EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Rick Carlisle played for the New Jersey Nets 13 years ago, scoring one basket all season as his career came to a dead end with a dead-end franchise.
"Back in those days, people said it could never be done," the Detroit Pistons' coach said. "The Nets could never be a contender.
"But Rod Thorn has done a great job of drafting and getting the right coach and making the right trades. This team is poised, and I believe they've got a real chance against whoever comes out of the West."
While Carlisle and his Pistons headed home Sunday, general manager Thorn, coach Byron Scott and the rest of the Nets began plotting a return trip to the NBA Finals. New Jersey Saturday night completed a sweep of Detroit, winning its 10th consecutive playoff game to retain the Eastern Conference title.
"They're clearly on a mission," Carlisle said. "And I would not bet against them."
New Jersey has a 10-day break -- an eternity for a basketball team -- before opening at Dallas or San Antonio on June 4. The Nets were swept in the finals by the Los Angeles Lakers last year and will again be the underdog, but this year they are more talented and mature and less star-struck.
"I could see when I walked out at the Staples Center last year, when I was looking at the guys' faces, that we were happy to be there," Scott said. "This year is totally different. The maturity of Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson, Jason Kidd being there last year and getting a chance to go back. Everything is different. The feeling getting there this season is a little more satisfying, but also knowing that the job is not done."