By Steve Lichtenstein
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It's been a long time since I've watched a Nets regular-season game with as much angst as Monday night's nationally-televised contest with the rival Knicks in Brooklyn.
First, the hype grew from the postponement of the originally-planned Opening Night extravaganza due to Superstorm Sandy. Then, both teams excelled out of the gate to add more fuel to the incendiary pregame discussions. I wanted to see the Nets not only protect their sparkling new home court for the seventh time in eight tries, but also start to establish themselves as a credible alternative to the storied Knicks.
For nearly three hours, both teams competed for each New York basketball fan's heart -- if not always very well, then certainly with all their might. The lead changes, missed opportunities and curious strategy all had me on the cusp of detonation.
And, after finally exhaling when the overtime buzzer sounded with the Nets a 96-89 victory, all I could think was, "There's going to be three more of these?"
For if both of these evenly matched New York City hoopsters continue to play with the spirited intensity that they exhibited last night, there's a good chance that they could meet in games of far greater importance than Game 13 of a long regular season. If such a comparably irrelevant game as this one generated so much buzz, imagine what a Subway Series would bring? Hopefully both arenas will make sure that their defibrillators are in working order.
And not just for the fans. Even without 39-year-old Knicks guard Jason Kidd, the former Nets savior from their soon-to-be-forgotten years in New Jersey who was absent due to back spasms, both teams depended on contributions from players in the 30-and-over set.
Knicks center Tyson Chandler (very spry for age 30) played with his usual passion, rolling to the rim for a career-high 28 points on 12-of-13 shooting. For the Nets, small forward Jerry Stackhouse, who at age 38 was not even the oldest player on the court (that would be Knicks starting forward Kurt Thomas, the 40-year-old who became the odd man out when coach Mike Woodson switched to a smaller lineup), was huge with four three-pointers in five attempts.
And 32-year-old forward Reggie Evans continued his one-man Pac-Man impression, gobbling up everything that caromed off both backboards to the tune of 14 rebounds in 18 minutes.
Then there was 30-year-old Gerald Wallace, who now must be considered fully recovered from an Opening Night ankle injury. Wallace not only recorded a season-high 16 points, but soldiered through 42 minutes of making life difficult for Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, a preeminent scorer who still managed to put up 35 points to go along with 13 rebounds in 50 minutes. Those numbers don't do justice to the defensive job Wallace did to deny Anthony the ball and space on many key possessions. It all boiled over for Anthony when he elbowed Wallace for an offensive foul with 16 seconds left.
Or maybe Anthony was just frustrated with his point guard, Raymond Felton, who did a poor job of feeding his beast down the stretch while calling his own number 19 times, though only succeeding on three of those shots.
In a bit of irony, I felt that Nets coach Avery Johnson got suckered by the Knicks into going small. The Nets had physically imposed their will on the glass to keep the score close while shooting only 37 percent in the first half. This change allowed Anthony to unleash terrible damage when guarded by Keith Bogans, with Anthony extending his left arm to create space on his jump shot and then pretty much chucking Bogans to the ground when working inside. However, it was at this point that the Knicks reverted to the old "let's stand around and watch Carmelo play" routine. Felton, in particular, lost all sense of the basket's location after appearing dangerous earlier in the game.
In the end, the Nets' multi-pronged attack executed better than the one-dimensional Knicks, though the Nets should consider themselves fortunate that the Knicks did not display their usual marksmanship from three-point range. (The bench triumvirate of Rasheed Wallace, Steve Novak and J.R. Smith combined to shoot an atypically ugly 2-for-11 from behind the arc.)
The Nets' scoring was much more evenly distributed, even with their high-priced backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson misfiring on 20 of 29 attempts. Williams was dazzling finding the open cutters -- his 14 assists should have been about half a dozen higher had his teammates converted very makeable shots.
If you had to designate a "go-to scorer" on the Nets, it would seem that they have settled on center Brook Lopez. Lopez's mano-a-mano slugfest with Chandler was a throwback to the NBA of over a decade ago. With a three-point Knicks lead, Chandler, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, could not stop Lopez on consecutive possessions in the final 1:30 in the fourth quarter. The game was sent to overtime only because of Lopez's pulled free-throw attempt with 24 seconds remaining.
Chandler and Lopez continued their duel into overtime, but Lopez had more help. When Stackhouse connected on his three-point shot in the second minute to put the Nets ahead for good, I jumped up from the couch before realizing that this was not the playoffs.
As it stands, the 9-4 Nets -- now tied with the Knicks for first place in the Atlantic Division -- get a day to heal any battle scars from this interborough brawl before commencing a third three-days-in-four-nights binge over 14 days on Wednesday versus Boston. As I should have known, the long slog till April games of greater significance could not have changed no matter the result from tonight.
Even with this win, the new-kid-on-the-block Nets have a long way to go to reel in the city.
While it was reported that Nets fans made up the majority of Barclays Center, it wasn't until late in the fourth quarter that I could hear any discernible difference in crowd noise.
It won't be nearly that close when the teams meet next month at Madison Square Garden. I fully expect those "Brooklyn" chants to be delivered in a more derisive manner at the Garden, in the same way that Rangers fans hail Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.
But it really doesn't matter that Nets fans will probably never be able to match the Knicks' numbers. The hype created the backdrop for a thrilling basketball game on November 26. When was the last time a Nets fan could say they witnessed that?
So one game is in the history books. Are the Nets or the Knicks the best basketball team in New York? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below...
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