EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Four games into the Finals, and we finally got a chance to see the Nets fast break with some success. Four games into the Finals, and we finally got a chance to see why the Nets had the second-best defense in the NBA.
Four games into the Finals, and we can finally report a Richard Jefferson sighting.
It's no secret: To get back into this series, the Nets needed a big effort from Jefferson. And after having to answer questions about his struggles for two straight off-days, Jefferson responded with 18 points and 10 rebounds in the Nets' 77-76 win that evened the series at two games.
This was, by no means, a pretty game. The Spurs shot 28.9 percent, with Tony Parker -- so brilliant in Game 3 -- missing 11 of 12 shots on Wednesday. The Nets were no better, hitting 35.9 percent with Jason Kidd missing 13 of his 18 shots.
But Jefferson, criticized for his poor play prior to Game 4, came through. He had his first double-double since the Game 5 clincher over the Bucks in the opening round. He had his first double-figure scoring game since the Finals' opener, when he had 15. He smartly -- not wildly -- attacked the basket, and his second-half dunk over Kevin Willis was the highlight of the game.
"RJ, he came to life," Nets coach Byron Scott said. "The thing I talked about him the other day was just being patient and letting the game come to (him). He got a couple of quick-pass buckets, easy baskets and got to the free-throw line a little bit and got it going. Hopefully, he can continue to play that way."
Jefferson, to his credit, never let the criticism and tough questions directed at him wear him down. It had to help that through his struggles, the players and coaches of the Nets did their best to boost the spirits of the 22-year-old Jefferson, the youngest player on the team.
But his poor play over the last two games -- a combined 6-for-21 from the field in Games 2 and 3 -- had its effect. Jefferson isolated himself from his teammates during much of Tuesday's practice, choosing to ride the exercise bike rather than mingle with teammates.
"We knew that he was down a little bit," Nets center Dikembe Mutombo said. "But he was going to come up."
Jefferson scored the game's first basket on a tip-in, but in just over two minutes after that, he got a shot blocked by Tim Duncan and committed two turnovers.
"I kept telling him to relax, and he did," said Kenyon Martin, who led the Nets with 20 points and 13 rebounds. "He was kind of pressing at first, and then he got it going when he got a couple of layups and that made things easier for him.
"I don't think he made a jump shot," Martin added, "But we'll take it."
Jefferson did make one jumper -- a short one from six feet. Every other basket was either a dunk or a layup
"(Entering Game 4) I was going to focus on rebounding, I (wasn't) going to worry about scoring," Jefferson said. "Then I had six or seven early and my offense started coming."
That Jefferson got some easy baskets was due in large part to a major change by Scott -- using Kidd on post-ups against Parker. When Kidd got the ball in the post, the Spurs were forced to double -- often leaving cutters with easy baskets.
Other moves by Scott also helped the Nets. Having Kerry Kittles and Anthony Johnson take time to defend Parker allowed Kidd to play a game-high 47 minutes. And dropping Jason Collins to 10 minutes allowed both Aaron Williams (eight points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes) and Mutombo (four points, three rebounds, three blocks) to play quality minutes.
But the Nets are in no position to win if Jefferson doesn't play big.
"The big things about basketball is you don't have to put up big numbers offensively," Kidd said. "I thought (Jefferson) did a great job of going to the basket, but also getting his hands on the ball defensively and rebounding."
Through four games, the Nets have proved they have a solid defense. Still, they are lucky to still be in these Finals. The Nets' inability to score over long stretches (they missed 14 of their last 16 third-quarter shots) is the reason why a game that the Nets led by 15 points in the second half turned into high drama in the closing minutes.
So now the Finals are 2-2, the first time that's happened since 1997. The Nets, guaranteed a return trip to San Antonio, can take a 3-2 series lead on Friday night.
And the Nets could not have done it without Jefferson. His impact on these NBA Finals could not have come at a better time for the Nets.
"It feels good," Jefferson said. "The last two games I struggled, but we won one of them. I don't think we are so much living and dying by me, but I understand that in order for this team to be successful, I have to play well."
Jerry Bembry is general editor (NBA) for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him via e-mail at Jerry.Bembry@ESPN3.com.