EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It was a jumper at the free-throw line. It was one of those unmistakable two-handed flings. It was an all-net jumper, yet it triggered mock applause from the home crowd.
Reason being: It was the fourth quarter when Gary Payton finally made that jumper.
The NBA's second season opened at lunchtime Saturday, Payton's first trip to the playoffs in the easier East, and GP looked like he was still on West Coast time. Nearly 44 minutes elapsed before Payton, looking more sluggish than anyone could ever remember, scored his first playoff points in the purple of the Milwaukee Bucks. By the time Payton finally made a shot, after eight straight misses and five turnovers, his new team was mounting a meaningless rally from 31 points down, and coming away with a seemingly respectable 109-96 loss to New Jersey.
It wasn't. It wasn't respectable or predictable, and the timing of Payton's shocking no-show was particularly poor. Only after the Bucks left the building, hours later, did a theory emerge to explain the flatness: Instead of going back to Milwaukee with the rest of the squad, Payton and teammates Sam Cassell and Jason Caffey had to go to Toronto to turn themselves into police in response to recent assault charges. So Payton's mind could have easily been in Canada, too.
"He's very upset with himself," said Desmond Mason, who knows Payton as well as any Buck after their time in Seattle together. "You can tell by his body language."
Mason might have been referring to the sight of Payton, hands on his hips and furiously chomping on his gum at midcourt, waiting uncomfortably for the final seconds to tick away. It was only Game 1, in a first-round series that will stretch to seven games if necessary, but you came away with the sense that there could be lasting consequences for the Bucks. In a couple areas.
The obvious consequence is what it did for the confidence of Payton's buddy, Jason Kidd, who made six of his first seven shots in a 14-point first quarter. Kidd didn't score a single point thereafter, and it didn't matter, because his passing (14 assists) and general leadership sent the Nets running right into rout mode, after Kidd's long and draining finish to the regular season. Give him a clear KO in Round 1 of the Oaktown Point Guard Championships.
Yet more disconcerting, for all of Milwaukee, is how curiously flat Payton seemed, when the Bucks were expecting their Glove to quietly slip into a more aggressive posture than they have seen so far. Milwaukee was just 15-14 after making the midseason trade to get Payton and Mason from Seattle, and the Bucks didn't show any defensive improvement with the 34-year-old ball hawk until the last nine games of the season, when they played seven teams that missed the playoffs.
In Jersey, Payton missed a reverse layup early and only got worse. Worse yet, Payton's mates followed his lead. By game's end, the Nets had piled up massive advantages on the break (21-5), in the paint (56-28) and, most notably, on the boards (48-28). The only consolation for the visitors is that No. 20 couldn't possibly struggle more.
"I just had a bad game," Payton said. "I take responsibility when I have a bad game, and I had one. ... I know I'm not going to have two games like that, though."
"It happens," said Sam Cassell. "Basketball is a strange game. GP is the least of my worries. He'll be fine. Trust me."
Bucks coach George Karl had already dismissed the latest questions, before tipoff, about Payton and Cassell working in tandem. The questions persist, since both dominate the ball by nature and both prefer to operate on the same side (left) of the court. "One of the easier challenges I've ever had," Karl said. "It worked in about a week." Added Cassell: "I don't think there'll be no fisticuffs between us."
Some fine-tuning of their telepathy wouldn't hurt, though. In the second quarter especially, the Bucks looked like they had never played together. That's the quarter when Payton airballed a baseline jumper, had a layup blocked by Kenyon Martin and threw three passes that sailed low or behind his moving targets.
"I have never seen that," Mason admitted, "really since I've been watching him."
It wasn't what Karl needed to see, either, given everything he's asking Payton to do. In addition to the coach's hope that he can stay in front of Kidd as much as possible, Payton has been asked to "develop a wild card" every game -- which translates to helping Mason or Tim Thomas or Michael Redd get hot. The coach is likewise expecting Payton to help build confidence in big men like Ervin Johnson or rookie Marcus Haislip, so Karl isn't forced to lean on small ball -- which can mean Toni Kukoc at center -- all the time.
At least Payton has a lot of series left to show he can still do all that at 34. Or a good chunk of it. Even in an embarrassing defeat, the one positive the Bucks did flash is that Payton will get help, judging from the whopping 50 points Milwaukee received from three bench players on an otherwise miserable afternoon.
"One guy is not going to do it for us -- we have to play together," said Thomas, who posted a team-best 25 points, albeit most of them in garbage time, perhaps signaling his return to favor after a fallout with Karl.
"When we play together, we can play with anybody," Thomas continued. "When we don't ... you get a nice foot in your ass."