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Nets History Spotlight: 2002 Eastern Conference Championship Clincher

The Nets reached the NBA Finals for the first time with their Game 6 win in Boston

One week earlier, the Nets had been written off. Now they were headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

The 96-88 win over the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on May 31, 2002 was a milestone moment that capped a high-wire run through the conference playoffs and a turnaround season.

Going into the 2001-02 season, the Nets had won a single playoff series dating back to their entry to the NBA for the 1976-77 season, an upset of defending champion Philadelphia in 1984. They were coming off a 26-win season, and while the acquisition of Jason Kidd in a point-guard exchange with Phoenix fueled some optimism, there were no predictions of what was to come.

A wholesale transformation was coming, and it wasn’t just fueled by Kidd. Guard Kerry Kittles returned from a knee injury that cost him all of the 2000-01 season. Rookie Richard Jefferson was acquired in a three-for-one draft-night deal that also brought Jason Collins. Center Todd MacCulloch was signed as a free agent. Forward Kenyon Martin was ready to go after a rookie season cut short by injury.

“It was like a fresh start for everybody,” said Kittles. “It was like Kenyon Martin’s first year, you could just toss it up and throw it away. All the guys that were returning, it was alike a new start for everybody. We were excited.”

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With wins in seven of their first eight games, the Nets announced a new era. For anybody expecting them to fade over the course of the season, it didn’t happen. Behind Kidd’s orchestration, the Nets unleashed an up-tempo, equal-opportunity offense. Martin’s 14.9 points per game led the team, followed by Keith Van Horn with 14.8 and Kidd with 14.7. Kidd also averaged 9.9 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 steals, and was named to the All-NBA First Team, the first Net ever to achieve the honor.

“The thing about that team was that nobody wanted to give them credit,” said Nets radio play-by-play broadcaster Chris Carrino. “During that season, I think the prevailing feeling was this is just a fluke or the East is bad. But nobody wanted to believe it. I don’t know if it was whether or not because Jason was still in a redemption tour. Nobody wanted to believe that one player at that position at the time could have that impact.”

The doubts followed the top-seeded, 52-win Nets into the playoffs, and after a veteran Indiana team pushed them to the limit in the first round, they cruised past Charlotte and split the first two games at home against the Celtics.

Then came Game 3 in Boston. Up by 25 in the third quarter and 21 to start the fourth, they suffered an epic collapse in a 94-90 loss, outscored 16-2 to close the game without making a shot in the final four minutes.

“They were absolutely written off following Game 3 and the collapse,” said Nets television play-by-play broadcaster Ian Eagle. “I had never seen an arena louder than the TD Garden that night. And the resolve that not only Jason Kidd exhibited, but their head coach Byron Scott also had. He was interviewed the next day and he was asked the question, ‘How’d you sleep last night?’ and his answer was, ‘I slept like a baby. We’re going to win Game 4.’ Reporters chuckled, and he was 100 percent serious. They handled the adversity impeccably, and again Kidd had this look in his eye that indicated to his teammates, follow my lead.”

Back in the Boston crucible for Game 4, the Nets won 94-92 on two Lucious Harris free throws with 6.6 seconds remaining. Kittles scored 22 points and another 21 in the 103-92 Game 5 win at the Meadowlands, with Kidd posting an 18-point, 12-assist double-double.

With a 3-2 series lead, the Nets returned to Boston for Game 6, where they trailed 54-44 at halftime. But they outscored the Celtics 26-15 in the third quarter with Kidd assisting on six of the Nets’ 11 field goals in the quarter and took a one-point lead into the fourth.

They never trailed again. With a three-point lead as the clock ticked under a minute to go, Van Horn drained a 3-pointer for a 94-88 lead with 50 seconds remaining and Boston never scored again. Six Nets scored in double figures. Kidd’s triple-double featured 15 points, 13 assists, and 13 rebounds.

“When you have a guy like that who can sort of steady the ship when things start getting very intense or tight,” said Collins, “you could look at JKidd and JKidd was like, ‘I’m ready.’ That sort of calm would resonate throughout the locker room. OK, we can do this, because we have a guy on our team who can go out and get a triple-double.”

The dream season came to a close with an NBA Finals loss at the hands of the three-peating Los Angeles Lakers. But it was also the start of something. The Nets returned to the NBA Finals the following season and went on to win four division titles in five seasons. It’s been the most successful run in the franchise’s NBA history, and the 96-88 Game 6 win over the Boston Celtics on May 31, 2002 was as important as any win they had along the way.

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