Nets down Hawks, climb into East playoff pictureMar 20, 2008 - 4:39 AM By Carl Dispoto PA SportsTicker Contributing Writer EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey (Ticker) -- The New Jersey Nets know the key to making the playoffs is defense. The Atlanta Hawks - in the midst of a nine-year postseason drought - still are learning.
Vince Carter scored a season-high 39 points and Richard Jefferson added 33 as the Nets shut down the Hawks for most of the second half en route to a 125-117 victory on Wednesday.
Atlanta (29-39) entered the game with a three-game winning streak and a one-game lead over New Jersey (29-39) for final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Nets gained an advantage in the matchup by beating the Hawks for the third time in four games to win the season series.
"We understand that right now this is the team we are competing against for the last playoff spot," Jefferson said. "There was so much at stake. This was a playoff games for us, and we had to approach it that way."
"At this point in time, everyone had to either step it up another level or get ready to go home at the end of the year," Carter said. "Each game is important, we only have so many left."
Trying to make a run at their first playoff appearance since 1999, the Hawks were on fire in the first half before falling flat.
The Nets' offense never slowed, however, as Carter made 17-of-26 shots and fell just shy of a triple-double with 10 rebounds and eight assists. Jefferson made 10-of-17 shots, including all four of his 3-point attempts, and 9-of-10 free throws.
"I just wanted to put my mark on the game, whatever that meant," Carter said. "I tried to set the bar high early and, hopefully, everyone will follow."
Devin Harris, who was questionable after suffering a sprained right ankle in Tuesday's loss at Chicago, was in the starting lineup and had 24 points and nine assists. He made 8-of-15 shots overall, 3-of-6 3-pointers and 7-of-8 from the line.
"There is pain. Tolerable, though," Harris said. "There were a couple of movements that I felt a twinge, but we had it so heavily taped that it didn't hurt as bad as it could have."
The trio spearheaded a dominant offensive performance by the Nets, who shot a season-high 58 percent (46-of-79) overall and set a season high in points. They also had their most efficient 3-point shooting game of the season, making 11-of-18 from behind the arc.
"We just didn't defend tonight as a team," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "I don't take anything away from the Nets, they shot lights out. I say it's our defense."
Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 24 points but was in foul trouble for much of the third quarter and managed just seven points after halftime.
Rookie Al Horford matched a career high with 20 points and Marvin Williams also added 20 for the Hawks, who shot a blistering 68 percent (27-of-40) in the first half but could not sustain the pace.
"We got into that mode where we thought we were just going to outscore teams," Woodson said. "When you start struggling to make shots you have to make sure at the other end that they're struggling to make shots to balance it out, and that didn't happen."
Johnson seemed unstoppable in the first half but went to the bench less than five minutes into the third after picking up his second and third fouls. The Hawks' offense faltered thereafter, and the Nets took the lead for good with a 12-3 run late in the quarter.
Carter scored six points during the spurt, burying a jumper with 55 seconds left for a 93-87 lead.
It was more of the same in the fourth as the Nets used the speed of Harris and the athleticism of Jefferson and Carter to outrun the Hawks.
New Jersey had a 99-94 edge with 9:24 remaining before scoring eight straight points to start a 13-3 run. Bostjan Nachbar had five of his 11 points during the stretch, including a fast-break dunk off a pass from Harris, who had a layup of his own and fed an alley-oop to Jefferson which gave the Nets a 112-98 cushion at 6:11.
Carter sealed the game with two athletic shots, following a spin move with a fallaway jumper at 3:22 and driving past Josh Smith for a lefthanded reverse just 33 seconds later.
"Vince was amazing tonight," Jefferson said. "He carried us. He made so many tough shots, just making something of nothing. He definitely was the MVP of the night."
Atlanta slumped to make just 15-of-40 shots in the final 24 minutes but still finished at 53 percent (42-of-80) overall.
"We had good shots, but they just weren't falling," Woodson said. "Shots stopped falling, and we didn't defend either. I don't know how many layups we gave up, and you can't do that when you are racing for a playoff spot."
NEW JERSEY 125 FINAL
Mar 19 9:57 PM
NEW JERSEY 94 END, 3RD QTR
Mar 19 9:23 PM
NEW JERSEY 60 HALFTIME
Mar 19 8:37 PM
NEW JERSEY 37 END, 1ST QTR
Mar 19 8:08 PM
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