Nets keep playing to different tune

They're not packing Continental Airlines Arena nightly, but the Nets are still making sweet music.

Updated: November 7, 2002, 11:01 AM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPN.com

When you're a Net, you're a Net all the way
Piling up victories day after day
When you're a Net, you're a Net all the way
Forgetting Chris Morris and Yinka Dare
And focusing in on your own Special K
Or big Dikembe. We're going all the way

Richard Jefferson
Richard Jefferson, like the Nets, seems to get better with every game.
Once more, with apologies to Stephen Sondheim.

Ultra-alert ESPN.com readers, or those who really have no life, may remember a column in the spring of 2001 that began in a similar way but had a quite different tone. The New Jersey Nets were the Nets of yore back then, getting hurt, losing games, missing shots. They were easy targets, like The Backstreet Boys or Fabio.

Now look at them. Undefeated. Princes of the conference. All you need to know is that those annoying pop-up ads in The New York Post that used to feature Allan Houston now feature Kenyon Martin. Talk about a sea change!

And to think they're getting it all done without Jamie Feick.

The Nets are picking up where they left off, which is what many of us forecast this season. They fooled us all last year. They are as predictable as the weather in El Paso this time around. A win against the Bucks would make it a 5-0 start for Jersey, the best in franchise history. But the Bucks beat New Jersey, 99-93.

It's was intriguing matchup because the Bucks were supposed to be the Nets last year. Well, actually, they were the Nets last year -- the Nets of yore. The new-age Nets did what most of us thought Milwaukee was certain to do -- win the East. Instead, the Bucks turned into the 2000-01 Nets down the stretch and somehow managed to miss the playoffs after leading their division in mid-March.

The Bucks then unloaded Glenn Robinson -- now tearing it up in Atlanta -- and have struggled out of the gate, beating only the winless Knicks in their first three games. Their coach, George Karl, has had a worse year than the Archdiocese of Boston.

New Jersey has won its four games by a margin of almost 15 points a game. They are holding opponents to 41.3 percent shooting with their new, defensive-oriented starting lineup featuring stoppers at four positions.

And the loss of Keith Van Horn? Keith Van who? Richard Jefferson has easily replaced Van Horn's offense and then some. Jefferson merely had to appear to replace Van Horn's defense. What opponents are now discovering is that the Nets have a legitimate small forward with a quick, explosive first step who can be a nightmare to defend. For all of Van Horn's talents, a quick step wasn't among them.

Jefferson went 7-for-7 from the field in the third quarter of Monday's 24-point vaporizing of the Timberwolves. One of those hoops was a posterized dunk over Rasho Nesterovic. Meanwhile, the Nets' defense also forced the normally sure-handed Timberwolves to commit a franchise-record 29 turnovers.

What we have down at Exit 16W is a rare combination of offensive and defensive prowess. The Nets have the game's top playmaker in Jason Kidd, and the starting five is solid at all positions. Coach Byron Scott has a deep bench, bolstered by the summer signing of free agent Rodney Rogers, a dagger in the heart to the Boston Celtics, who tried to get Rogers on the cheap. Lucious Harris, Aaron Williams and Jason Collins round out the productive reserves, who may even become more effective if/when Chris Childs gets into shape.

Broken bones and twisted ligaments used to define this franchise. But Kidd not only brought his basketball skills east, he apparently also brought with him some Southwestern balm, which he transferred over to his new teammates.

Mutombo anchors the defense, as he has done just about everywhere he has been. Other than the 2001 Sixers and the surprising 1994 Nuggets, however, Mutombo's teams haven't had much luck in the postseason. Scott has taken pains to incorporate Mutombo into the offense -- something many thought was a futile gesture -- and it hasn't set back the cause one iota. At the other end, he's averaging 2.75 blocks a game in only 24 minutes and change. You only need to watch him to understand he also causes players to miss shots they normally make simply because he's there.

This intelligently constructed team (kudos, once again, to president Rod Thorn) still plays in the NBA's worst arena, in the NBA's worst arena site, and is far from must-see basketball in the metro New York area. While the 0-4 Knicks were finally acknowledging the obvious the other night -- that many of those empty seats had not, in fact, been sold -- the Nets were drawing an announced gathering of 14,076.

In their three home games to date, New Jersey is averaging 13,851 fans, an increase of 90 per game over last year, when the Nets were 26th in the NBA in attendance. (They did average 19,644 in 11 playoff dates, however.) The Nets have never been a major attraction, but they've also never had the success they're now enjoying. They should be must-see basketball.

The one other constant that has greatly helped the Nets in the Kidd era is their astonishing good fortune in avoiding injuries. Broken bones and twisted ligaments used to define this franchise. But Kidd not only brought his basketball skills east, he apparently also brought with him some Southwestern balm, which he transferred over to his new teammates. Kerry Kittles, who had missed the entire season of 2000-01 recovering from knee surgery, went wire-to-wire last season. So, too, did Kidd. Martin was healthy although missed games because of suspensions, and Van Horn missed only one game.

Other than the weight problems of Childs, the Nets appear to be continuing on their health run this season. Now it's the Knicks who are losing key guys to injuries or suspensions. Jersey even caught a break of sorts when it faced Atlanta without Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the Pacers without Reggie Miller and the T-Wolves without Wally Szczerbiak.

But the way they're going, the Nets don't need opponents' injuries to help them. They've got enough of their own to get the job done no matter who they play. And if they continue to play this way, Kidd should be an automatic re-sign because the only better chance he'd have to win a title would be to sign on for the veteran minimum with the Lakers. And he's not going to do that.

Come to think of it, Sondheim has been silent for awhile. The man who wrote "Sweeney Todd," "West Side Story" (lyrics) and "A Little Night Music" might somehow find the resurrected Nets a worthy topic for a future score.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com