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A Taste They'll Never Forget


EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Twenty-seven years later, Mike Riordan can recall every emotion colliding under his skin across four awful nights in Oakland and Washington. All this time later, Riordan knows exactly what the Nets will feel if their heads disappear underneath the quicksand tonight.

"When you get swept in the Finals, nothing you did before matters," Riordan said. "It has a residual effect too. No matter how many strides you think you made during a season, it takes you months to remember them because the last taste in your mouth is such a bitter one."

Riordan was a member of the Knicks' 1970 NBA champions, and five years later he was chasing after a second ring as a member of the heavily favored Washington Bullets. In 1971, the Bullets had been swept out of the Finals by the Milwaukee Bucks, and captain Wes Unseld raged that it would never happen again. In 1975, it happened again against the Golden State Warriors.

"You'll never know a more miserable experience in basketball," Riordan said over the telephone from his restaurant in Annapolis, Md. "But I do know this: When you get swept out of the Finals, you go one of two ways. You either make a solemn vow to make things right the next time you get there. Or you drive yourself crazy trying."

Riordan never did taste the ultimate payoff with the Bullets because he retired a year before they made their only championship run in 1978. But he broadcast that team on local TV, and he'd lived through the two years in between, and he saw up close just how getting swept motivated those Bullets, and he shared in their ultimate vindication.

"I don't think the Nets will allow themselves to get swept, to be honest," Riordan said. "But if they do, I can promise you this: If they ever do go back to the Finals, they'll remember every bit of what it will feel like in that locker room [tonight]."

Such is the fuel that still drives Shaquille O'Neal, who has never forgotten the sense of abject failure that seized the Orlando Magic in 1995, when the Houston Rockets methodically ushered that team out of the Finals in four straight.

From the start of these Finals, the only people who truly believed the Nets had a chance of winning this series were the 12 men on the team.

What they've discovered is that experience matters as much as talent in the Finals. Not only the experience the Lakers have accrued in winning back-to-back titles either. There is a tangible feeling to O'Neal's old furies. The Nets can feel it every night. It's the engine pushing them ever closer to becoming the seventh team to feel a broom at their backs.

"Experience is definitely a key, and it's great that we're getting so much of it," Keith Van Horn said. "Although I don't think we necessarily need to be swept to get experience. We've accomplished too much in these playoffs to feel like we gained nothing out of them."

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