EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. The NBA's great East-West divide doesn't seem quite so gaping any more not while Jason Kidd is leaping confidently across it, and not while Tim Duncan is missing nearly enough free throws to fill it.
The New Jersey Nets headed back home Saturday riding a wave of confidence in the NBA Finals. Twenty-seven years after joining the league and 26 years after moving to a swamp, they finally won a finals game, holding off the San Antonio Spurs 89-87 in Game 2 on Friday night.
And in wresting the home-court advantage from San Antonio, the Nets also believe they've proved the East's best teams can contend, compete and even thrive against the powerful Western Conference.
''The West has won the last four finals, so until we prove them wrong in the East, I guess they can say that,'' New Jersey's Richard Jefferson said. ''We don't think it's true, but you've got to walk the walk.''
Game 3 the first of three straight at the Rest Stop of Champions, otherwise known as Continental Airlines Arena is Sunday night, with Game 4 on Wednesday and Game 5 on Friday.
Kidd, who spent his first seven NBA seasons in the West, has heard all about this superiority complex during his two seasons in New Jersey, and he's a bit tired of it. He had 30 points and seven rebounds in the Nets' breakthrough win, making five free throws in the final 20 seconds to keep New Jersey ahead.
''We've got to keep making our foul shots if we're going to have a chance to compete against the mighty West,'' Kidd said with a lilt of sarcasm.
But ever since the Chicago Bulls finished their run of six championships in 1998, the Eastern Conference has been belittled and bullied by the West.
The Spurs won the first post-Jordan title, and the Lakers lost just three games during the last three NBA Finals. During San Antonio's convincing win in Game 1, the Nets did almost nothing to suggest this season would be any different.
Last Thursday, San Antonio's Tony Parker and Steve Kerr questioned even whether the Nets' 10-game playoff winning streak, which ended in the series opener, could have occurred in the West.
''We haven't accomplished anything, but now we have the home-court advantage,'' Nets coach Byron Scott said. ''The object is to win a championship. All we did was tie it up.''
The Nets aren't expecting to become the first team to win the middle three home games since the finals went to a 2-3-2 format, but they've got a few reasons to expect improvement. There's momentum, for starters: After maintaining a lead throughout the second half of Game 2, New Jersey has all of it.
New Jersey is 6-1 at home in the playoffs this year, winning every game since the opening round. The Nets are thrilled to return to their nondescript home the subject of gentle ridicule because of its sudden national prominence with the Nets and the NHL's Devils both playing for titles.
After avoiding an 0-2 hole that might have been their grave, the Nets are headed back to the complex where Jimmy Hoffa supposedly is buried under the field at Giants Stadium. There's nothing under the Nets' floor but the Devils' ice, where Nets CEO Lou Lamoriello watched his other team win Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals earlier in the week.
But Scott, whose canny defensive adjustments slowed Duncan in Game 2, knows it'll be nearly impossible to win the series without returning to Texas and that's not necessarily a bad thing, given the Lakers' title celebrations on the East representative's home floor in each of the last two years.
''Probably the percentages are just that way,'' Scott said of a return to San Antonio. ''Both teams are good. It's hard to beat good teams three times in a row. It's just difficult to do.''
After New Jersey made big adjustments to win Game 2, now Spurs coach Gregg Popovich must do a bit of strategizing on the fly. San Antonio must stop making so many turnovers and find ways to score in the paint against Dikembe Mutombo, who escaped Scott's doghouse and helped several teammates harass Duncan into a middling performance.
Duncan had 19 points and 12 rebounds, but he went 3-for-10 on free throws, emphasizing the Spurs' struggles at the line. San Antonio is dead last among the 16 playoff teams in free throw percentage, and the two-time MVP is the biggest culprit.
''Our weaknesses are free throws and our turnovers,'' Duncan said. ''I missed seven free throws. If I make a couple of those, it's a whole different ballgame.''
After rising to the top of the Western Conference with tough series victories over the Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs have been mostly dismal in the finals. Popovich has been happy with only three of the eight quarters so far: the second half of Game 1, in which San Antonio actually ran its offense and protected the ball, and the desperate fourth quarter of Game 2.
The Spurs have made 34 turnovers in the series to New Jersey's 20, and Duncan's teammates have provided only inconsistent help. At least San Antonio didn't blow another big lead in Game 2, but Popovich still wants to see more maturity from a young team with plenty of experience in pressure-filled games.
''You lose leads when you turn it over and you don't make free throws,'' Popovich said. ''We are prone to missing free throws and making turnovers. We'll probably do it again. Hopefully, we'll do it less.''
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