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Jefferson settled in as Nets' leading man

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By DAVE D'ALESSANDRO
STAR-LEDGER

LOS ANGELES - Imagine a team that employs Vince Carter - the fellow whom Richard Jefferson describes as "one of the top 25 or 30 best scorers in the history of this game" - having some other player lead that team in scoring.

Actually, it's very easy to imag­ine, because the Nets have become that team.

Now the only question is how long this anomaly will continue, be­cause the warning signs are that it's going to remain that way for a while, if not for the entire season.

Entering last night's trip-closing visit to the Staples Center against the Lakers, Jefferson was the sixth-highest scorer in the NBA at 24.9 points per game, while Carter -whose ankle sprain deprived him of five games in this 13-game season - has yet to get his stroke re­tooled, judging by his 16.3 scoring average.

There isn't a single person in the Nets organization who doesn't believe that gap will eventually close, of course.

But it is also entirely possible that Jefferson will still be this team's leading scorer this year, if only because opposing defenses observe Carter Rules, and Jefferson is very seldomly subjected to the same double-team treatment.

"Now you know why I like him out there," Jefferson said, grinning widely.

Remarkably, Carter never had a great scorer to play with in To­ronto. During his six full seasons there, the highest average a team­mate ever had was 16.2 (Jalen Rose, 2003-04), but when he arrived in New Jersey, he immediately real­ized things would be different.

Jefferson averaged 22.2 points in '04-05, but he played in only 33 games. Jefferson also averaged 19.5 the following season. And last year, with Jefferson sidelined for much of the year, Nenad Krstic was the Nets' second-leading scorer at 16.4 ppg.

The fact is, Carter has never had such a prolific scorer beside him - Tracy McGrady was but a teenager when they played to­gether - and this season has re­quired a different approach from him.

He has always been an unselfish player. But now Carter has no choice but to be a facilitator, be­cause defenses still think their first order of business is to take the ball out of his hands, only to learn that Jefferson destroys single-team cov­erage.

"Yeah, but I definitely think Vince is going to raise his number," Jefferson said. "If you look at it, it's like my season last year - one bad ankle, followed by one sprained ankle. And still being out there try­ing to help the team. That's what he's doing right now - he's beat up, and as he gets healthy and gets mentally right, he's going to raise his level."

But that doesn't mean Jeffer­son's number will go down, either. The Nets are still averaging only 87 points per game. They have a lot of catching up to do.

"You have to use this offense any way you can," Jefferson said. "Again, maybe it was just a (provi­dential) sign: We changed the of­fense to make it work more toward movement, and just in time. If we were running the same old stuff when Vince went out, we really might have struggled.

"Not that we didn't struggle - we were awful - but you never know what could have happened, and we'd have to readjust when he came back."

Carter has never complained about failing to reach a quota of shots. He still relishes the assist more than the score, and that's the first number lie checks when he scans a scoresheet.
Still, unless defenses change their way of thinking - which is unlikely - that scoring disparity between the Nets' top two scorers could actually grow wider.

"Richard's in different situa­tions than Vince," coach Lawrence Frank said. "For Vince, he's in a lot of pick-and-rolls, Richard not nearly as many, so it's a little hard (to double-team him). They could adjust to Richard's postups some. The others are just different - Richard's involved in catch-and-shoot situations, but I guess they can load up on him more.

"But he felt what it was like when Vince was out. Some teams can treat Richard like that, but if you're making shots around him, there's a penalty to be paid. When-Vince was out, people were loading up on him, and we weren't making shots."