EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - As they prepared for the game that might decide the fate of their NBA title dreams, the Nets could smell a championship.
"You come into the building this afternoon, and you have a sense of champagne and beer," Jason Kidd said before practice at Continental Airlines Arena.
About 13 hours earlier, the Devils raised the Stanley Cup on the ice now below the freshly assembled basketball court. Kenyon Martin attended the game to enjoy the winning vibe - and he sat next to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who knows a bit about championships.
"It was great for them to win it here, and now the pressure is on us," Martin said. "It's a good pressure. That was a great feeling for those guys. I'm excited for them. We're in a position where we can do the same thing, so now let's go out and play."
In Game 4 tonight, the Nets will find out whether they've got any realistic hope of hanging a title banner on the opposite end of the arena from those belonging to the Devils.
A 3-1 deficit never has been overcome in the finals. Martin told the rest of the Nets, down 2-1 to the Spurs, to treat Game 4 as if it were the last game of the season - since it might turn out to be the last one that matters.
The Spurs won Game 3 in New Jersey, and they could take prohibitive control of the series with another dominating inside-outside performance from the tandem of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.
"Any team down 3-1 is devastated," Spurs guard Stephen Jackson said. "It would definitely take the confidence out of them."
To win their first NBA title, the Nets must figure out how to score consistently against the Spurs' ever-changing defense. Run-and-gun New Jersey has been stuck in neutral for most of the series, with San Antonio's strong transition defense preventing most of the fastbreaks that are New Jersey's specialty.
And Martin, the excitable power forward, might be the key. New Jersey's leading playoff scorer is averaging 19.3 in the series, but he has vanished in the fourth quarter of all three games - particularly the two losses.
Martin has eight points on 4-of-17 shooting in the fourth quarters. Kidd carried the Nets to victory in Game 2, but they faded in Game 3 when Martin missed four shots down the stretch.
Duncan and Bruce Bowen - both superb defenders - have guarded Martin for most of the series. Martin isn't having trouble getting the ball in the post, but the Nets have been unable to generate their usual amount of easy baskets with their transition offense.
It's a frustration for Martin, who waved his arms while describing the experience of trying to break the Spurs stranglehold.
"They get four guys back on every defensive rebound we get," Martin said. "We can't get out and run the way we like. I'm trying to make big plays and get people excited, but we always end up walking it down because we can't get numbers. We need to do something to get easy baskets."
The Nets also have grown frustrated with the Spurs' frequent trips to the free-throw line, complaining that Kidd and Martin don't seem to get the same respect afforded Duncan. Nets coach Byron Scott and team president Rod Thorn have complained about the officials.
"We have to be aggressive. It's not the officiating," Kidd said. "We can't just settle for jump shots. We have to take the ball to the basket and be aggressive."
With the reclaimed homecourt advantage and their confidence in Duncan, the Spurs can afford to approach Game 4 as a normal playoff meeting - but the Nets need this victory, not only for their championship hopes, but for their franchise's growth.
WASHINGTON 79, SAN ANTONIO 72: Coco Miller scored 18, and and the host Mystics blew a 16-point second-half lead before rallying.
Silver Stars forward Sylvia Crawley sprained her neck and was taken away on a stretcher.
NEW YORK 73, CLEVELAND 65 Becky Hammon came off the bench to score 28 in leading the host Liberty. She hit a 3-pointer with 6:46 left that gave New York the lead for good. Tari Phillips had 11 points and 10 rebounds for New York.
HOUSTON 71, SACRAMENTO 66: Tina Thompson scored 22 to help the host Comets avoid their first three-game losing streak in history. Michelle Snow added a career-high 17 points.
SEATTLE 78, INDIANA 51: Lauren Jackson scored 20 to lead the host Storm.