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Championship smell beckons New Jersey

Posted: Wednesday, June 11, 2003

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. As they prepared for the game that might decide the fate of their NBA title dreams, the New Jersey Nets could smell a championship.

''You come into the building this afternoon, and you have a sense of champagne and beer,'' Jason Kidd said Tuesday before the Nets' practice at Continental Airlines Arena.

About 13 hours earlier, the New Jersey Devils raised the Stanley Cup on the ice now below the freshly assembled basketball court. Kenyon Martin attended the hockey game to enjoy the winning vibe and he sat next to George Steinbrenner, who knows a bit about championships.

''It was great for them to win it here, and now the pressure is on us,'' Martin said. ''It's a good pressure. That was a great feeling for those guys. I'm excited for them. We're in a position where we can do the same thing, so now let's go out and play.''

In Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night, the Nets will find out whether they've got any realistic hope of hanging a title banner on the opposite end of the arena from those belonging to the Devils.

A 3-1 deficit has never been overcome in the NBA Finals. Martin told the rest of the Nets, down 2-1 to the San Antonio Spurs, to treat Game 4 as if it were the last game of the season since it might turn out to be the last one that matters.

The Spurs won Game 3 in New Jersey, and they could take prohibitive control of the series with another dominating inside-outside performance from the tandem of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.

''Any team down 3-1 is devastated,'' Spurs guard Stephen Jackson said. ''It would definitely take the confidence out of them.''

To win their first NBA title, the Nets must figure out how to score consistently against the Spurs' ever-changing defense. Run-and-gun New Jersey has been stuck in neutral for most of the series, with San Antonio's strong transition defense preventing most of the fast breaks that are New Jersey's specialty.

And Martin, the Nets' excitable power forward, might be the key. New Jersey's leading playoff scorer is averaging 19.3 points in the series, but he has vanished in the fourth quarter of all three games particularly the Spurs' two victories.

Martin has a combined eight points on 4-of-17 shooting in the fourth quarters. Kidd carried the Nets to victory in Game 2, but New Jersey faded in Game 3 when Martin missed four shots down the stretch.

Duncan and Bruce Bowen both superb defenders have guarded Martin for most of the series. Martin isn't having trouble getting the ball in the low post, but the Nets have been unable to generate their usual amount of easy baskets with their transition offense.

It's a frustration for Martin, who waved his tattoo-covered arms while describing the experience of trying to break the Spurs' stranglehold.

''They get four guys back on every defensive rebound we get,'' Martin said. ''We can't get out and run the way we like. I'm trying to make big plays and get people excited, but we always end up walking it down because we can't get numbers.

"We need to do something to get easy baskets.''

The Nets also have grown frustrated with the Spurs' frequent trips to the free throw line, complaining that Kidd and Martin don't seem to get the same respect afforded Duncan. Nets coach Byron Scott and team president Rod Thorn have complained about the officials.

''We have to be aggressive. It's not the officiating,'' Kidd said. ''We can't just settle for jump shots.

"We have to take the ball to the basket and be aggressive.''

With the reclaimed home-court advantage and their confidence in Duncan, the Spurs can afford to approach Game 4 as a normal playoff meeting but the Nets need this victory, not only for their championship hopes, but for their franchise's growth.

New Jersey entered the finals determined to improve on its four-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in last season's final round. Kidd scored 30 points as the Nets got their first finals victory ever in Game 2, but San Antonio doused the Nets' suddenly rowdy fans with an 84-79 victory in Game 3.

It took years to build the losing stigma that enveloped the Nets for most of their 26 seasons in northeast New Jersey, and it still hasn't dissipated entirely. The Nets had just eight sellout crowds during the regular season, and they couldn't sell out their first four playoff games.

''It still seems like a lot of people in Jersey have not caught on,'' Scott said. ''We're still not getting the sellout crowds like we should be getting, because we do have a very exciting product that we're putting on the floor.

''But people are coming around, and it's just fun to be a part of it. Hopefully we can have this thing continue for a long period of time.''

Said Kidd: ''(The Devils) just celebrated a championship, and the people of New Jersey are well-deserving of that. Hopefully we can follow that up with the NBA Finals trophy.''



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