By Steve Lichtenstein
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Despite all the hype in their inaugural season in Brooklyn last year, the Nets really didn't enjoy any home-court advantage.
It was quite unusual. NBA teams are supposed to thrive at home, with the added boost from fans and friendly whistles from referees. Yet Brooklyn might as well have been deemed a neutral site.
It wasn't just the record—the Nets were a mere three games better at home than they were on the road, the closest spread of any team in the league during the regular season. Despite a sparkling new facility, they often failed to sell out, save for the games against high-profile opponents where many showed up to cheer for the other team.
Then came the playoffs, where tickets were plentiful enough that I didn't have to pay a premium to get my kids into the building for Games 1 and 7 versus Chicago. No lines, no internet disturbances, no busy signals or long holds—it didn't matter that the Nets were playing their first-ever playoff game in Brooklyn or facing the ultimate challenge of a do-or-die game.
That's blasphemy for a professional team in New York City. You think the Knicks need to pay to advertise that playoff tickets are on sale? Those are gobbled up in minutes.
Bulls fans took advantage of these opportunities as well, accounting for large contingents at Barclays Center that at the very least swayed Game 2 in Chicago's favor during the pivotal third quarter.
And I still haven't gotten over all the red in the house celebrating the Bulls' triumph in Game 7—an embarrassing scene that wasn't supposed to happen once the Nets moved out of New Jersey.
Year 2, despite all the high expectations from an expensive summer makeover, didn't start out any better. The Nets lost nine of their first 14 home games, bottoming out in December with a 30-point blowout to the Knicks (where approximately 60 percent of the crowd was pro-Knicks) and the second annual Christmas Day Massacre, this time a 17-point pasting by the Bulls that deservedly brought out the boo-birds.
Fast forward to last night: The red-hot Nets were in a tight game versus hungry Charlotte at Barclays Center. They were up by two points with less than three minutes to play in the game.
The Nets moved the ball around and found Paul Pierce behind the three-point line. Pierce, as he's been doing throughout most of 2014, nailed the clutch jump shot. The crowd, though recorded as about 500 short of a sellout, went bonkers.
On Charlotte's possession, the Bobcats appeared disorganized as the crowd got louder. Point guard Kemba Walker threw a crosscourt pass. No one was there.
Point guard Deron Williams then took over with four points in the last minute to secure the Nets' 104-99 victory. The win allowed the Nets to keep pace with Atlantic Division-leading Toronto, which is two-and-a-half games ahead but also owns tiebreaking advantages. The seventh-seeded Bobcats, meanwhile, fell five games behind Brooklyn in the loss column. Barring a catastrophe, the Nets won't have to face either Miami or Indiana in the first round come mid-April.
More importantly, this was the Nets' 10th straight win at home, their longest such streak since the 12 in a row they won in 2005-06. Their last loss at Barclays Center was on January 31 to Oklahoma City.
Now, they really haven't improved that much on the road, going 5-7 away from home during the same span. They're frustratingly inconsistent, capable of going toe-to-toe to knock out the two-time defending champion Heat a week after blowing a game at tanking Boston. The Nets gave another one away on Saturday at Washington, failing to score a field goal over the last 6:22.
Maybe this team, one that can be described as either experienced or old, depending on your rooting interest, needs the energy provided by the home crowd.
Fortunately, the fans have held up their end since the Nets' New Years Day turnaround. All the Nets have noticed an uptick in excitement during the home games.
Pierce, who played 15 seasons for the Celtics in one of the toughest cities for opposing teams to win on the road, understands the importance that a true home court advantage brings, especially in the postseason.
After the Nets held on to beat the Raptors earlier this month, Pierce said of the crowd, "It was unbelievable. Now we know. You Brooklyn fans—you can't go below that any more. That's the expectation."
Pierce continued, "It was a playoff atmosphere—they were in it from start to finish. And I really feed off those crowds. It brings energy, it brings momentum to our ballclub and we love it."
The Nets are not only chasing Toronto, but the Bulls are also within reach. The Nets only play four teams over .500 in their final 16 games. Chicago is two games ahead of Brooklyn for the fourth seed, the last slot that owns the extra home game in the first round of the playoffs.
Should the Nets catch the Bulls, an exact rematch of last season's first round would ensue. Only now I don't see the Nets losing two of four games at home to anyone in the East. This is a much different team, with a much bigger edge at Barclays Center.
After a tumultuous start, the Nets can now call it home, sweet home.
For a FAN's perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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