The 2002 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and New Jersey Nets was one of the more forgettable Finals in recent memory. The Lakers made quick work of the upstart Nets, sweeping them in four games and winning their third consecutive championship.
LA was clearly the favorite heading into the series, but upsets can always take place in the playoffs. However, several Nets players revealed how they knew their team had no chance to dethrone the champs.
The Los Angeles Lakers and New Jersey Nets were respective favorites
By this point, the Lakers were used to playing for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. LA had taken down the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers in each of the last two years to add a 12th and 13th banner to the Staples Center rafters.
Finishing a solid 58-24, the Lakers were the three-seed in the Western Conference. In the first round, both Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant averaged around 26 points per game in a three-game sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. Next, they eliminated the San Antonio Spurs in five games on the backs of their superstar duo.
If there was ever a doubt as to whether LA would advance, it was in the Western Conference Finals against the Sacramento Kings. Thanks to a dominating performance from O’Neal, plus clutch shots from guys like Robert Horry, the Lakers dispatched their foe and advanced to the final round.
Meanwhile, the Nets had never reached the NBA Finals before. They had never even been to an Eastern Conference Finals during their 26 years in the NBA. However, thanks to All-Star Jason Kidd‘s arrival that season, New Jersey finished 52-30, good enough to earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Nets were pushed to the limit in their first-round matchup against the Pacers. But Kidd, Kenyon Martin, and Keith Van Horn combined for 87 points in New Jersey’s series-clinching Game 5 victory. They made quick work of the Charlotte Hornets in the next round, beating them in five games, before knocking off the three-seed Boston Celtics in the conference finals. In that six-game series against Boston, Kidd averaged an incredible 17.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 10.2 assists.
Several Nets players admitted they had no chance to beat the Lakers
With Kidd at the helm, the Nets had a good team. But it wasn’t enough to stop the Lakers, and they knew it.
O’Neal’s 36 points and 16 rebounds helped LA get out to an early series lead. Next, the big man had 40 and 12 as the Lakers won Game 2 by 23. But in Game 3, everything was going right for New Jersey. The Nets erased an 11-point deficit, with Kidd, Martin, and Richard Jefferson all playing at the best of their abilities.
“We were running them off the floor,” said Brian Scalabrine years later in Jeff Pearlman’s Three Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty. “It was some of the best ball we’d ever played, just basketball at a high level. Then I looked up at the scoreboard.”
When Scalabrine looked up, he saw the Nets up 90-83 with 8:48 remaining. It was the best basketball he’d seen his team play all series, and it amounted to a seven-point lead with plenty of time to go (h/t Three Ring Circus).
“And that’s when I realized we weren’t beating these guys. We were playing the best we could possibly play, we’re disrupting what they wanted to do, and it wasn’t nearly enough. It felt like we should have been up by 30. We just weren’t of their class.”Brian Scalabrine
Scalabrine, who was a rookie at the time, was correct. Kobe chipped in a game-high 36 points as the Lakers came back to win 106-103. Three nights later, the Purple and Gold completed the sweep with a 113-107 victory.
“Sometimes you’re not good enough,” said former center Jason Collins. “That was us — not good enough.”
Added Kerry Kittles, “Did we truly believe we could win? I don’t know. Probably not.”
Surprisingly, the Nets made is back to the Finals before the Lakers
With three straight Finals victories in hand, the Lakers were obvious favorites to go for the fourth year in a row. But the Spurs thought otherwise, handing the Lakers a second-round defeat in 2003. It was LA’s first series loss since 1999, when San Antonio eliminated them in the conference finals.
In the East, the Nets proved they were no fluke. Following its 52-win season, New Jersey went 49-33 to earn the two-seed. After a six-game victory versus the Milwaukee Bucks in round one, Kidd and the Nets swept the Celtics and Detroit Pistons to advance to the NBA Finals once again. Naturally, they faced the Laker-conquering Spurs, and while the Nets took it to six games this time around, San Antonio walked away with its second title in five years.
Even if it was a weaker Eastern Conference, the Nets displayed their worthiness in back-to-back seasons. But it also shows how far away they still were from reaching the level of the Lakers dynasty. It’s easy to see that now, just as it was for Nets players to see it back then.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.