Nets City Edition Seasons: 2001-02 and 2002-03
The Nets reached consecutive NBA Finals and went on to four division titles in five years and six straight playoff appearances
The trade for Jason Kidd transformed a franchise, but it wasn’t the only move Rod Thorn made in the summer of 2001. This was a major makeover, one that sent the Nets on to consecutive NBA Finals and launched the most successful era of the team’s NBA history, with four division titles in five years and six consecutive playoff appearances.
Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins came on draft night. Todd MacCulloch filled the center hole via free agency. Kerry Kittles, returning from a knee injury that cost him the entire 2000-01 season, had never played with Kenyon Martin, the 2000 NBA Draft’s top overall pick.
“Everybody was new from the last time I played with the Nets,” said Kittles. “Besides Keith Van Horn, maybe Lucious (Harris) was there. We got him with Keith Van Horn from Philly. All new faces. New coach. I had never played for Byron Scott. Eddie Jordan came in and put in the Princeton offense and Lawrence Frank was covering defense. We got an interesting group of guys and Jason Kidd was facilitating, running the show. It was fun. There was a lot of excitement around the team. It was really Rod Thorn’s message and leadership that propelled that group to buying in and playing as a group and playing together. Leadership is huge in sports and I recognized that from my first moments with Rod Thorn and seeing his influence and his strong leadership skills.”
It was Kidd who made the all the pieces fit, pushing an up-tempo, equal-opportunity offense and driving the Nets with his own expectations. Over his 6½ seasons with the Nets, Kidd would be named to two All-NBA First Teams and one Second Team, six NBA All-Defensive Teams and five NBA All-Star games.
“He had this really uncanny ability of taking a quick snapshot of the possession as soon as it started,” said Kittles. “He knew where his guys were and he knew where the defense was going to go. From that point on, it was like he won the possession mentally.”
The Nets had won 26 games the year prior in Rod Thorn’s first season as general manager. An assistant coach with the team back during the Nets’ first ABA championship season, Thorn knew he had work to do. He put together the kind of star-for-star blockbuster you rarely see, dealing Stephon Marbury to Phoenix for Kidd in an exchange of All-NBA point guards.
“It was relatively quick,” said Thorn. “They were interested in Steph, we were interested in Jason. So it was just a matter of putting the pieces together after that.”
The turnaround was immediate. The Nets quickly showed things had changed by winning seven of their first eight games in 2001-02. A six-game win streak in January put them in firm control of the Atlantic Division. On April 9, 2002 they beat the Washington Wizards 101-88 to reach the 50-win milestone for the first time in their NBA history and finished 52-30, doubling their win total of the year before.
A free-flowing, balanced offense defined the Nets. Martin led the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game, followed by Van Horn (14.8), Kidd (14.7) and Kittles. Kidd also averaged 9.9 assists per game and 7.3 rebounds per game, finishing second in the MVP voting.
The breakthrough season was pushed to the limit in the first round of the playoffs against the Indiana Pacers. Reggie Miller twice tied the decisive Game 5 in the final seconds to push the Nets and the Pacers into a second overtime. The Nets outscored Indiana 13-2 in the second OT for the series-clinching 120-109 win. Kidd scored 31 points with seven assists and eight rebounds, Martin had 29 points and eight boards, and Van Horn scored 27 points while making 5-of-8 3-pointers.
The Nets went on to beat the Charlotte Hornets in five games and the Boston Celtics in six, winning the last three games after falling behind 2-1. Six Nets scored in double figures in the clinching 96-88 win, with a crucial 3-pointer from Van Horn with 50 seconds remaining. Though the Nets fell to the threepeating Los Angeles Lakers of Shaq and Kobe in the NBA Finals, it set up the 2002-03 season with the kind of expectations the franchise had last seen in the ABA days of Dr. J.
While the regular season was more uneven — a December/January 10-game win streak was followed by a 4-10 stretch following the All-Star break — the Nets peaked in the playoffs.
After finishing 49-33 and seeded second in the Eastern Conference playoffs, they beat the Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the first round, then swept the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons. That sent the Nets back into the NBA Finals on a 10-game win streak.
Facing the San Antonio Spurs, the Nets took Game 2 on the road, 87-85, behind 30 points from Kidd to take a 1-1 tie back to New Jersey. After dropping Game 3, they pulled out another tight win in Game 4. Martin had 20 points and 13 rebounds, Jefferson had 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Kidd posted a 16-9-8 line in a 77-76 win.
But with a chance to take a series lead in Game 5 at home, the Nets lost 93-83 despite 29 points, seven assists and seven rebounds from Kidd. Back in San Antonio, the Nets looked primed to force Game 7 with a fourth-quarter lead. But Tim Duncan’s 20-20 game denied the Nets their first NBA title as the Spurs clinched with an 88-77 win.
“We had a team,” said Thorn. “We didn't beat you with one-on-one basketball. We beat you by moving the ball, by getting fast breaks. We were very good in a fast break situation. Jason was such a great passer and we had finishers. Kittles and Kenyon and Jefferson in particular were terrific finishers on the break. Defensively we just got so much better basically because of Jason and Kenyon, who were much better than average defenders. And Kidd was one of the top defenders in the league and Martin became one of the top defenders in the league too. We got a lot better at the areas you needed to be pretty good at in order to win.”
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