Monday, May 26, 2003

It's no fluke: Nets back in the finals

N.J. no longer a laughingstock

The Associated Press

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Rick Carlisle played for the New Jersey Nets 13 years ago, scoring one basket all season as his career came to a dead end with a dead-end franchise.

"Back in those days, people said it could never be done," the Detroit Pistons' coach said. "The Nets could never be a contender. But Rod Thorn has done a great job of drafting and getting the right coach and making the right trades. This team is poised, and I believe they've got a real chance against whoever comes out of the West."

While Carlisle and his Pistons headed home Sunday, general manager Thorn, coach Byron Scott and the rest of the Nets began plotting a return trip to the NBA Finals. New Jersey completed a sweep of Detroit on Saturday, winning its 10th consecutive playoff game to retain the Eastern Conference title.

"They're clearly on a mission," Carlisle said. "And I would not bet against them."

New Jersey has a 10-day break - an eternity for a basketball team - before opening at Dallas or San Antonio on June 4. The Nets were swept in the finals by the Los Angeles Lakers last year and will again be the underdog, but this year they are more talented and mature and less star-struck.

"I could see when I walked out at the Staples Center last year, when I was looking at the guys' faces, that we were happy to be there," Scott said. "This year is totally different. The maturity of Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson, Jason Kidd being there last year and getting a chance to go back. Everything is different. The feeling getting there this season is a little more satisfying, but also knowing that the job is not done."

The long layoff will give Kidd more than sufficient time to recover from his twisted ankle, the only scary moment for the Nets in Game 4. Kidd grabbed a rebound and his right foot landed on the foot of Pistons center Ben Wallace. The Nets' point guard lay on the court in pain while a hushed crowd rose.

But Kidd stayed in the game and immediately started a 13-1 fourth-quarter run that put the game away.

Scott plans to pass the time by taking in his first hockey game. The New Jersey Devils open the Stanley Cup finals at home Tuesday night.

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