Nets History Spotlight: 2003 NBA Finals Team
The Nets reached their second straight NBA Finals in 2003
There’s never been an NBA season quite like 2002-03 for the Nets, when the team took the court in the fall with anticipation and expectations unseen since the heady ABA days of Dr. J soaring around Nassau Coliseum.
Coming off their first trip to the NBA Finals, led by the transformative point guard Jason Kidd, the Nets would meet nearly every challenge in repeating as Eastern Conference champions before falling to the San Antonio Spurs in their return to the Finals.
The season before, the Nets had been the surprise of the league in winning a franchise-record 52 games, doubling their 26 wins of 2000-01. In addition to Kidd, the Nets acquired center Todd MacCulloch and added Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins in the draft. The return of guard Kerry Kittles, who had missed the 2000-01 season after knee surgery, was an addition of its own to a revamped team.
This time, they weren’t going to take anybody by surprise. And that was just fine.
“We understood that their (the Spurs’) size (would be a factor) and obviously Gregg Popovich was establishing himself as one of the great coaches in the NBA, so we knew that our task was extremely, you know, difficult, but one thing that we had: so much more confidence than we did going against the Lakers (in the previous season’s NBA Finals)," said Jefferson of the Nets' eventual NBA Finals matchup. "Not only because I felt like this team was suited more for us, but also because we had the experience from last year; nothing was new to us. The media day, all of the hoopla...we understood it this time around. We were a much more confident group and I believe we came into this series with a ton more confidence and we were excited about it.”
There were some roster tweaks. GM Rod Thorn dealt MacCulloch and Keith Van Horn to Philadelphia for Dikembe Mutombo, seeking a sturdier paint presence after the Nets ran into Shaquille O’Neal in the previous season’s finals. The move also opened up a starting spot for Jefferson after his impressive rookie season.
Injuries, however, would limit the 36-year-old Mutombo, with Collins ending up starting 66 games at center. The regular season would be more uneven than the year before. While a 10-game winning streak lifted the Nets to 26-9 in early January, a 4-10 stretch followed the All-Star break.
The Nets finished 49-33, matching the team’s second-best NBA record, Kidd averaged 18.7 points, 8.9 assists, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.2 steals per game, earning All-NBA Second Team honors. Forward Kenyon Martin averaged a career-high 16.7 points, and Jefferson elevated his game in year two, averaging 15.5 points while shooting 50 percent from the field with 6.4 rebounds per game.
If the regular season ride was rougher, the playoffs were smoother. The Nets had survived rugged battles with Indiana and Boston to reach their first Finals in 2002. This time they cruised. Tied two games apiece with Milwaukee in the first round, they reeled off 10 straight wins, sweeping both Boston and Detroit on their way back to the Finals.
"I remember when we lost the first one (Game 1, 101-89 in San Antonio) and then they were like, ‘Oh, the Nets have lost five straight Finals games.’ (the Nets were swept by the Lakers in the 2002 Finals)," said Jefferson. "And you’re like, ‘Wait, how are we associating last year’s team with this year’s team?’ After we lost that first game...the way I viewed it is, we had won 10 of 11 (games in the post- season). To the credit of our coaching staff, we came with a little bit better game plan (in Game Two). We changed some things up because Jason Kidd was chasing around Tony Parker, who we now know is a Hall of Fame point guard. Jason Kidd was our offense, he was everything for us, so we made a switch. We put Kerry Kittles, who was a great defender -- he guarded Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, and so we put him on Tony so he could focus defensively and then we put Jason Kidd on Bruce Bowen. And so, one of the things that we did is, when we made that switch, it really gave a shot in the arm to our offense."
After dropping Game 1 in San Antonio, the Nets rallied for an 87-85 win in Game 2 for the franchise’s first-ever win in an NBA Finals. Kidd had 30 points in the win to tie the series, and after the teams split the first two games in New Jersey, the series was knotted at two wins apiece.
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. Their bid to force Game 7 fell short as San Antonio came from behind in the fourth quarter to claim the second of its five NBA titles in the Tim Duncan era.
“Game Five was a difficult one," said Jefferson. "But really (what) that Series showed me: there were so many guys, obviously Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Tony Parker, all of those guys were studs, but one thing that I really noticed is that it was the Speedy Claxtons, it was the Steve Kerrs, it was the Steven Jacksons, it was those guys that, in the five-to-ten range, that were playing really well for the Spurs. They were making big key, big plays, big moments and that was the area where our bench, and that’s not to put any blame on them, but when you look at stars matching up with stars, key players matching up with key players, where they really had the advantage, in my opinion, from the five to ten, they were just playing well over that course.”
The next season, the Nets would fall in the second round of the playoffs to Detroit after winning their third straight division title. In 2005-06, they would match the 2003 team’s 49 wins while winning the division for the fourth time in five years.
Did Jefferson think the NBA Finals were destined after reaching them during his first two seasons?
“Yeah, why would I not think that? I understand how hard it is, but I also understood how hard I worked, and I go and look back and you see, you know you lose to the Lakers, I played in the National Championship game (losing to Duke while playing for Arizona)," said Jefferson. "Yes, was I getting frustrated that I was getting so close to the ultimate and not achieving it? Yes. But I look back on those Jersey teams and, you know, even after those first two years with the Lakers and the Spurs, the next year we lost to Detroit in 7 and we were up 3-2. Jason Kidd had a very difficult knee situation, had to have knee surgery after the season was over. If it wasn’t for that knee surgery, I believe we could have won that game. And so, when you look back on it, of my six years in New Jersey, four of those years we lost to the eventual champion. And, we lost twice in the NBA finals, we lost in a game 7 to Detroit and we lost in a game 6 to Miami. You look at that and it kind of really puts in perspective how good those teams really, really were. And, even though we weren’t able to accomplish that final goal, I always believe that that team in Jersey was a special team and, you know, we just weren’t able to finish off that last task for multiple reasons.”
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