It’s the playoffs. Even though the Nets aren’t involved, we can’t help but think about the postseason. This week, here are our favorite Nets playoff memories.
The era was ending, but it was delayed by the heroic actions of a man named “Veal.”
Game 5. Game 5. Just say the words to any Nets fan with a hint of wistful reservation in your voice, and they’ll know which Game 5 you’re talking about. Game 5 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Nets and the Detroit Pistons was like one last face-melting encore from a rock band on the verge of a breakup. After back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals, the Nets were clearly no longer the team to beat in the East. They had fired their coach, Byron Scott, mid-season and even after the team rattled off 14-in-a-row to start the Lawrence Frank era, the power had seemingly shifted to the Motor City after the Pistons landed Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline. Meanwhile, Jason Kidd was aging and on his way to knee surgery, Kenyon Martin was expecting to get paid like a superstar in free agency, and the Nets were still missing a big man after Alonzo Mourning had signed the previous summer and went on to miss the bulk of the season with more scary kidney ailments.
When the Nets went down 0-2 decisively after the first two games in this series, the end felt even closer. This battle-tested team had their doors blown-off by a defensive-minded, no-Superstar juggernaut. I was starting to think the Nets wouldn’t even win a game.
But then the Nets found themselves back in Detroit for Game 5 with the series tied at two. They always say, a playoff series doesn’t start until the road team wins a game, and going into this game, it felt like the momentum was shifting towards the Nets. Prior to 2004, I’ve seen a number of incredible Game 5 moments from the road team – the Bulls defense swarming Charles Smith under his own basket in MSG; Reggie Miller taunting Spike Lee also at MSG (what’s with me and the Knicks Game 5’s?). If the Nets were going to pull this off, I figured Kidd and Kenyon would be at the center of it, or maybe a long-standing role player like Lucious Harris. But Brian Scalabrine? That pale-skinned redhead with the high socks?
It certainly didn’t look like it was going to play out that way earlier in the game. At the end of regulation, the Nets had an opportunity to ice the game, but missed three-of-four foul shots. That’s when Chauncy Billups drilled a buzzer-beating 40-footer to tie the game at 88 and send the game into its first overtime. Memories of Reggie Miller torturing the Nets in the first round in 2002 danced in my head, but the Nets were able to pull it out then. Of course, the 2002 Nets were clearly a better team than their first-round opponents. The 2004 Nets? Not so much.
Typical of these two teams, it was an ugly game. So many fouls. So many free throws. There were 83 fouls in that game, an NBA postseason record in the shot clock era. And because there were so many fouls, a number of players had fouled out. Martin, Jason Collins, Rodney Rogers and Aaron Williams, essentially the entire big-man rotation for the Nets, were out. Richard Jefferson, who had shifted to PF, played with 5 fouls for all three overtimes. The entire Pistons starting line-up except Billups – Chauncy F’in Billups – had fouled out.
Enter Brian Scalabrine. Scalabrine was such a non-factor his rookie season, I used to confuse him with fellow rookie Brandon Armstrong. In fact, it wasn’t until I plugged in NBA Live 2003 at the start of the 02-03 season that I firmly made the connection that the white dude with the red fro was Scalabrine. Of course the summer of ’03 I had a chance to meet Scalabrine when I was working at a newspaper in Connecticut. He was teaching a summer basketball camp and as the newspaper’s FNG, I was sent to the camp to talk to kids and get a few canned quotes from Scalabrine. He joked about how most of the kids were Knicks fans and probably never heard of him, so I had to tell him that I had been a lifelong Nets fan despite growing up in New York. I think he was more surprised than impressed. If only our meeting had come a year later, I could have talked to him about his Game 5, rather than the fact that he was a no-name player on a team nobody rooted for.
By 02-03 and 03-04, Scalabrine did start getting more playing time, and while his numbers were generally unimpressive, I did learn that he was a big guy who could hit the corner three if left open. The Pistons didn’t get the memo. As the Nets ran out of options in the frontcourt, Scalabrine hit four three-pointers, including one that put NJ up 122-118 with 41 seconds in the third OT. While it was impossible to ever get comfortable as a Nets fan throughout this game of survival, Scalabrine was essentially the one to ice it. Whoever put money on that outcome is probably a very rich man.
The Game 5 victory had the Nets pointed in the direction of the improbable – a Game 6 win at home away from knocking out the highly-favored Pistons and making one last run at the NBA Finals. I truly believe if the Nets had gone back to the swamp and done just that, they would have taken the title on their third try that year. The Pacers may have had the #1 seed in the East, but were not world-beaters, while the Lakers were on their way towards a superstar implosion in the Finals. If they had found a way to slay the Pistons, the Nets would have found a way to win the whole thing.
But it was not meant to be. The 57 minutes logged by Kidd in Game 5 proved to be a death knell for his knee. The thoroughbred was damaged goods, and without their star point guard firing on all cylinders, the Nets were toast. After a valiant, but failed effort in Game 6, the team was crushed in Game 7. And of course the Pistons went on to win the whole thing, just as I thought the Nets were going to do.
But despite the unhappy ending, Game 5 will always be near and dear to me. As I fearfully prophesized, it was the last hurrah for unquestionably the best Nets team of my young lifetime. Kidd had his surgery. Martin left for Denver. Kerry Kittles left for the Clippers and then retirement. Richard Jefferson became the “man” but was never the kind of talent to build a team around. Meanwhile, the Pistons stayed good, and the Heat got Shaq. After experimenting with the likes of Ron Mercer and Rodney Buford, the Nets went out and acquired Vince Carter, but the back-to-back Finals team was dead and buried nevertheless.
Once the Nets got VC, as a fan, you knew exactly what kind of a team you were looking at – a talented, but mediocre group with an expiration date once the postseason started. When the game was on the line, you knew Carter was going to get the shot. The Nets had agreed to live and die through one main scorer. What made the Nets run between 2002-04 so exhilarating for a fan was the fact that a guy named Veal might be the one to step up and hit a big shot. Don’t believe me? Game 5 … Game 5.