BOSTON -- For the first time in NBA history, the road to the Larry O'Brien Trophy will require a stop at Exit 16W off the Jersey Turnpike.
The New Jersey Nets' incredible journey will take them to the NBA Finals next week in California after they finished off the Boston Celtics 96-88 on Friday night at the FleetCenter to win the Eastern Conference finals 4-2.
Game 1 of the NBA Finals will be held Wednesday in California against the Western Conference champion, either the Kings or Lakers, who play their Game 7 on Sunday.
Celtics coach Jim O'Brien didn't even wait for the outcome of Friday night's Game 6 in the West to make a prediction.
"I think they (the Nets) will win the Finals," O'Brien said, "because I think they have as good of a point guard as I have ever seen. They got a tremendous bench and great starters and they're big and a difficult team to prepare for ... I think the West is in for a rude awakening."
Jason Kidd produced his third triple-double in three games with 15 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists, and Kenyon Martin scored seven of his team-high 16 points in the fourth quarter that saw New Jersey limit Boston to 7-of-23 shooting, including 1-of-13 on 3-pointers.
"If you believe in yourself and your teammates, good things will happen," said Kidd, the MVP runner-up who helped transform the Nets from league-wide laughingstock to conference champion. "The Nets will be a blueprint for any team out there that has a good group of guys who believe in one another and want everybody to succeed and not be selfish."
It was only Game 6, but the atmosphere felt like a Game 7, with bodies flying
all over the parquet floor in the final six minutes. The Celtics fed off the
fans' emotion to rally back from an 83-76 deficit and pull within one at
85-84 with 2:54 to play on Rodney Rogers' fastbreak layup.
Right after the Nets' ensuing timeout, Kidd pulled up to bury a jumper to give the Nets an 87-84 lead. Kidd then found Martin open underneath for a layin to put New Jersey up 89-84.
With Paul Pierce trapped inside the Nets' box-and-one defense, Rogers kept the Celtics in the game. He grabbed the offensive rebound on Antoine Walker's third missed 3-pointer of the quarter to draw Martin's fifth foul and sink two free throws for an 89-86 deficit.
After Martin made two free throws of his own, Rogers crashed the offensive boards again for a putback to bring Boston within 91-88 with 1:14 remaining.
The deafening din was reduced to hospital-zone quiet, however, when Kerry Kittles drove the baseline and found Keith Van Horn at the top of the key for a wide-open, series-clinching 3-pointer and a 94-88 cushion with 50 seconds to play.
"This team has been through so much, from where we started to where we have ended up has been a tremendous turnaround," said head coach Byron Scott, who, in just two seasons, has guided the Nets to the Finals. "You just have to give those guys a lot of credit in the locker room because they believed in me, they believed in my staff, they believed in our system and they've never wavered."
Poor shooting in the fourth quarter proved to be Boston's demise once again. The Celtics shot 43 percent from the field but missed 23 of their 30 attempts from 3-point range.
Walker scored 16 points to pace Boston but on unsightly 7-of-20 shooting, including 1-of-9 from 3-point range. Paul Pierce added 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting (2-of-7 on 3s).
"They did a tremendous job tonight," said Pierce, who averaged 37 points in four regular-season games against the Nets but just 23.7 in the East finals. "You can't take anything away from Jason Kidd. He's a tremendous player. He does so much for that club. What more can you say? They deserve it."
An angry crowd greeted Kidd with boos and continued to do so each time he touched the ball. The fans were ready to turn on the Celtics when they fell
into another early hole as New Jersey scored the game's first eight points to lead 14-3.
But a funny thing happened on the Celtics' way to another first-quarter collapse: They started hitting shots. And it wasn't just guys named Pierce and Walker.
Boston woke up to go on a 25-7 run to forge a 28-21 lead after one. Eric Williams and Kenny Anderson (18 points) both had six points in the quarter, and Erick Strickland beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer from the left corner off Pierce's double-team-beating feed.
The Nets responded by scoring the first eight points of the second quarter -- six coming on two Lucious Harris 3-pointers -- to regain the lead at 29-28, and they stayed close thanks to the determined drives of Richard Jefferson, who had seven points in the period, including a smooth reverse jam that pulled New Jersey within 39-38 with 6:33 left.
But Boston's balanced attack wasn't a fluke. Anderson tipped the scales heavily into the Celtics' favor. He scored all eight of his second-quarter points during a 13-4 half-closing run to push Boston out to a 54-44 cushion at the break.
The way the second period concluded at New Jersey's end of the floor spoke volumes about the Celtics' intensity. The Nets were unable to get a shot off as Walker and Strickland both knocked the ball out of Van Horn's and Todd MacCulloch's hands, respectively, as time ran out.
"In the second half, they slowed us up," Walker said. "We were executing our offense early on in the first half. Then they went to a 2-3 zone for the fourth quarter and it was tough. It was tough for us to score."
Pierce, Walker and Anderson shot a combined 17-for-38 after three quarters
for a total of 41 points, but the Celtics still found themselves trailing by one
at 70-69 going into the final period. A 12-3 run -- ignited by emphatic
slams by Martin and Kittles -- gave Jersey the lead and momentum for the
final 12 minutes.
"Being down 10 at halftime, we really thought we had a good chance to come back and win the game in the second half," Scott said. "We buckled down defensively and did some great things. And now we're going to the Finals."
"I looked at the preseason polls and nobody picked us to be in it," Scott added. "A lot of people didn't pick us to make the playoffs. I saw one poll that picked us eighth. So you tell me how improbable this is. For our team, it has been a lot of hard work. It's a dream come true."
Harris was a perfect 5-for-5 from the field in scoring 12 points off the bench for the Nets. ... Williams also didn't miss for the Celtics, making all four of his field-goal attempts in scoring 11 points, nine in the first half. ... One courtside fan expressed his displeasure with the officiating by throwing
a beer on referee Steve Javie. The game was delayed with 33.9 seconds left to clean
the spilled brew off the FleetCenter floor. ... Rapper Jay-Z sat courtside
across from the Celtics' bench. He was mobbed before tip and during halftime
by autograph-seeking fans, including one who had a hundred dollar bill
Joe Lago is the NBA editor for ESPN.com.
- Bennett Salvatore
- Steve Javie
- Don Vaden