Sports Nut

Falling Forward

Keith Van Horn has the Nets’ title hopes in his hands. Uh-oh.

Keith Van Horn
Keith Van Horn

On paper, the New Jersey Nets have one single great advantage over the Los Angeles Lakers, and it is not Jason Kidd. Yes, Kidd is their best player, and he has carried the team in every way imaginable throughout these playoffs, boosting his regular-season average by five points to lead the team in scoring, in addition to the passing, rebounding, and off-the-ball defending that he does better than anyone at his position. But scoring is an unmaintainable burden for Kidd. The buckets haven’t come easy. Like the rest of his team, Kidd has gone cold at critical moments; his three-point percentage in the playoffs is half his regular season mark. And he will be facing his toughest defender yet, the Lakers’ Derek Fisher, a tireless ball hawk, who, despite standing just 6’1”, is difficult to post up. For the Nets to succeed, Kidd will have to be relieved of the scoring load and allowed to return to his more comfortable role as a distributor and orchestrator.

Leaving the Nets’ championship hopes in the hands of … Keith Van Horn.

Before you dash off to your bookie, consider the following: Van Horn ought to own Rick Fox, the Laker who will likely check him. Van Horn is 3 inches taller, 20 pounds heavier, and six years younger. He can bury it from deep (a surprising 44 percent from three-point land in the playoffs), and he’s got a first step that should get him past the tar-heeled Fox with some frequency. Will all this add up to the 25 a night that the Nets need Van Horn to score to put them on an even footing with the Lakers? You’re already shaking your head. It’s so damned unlikely, it makes you laugh.

What prevents Van Horn from realizing his potential as a 6’10” small forward with a rare array of inside/outside skills is a peculiarly heightened form of self-consciousness. In the way he shoots and cuts to the basket and sets a pick, and even in the way he pulls his socks all the way up to his knees, you can sense an unhealthy fixation on form, on doing it exactly right. Every time Van Horn does something on the court, he is actually doing two things: He is doing whatever it is he is doing, and he is watching himself do it. This hyper self-awareness turns every game into an emotional rollercoaster, full of pointless highs and lows that are often far removed from the outcome of the game. When you see a guy hit a three-pointer in the second quarter and run down the court with his hands in the air as though he had just cured cancer, here is one thing you know: That guy will probably not hit that shot in the fourth quarter.

But since Van Horn represents the only real hope the Nets have, he’s worth looking at from this perspective: What can the Lakers do to make absolutely sure he doesn’t explode? The easy answer is: nothing. Don’t overplay him and goad him into greatness. Let Keith be Keith, and when it comes to crunch time, he will either uncork god-awful shots that endanger the well-being of everyone near the rim, or he will make himself scarce, scampering away from passes, dumping the ball back to Kidd the moment he touches it, attempting to hide in Shaq’s shadow. The indiscriminate shooting is a sign of overconfidence, the disappearing a sign of underconfidence. Van Horn spends every game yo-yoing helplessly between the two, and that’s just where the Lakers want him.

The Nets are a very odd team to have advanced to the finals. They have a great range of talent, and broadcasters love to praise them for their balanced scoring, which might get them somewhere if they were playing in, say, a church rec league. In the NBA, balanced scoring is as likely to get you into the draft lottery as into the playoffs. It essentially means you don’t have anybody who demands the ball. It also means that you probably don’t have anyone who needs to be double-teamed. Forcing your opponent to double-team your star is the sine qua non of the modern NBA offense. Los Angeles has two players who require double-teaming, which is why they win. As of right now, the Nets have none, rare for any NBA team, much less one contending for the championship. If the Lakers can just prevent Keith Van Horn from suddenly turning into one, New Jersey won’t be contending for long.