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Nets stymie Celtics, maintain slim lead over Sixers

BOSTON (AP) -- Richard Jefferson and the New Jersey Nets are
rolling again at the right time.

With the Atlantic Division lead in jeopardy, Jefferson matched his career-high with 27 points and the Nets held on to first place with an 87-74 win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday night.

The Nets are 3-1 in their last four games after struggling through a 1-7 slump. In his previous 10 games, Jefferson averaged only 11.5 points and hit 33 percent of his shots.

"This is huge. People had really started to talk bad about us and write us off,'' Jefferson said.

He was 11-of-20 from the field as the Nets remained a half-game ahead of Philadelphia in the division and moved three games in front of third-place Boston.

"He was aggressive. It's about time,'' said Kenyon Martin, whose 22 points gave New Jersey's starting forwards a total of 49. "That's the way I expect him to play. I'm not surprised.''

Jefferson and Martin also played tight defense on Paul Pierce,
who scored 23 points, and Antoine Walker, who had 14.

"We're not executing our game plan when we play a team like New
Jersey,'' Pierce said. "For some reason, they have our number.''

The Nets beat the Celtics last Thursday in New Jersey, 90-75,
but Boston came back to beat Eastern Conference leader Detroit on
Saturday. But the Celtics shot only 3-of-20 from 3-point range
against the Pistons and were 1-for-21 against the Nets.

"Every game is important. This is a big loss for us,'' Walker said. "We had an opportunity to help ourselves out'' in the standings.

Pierce didn't return after spraining his left ankle with seven seconds left in the third quarter.

"It's feeling all right,'' said Pierce, who expects to be ready for Wednesday night's game at Indiana.

Jefferson also scored 27 points against San Antonio on Nov. 13.
He had 12 in the second quarter Tuesday and put the Nets ahead to
stay with an 18-footer that made it 34-32 with 7:03 left in the
period.

"At the beginning, they were playing five feet off Kenyon and me,'' he said. "Immediately, we got the mindset (that) we have to be aggressive.''

Jason Kidd matched his season high with 13 rebounds to go with
seven assists and nine points.

The Nets began to take control late in the second quarter.

They scored 15 consecutive points -- the last nine of the second
and the first six of the third -- to increase their lead from 46-43
to 61-43.

Martin started the surge with two free throws and Lucious Harris
hit a jumper. Kidd then made a 3-pointer and Harris ended the half
with another jumper.

Jefferson started the second half with a 15-footer, Kerry
Kittles added a 21-footer and Martin sank two free throws. The
15-point streak was broken when Tony Battie hit a foul-line jumper
with 10:00 left in the third quarter.

That was the Celtics' only basket in 10 attempts in the first five minutes of the quarter. And they went just 4-for-22 from the field in the period, while the Nets went 8-for-17 and led 78-58 going into the fourth.

New Jersey led by at least 13 points the rest of the way.

Game notes
The Nets won the season series 3-1. Tuesday's victory was the only one on the road. ... New Jersey is 11-2 when Jefferson scores at least 20 points. ... The Celtics play their fourth straight game against teams ahead of them in the East when they visit Indiana. Boston is fifth in the conference.

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