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OTHER VIEWS

Loss Turns Hope to Hopelessness

June 07, 2002|MIKE VACCARO | NEWARK STAR-LEDGER

The Sultan of Sanctimony has officially cleared his throat and become fully engaged in these NBA Finals. On Wednesday night, moments after his Lakers had flicked away the Nets' fourth-quarter charge, Phil Jackson had scrawled on a locker room grease board: "Gave them confidence. Take it back."

He smells blood sprinkled in the designer water at Staples Center.

He realizes the NBA Finals could well be over tonight, that the Nets sit one more hard lesson away from joining his signature scrap-heap of bloodied finals refugees. Yes, the Sultan knows the signs as well as any coach in history.

He knows a vulnerable team when he sees one.

And he will be seeing one tonight.

Forget everything else you know about these Nets for a moment.

Ignore all the times when they boomeranged back from the brink, making stands, taking charges, winning games they had no business winning. Leave all of that in the past for now.

"None of that will help us tonight," Keith Van Horn said. "This is a pretty special challenge against a pretty unique team. All of our focus has to be on the business at hand."

And that business, spoken quite simply, is this:

After tonight, we'll know if the Nets intend to keep the competitive phase of these NBA Finals alive, extended to the other side of the weekend at least. The only way they do this is with a victory tonight against a Laker team that spent much of its off-day engaged in self-flagellation, angered that it allowed the Nets to sneak back into Game 1 and keep daring to dream.

Tie the series at 1-1, then Sunday night in Jersey might just be the best basketball party the state has seen.

Go down, 2-0?

"We haven't thought about being down 2-0," Jason Kidd said.

Hard to blame them for that. For three playoff series, the Nets heard their coach, Byron Scott, spit out old Pat Riley platitudes such as this one: A team with a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven series is a team enjoying total control of that series. But even Scott has to know that in this case, that saying would have to be altered.

These Lakers with a 2-0 lead would be a mortal lock.

And as much as the Nets have enjoyed spitting in the eyes of those who would doubt them, winning four out of five from the Lakers crosses the line from improbable to impossible. And if they lose tonight, that would be the task ahead of them.

Meaning this:

They cannot lose tonight.

"If we do," Kenyon Martin said, "then it will be over quick."

Martin, of course, famously surmised that the Nets had lost the Eastern Conference finals after mounting that epic collapse in Game 3. The sky never did fall on the Nets in that series, as it turned out. But he's right about this.

In the same way the Sultan of Sanctimony is right to urge his team to step on the Nets' necks tonight. If they do that--and let's be honest, they should do that--then not only will they spare their boss the ignominious chore of learning, late in his coaching life, the horrors of losing well.

They also will set the sky falling. All over the Nets' hopes.

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