EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They finally found Richard Jefferson and located their trademark fastbreak. But even after all of those rediscoveries, the New Jersey Nets nearly lost the game they couldn't afford to lose.
Running and dunking their way to a 15-point third-quarter lead, the Nets still found themselves having to survive a scoring drought that lasted almost seven minutes and a 16-0 run by the San Antonio Spurs to even the NBA Finals Wednesday night with a 77-76 victory at Continental Airlines Arena.
Kenyon Martin sank four of six free throws in the final 3:28, including two with 1:12 to play for a 73-72 lead, and Jason Kidd hit four straight from the line in the final 9.1 seconds to secure the win. The Spurs still had a chance to tie the game in the final seconds on Manu Ginobili's 3-point attempt, which grazed the rim but appeared to be interfered by Kidd while trying to tap away the rebound. Tim Duncan scored off the miss just before the buzzer for the final margin.
The best-of-seven series is now a best-of-three with Game 5 on Friday at Continental Airlines Arena (ABC, 8 p.m. ET).
"It took a lot of heart tonight," Nets coach Byron Scott said. "We had a big lead and let it get away. ... We just continued to play."
"We just had to get that focus back and continue to play and we did," Martin said. "It's huge for us to get this thing tied at 2-2."
Martin scored a team-high 20 points to go with 13 rebounds and three blocks, and Kidd endured another bad shooting night (5-of-16) to finish with 16 points but also had eight rebounds and nine assists. Jefferson, who had a combined 14 points the last two games, bounced back with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Duncan led the Spurs with 23 points, 17 rebounds -- including eight offensive -- and seven blocks (matching his Game 1 total for the second-most in Finals history). Tony Parker followed up his 26-point effort in Sunday's 84-79 win with a measly three points on 1-for-12 shooting.
"We didn't play well. We didn't compete for 48 minutes. We missed a lot of layups," Parker said. "We just have to come back strong the next game. Hopefully, we'll shoot the ball a little better."
The marksmanship was unsightly on both sides. The Nets shot 35.9 percent (28 of 78), while the Spurs suffered through a 26-for-90 night (28.9 percent) in the third-worst shooting performance ever in a Finals game. Three of San Antonio's starters -- Parker, Bruce Bowen and Stephen Jackson -- were a combined 4-for-30, including 2-for-11 on 3-pointers.
"Shooting was a little bit of a problem," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Four of our top six guys were 3-for-thirtysomething and that's going to be tough to win a game if you perform that way."
Jefferson's thunderous dunk over Kevin Willis highlighted a third quarter that saw the Nets stretch a 45-34 halftime lead to 51-36. The posterizing of Willis gave New Jersey a 56-45 cushion and everyone in the house the impression that the Nets would cruise to a 2-2 series tie.
But the Spurs, behind the leadership of backup point guard Speedy Claxton, silenced the sellout crowd of 19,280 by battling back to take a 57-56 lead into the fourth quarter. Claxton scored six of his 10 points in the period while filling in for a struggling Parker, and Willis saved face by scoring all six of his points during the Spurs' quarter-closing 21-5 run, which ended with 12 unanswered points.
San Antonio scored the first four points of the fourth on two Claxton free throws and Bowen's steal and breakaway slam for a 61-56 lead. Martin's layup with 10:19 remaining finally ended a scoreless Nets stretch that began with 5:18 left in the third quarter, the time of Jefferson's dunk.
"This team definitely has perseverance," said Kerry Kittles, who made up for his 2-of-10, four-point night with his defense on Parker. "We've shown that ... We've been tested in the playoffs and every time this team is really resilient ... and doing whatever it takes to win."
No one demonstrated the Nets' persistence better than Martin, particularly on one sequence in the last two minutes. With the Nets down 72-71, Martin was blocked two straight times by Duncan down low, only to gather the offensive rebound each time. On Martin's third shot, Duncan rejected it again but got called for the foul. Martin sank both free throws to give New Jersey the lead for good.
"I was just trying to be aggressive," Martin said. "He got his hand on the first one, his hand on the second one and the third one I got the call."
"That was sheer determination," Scott said. "He was not going to be denied."
After Ginobili missed a 3-pointer against an oncoming Jefferson, Kidd backed down Parker and missed a jump shot. Luckily for the Nets, Dikembe Mutombo grabbed the offensive rebound. Kidd then missed another jumper but the rebound found its way to Kittles, who got the ball back to Kidd for two free throws and a three-point lead with 9.1 seconds left.
In the second quarter, the Nets figured out how to get their fastbreak going again. The solution: Keep Duncan and David Robinson off the floor.
With Duncan and Robinson forced to the bench with three fouls each, the Nets were able to run free for the longest amount of time all series, extending a 34-30 lead over the final 3:32 of the first half to 45-34 at the break.
Jefferson's driving layup and 3-point play sent Duncan to the bench for the four-point cushion. After Kittles' steal and breakaway slam, Aaron Williams got a trailing Robinson to pick up his third foul on another New Jersey fastbreak with 2:12 remaining, sinking both free throws for a 38-32 advantage.
From there, the Nets felt like themselves again attacking the basket on every possession. Martin scored off a Kidd feed with a scoop and then put back a miss by Williams, who scored all eight of his points in the second quarter. Jefferson sparked the half-closing 19-4 run with a simple cut down the lane for a layup, then finished it off with a baseline drive and 3-point play for the 11-point halftime advantage.
"We got fouled on a lot of penetrations or layups that guys had and we made free throws," Kidd said. "But to get on the run, that's when we are at our best. They have done a great job of trying to slow us down, but tonight, I thought we made a conscious effort to get the rebound and try to push it."
Scott's defensive switch of having the 6-foot-5 Kittles chase the 6-2 Parker to conserve Kidd's energy paid dividends in the first half as Parker shot a miserable 1-for-10 in the first half.
"Kerry is longer and it gives (Parker) a different look," Scott explained. "I thought Kerry was great defensively."
Tempers flared early in the fourth quarter after the Spurs took a 63-58 lead. Willis and Rodney Rogers got into a heated exchange that led to a technical foul after Rogers pushed Bowen before the ensuing inbounds play. The Nets responded with a 9-0 run to take a 67-63 lead on Rogers' fastbreak layup, Jefferson's runner and reverse layup and Kidd's 3-point play.