Almost Upset: Pacers-Nets 2002
Well, here we are. The final Almost Upset.
Fittingly we finish with the most prevalent team in Almost Upset, the Indiana Pacers. We’ve seen them in 1987 vs. Atlanta. And again in 1991 vs. Boston. And once more in 2000 vs. Milwaukee. In ‘87 and ‘91 they were upstarts. In 2000 they were atop the East and now they’re back to upstart status.
After several oh-so-close playoff runs, the Pacers finally reached the NBA Finals and ruled the East in 2000. Their time on the top was brief. They lost in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers and changes immediately were underway. In 2001 the changing Pacers were just the East’s eighth seed. By the end of the 2002 season the club was wildly different, but still an eighth seed.
So here’s a rundown of the changes over those two seasons.
Larry Bird was no longer coach and Isiah Thomas took his place. Rik Smits and Sam Perkins retired. Mark Jackson left in free agency. Derrick McKey and Chris Mullin were waived. Jalen Rose and Travis Best were traded away. The only untouchable veteran was Reggie Miller.
In their place youngsters Jamal Tinsley, Jeff Foster, Al Harrington, Jonathan Bender, and Austin Croshere assumed bigger roles.
Most importantly, though, was the trade that sent Dale Davis to Portland in exchange for Jermaine O’Neal in the summer of 2000.
For the 2000-01 campaign, O’Neal was entering his fifth NBA season, but had barely gotten off the bench in Oregon. Now the 22-year-old had time to shine and averaged 12.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG, and 2.8 BPG in his first Pacers season.
For the 2002 season, O’Neal got even better averaging 19.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG, and 2.3 BPG. He was named an All-Star, was voted the NBA’s Most Improved Player, and was selected to the All-NBA 3rd Team.
O’Neal’s improvement served only to keep Indiana steady at 42 wins, just a one-game improvement on the year before. However, the mid-season trade that sent Rose and Best to the Chicago Bulls brought back Metta World Peace and Brad Miller further strengthening the team.
So Indiana had done an incredible overhaul that turned them from one of the oldest teams in the league to a roster with only one guy over 30 (Miller) and just two players over 25 (Croshere and Kevin Ollie). This squad was a lurking danger as the New Jersey Nets found out about soon enough.
The Nets? Really?!
The Nets had been relative royalty in the ABA as they won two of that league’s final three championships on the strength of the stupendous Julius Erving. Not quite as successful as Indiana’s ABA days, but good enough to join the NBA in the merger of 1976.
However, the Nets were put in financial turmoil by the NBA’s onerous merger terms. So they sold Erving to the 76ers. Now that move severely dented the Nets’ fortunes, but the franchise wasn’t as bad as people seem to remember. They were never title contenders, from 1980 to 1995, more often than not they were in the playoffs. But vacillating between bad and decent doesn’t inspire warm memories for the most part.
Things finally turned toward greatness in the early 2000s when the Nets made back-to-back NBA Finals appearances.
The origins of this turn began with Keith Van Horn and Kerry Kittles. These draftees were acquired in 1997 and 1996, respectively. The two youngsters were part of a briefly exciting Nets team that made the 1998 playoffs, but quickly fell apart thereafter.
Still, the two hung around long enough to become seasoned vets as a new crop of young players and journeymen coalesced into a two-time finalist.
Prominent in the “new crop” category were centers Jason Collins and Todd MacCulloch and forward Kenyon Martin. Along with journeyman Aaron Williams they provided a rock-solid frontcourt of competence with MacCulloch being the most offensively savvy and Martin a Tasmanian Devil of athleticism and defense. His dunks were absolutely vicious.
Rookie wingman Richard Jefferson gave further offensive punch—which was needed wherever you could find it on this team—while veteran guard Lucious Harris was another holdover with Kittles and Van Horn from the ‘98 Nets.
These are all fine players, but the man holding it together and pushing it to hyper-competitive levels was Jason Kidd.
In a splendid heist, the Nets sent Stephon Marbury to Phoenix in exchange for Kidd in the summer of 2001. New Jersey literally doubled their win total (26 to 52) as Kidd orchestrated whatever offense they could muster while adding superb perimeter defense. The point guard finished second in MVP voting as he led the Nets to the #1 seed in the East for the first time in the franchise’s NBA history.
Now the Nets hoped to win a playoff series for only the second time in their NBA days. The Pacers made sure it was gonna be a pain in the ass.
Despite seizing the top seed in the East, the Nets weren’t ready for the playoffs. Figures since so many of their players (except for Kidd) had never been there before or hadn’t been there since 1998. Meanwhile the Pacers, despite a super young team had Reggie Miller and were always in the playoffs, even as a lower seed in 2001. So basically their entire roster had seen the playoffs before.
But don’t take my word for it. The Nets themselves blamed their loss on lack of playoff experience even though as a roster they were older than Indiana.
“I think everyone was a little excited,” Van Horn said afterwards. “Sometimes that helps you and sometimes that hurts you. I think it hurt us a little bit.” Van Horn shot just 4-13. “When you’re tense and a little hesitant, that’s when you see your execution lag a little bit and you see more turnovers than you’re generally used to. Those two areas really hurt us, but we know that.”
Van Horn wasn’t lying. After trailing most of the game, New Jersey seized a 75-74 lead in the fourth quarter and then proceeded to commit three consecutive turnovers that swung the game right back toward Indiana.
Martin conceded, “It took me a little while to calm down, but I got it together in the fourth and did what I had to do to try and help my team win.” Martin indeed “got it together” late as he scored 10 points in the final quarter on 5-7 FGs after scoring just five points on 2-9 FGs prior to that.
Overall, Kidd was unsurprisingly the Nets’ best player with 26 points, nine assists, and eight rebounds. But enough about the Nets.
Indiana won this game on the strength of its frontcourt. Their starting frontline scored 60 points compared to New Jersey’s 32. O’Neal (30 points, 13-24 FGs) and Brad Miller (18 points, 6-8 FGs) were particularly awesome. O’Neal did fade in the fourth, but starting point guard Jamal Tinsley scored all eight of his points in the period to push Indiana over the top. However, he did hurt his right knee. Bad omen for the rest of his series.
After Game 1’s close but disappointing finish, Coach Byron Scott was extremely pleased with his team’s performance in Game 2.
After torching the Nets and the nets in the opener, O’Neal was stonewalled here scoring only 12 points on 3-11 FGs. And World Peace had a turrible game: 1-11 FGs. Tinsley’s sore knee was a key factor in him taking zero shots and having three turnovers and five fouls in his 15 minutes.
On the plus side, Reggie Miller had a really good shooting night: 9-12 FGs, 3-5 3Ps, and 5-6 FTs getting 26 points.
But Scott was right about his team just slapping down Indiana.
The second quarter was where the game turned in NJ’s favor as they won the period 31-19, including a 15-3 run. The bench provided 15 points in the period courtesy of Aaron Williams, Lucious Harris, and Anthony Johnson. Reggie Miller’s shooting kept Indiana within respectable distance, but a 14-4 run by New Jersey spread over the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth quarter effectively snuffed out what hope the Pacers had of going up 2-0 in the series.
Overall, NJ didn’t shoot great (33-77), but they were money at the foul line (26-30). Kidd again had a fine game with 20 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists. Martin and Van Horn had 36 points as they still didn’t shoot great, but were steadier than they were in Game 1.
As a team, the Pacers improved considerably, but O’Neal still struggled as the Nets kept up their swarming double teams that flummoxed him in Game 2. The power forward fell further down the hole shooting 5-17 FGs for 12 points. Brad Miller finally had a horrible game too: 2-12 FGs.
The ageless Reggie Miller was superb again: 30 points, 11-19 FGs. Tinsley shook off his gimpy knee to the tune of eight points and nine assists, while the incomparable Jeff Foster swooped in off the bench for seven points, 12 rebounds, and four assists. Hell even Ron Mercer had 10 points off the pine.
But as you can see, Indiana still lost.
The dagger was a Kerry Kittles jumper assisted by Kidd. The Nets point guard was his usual dynamic self (24 points, 11 assists, six rebounds, three steals), but Kittles? He was 1-10 from the field before he gave the Nets the winning three-pointer with about 20 seconds left in the game.
Kittles knew he sucked most of the night, but was happy to get that money maker: “Watching it go in, it was all in slow motion. It’s hard to describe…. When you struggle like that, you’ve just got to figure if you have an opportunity, you have to make it happen.”
Missed opportunity for Indiana. Could have easily been up 2-1, but now they were on the brink of elimination.
And standing on the brink, the Pacers desperately whooped New Jersey’s ass. The game was close in the first half with a 38-33 halftime score (yuck) in Indiana’s favor. But in the second half, the Pacers outscored NJ, 59-41.
Indiana got a well-balanced attack for once as they didn’t lean heavily on Reggie Miller or O’Neal as seven players scored between seven and 18 points.
But special light deserves to be shown upon Kevin Ollie and Austin Croshere, who combined for 22 points in the second half on 9-16 FGs. Ollie also had six assists after halftime as he filled in for Tinsley whose right knee acted up again.
Croshere was all too happy to be of importance again: “Remember me? I made some mistakes and they let me play through those. I prepare to play every game and was prepared to go as long and as much as called on.”
At least for the Nets Todd MacCulloch had a good game.
The big man was hobbled this series by a sore tendon in one of his feet, so it was nice to see the lumbering Canuck score six points on 3-4 FGs. Look, I just wanted to mention Todd one more time in this article, cuz he was one of my favorite players from this era.
THIS. WAS. A. GAME.
Multiple good performances, so let’s just highlight them off the bat.
Jason Kidd: 31 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, four steals
Kenyon Martin: 29 points, eight rebounds, four assists
Keith Van Horn: 27 points, six rebounds, five threes
Brad Miller: 14 points, 17 rebounds
Jermaine O’Neal: 18 points, 10 rebounds
Ron Mercer(!): 20 points off the bench
And the man of the hour was Reggie Miller with 31 points.
Sure Kidd had the better box score and his team won, but this was Reggie Miller’s game, daggummit. When you hit this shot, it’s your game.
So the hilarious parts here on this insane quasi-finish.
With about 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Miller suckered KVH into fouling him on a three-pointer. It was Van Horn’s sixth foul, so he was out the game. BUT THEN REGGIE MISSED ONE OF THE THREE FREE THROWS! Indiana 93, NJ 94.
The Pacers intentionally fouled Kidd who made both his free throws. Indiana 93, NJ 96.
Ollie blows an open layup denying Indiana an easy chance to cut the lead to one, so the Pacers foul Richard Jefferson.
JEFFERSON MISSES BOTH HIS FREE THROWS! But Indiana has no timeouts, so when they grab the rebound, they have to rush up the floor in under five seconds with no time really for any play or set up.
Ollie winds up with the ball and ain’t looking for anybody else besides Reggie. He slips a pass to Miller near mid-court and Reggie fucking pirouettes like Michael Jackson and banks in a 35-foot three-pointer to tie the game at 96.
Replay clearly shows the ball was still in Miller’s hands as time expired.
Who gives a shit?! The NBA didn’t have the replay rule at the time, so the shot counted. PRAISE THE LORD!
As far as I’m concerned if you hit that shot, I don’t care if it was a fraction of a second after the buzzer sounded. That’s too good not to count.
Entertainment over nitpicking.
Miller wasn’t done yet. Oh no. He scored seven points in the first overtime including a dunk that took everyone by surprise. The two-hand slam tied the game once more and sent it to a second overtime.
By this point, O’Neal was fouled out and the 36-year-old Miller ran out of juice. He missed all four of his shots in the second OT as the Nets finally snuffed out Indiana and ended this glorious era of first round basketball.
(The full game for your viewing pleasure.)
And that’s it for Almost Upset.
Thanks for reading and enjoying these moments where lowly seven and eight seeds showed the world they would not go quietly into the night during the wonderful era when the NBA sensibly had a best-of-five first round series. Unfortunately, the league wanted more TV money and expanded the first round to an unnecessary best-of-seven format for the 2002-03 season.
Anyhoo, if you’ve missed any, check out the full slate here.