OKLAHOMA CITY -- Richard Jefferson is back where he wants to be. His team isn't quite there yet.
Jefferson had his best game since returning from ankle surgery, Vince Carter hit the go-ahead free throws with 21 seconds left, and the New Jersey Nets beat the New Orleans Hornets 112-108 on Tuesday night to move into a tie for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
"I've felt the best the last few days that I have all year long, since probably last season," said Jefferson, who had 18 points a night earlier against Memphis.
"I think you can see it in my spring in my legs and just my activity, my rebounding. In everything, you can see my activity is up. It feels good to be out there and playing on the level that you're accustomed to."
Jefferson, in his fourth game back after six weeks out, had 26 points, but the Nets needed heroics from him and Carter after allowing the Hornets to eliminate a seven-point deficit in the final three minutes.
Carter provided the points and Jefferson pulled down two key rebounds.
Carter drove for a layup to break a 104-all tie and then got fouled on another drive after Devin Brown tied it up for the Hornets.
After Carter hit his free throws to make it 108-106, New Orleans' Chris Paul lost the ball on the right wing and Jefferson beat Brown on a jump ball with 7 seconds left. Mikki Moore, who caught the tip, went 1-of-2 from the line with 5.6 seconds left and Jefferson fouled Brown immediately after the inbounds pass to prevent the Hornets from taking a 3-pointer.
Brown missed both free throws -- the second on purpose -- and Jefferson grabbed the rebound. Jason Kidd followed with two more free throws for New Jersey to make it 111-106, and Jefferson got another rebound after Jannero Pargo made the first two of three free throws with 1.9 seconds left.
"He's starting to get rid of that rust, with the big rebounds and also some big shots," Kidd said. "Offensively, he was great tonight, and that's what we're going to need. You add him to the fold, and we become a very dangerous team."
With the win, the Nets tied the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers for seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Indiana fell into the tie with a loss to Minnesota on Tuesday night.
The seed was still disappointing for Jefferson.
"I hate where we're at," Jefferson said after recording his highest scoring output since a Nov. 28 game against Charlotte.
"Unfortunately, because of all of our injuries this year, we're not at the top of our division like we have been four out of the last five years. And we're not one of the three or four best teams in the East, which we normally are."
Carter ended up with 21 points, Kidd had 18 points and 12 assists, and Moore added 14 points for the Nets. Eddie House and Bostjan Nachbar also chipped in with 12 points apiece.
Paul led New Orleans with 25 points and 12 assists. David West added 14 points, Brown had 13 and Bobby Jackson and Desmond Mason each scored 12.
The Hornets have lost a season-high six straight games, but remain 1½ games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for eighth place in the Western Conference. The Clippers lost 93-84 to the Spurs on Tuesday.
"If we just win a couple of these games, we cover up a lot of ground," Paul said. "We've just got to keep fighting."
Jefferson had a jumper and a two-handed dunk as New Jersey took advantage of the Hornets' slow second-half start with a 20-8 run. His 3-pointer from the right wing extended the Nets' lead to 72-59 midway through the period
But the Hornets rallied back, just as they did after also allowing the Nets to build a 13-point cushion in the second quarter. Mason corralled a flubbed alley-oop pass off the backboard by Linton Johnson and made a layup to get New Orleans within 81-78 in the final minute of the third quarter.
The Hornets finally got even on Johnson's layup with 7:39 left in the game. They couldn't get ahead, though.
Jefferson followed with a free throw to put New Jersey back on top, and House added a pair of 3-pointers as the Nets started to gain some distance after letting a 13-point lead slip away. Jefferson's two foul shots extended the Nets' edge to 102-95 with 2:17 left, but the Hornets bounced right back with 3-pointers from Brown and West to cut it to one.
Brown's three-point play tied it at 104 with 1:06 to play.
That was the last of three big comebacks for the Hornets, who also rallied back from 46-33 down to get back within one at halftime, but the Nets made sure there wasn't a fourth.
"For some reason this season, with three minutes left we tend to not stop anybody," Kidd said. "But tonight we came up with a big stop."
- In recorded messages played on the big screen during a second-quarter timeout, Hornets players wished Bobby Jackson a happy birthday. Paul called him "my grandfather" and said it was Jackson's 72nd or 73rd birthday. Tyson Chandler said he was "Marc Jackson's great, great uncle" and wished him a happy 60th birthday. The oldest of the Hornets, Jackson is actually 34.
- Olympic gold medalist gymnasts Bart Conner and Nadia Comeneci were in the crowd, as was Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops.
- Nachbar, who was traded from the Hornets to the Nets last season, hit his first four shots -- including three 3-pointers -- before missing his last five.