EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Through some strange combination of reverse psychology and masochism, the New Jersey Nets have turned their Game 3 meltdown into a positive.
Game 5 was the proof.
After letting a 20-point lead drop to one, the Nets used a 20-1 run to make certain there would no new disaster. Taking control with stunning quickness, the Nets pulled away from the Boston Celtics in the fourth quarter for a 103-92 victory Wednesday night that gave them a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
One more win, and the Nets will be going for their first title since the days when they played with a red, white and blue basketball.
''Game 3, as crazy as it may seem, may have been the best thing that happened to our ballclub. It showed us that no lead is safe,'' Nets coach Byron Scott said, referring to New Jersey blowing a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter Saturday -- the biggest final-period blowup in NBA playoff history.
''Everything happens for a reason. We blew a 21-point lead, but I think we matured a lot from it. That was a defining moment for this franchise, and we came through with flying colors in Games 4 and 5,'' Scott said.
Jason Kidd was again the star of the show for the Nets, who got out to a big early lead for the third consecutive game. Kidd finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, and his jumper with 9:30 remaining started New Jersey on the game-clinching run.
By the time Keith Van Horn ended the 20-1 burst with two 3-pointers, the Nets had turned a 74-73 lead into a 94-74 advantage with 5:36 left. The Nets began celebrating, but not too emphatically.
The former ABA franchise still needs one more victory to make it to the NBA Finals for the first time since entering the league in 1976. They'll go for it Friday night at Boston in Game 6.
''The big thing is that we are not in the finals, and the hardest thing is to end a series,'' Kidd said. ''We know it's going to be a hostile environment.''
New Jersey, which led by as many as 26 in Game 3, showed once again that it appears to be the deeper and more talented team, getting 21 points from Kerry Kittles and 19 each from Van Horn and Kenyon Martin.
Paul Pierce scored 24 points for Boston, but none came in the fourth quarter when the Nets switched to a full-court zone that Boston couldn't solve.
''It flustered them a little bit. The zone kind of bailed us out tonight,'' Kidd said.
Basically, the Celtics expended all their energy mounting the comeback. It was led by little-used Erick Strickland, who hit two free throws with 10:50 remaining to cut Boston's deficit to 74-73.
Kidd answered with a jumper, Van Horn had a three-point play, Kidd scored on a drive and then turned his 12th rebound into a putback bucket.
A jump shot by Lucious Harris made it 13 straight points by the Nets, and Van Horn's two 3-pointers sent the Continental Airlines Arena crowd into a frenzy.
It was a complete turnaround from what happened in the final 12 minutes of Game 3 when Boston outscored the Nets 41-16.
''I think it was a defining moment in the sense that we learned our lesson. People didn't believe in us, and we were back to where we were getting doubted,'' Nets forward Richard Jefferson said. ''In Game 4, we had a good lead and they started to came back. Same thing here.
''In both games we were more resilient than we were in Game 3. We learned our lesson,'' he said.
Boston shot just 27 percent in the first half and mounted its comeback by shooting 50 percent in the third. In the final 12 minutes, however, it all came apart quickly for the Celtics -- just as it did early.
Right from the outset, the Celtics didn't do any of the things they wanted: Prevent another fast start by the Nets; make smart choices on offense; play with defensive intensity on every New Jersey possession.
After spotting Boston a 2-0 lead, the Nets ran off 10 unanswered points to take the lead for good. Kidd had five rebounds in the first 3 1/2 minutes, and the Nets closed the quarter with an 8-2 run despite Kidd sitting out the final 3:07 with two fouls.
Martin passed out of a double-team and found Van Horn for a 3-pointer, and Kittles hit a driving jump hook to finish a 15-2 run and give New Jersey a 50-30 lead.
''The units that are on the floor to start the game are flat-out outplaying us,'' Celtics coach Jim O'Brien said.
The Nets were ahead by 17 to begin the third quarter, and the lead stayed in double digits until two free throws by Pierce made it 62-54 with 4:41 left. Strickland, who hadn't even scored in the first four games of the series, had nine of the Celtics' final 11 in the quarter as Boston pulled to 72-69 after three.
Notes: Boston's Antoine Walker was 3-for-14 from the field in the first half and Pierce was 2-for-7. ... One positive for the Celtics: Pierce was 12-for-12 from the free throw line after shooting just 64 percent in the first four games. ... O'Brien said he had not spoken recently with former Celtics coach Rick Pitino, although Pitino had called and left a message after Game 3.
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