EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — While the teams might not meet each other in the playoffs — New Jersey has yet to make them — the Washington Wizards can attest that the Nets are a much better team now than they were earlier this season.
The Wizards, who came into last night’s meeting at Continental Airlines Arena dreaming of the possibility of earning the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round of the NBA playoffs, watched Jason Kidd sink those hopes as he helped lead New Jersey to a 25-point lead en route to a 109-101 victory last night.
The Wizards’ loss and the Chicago Bulls’ accompanying win over the New York Knicks guarantees the Wizards (45-36) will open the playoffs in Chicago at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday.
From the beginning the Nets’ (41-40) desperation played to their favor. They can guarantee themselves the final spot in the East with a win tonight against Boston.
“They were told what was going to happen but our guys didn’t know what was going to happen,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, a former Nets assistant, said of the fired up crowd of 16,717. “Right from the beginning the crowd was waving the white towels and that reminded me of my playoff days here with them.
“It was just a playoff atmosphere here,” Jordan continued. “Right before the jump ball I told my guys, ‘This is the atmosphere I was talking about. You can feel it. They are going to come at us.’ ”
And Jordan was right.
Jason Kidd took over the game from the start, scoring eight of the Nets’ first 10 points and 15 of the 32 they scored in the first quarter, in which the Nets led by as many as 19 points.
That lead grew to 25 points in the second quarter. By then it was clear the Wizards were not ready to match the intensity of the Nets, who are trying to reach the playoffs for the fourth year in a row.
Kidd finished with a game-high 35 points. He also notched eight rebounds, eight assists and five steals. Vince Carter added 26 points and nine assists for the Nets, who also got 13 points from Brian Scalabrine.
Larry Hughes led five Wizards in double figures with 18 points. Antawn Jamison, Kwame Brown and Etan Thomas each added 14 points, while Brendan Haywood scored 12. Thomas also grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds.
Though the Wizards made a brief run in the fourth quarter, the Nets never appeared in danger of losing.
“I think if the situation were reversed it probably would have been different,” Jamison said of the Wizards’ inability to match the Nets’ intensity. “Defensively they had more energy than we probably did. When you are fighting for your playoff life it is a little bit different than when you are in it. Not to take anything from those guys, though. They are going to be a dangerous team if they make it into the playoffs.”
Riding a four-game win streak that seemed to revive them heading into last night’s contest, the Wizards needed to win their final two games — they close the regular season tonight at New York — while the Bulls had to drop one of their last two in order for Washington to steal home court.
But the argument can be made that the Nets have been as good as any team in the Eastern Conference save for Miami and Detroit since the last time they faced the Wizards, who prior to last night had beaten them by an average of 24 points in three meetings.