MILWAUKEE — At the peak of his powers, Jason Kidd flashed a bashful smile and pretended he was limping. Or at least pretended to pretend.
“Every day of rest you get in the playoffs,” Kidd said, “feels like a week in real time.”
This was on the eve of the 2004 Eastern Conference semifinals, Game 6. The Nets had dropped the first two in Auburn Hills, Mich., to the Pistons, but they had roared back to win three in a row, including a breathtaking triple-overtime 127-120 win at The Palace. Now, they had a chance to close out the Pistons. And Kidd liked the Nets’ chances.
“We tend to be able to sniff it when we have a shot,” Kidd said. “I think that’s the sign of a good, playoff-savvy team.”
It wasn’t meant to be that spring. The Pistons beat the two-time defending Eastern Conference champion Nets 81-75 in an ugly Game 6 at the Meadowlands, then cruised in Game 7, 90-69. A month later, the Piston stunned the Lakers in five games to win one of the most-improbable championships in NBA history.
In many ways, that was the Nets’ last shining moment until Thursday, when they were attempting to close out the Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Fiserv Forum. And in many ways, Kidd’s words ring truer than ever: for a banged-up team, ending this series immediately was a high imperative. Even an extra day or two off can seem like gold.
Those Kidd-era Nets teams understood. Before losing Game 6 in 2004, the Nets, across three seasons, had six opportunities to close out series, and they went 6-0 the very first chance they had to do it.
Maybe they learned from their first playoff series together, when they had a 2-1 lead in a best-of-five against Indiana in April 2002, got drilled in Indianapolis in Game 4 and then had to hang on for dear life in an epic double-overtime game highlighted by Reggie Miller’s 35-foot bank shot at the regulation buzzer.
From there, though the Nets were a closeout machine:
Up 3-1 on Charlotte in the ’02 East semis, they won Game 5.
Up 3-2 on Boston in the ’02 East finals, they won Game 6.
Up 3-2 on Milwaukee in the ’03 East quarters, they won Game 6.
Up 3-0 on Boston in the ’03 East semis, they won Game 4.
Up 3-0 on Detroit in the ’03 East finals, they won Game 4.
Up 3-0 on the Knicks in the ’04 East quarters, they won Game 4.
When those Nets smelled it, they seized it. It became a point of pride among the team. Six straight closeout wins is a lot harder to accomplish in real time than it seems like in retrospect. But those Nets wore that ability like a crown.
“We feel like once we know we can take care of business, we’re going to take care of business,” Kerry Kittles said in 2003. “The longer you let a team hang around in a series the more chances they have to do something that hurts you: get hot, get confident, get on a roll. Better to do everything you can to advance as early as you can.”
Now, a few days ago these Nets might have happily signed up for any method to simply scoot past the Bucks and make it to the East finals, given how dire their injury situation is. And even as they prepared to play Game 6, they understood full well the possibility that a Game 7 still lurked. The Bucks, presumably, were not prepared to simply lay down their arms and walk away.
Still, if ever a team could use some of its ancestors’ mojo, it’s these Nets, already shy Kyrie Irving, already carrying courageous James Harden and his bum hammy. Kevin Durant is in fine health, but in Game 5 he did play 48 minutes for the first time in years.
A day’s rest might feel like a month for this team.
That’s what they were shooting for Thursday night, as much as anything. They were already 1-0 in closeouts, beating the Celtics at the earliest opportunity in Game 5 of their opening-round series. That would be precisely what the doctor ordered again.