EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Players hugged at center court. Fans stood and cheered as music blared through the arena.
Finally, the New Jersey Nets got to experience that winning feeling again.
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The Nets won for the first time this season, ending the worst start in NBA history at 18 losses by beating the Charlotte Bobcats 97-91 on Friday night.
Brook Lopez had 31 points and 14 rebounds, and Courtney Lee scored a career-high 27 points in his return to the starting lineup for the Nets in their first game under Kiki Vandeweghe, their general manager who will coach the rest of the season.
“For me, I was happy for the players,” Vandeweghe said. “This has been a bit of a struggle. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It was tough, tough on everybody.”
Vandeweghe stood and clapped in front of the bench as the Nets, who set the record for worst start with their loss to Dallas on Wednesday night, won for the first time since April 13, when they also beat the Bobcats.
Lee made the tiebreaking free throws with 2:22 left, dunked after a steal 15 seconds later, and New Jersey put it away when Devin Harris made three from the line with 1:26 remaining for a 93-86 lead.
“It feels good. We brought great energy,” Harris said. “We didn’t play great all time, but we fought.”
New Jersey trailed by as much as eight points in the third quarter before controlling the fourth to end any fears of flirting with the NBA’s longest single-season losing streak of 23 games, held by the Vancouver Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets.
“We did a great job of responding tonight,” said Nets guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, who criticized his team’s toughness Wednesday. “I’ve seen a lot of guys who looked like new guys out there, really. They looked like new guys, so I have to introduce myself to these new guys.”
Raymond Felton and Stephen Jackson each scored 28 for the Bobcats, who have lost two in a row after a four-game winning streak — including the loss that all New Jersey opponents had desperately wanted to avoid.
“They played hard. They deserved to win. They’re an NBA team. It shouldn’t have come tonight,” Charlotte center Tyson Chandler said.
Lee’s jumper with 10:53 remaining tied it at 71 — though fans loudly groaned as the scoreboard operator, apparently unfamiliar with the Nets being in such good position in the fourth quarter — gave the points to the Bobcats.
The Nets opened a 76-71 lead, blew that, then went ahead by six later in the period, only to have Jackson nail consecutive 3-pointers to tie it at 84 with 2:51 to play, setting up Lee’s big finish.
“This game is a game of runs, and so we had our run and we knew they were going to come back and attack us again,” Lee said. “It was just if we had enough character and poise to take that hit and continue to play through it.”
Vandeweghe was given the position Tuesday, two days after the Nets fired Lawrence Frank. Assistant Tom Barrise guided the team for the previous two losses so Vandeweghe could run practice Thursday before coaching for the first time.
He allowed that he was nervous and that the players were feeling pressure to end the skid, a burden he told them not to dwell on too much during practice Thursday.
His first decision played out perfectly. He changed the starting lineup, inserting Lee for Trenton Hassell — though apparently nobody told the person doing introductions, who announced Hassell, anyway. Lee had been a starter earlier in the season but had been coming off the bench since returning from a groin injury.
The offense was surprisingly good in the first quarter, considering the Bobcats came in 29th in the league in scoring and field goal percentage, right above the Nets in both categories. Jackson scored 11 points, and Charlotte shot 55 percent in taking a 29-28 lead.
They played down to their normal levels in the second, combining to hit just 13 of 41 shots, and Charlotte led 51-47 at halftime. Harris (0 for 5) and top reserve Terrence Williams (0 for 8) missed all their shots for New Jersey.
Charlotte built an eight-point lead with 5:05 remaining in the third, but managed only one field goal the rest of the period and the Nets trimmed it to 69-68 heading to the final 12 minutes.
“We had some bad stuff happening. Turnovers. Fouled 3-point shooters,” Charlotte coach Larry Brown said. “They played with a lot of energy. Lopez was great. Lee was great. They didn’t turn the ball over. They played really solid.”
Harris rebounded from his poor start to finish with 16 points and eight assists for the Nets. Gerald Wallace had 13 points and tied a season high with 20 rebounds, and Chandler had 13 points and 12 boards.
NOTES: The Nets finally announced the hiring of Del Harris, who will assist Vandeweghe, before the game, even though Harris had been here since Wednesday. … Brown coached the Nets in 1981-82 and ’82-’83, replaced shortly before the playoffs after deciding to take the Kansas job. … The Nets are getting healthier. Keyon Dooling (hip surgery) and Tony Battie (sore right knee) both played for the first time this season, and Vandeweghe said Yi Jianlian (sprained right knee ligament) practiced Thursday. … Vandeweghe played under Brown for a year at UCLA and again for the Clippers at the end of his pro career.