In the end, New Jersey’s balance and firepower were too much for the injury-depleted Pacers. The Nets beat the Pacers 96-90 on Thursday night to win the best-of-seven series in six games and advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Nets trailed 2-1 in the series before reeling off three straight wins, two in Indianapolis. The Nets will face Miami, which beat Chicago in six games, in the second round. The second-seeded Heat will have the homecourt advantage.
The Pacers played without Peja Stojakovic for the fourth time in the series because of a sore right knee. The team’s second-leading scorer in the regular season, Stojakovic played in Indiana’s only two wins in the series.
“We knew going in that this wasn’t a six seed,” New Jersey coach Lawrence Frank said. “We were fortunate that Peja was only able to play in two games. We were under no illusion that this wasn’t going to be a hard-fought series, that was going to go down to the wire,”
Former Net Anthony Johnson almost single-handedly sent the series back to New Jersey for a Game 7. He scored a career-high 40 points.
“It’s bittersweet,” Johnson said. “It would be great if it was in a winning performance. I’ve never shot that much in my life, and I’ve never scored that much in my life. I had it going.”
Frank said he’s proud of Johnson.
“He’s got a tremendous work ethic,” Frank said. “It’s good to see that when you work your tail off, it pays off.”
Jermaine O’Neal scored 21 points for the Pacers.
Every time it looked like New Jersey might pull away, Johnson had an answer. He scored the first 12 points of the fourth quarter for Indiana, then Austin Croshere dunked and O’Neal followed with a basket to cut New Jersey’s lead to 87-85 with 3:25 left.
Nenad Krstic scored and drew O’Neal’s fifth foul with 2:30 left. Krstic converted the three-point play to bump New Jersey’s lead to 90-85.
O’Neal scored again to cut the deficit to 90-87, but Carter blew by him for a layup with 1:07 left, knowing O’Neal wouldn’t risk a sixth foul, to give the Nets a 92-87 lead.
Johnson hit a 3-pointer with 57 seconds left to make it 92-90, and after a miss by Carter, Indiana had a chance to tie. Johnson missed in close and O’Neal got the rebound, but Jefferson blocked his putback.
New Jersey worked time off the clock and the Pacers fouled Krstic with 14 seconds left. He made both free throws for a 94-90 lead. Johnson then missed a 3-pointer and Jefferson made two free throws.
New Jersey outrebounded the Pacers 44-30.
The Pacers shot 61 percent in the first quarter to take a 26-21 lead. Johnson scored 12 points in the period while drawing fouls from both Carter and Kidd on baskets.
Carter shot 1-for-6 in the first quarter but fueled a second-quarter comeback. He scored the last eight points of the half as New Jersey tied the score 41-all.
Kidd missed all five of his field goal attempts in the first half, several of them badly, while struggling to guard Johnson. Jefferson picked up the slack by scoring 14 points.
Kidd made two 3-pointers early in the third quarter to give New Jersey a 49-45 lead, then Carter and Jefferson combined for 17 points in a 19-11 run that gave the Nets a 68-56 lead.
Danny Granger hit two 3-pointers late in the quarter to help the Pacers cut New Jersey’s lead to 73-69 heading into the final quarter.
Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said he liked the way the Pacers closed the season. The Pacers lost O’Neal for two months with a groin injury and deactivated Ron Artest for nearly two months after his trade request in December. Despite that, the Indiana went 41-41 and was a formidable obstacle for the Nets.
“We’re disappointed that the season is over, but I’m going to give the guys credit for the way they played the last three weeks when things weren’t looking good,” Carlisle said.
Frank was impressed with the Pacers.
“They’ve dealt with more depletion of their roster than any team in the league the last two years,” he said.
Carter entered the game as the only player among the top 12 in the playoffs in points, rebounds, assists and steals. … Granger was named to the All-Rookie second team. He left the game in the second quarter with a sprained right Achilles’ tendon, but started the second half. … New Jersey F Jason Collins left the game early in the third quarter after catching an elbow from Croshere, but he returned. … Indiana C Jeff Foster didn’t play because of a lower back strain. Indiana C Scot Pollard missed the last two games and backup PG Jamaal Tinsley sat out for the fifth time in the series with a sore right Achilles’ tendon.