The New Jersey Nets are in desperate shape. They are down 3-0 in the NBA Finals to a team that seems to enjoy toying with them. After spending most of the playoffs allowing their opponents to run up large first-half leads only to come storming back to win, the Los Angeles Lakers now prefer to clamp down right at the beginning, allow a glimmer of hope to seep back in, and then ruthlessly stamp it out in the closing moments. They are nasty and cruel, and the only way the Nets can possibly win back a smidgeon of their dignity is to respond in kind.
Forget their Eastern Conference imitation of a Western Conference offense. It is time to get hostile. They can start by resuscitating the Hack-a-Shaq.
NBC commentator Bill Walton has opined that Shaquille O’Neal’s improvement at the free throw line has rendered the Hack-a-Shaq obsolete. This overlooks two very important things. First, Shaq still looks awfully shaky at the stripe. He holds the ball way out in front of his body and then awkwardly flips it up toward the basket. Give him props for making so many this way, but it is lousy form, and when you have lousy form, it’s hard to make an adjustment when you miss a couple in a row. Why not put him on the line 30 times per game and see if you can’t induce a little mini-slump?
Moreover, the point of the Hack-a-Shaq is not simply that fouling Shaq results in him scoring less (although that’s clearly the A-1 goal). The point is also to physically punish him, to get inside his head, to gum up the works of the Los Angeles offense, to get everybody wearing purple to feel frustrated and angry, and to throw the Lakers off their game.
The Hack-a-Shaq should be part of a larger emergency personality transplant for the Nets. They need to start thinking and playing like a vintage Eastern Conference team—the Knicks, the Heat, the old Pistons. Nets coach Byron Scott needs to think WWJD: What would Jeff (Van Gundy) do?
Van Gundy, who willed the Knicks to the 1999 finals, would instruct his players to grab and hold and commit a lot of hard fouls right from the opening whistle to set the tone and buy himself some leeway with the officials for later in the game. He would also remake the starting lineup around his toughest players. That means benching Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn, and Todd MacCulloch. In their place, insert Lucious Harris, Richard Jefferson, and Jason Collins. What you lose in offensive pop (and in the playoffs, it ain’t been much; Van Horn, in particular, has failed to emerge in the way I argued would be critical to the Nets’ success), you more than make up for in strength and defensive intensity. You also light a fire under Kittles and Van Horn that might just enable them to come off the bench and give the team a lift.
On offense, forget all the moving parts and hunker down in straight one-on-one matchups. In Game 3, Kenyon Martin showed that he could take Robert Horry to the hole. Martin is not the most consistent player, but there’s no reason not to exploit this advantage for as long as you possibly can. Clear Martin’s side of the court, dump him the ball, and see what he can do. If Shaq stays in the paint to help out on the weak side, Collins should be wide open for a free-throw-line jumper. If Shaq doesn’t help, Martin goes all the way to the glass. Repeat this until you’re absolutely certain it won’t work. And then try the same thing with Van Horn, coming off the bench, against Rick Fox. Look for a tiny advantage and drive a truck through it. This is what Van Gundy would do.
The best argument against completely remaking your starting team to salvage one game in the NBA Finals is that you buy yourself lots of trouble for next season. How will the tender psyches of Kittles and Van Horn respond to a benching in the finals? Byron Scott was obviously concerned enough about his two starters to bring them back in the fourth quarter of Game 3, just when his reserves were breaking the game open. That, as we all saw, did not work out so well. This is the Finals, and there’s no guaranteeing the Nets are ever going to find their way back here. Jason Kidd, after all, is never going to be any better than he is right now. This time, Scott ought to go for broke, and the Nets can sort out the hurt feelings later.