INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—The New Jersey Nets might not have just the “Big Three” anymore.
The trio of Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson is well known, but second-year center Nenad Krstic has been a key factor in the Eastern Conference first-round series against the Indiana Pacers.
He scored 21 points in New Jersey’s 97-88 win Saturday that tied the series at 2-all.
The Pacers will need to slow the 7-footer from Serbia and Montenegro in Game 5 Tuesday at New Jersey. Krstic is averaging 17.8 points and shooting 55 percent from the field in the postseason.
“He’s a major key to this series,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on how to deal with him, but they’re breaking us down from the perimeter, and guys like him and Cliff (Robinson) are getting open shots.”
Krstic’s teammates eagerly kick the ball out to him because he’s so accurate. His mid-range jumper is nearly automatic, especially if unguarded.
“I really think outside of Dirk (Nowitzki) that he is the best-shooting big man we have in this league,” said Jefferson, who scored 22 points.
Kidd likes the growth he’s seen in Krstic’s game.
“I think we all believe in him, both the coaching staff and his teammates,” Kidd said. “You can see that he is a real confident shooter, and now he is starting to put the ball on the floor and go to the basket with authority.”
The Nets led the Pacers by as many as 19 points at the end of the third quarter, but let that advantage slip to only five points with 2 minutes left.
Still, Carter is feeling good ahead of Game 5 after a 28-point performance.
“We weathered the storm, stayed focused and took their hits as they came,” Carter said. “We have to feed off the good things we did. This was definitely a big win for us, and if we want to be known as a good playoff team, we have to protect our home court.”
Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal scored 22 points before fouling out with 1:21 left. He dunked on the previous play to cut New Jersey’s lead to 93-88, but got caught fouling Jefferson on a drive to the hoop.
New Jersey led 76-57 at the end of the third quarter, but two quick technical fouls called on Jefferson and Nets coach Lawrence Frank with 11:15 left in the fourth quarter helped the Pacers whittle the deficit. Jason Collins was later called for a flagrant foul on O’Neal.
The Pacers took advantage and went on a 13-3 run that sliced the lead to 79-70 and forced a New Jersey timeout with 9 minutes left.
“It seemed like we forgot that we were the team that was up 20 points,” Jefferson said.
Indiana will need to keep O’Neal out of foul trouble the rest of the series. He’s played more than 32 minutes only once in the four playoff games. The Pacers also had 23 turnovers that led to 23 New Jersey points on Saturday.
“We have to defend better, not turn the ball over and stay out of foul trouble,” Carlisle said. “We fought back, but when you put yourself in that kind of hole we had, it’s tough to come back.”
Indiana backup point guard Jamaal Tinsley missed his second straight game because of a sore right Achilles’ tendon. … O’Neal made 13-of-14 free throws in Game 3, and 6-of-9 in Game 4. … New Jersey is 14-for-59 from 3-point range in the series. … Pacers forward Peja Stojakovic sat out Game 4 with an injured right knee and Carlisle isn’t sure he’ll be available for Game 5.