Sun, Jan 02, 2005 - Page 23 News List

Carter may spark rivalry

AMERICAN BASKETBALL The Nets trail the first-place Knicks (16-13) in the Atlantic Division by five and a half games. If the gap narrows, fans may fill the stadiums

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEYAP, BOSTONREUTERS, LAS VEGAS, NEVADA

Jason Kidd, right, and Vince Carter of the Nets during their game against the Pacers at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey on Thursday.

PHOTO: AFP

The Nets and the Knicks have rarely enjoyed success at the same time, and their rivalry, while strong, has never seemed as fierce as the one between the Rangers and the Devils.

When Vince Carter plays against the Knicks for the first time as a Net today at Madison Square Garden, however, it will not only make for an intriguing matchup, but it could herald a new stage in a rivalry that the Nets have dominated since 2001, when they acquired Jason Kidd.

"I have an idea of what it's like, but I don't know the significance of the Knicks-Nets rivalry," Carter said after practice Friday.

If the response at Continental Arena to his first home appearance on Thursday night was any indication, Carter is likely to find out how significant in a hurry at the Garden.

A crowd of 20,174 -- the largest to attend a Nets game in Continental Arena history -- saw Carter score 25 points in a 96-83 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Much of the crowd arrived early to marvel at him and Richard Jefferson take turns dunking during pre-game layups.

The Nets (10-18) are 1-2 since they obtained Carter from the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 17. Coach Lawrence Frank admits that his team is still a work in progress two weeks after the acquisition of Carter, a five-time All-Star and the 2000 NBA slam-dunk champion.

"We've never been in a situation with the two wing players we have now," Frank said, referring to Carter and Jefferson.

Frank said that the Nets still needed to emphasize defense to be successful. "We still have to try to get things done within what we do," he said.

"So it's a balance. And it's on the fly, with a guy who's playing 40 minutes a game," Frank said, referring to Carter.

The situation the Nets find themselves in reminds Frank of where the Knicks were last season after Isiah Thomas took over the team's president.

"They put together their team on the run last year," Frank said.

Carter said, "We're all trying to figure each other out," and the key is "just trying to make plays for each other."

The Nets trail the first-place Knicks (16-13) in the Atlantic Division by five and a half games. Before the season, the Nets had won 16 of the last 18 games against the Knicks, including a 4-0 sweep in the first round of last season's playoffs.

But with Kidd limited to 20 minutes a game since his return from off-season knee surgery, the Nets were no match for the Knicks in their first meeting, losing by 87-79 at Continental Arena on Dec. 14.

Three days later, Nets President Rod Thorn swung the blockbuster deal for Carter, outbidding several teams, including the Knicks.

The Knicks seem more solid than they have in recent seasons. Even with Jamal Crawford sidelined with an injured toe, the backcourt of Stephon Marbury and Allan Houston is one of the best in the league, Nazr Mohammed has been a surprise at center, and Kurt Thomas has been a strong presence at power forward.

The Nets' frontcourt, which used to be a strength when it was anchored by the power forward Kenyon Martin, is now the team's Achilles' heel. Indiana's All-Star forward, Jermaine O'Neal, schooled the rookie Nenad Krstic on Thursday, torching him and a succession of subs for 31 points.

Whether the Knicks will have an answer for the Nets' new power trio of Kidd, Carter and Jefferson remains to be seen. Carter admitted he has never had a night at the Garden like the one Michael Jordan had in scoring 55 points against the Knicks in 1995 in his first game back from his first retirement.

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