If a movie were tobe made about the 2005-06 New Jersey Nets, it would be titled The Forgotten.The supporting actors would include raspy-voiced coach Lawrence Frank, whodespite his .572 career winning percentage is known more for his limitedstature (at 5'8") and seasoning (at 35 years old); quick-trigger guardVince Carter, who is trying to outrun his controversial past; and fast-risingforward Richard Jefferson, who may one day get his All-Star due. Then therewould be the film's leading man, Jason Kidd, 33, who still slips defenders likea man 10 years younger yet who also slips too many conversations about theNBA's top players. "Every year people want to throw a new name out therelike Dwyane Wade or Tony Parker," says Jefferson. "It's ridiculous.Night in and night out, nobody brings it like J-Kidd." ¬∂ Night in, nightout for the past month, no team has brought it like the Nets, who were riding aleague-best 12-game winning streak through Sunday that included double-digitvictories over Dallas, Phoenix and Miami as well as a road win over Detroit.During that stretch, Kidd has averaged 9.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 8.5assists. For a player fourth in career triple doubles, those numbers are hardlyshocking. What they don't show, though, is his impact at the defensive end. Inthe 79-74 win over the Pistons on March 26, Kidd held an MVP candidate,Chauncey Billups, without a field goal for three quarters. In a 110-72 rout ofthe Suns one night later, Kidd held the MVP favorite, Steve Nash, scoreless forthe first time in more than three years. So how exactly did Jason Kidd getbumped from the discussion about the game's elite players? "Maybe I'm notflamboyant enough," says Kidd, who for the first time since 1995 wassnubbed by All-Star voters during an injury-free season.
Cinematicallyspeaking, New Jersey is more indie production than megaplex blockbuster; it is,after all, the only division leader that isn't on TNT's schedule. Which isn'tto say that the performance of the Nets--and Kidd, in particular--is lost oncritics who value character development over special effects. "He's thebest point guard on the planet, hands down," says Memphis Grizzlies forwardShane Battier. "When you're [consistently] that good, you can be taken forgranted."
"He doesn'thave the flash of Baron Davis or the unorthodox style of Steve Nash," saysMilwaukee Bucks assistant Lester Conner. "But does that matter? He's stillone of the rare players who can make everyone on the floor better."
As for Kidd'sdetractors, you can count on Frank to use their assessments as a motivationaltool. The Nets' coach rarely wastes an opportunity to cut out clips withnegative remarks, as he did last month with a newspaper column that failed toinclude Kidd in a list of the top five point guards. That mild dis can likelybe attributed to Kidd's struggles last season, when he was recovering frommicrofracture knee surgery, a procedure from which Chris Webber, Penny Hardawayand Amaré Stoudemire have been slow to recover.
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Perhaps the bestmeasure of Kidd's value to the Nets--and his place in history as a premierpoint guard--has been his adaptability. After years, and highly successful onesat that, of playing I-throw-it-up-and-you-slam-it with Jefferson and KenyonMartin and Kerry Kittles, Kidd has made the transition to a more controlledstyle that better suits Carter, who was acquired early last season after makingit clear he wanted out of Toronto. With his clock-killing dribbling andslightly (O.K., very) questionable shot selection, Carter seemed an ill-suitedsidekick for an up-tempo playmaker like Kidd. Not so. Averaging 26.0 pointsduring the winning streak, Carter has exhibited energy seldom seen during hislast years as a Raptor. In the third quarter of an 86-74 win over the Grizzlieson March 29, he pulled down a rebound and sprinted 94 feet before taking abounce pass from Kidd and throwing down an emphatic one-handed dunk. "WithVince you have to accept that sometimes he'll aim at the rim and hit thelogo," says Kidd, "but he can also make a lot of shots that no one elsecan."
More surprisingthan their offensive efficiency is the Nets' newfound defensive dominance.During their streak, they were holding opponents to 81.0 points a game,astonishing numbers considering that, of the starters, only Kidd and JasonCollins are above-average defenders and that Carter and 22-year-old centerNenad Krstic are mediocre at best. But a renewed commitment to individualdefense spearheaded by Kidd has helped the Nets--who rarely send doubleteams--control the rim and limit second chances. "When they defend likethat, combined with their scoring," says Philadelphia 76ers assistant JohnKuester, "they're the scariest team in the league."
That isn't news toMiami, which swept New Jersey in the first round of last year's playoffs. In a90-78 win over the Heat on Sunday, the hallmarks of the new Nets were ondisplay: the half-court wizardry of Carter (43 points), a suffocating defensethat held an opponent under 80 points for the sixth time during the streak. Itwas the Nets' third win in four meetings with Miami this year and perhaps amessage that this show's run may be extended deep into June.
Which nonplayoff teams have reason to believe in'06-07? Find out at SI.com/nba.