's passing ignited a sweep of the Celtics that showed New Jersey is no longer a one-man show.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN K-POW! Martin thrives on attacking the basket, and when he's not dunking he's often finishing with shots he devises in midair.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM BOURG/REUTERS KIDD 'N' PLAY Jefferson displays a brashness beyond his 22 years, and his sense of humor helps keep New Jersey loose.

A year ago Kidd's off night MIGHT HAVE CRIPPLED the Nets; this
time it didn't even faze them.

If Martin is the Nets' guard dog, then Jefferson is THE RETRIEVER
with the tennis ball in his mouth.