Richard Jefferson had a magical but frustrating few years in his early 20’s, getting to the NCAA championship game in 2001 (and losing), the NBA Finals in 2002 (and losing) and the NBA Finals in 2003 (and losing). Then, in 2004, the Nets lost to the eventual NBA champion Pistons in the conference finals and again in 2005, they lost to the eventual NBA champion Heat in the first round.
It took another 11 years and five stops before Jefferson finally won it all, with the Cavs featuring LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
In an interview on “YES, We’re Here” on Wednesday, RJ admitted that when he played for the New Jersey Nets, he believed he’d be going deep in the playoffs every year.
“Yeah, why would I not think that?” he told Ian Eagle. “I understand how hard it is, but I also understood how hard I worked...
“You look at that and it kind of really puts in perspective how good those teams really, really were. And, even though we weren’t able to accomplish that final goal, I always believe that that team in Jersey was a special team.”
The exchange was one highlight of the interview which was broadcast prior to a replay of Game 2 of the 2003 NBA Finals, the first Finals game won by the franchise. Here’s a transcript of the full interview, courtesy of YES...
The Nets’ mindset going into the NBA Finals, having won 10 straight post-season games:
“We understood that their (the Spurs’) size (would be a factor) and obviously Gregg Popovich was establishing himself as one of the great coaches in the NBA, so we knew that our task was extremely, you know, difficult, but one thing that we had: so much more confidence than we did going against the Lakers (in the previous season’s NBA Finals). Not only because I felt like this team was suited more for us, but also because we had the experience from last year; nothing was new to us. The media day, all of the hoopla…we understood it this time around. We were a much more confident group and I believe we came into this series with a ton more confidence and we were excited about it.”
A change of defensive assignments helped pave the way to a win in Game Two:
“I remember when we lost the first one (Game 1, 101-89 in San Antonio) and then they were like, ‘Oh, the Nets have lost five straight Finals games.’ (the Nets were swept by the Lakers in the 2002 Finals) And you’re like, ‘Wait, how are we associating last year’s team with this year’s team?’ After we lost that first game…the way I viewed it is, we had won 10 of 11 (games in the post-season). To the credit of our coaching staff, we came with a little bit better game plan (in Game Two). We changed some things up because Jason Kidd was chasing around Tony Parker, who we now know is a Hall of Fame point guard. Jason Kidd was our offense, he was everything for us, so we made a switch. We put Kerry Kittles, who was a great defender — he guarded Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, and so we put him on Tony so he could focus defensively and then we put Jason Kidd on Bruce Bowen. And so, one of the things that we did is, when we made that switch, it really gave a shot in the arm to our offense...”
On returning to the Meadowlands confident heading into Game Three:
“We went back at home (The Meadowlands) knowing that our crowd would be great, our crowd would be intense. We didn’t have the greatest home court advantage, (which was) part of the reason why they moved the team to Brooklyn, but I do believe going back there, we felt that this was a series that was for the taking. It was a much different feel for the group than it was going against the Lakers (in the previous year’s NBA Finals), coming back down 0-2. So we had a much more confident group, you know, in every aspect, going back home…and we were able to tie the series 2-2.”
About Game Five (the Series was tied 2-2 heading into that game):
“Game Five was a difficult one. But really (what) that Series showed me: there were so many guys, obviously Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Tony Parker, all of those guys were studs, but one thing that I really noticed is that it was the Speedy Claxtons, it was the Steve Kerrs, it was the Steven Jacksons, it was those guys that, in the five-to-ten range, that were playing really well for the Spurs. They were making big key, big plays, big moments and that was the area where our bench, and that’s not to put any blame on them, but when you look at stars matching up with stars, key players matching up with key players, where they really had the advantage, in my opinion, from the five to ten, they were just playing well over that course.”
Did Jefferson just assume that he’d play in the Finals every year?
“Yeah, why would I not think that? I understand how hard it is, but I also understood how hard I worked, and I go and look back and you see, you know you lose to the Lakers, I played in the National Championship game (losing to Duke while playing for Arizona). Yes, was I getting frustrated that I was getting so close to the ultimate and not achieving it? Yes. But I look back on those Jersey teams and, you know, even after those first two years with the Lakers and the Spurs, the next year we lost to Detroit in 7 and we were up 3-2. Jason Kidd had a very difficult knee situation, had to have knee surgery after the season was over. If it wasn’t for that knee surgery, I believe we could have won that game. And so, when you look back on it, of my six years in New Jersey, four of those years we lost to the eventual champion. And, we lost twice in the NBA finals, we lost in a Game 7 to Detroit and we lost in a Game 6 to Miami. You look at that and it kind of really puts in perspective how good those teams really, really were. And, even though we weren’t able to accomplish that final goal, I always believe that that team in Jersey was a special team and, you know, we just weren’t able to finish off that last task for multiple reasons.”
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