Celtics Down Nets in ECF Preview

March 14, 2002

Rod Thorn is in his second season as president and general manager of the New Jersey Nets. But he's been around the NBA long enough to have offered up, unsolicited, the following astute observation last night: "Did you ever think you'd see a meaningful game between the Celtics and Nets in March?"

Uh, no. Not in this millennium. Not for both teams.

   But, of course, there it was, right before our eyes. A certifiable Big Game at the FleetCenter between the first-place Nets and the second-place Celtics. (You almost expect some computer virus scanner to instantly activate when you write such a sentence.) The Celtics made it even more meaningful with a 97-89 victory, pulling to within three games of the Nets in the Eastern Conference with 18 games remaining for each team.

"We're trying to win the East," Paul Pierce said after another tour de force (32 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals, and 2 blocks). "We hope they're hearing our footsteps."

Across the hall, the Nets' Jason Kidd, who also played brilliantly (23 points, 13 rebounds, 8 assists, 5 steals), said the Nets most definitely are noticing that their once-commanding lead has pretty much disappeared.

"We still are the best team in the East," he said. "But we're hearing footsteps. The other teams behind us have stepped it up and we have to do the same thing. You walk off the floor and see the other team celebrating. There has to be a reason and it's because they beat the best team in the East."

This was as big a game as the Celtics have had at home all season. A loss would have meant a five-game deficit and a tough hill to climb. But the importance didn't translate into a sixth sellout, although the crowd of 16,143 showed sellout noise.

Turner TV also elected to air the Kings-Sixers game and that drove home the painful reality that the Nets and Celtics are still fighting that Respect Thing. You will find more people who think "Moulin Rouge" is going to win Best Picture than think either of these teams is going anywhere in the postseason. Milwaukee has the talent. Charlotte has the size. Philadelphia has the experience. Even Miami is already being groomed as The Team No One Wants To Face In The First Round. Boston? New Jersey? Merely on loan from Secaucus.

Asked about the apparent lack of respect shown his team, the Nets' Kenyon Martin snapped, "I don't care what they think. Never have. Never will . . . I care about the New Jersey Nets. Damn the Boston Celtics."

The Nets have lost five of their last six and Kidd suggested that "just a couple guys showed up." His coach, Byron Scott, had a similar observation. This was after the Nets eschewed the usual X's, O's, stats, and trends on their chalkboard and opted instead for four pregame motivational suggestions, all of which apparently went unheeded.

The first was Mental Adjustment. "How Bad Do You Want It?" Then there was Physical Approach: "How Much Will You Give?" After that came Endurance and Durability: "Can You Sustain Peak Levels? 48 Minutes." And, finally, there was the all-important, Will To Win: "Means More Than Anything!"

"The effort was not 110 percent," Scott said. "You can't make the same mistakes that you made in Games 2, 3, or 4 in Game 64. That's ridiculous. It won't be tolerated."

The Nets clearly miss Todd MacCulloch, who last night missed his 11th straight because of a sore foot. He gives them a big body who fills up space, can finish, and defend the post. He may need two more weeks.

Thorn noted, "We are suffering a little short term for it, but, in the long term, we'll be better off. We need him healthy for the playoffs."

Ah yes, the playoffs. We finally get to what really matters. It's a foregone conclusion both teams will get there, but it's also virgin territory for most of the players. Between them, the Celtics and Nets have one playoff appearance in the last seven years. That was the Nets' three-and-out against the Bulls in 1998, John Calipari's high-water mark at Exit 16W.

The Nets have won exactly one playoff series - a first-round upset of the Sixers in 1984 - since they entered the NBA in 1977. They've played 39 NBA playoff games - and lost 30. In their last eight playoff series, they have never even had the home-court advantage.

That most definitely will change this year. The Nets and the Celtics should both have home-court advantage in the first round. And given the way this wacky season has gone, would anyone be really surprised if the teams met again in May? Now that would be really meaningful basketball.

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