Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Nets must stop French import

Gannett News Service

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - In these Jordan-less, Kobe-less, Shaq-less NBA Finals, times have changed.

That came to mind again Sunday night, as the big points for San Antonio were scored by the guy from France, the big steal by the guy from Argentina, the big rebound by the guy from the Virgin Islands.

Not only that, the Spurs have taken the lead using a defense that two years ago was not even legal.

The 3-2 zone has turned the New Jersey Nets' offense into a scavenger hunt, searching for shots that don't rattle the rim or get slapped into Row 3. It is like watching Syracuse guarding the Big East.

"Sometimes it works for us," coach Gregg Popovich was saying the other day, "sometimes it's a debacle."

All this may seem a little strange, accustomed as we are to championships being decided by native sons going man-to-man.

But the most compelling player so far in this series learned his basketball not on the playgrounds of New York or Los Angeles, but the streets of Paris.

Tony Parker is the face Jason Kidd must see when he closes his eyes at night. Tony Parker is San Antonio's barometer. When he scores 20 points, the Spurs are 26-2 this season. Sunday, at a critical moment in hostile territory, he scored 26.

Tony Parker is also only 21 years old. But he is getting the better of Kidd, and seems utterly unfazed by the glare of the Finals.

"My confidence is always there," Parker said. "It doesn't affect me at all."

He has created a future San Antonio dilemma, even as he charms the present. The Spurs are said to be interested in luring free agent Kidd to Texas. But what do they do with the lad who is out-dueling him?

They must be amused back on the Continent about all this, as the games end at dawn. To see such applause for a French basketball player in America, a country that has turned its back on French fries.

Meanwhile, Popovich goes on about Parker's maturity.

"When he first got here he was 19 years old. And one day I found out he'd found his own Realtor, looked at homes, bought it, furnished it, got a mortgage, the whole deal. I don't know if I could find my way out of town."

Parker is just the hottest name of the international wave in the NBA, which is why the Finals are being broadcast in 36 languages.

Global attention is a routine part of the landscape now. So is the zone defense, and if the Nets don't do anything about that soon, they are doomed. New Jersey has scored 89, 87 and 79 points.

"They don't have too many shooters," San Antonio's Stephen Jackson said, "that want to shoot from that zone."

Kidd said the Nets have been rushing their attack, not probing for the best shot. But penetrating against the Spurs is no picnic, either, because as Kidd noted, "they have got 14 feet back there."

That would be Tim Duncan, and David Robinson. Seven-foot shot-swatters, each. Infiltrators are rudely treated.

"My teammates tell me to continue to be aggressive," said New Jersey's Richard Jefferson. "But when you go to the hole, you get hit like a pinata out there."

It has been an odd year. The Masters was won by a Canadian lefthander, the Triple Crown almost went to a gelding, the Stanley Cup was chased by a team called the Mighty Ducks.

And the NBA Finals may hinge on solving a zone, and stopping a Frenchman barely out of his teens. Watching Jordan score his nightly 40 somehow seemed more normal.

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