- Jerry Bembry
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SAN ANTONIO -- This was supposed to be different. The New Jersey Nets would benefit from their experience from a year ago and there would be no big man in the middle to abuse them.
So what happens a year after the Nets are brutalized by Shaquille O'Neal in the NBA Finals? They get demoralized by Tim Duncan, who had 32 points, 20 rebounds and seven blocks -- the second most in Finals history -- in San Antonio's easy 101-89 series-opening win on Wednesday night.
Maybe it was the 10-day layoff that led to the Nets losing for the first time since April 24, a first-round loss to the Bucks. Maybe it was the idle time that caused Jason Kidd to make just four of his 17 shots in scoring only 10 points. Maybe the Nets' 37.1 percent shooting can be attributed to opening-night jitters in a hostile environment.
But if the Nets don't figure out a way to contain Duncan -- a guy that, after getting run over by Shaq, they actually looked forward to playing in the Finals -- they are on their way to suffering the same frustration as they did a year ago.
The Nets' game plan going into the game was to allow Kenyon Martin to play Duncan one-on-one as much as possible, with a second defender attacking anytime the Spurs forward got the ball in the post. It worked for one half, when Duncan had eight points and took just seven shots. But in the second half, Duncan hit eight of his 10 shots, scoring 24 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
"We didn't do all the things we talked about doing. We were not aggressive as far as digging back and trying to discourage Tim," Nets coach Byron Scott said. "I don't know if the game plan worked or not."
Don't know if the game plan worked or not? Believe us, Byron, it didn't.
However, if the Nets want to avoid another game featuring an even stronger Duncan, it might be best to be a bit more aggressive in attacking him. Duncan had just one foul for the game, and that came with 4:59 left when he tried to block a Richard Jefferson shot.
And to think, many people felt that Martin's impressive play during the playoffs would be enough to neutralize the two-time defending MVP. While Martin's 21 points led the Nets, four of his shots were blocked by Duncan -- three of those coming in the fourth quarter when Martin missed seven of nine shots. He fouled out with 1:13 left, right after a sequence featuring three missed shots from within two feet of the basket.
When asked during the post-game press conference about Duncan's play -- coming after statements made before the series by the Nets that they felt fortunate about not playing Shaq in the Finals again -- an annoyed Martin looked toward an NBA official and said, "Can I leave?"
Reluctantly, Martin answered the question. "He had a good game, man. Bottom line," he said. "So we've got to bounce back from it."
Now we will see how the Nets bounce back. On Wednesday, they gave up 100 points in a regulation game for the first time since the opening round. They lost a game by more than five points for the first time in the playoffs. Their 10-game playoff winning streak -- the fourth longest in NBA history -- was snapped.
To bounce back, the Nets will have to find a way to slow Duncan. Last year, the Nets were physically battered by Shaq. After Game 1, they might be on their way to having their confidence strategically shattered by Duncan.
"Maybe we can send him to the old arena, the Alamodome, while we play here," Kidd said. "We have to make it tough as possible for him."
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jerry.Bembry@ESPN3.com.
If the Nets thought these Finals would be easier against Tim Duncan, they thought wrong.