EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Just like the team they defeated, the New Jersey Nets are headed to new territory - their first Eastern Conference finals appearance in 26 NBA seasons.
Jason Kidd scored 23 points and made several plays in the fourth quarter that swung the momentum New Jersey's way as the Nets defeated the Hornets 103-95 Wednesday night, ending the Hornets' 14-year existence in Charlotte.
New Jersey held Charlotte to one field goal in the final 7:37. In winning this best-of-seven series 4-1, the Nets gained each of their victories with tenacious fourth-quarter defense. This foul-marred game was no different.
The game changed in the Nets' favor after Baron Davis fouled out with 5:36 to play. Charlotte's next field goal was a 3-pointer by David Wesley with 20 seconds to play.
The Nets, who stunned the NBA by posting the best record in the conference (56-26) just a year after going 26-56, will play the Boston Celtics in the conference final starting here Sunday.
It will be a series matching a team whose only championships came in the old ABA against the NBA's most successful franchise with 16 titles.
But this is a Nets team that has come full cycle, from Dr. J to J-Kidd.
"I don't think we knew we were going to be this good at this point," Kidd said.
With the officials calling 22 fouls in the final quarter and 77 in the game, the Hornets managed to stay alive in the fourth quarter as Lee Nailon and Jamaal Magliore alternated trips to the foul line.
Two free throws by Magliore gave the Hornets an 89-86 with 5:18 to play.
Kenyon Martin then made one of two free throws to cut the lead to two points and Kidd, who had 13 assists, set up Kerry Kittles for a go-ahead 3-pointer with 4:39 to go.
The next play might have sealed the fate of the Hornets, who are moving to New Orleans next season.
After Wesley brought the ball upcourt and threw a pass to his left, Kidd reached out, got a hand on the pass and stole the ball. Todd MacCulloch scored on a putback, and the Nets were ahead 92-89.
New Jersey scored seven of the next nine points, with Keith Van Horn hitting a long 3-pointer with 2:31 to play that got the sellout crowd out of their seats as Van Horn danced at center court with his hands in the air.
Kittles finished with 18 points and Van Horn, another long-suffering Net, added 16. Martin finished with 14 points, including a monster slam that started the final celebration.
"There are so many night when something like this felt like it was on the other side of the mountain. I'm going to enjoy this for a long, long time," Nets guard Lucious Harris said.
Davis and David Wesley had 13 points apiece for Charlotte, which played the entire series without Jamal Mashburn, who was sidelined with a viral ailment.
After Davis fouled out, their offensive options were severely limited and they shot just 5-of-17 in the fourth quarter. In the four games they lost, Charlotte was a combined 23-for-71 in the fourth.
Charlotte did a great job of weathering the initial five minutes, a span that saw Kenyon Martin flap his arms to get the sellout crowd of 20,049 in the mood for a clinching party.
With George Lynch and Nailon picking up the scoring for Davis and Wesley, the Hornets never trailed by more than six points in the half.
A buzzer-beating baseline jumper by Stacey Augmon gave Charlotte a 50-48 lead, an edge that was surprising considering that Davis did not hit a basket until there was 1:11 left in the half.
With Martin on the bench with foul trouble late in the third quarter, the Hornets were able to use their size and strength inside to take a 72-66 lead on a layup by Lynch with 1:56 left.
A reverse layup by Richard Jefferson got the deficit to four points and then Davis, who was 9 of 17 from the free throw line in Game 4, missed badly on two free throws with 1:10 to go.
The misfires got the crowd going and the Nets ran off the final seven points, with Harris sandwiching four free throws around a three-point play by Kidd.
Davis tied the game with a 3-pointer at the start of the fourth quarter, and the stayed tight until after he fouled out.
Notes: For the first time since 1983-84, the NBA will have a team in the championship round that didn't make the playoffs the year before. Both the Nets and Celtics missed the playoffs last year ... Former Georgetown coach John Thompson kidded Hornets coach Paul Silas before the game, noting that he has been mistaken for Silas four times since they last spoke. ... The Hornets are now 0-7 in their history when facing elimination.
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