The New Jersey Nets’ franchise had been rejuvenated by the acquisition of Jason Kidd prior to the 2001-02 season. The Nets had only won one playoff series since coming into the NBA as part of the league’s merger with the ABA in 1977. They’d never reached a conference finals. Then Kidd came to town in ’02, the team won 52 games and won the Eastern Conference title, before being eaten up by Shaq & Kobe’s Lakers, who won their third straight title. The 2003 New Jersey Nets came into the season knowing that they could win.
Kidd was supported by forwards Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin. They were not a great team by any stretch, but in an NBA where the top four or five teams were in the West, New Jersey could match up with anyone in the East.
Four straight wins opened the season and they were 10-4 by Thanksgiving, including a 91-82 win over the San Antonio Spurs, the top challenger to the Lakers in the West. Over late December and early January a ten-game winning streak included a big 98-71 win over Los Angeles. When all was said and done, the Nets and Kidd nipped out the Philadelphia 76ers and Alan Iverson to win the division. They were the East’s #2 seed, trailing only the Detroit Pistons.
The Nets started up with a series against the Milwaukee Bucks, a team two years removed from reaching Game 7 of the conference finals and losing a series to the Iverson’s 76ers that was second only to the 2002 Sacramento Kings-LA Lakers series when it comes to being tainted by dubious officiating. In 2003, the Bucks still had Ray Allen eyeing it up from the three-point line and joined by veterans Sam Cassell and Gary Payton in a guard-oriented offense.
Milwaukee created a lot of problems for the New Jersey defense, shooting over 50 percent from the floor in each of the first two games and stealing an 88-85 win in the second game that shifted homecourt advantage. Kidd and Martin answered the bell on the road, combining for 49 points in Game 3 and leading the way to a 103-101 squeaker. Game 4 saw the Bucks nail 11 treys, enough to overcome 30 by Kidd and 28 from Jefferson in a 119-114 final that tied the series.
But when the Nets came home for Game 5, they were motivated to hit the boards and did to the tune of a 54-40 glass edge, with Jefferson and Martin doing the damage. Even though the game was ugly, the 89-82 win was sweet for New Jersey—all the more so when they again controlled the boards back in Milwaukee for Game 6 and clinched the series with a 113-101 win, as Kidd not only helped on the rebounding, with 11 from the point guard spot, but did his usual scoring and passing with 22 points and 11 assists.
New Jersey awaited the Boston Celtics in the second round. It was a rematch of the East finals from ’02, when New Jersey had won the final three games and took the series in six. The Celtics had potent forwards, with Paul Pierce hanging 26 a game, and Antoine Walker a 20 ppg scorer as well.
But while Boston could match up with Martin and Jefferson, the C’s had no answer for Kidd. And when Walker didn’t play well, this series was a fait accompli. Pierce’s combined 66 points the first two games in the Meadowlands went for naught and New Jersey won both games.
The Nets then turned up the defensive heat back in Boston, holding their opponent to 35 percent shooting and coasting to an easy 94-76 win. Game 4 saw superlative performances from Martin, with 29 points/10 rebounds, and Kidd, who delivered a 29/10/8 line and the Nets 110-101 win completed a series sweep. During a spring where the NHL’s New Jersey Devils were making a run to the Stanley Cup and along the way had dispatched the Boston Bruins, this victory over the Celtics completed a hockey-hoops sweep for Jersey over Boston.
Now it was time for the toughest test of the season. The Detroit Pistons awaited in the conference finals and New Jersey would have to go on the road. The Nets had to deal with a good backcourt for Detroit, with Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton as the starting guards. The Pistons had a real post presence to supplement their perimeter game, in Ben Wallace. It was easy to see why the Pistons had been a game better in the regular season, the only team in the East to win 50 games.
But what Detroit didn’t have—yet—was championship mojo in a league where the intangible quality seems to matter more than in other sports. Each of the first two games in Detroit came down to the wire and each time New Jersey won. In the first game the Nets survived a 15-rebound game from Wallace and won 88-86. In the second game, the Nets hit the glass hard, especially center Jason Collins who hauled down 14 boards and they escaped 88-86. It really wasn’t too much to say the series was all but over as they went back to the Meadowlands.
Kidd lit up the Meadowlands for 34 points in Game 3, as New Jersey coasted to a 97-85 win and two nights later they’d clinch the series in an anti-climactic sweep, holding the Pistons to sub-40 percent shooting in Game 4, while Kidd delivered a 26/12/7 line in a 102-82 rout. A second straight trip to the NBA Finals was at hand.
The Nets took the floor in San Antonio to begin their last quest for an NBA crown. New Jersey was a decided underdog here. In addition to the superiority of the West—it’s unlikely the Nets could’ve gotten homecourt for a single series in the other conference, much less won three playoff rounds—the Spurs were loaded.
Tim Duncan averaged 23 points/13 rebounds per game at the power forward spot and had beat out Kidd to win the MVP award. Tony Parker averaged 16 ppg in the backcourt. The 2003 Spurs also had Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobli in the backcourt, along with an aging, but still effective, 37-year-old David Robinson.
Duncan was nothing short of dominant in the opener, scoring 32 points and grabbing 20 rebounds. While Kidd had ten assists, and with only 10, the Nets didn’t have the offense in a 101-89 loss. But Kidd came back two nights later and lit it up for 30, while Duncan “settled” for a 19/12 line and New Jersey scraped out an 87-85 win, and with the NBA Finals going on a 2-3-2 schedule format, they had no reason to return to San Antonio if they could sweep the middle three games at the Meadowlands.
New Jersey couldn’t hold homecourt for even one game. Both defenses tightened up and Martin had a 23/11 night, but Kidd was cold, shooting 6-for-19 and Jefferson shot 3-of-11. But the strong defensive outing of Game 3 was upgraded to a great one in Game 4, holding San Antonio to 29 percent shooting from the floor and a 77-76 win evened the series.
On Friday the 13th, a must-win Game 5 arrived and Kidd was ready, scoring 29 points. But Duncan was more ready, with 29 points and 17 rebounds, and Kidd was not able to get any help from the rest of the lineup, as the team shot just 38%. The Spurs won 93-83.
It was all but over as the odds of the Nets sweeping two in a row in the Alamodome were long indeed and the Spurs played like a team smelling a championship. Robinson had 17 rebounds, the defense locked down the Nets to 35 percent shooting and Duncan’s 21/20/10 triple-double led the way to an 88-77 win.
The 2003 New Jersey Nets may have missed a crown, but they provided the Garden State with a lot of thrills and clear dominance of the Eastern Conference.