EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ, April 3 (Ticker) --
, the Los Angeles Lakers provided a major test
for the New Jersey Nets.
Rookie Richard Jefferson
and Jason Kidd
each made huge shots in
the final two minutes as the Nets rallied after blowing a big
lead for a 94-92 victory over the Lakers, who were without the
New Jersey sits atop the Eastern Conference but still has to
prove itself against the league's elite teams, most of whom are
in the West. O'Neal was sidelined with a sprained wrist, but
the Lakers defeated the Nets without Kobe Bryant
at the Staples Center on March 5.
"We were playing the best team in the league," New Jersey coach
Byron Scott said. "Those guys have a lot of pride and they have
the biggest heart in the league. Even without Shaq, they want
to make a statement."
NBA TV highlights from|
Kobe's missed tip:
With no Shaq to contend with, the lanes were free for Kenyon Martin to do some slammin'.
The Nets took advantage of O'Neal's absence and led by as many
as 19 points in the first half. But they trailed, 86-80, with
6:45 remaining before going on a 9-2 run to take the lead for
good on Kenyon Martin's
drive with 3:17 left.
missed two free throws 36 seconds later and
Jefferson nearly committed a turnover on a crucial possession
before beating the shot clock with a baseline jumper for a
91-88 edge with 1:44 to play.
After Kerry Kittles
made 1-of-2 free throws, Robert Horry
brought Los Angeles within 92-91 on his 3-pointer with 30
seconds to go.
But Kidd, who had 13 points, 11 assists and six rebounds,
responded with an eight-foot fadeaway jumper in the lane with
five seconds left.
"It's hard to put in words what he means to this team right
now," Scott said of Kidd. "He is just one of those guys who is
rarity in this league. In the last three, four minutes of the
game, he got guys open shots and he got the winning bucket that
sealed the game."
On the ensuing possession, Los Angeles' Rick Fox
got open on a
screen and had a wide-open layup but was fouled hard by Martin.
"I could have dunked it, but that would've given us two
points," Fox said. "So I gave a split second to let Kenyon
catch up. I went up hoping to draw the foul, but Kenyon fouled
me too hard and I couldn't squeeze it through."
Fox intentionally missed the second free throw, but Bryant's
point-blank follow attempt bounced out.
"We made a similar play a couple of years ago in Golden State
and it worked out for us," Bryant said. "On the play here
tonight, Jason hit me and I didn't knock it down. But I did get
a good look at it. Sometimes the ball doesn't go through for
you and we just didn't get the bounce."
"First I couldn't believe he got there, and then when he got it
in his hands, I couldn't believe he missed it," Scott said.
"For us to come away with this victory, its just a great win
for us. Anytime you beat the Lakers its an accomplishment."
Kittles scored 14 of his 18 points in the first quarter
as New Jersey extended its franchise-record home winning streak
to 12 games and set a new franchise mark with its 31st home win.
Martin had 18 points and three blocks and MacCulloch
collected 17 points and eight rebounds for the Nets, who shot
50 percent (43-of-86) from the floor and held a 48-37
New Jersey is three games ahead of the Detroit Pistons for the
best record in the Eastern Conference.
Bryant finished with 33 points and was almost singlehandedly
responsible for the Lakers' comeback.
New Jersey had a 55-40 halftime lead, but Bryant scored 15
points in the third quarter and scored Los Angeles' final six
points, making it 74-68 entering the fourth.
"I just wanted to lead by example," Bryant said. "I wanted to
show my teammates that I was here. I was going to fight, even
though we were down. I thought if I was playing my hardest,
maybe they could gain some confidence."
The Nets had a 76-70 edge with 11:18 remaining, but Bryant
converted a three-point play and Devean George followed with a
3-pointer to tie it with 10:02 left.
George's layup one minute later gave Los Angeles its first lead
at 78-76. Lucious Harris
tied it on a layup before George
buried another 3-pointer to spark an 8-0 run.
made a 3-pointer and Bryant sank a short jumper to
give the Lakers their largest lead at 86-78 with 6:45 left. But
Martin sank an 18-footer and MacCulloch followed with a
three-point play to spark the Nets' rally.
scored 14 points and Samaki Walker
added 13 and 14
rebound for the Lakers, who fell 2 1/2 games behind the
league-leading Sacramento Kings for the best record in the
George finished with 11 points off the bench as Los Angeles
shot 42 percent (36-of-86) from the floor and made 9-of-25
Kittles scored 11 points in the first six minutes of the game
and drained a 3-pointer with 6:06 left in the first quarter to
give the Nets a 19-7 cushion.
"I felt a good rhythm and I was knocking down shots," Kittles
said. "My teammates were doing a good job of passing me the
ball, so it felt good."
New Jersey had a 33-23 lead early in the second quarter before
Jefferson scored six points during a 12-3 run for its largest
lead, 45-26, with 6:47 to go in the first half.
"It doesn't matter how you write it up, they are the
champions," Kidd said. "You knew that coming into the game that
we had to play. A true champion isn't going to lay down. They
came out in the second half and made it a heck of a game, but
we never lost our composure."