EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Nets chose to keep Vince Carter instead of Richard Jefferson. It was a no-brainer, really, and you saw why last night.
Jefferson’s numbers were gaudy as he had 27 points in his first game back at the Meadowlands as an ex-Net, but he didn’t have a good game. He missed nine shots and six free throws.
Carter struggled from the field, shooting just 3-of-12, but he still had a great game in leading the balanced Nets over Jefferson’s Bucks, 99-85.
Carter finished with 15 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds for just his fifth career triple-double. His performance epitomized why the Nets chose him over Jefferson.
I’m not sure how much they went back and forth in Rod Thorn’s office about Jefferson and Carter, but it came up. Carter is owed more money, but he is the more coachable player, the better player, the better leader and the best player for this team.
He has handled the “rebuilding” of the Nets better than anyone could have imagined. He’s always up, always encouraging, playing through pain and he makes everyone around him better. Everyone.
“This is what you call a team victory,” coach Lawrence Frank said. “I think it’s embodied with Vince’s triple-double — an extremely purposeful game from him in terms of a great balance.”
Carter spread the wealth. He set up his teammates for easy scores, dunks, open threes and fast-break slams. It was a do-it-all performance when the Nets needed one.
They needed this game, as well as tonight’s at Washington. After that their schedule reads Denver, at Orlando, San Antonio, at Houston, at Dallas. That’s a tough stretch, so these are must-win games to stay in the race.
The win pulled the Nets within one-half game of the Bucks for the East’s final playoff spot. The Bucks have the easier schedule, but they are without leading scorer Michael Redd for the rest of the year. Jefferson can lead them, as he did Tuesday night, but he’s never really been a go-to guy on a playoff team. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Carter has done it before. He has led teams to the playoffs before, and if he did it here it would be a great achievement in his great career. It’s not impossible, especially with how well some of the young guys are playing.
Brook Lopez had his second straight double-double with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Fellow rookie Ryan Anderson has played better lately. He had 19 and seven. Yi Jianlian is on the mend and should be back sometime after the All-Star break to help the Nets’ push.
If Jefferson was kept instead of Carter, it’s doubtful Lopez and Devin Harris would have the opportunities they have or the Nets’ offense would have been changed to dribble drive.
They’re running more pick-and-rolls now with Lopez, and having Carter also has helped that. He’s a great passer. Harris is pretty good in pick-and-rolls, too, and improving all the time. He and Lopez are developing some strong chemistry.
The bottom line is Jefferson is very good player and was a great Net. He really was. But there’s no denying who’s better and who was the one the Nets should have kept.
Jefferson was like the mayor last night. He worked up a sweat shooting, met with fans, Nets’ employees, ushers, shook hands, took pictures, signed autographs and did three on-court interviews, all before 6:25 p.m.
He loved it here and is proud of what the Nets did with him.
“It was kind of cool to look up and see all those banners that were hung up in the arena,” he said. “That was cool. You just take things in perspective. We had a great run here, a lot of great guys.”
When Jefferson was announced he received a warm ovation — surprisingly not a standing one. I thought he would get that because of how popular he was and how unpopular the trade for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons was at the time.
But, it was nothing spectacular. Jason Kidd received a longer and louder one when he returned. Of course, Kidd meant more to the franchise, but there were far fewer people in the stands that night because of a blizzard.
It snowed last night, and Carter and the Nets rained on Jefferson’s parade.
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.).