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Lichtenstein: Talent, Not Arena, Giving Nets Boost At Home

By Steve Lichtenstein
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For years, I've watched NBA teams routinely take advantage of my Nets on their home floor. Unfortunately, the team has rarely reciprocated.

So when the Nets bolted from my home state of New Jersey after a 9-24 horror show in their final season on Newark's court, I bit my lip and hoped Brooklyn's attitude would rub off, making them more capable of defending their new home turf. Anything to end the streak of four straight losing records at home.

After the first few games, the results were mixed. Sure the pristine Barclays Center drew raves for its style. One fan on a train to Barclays for Tuesday night's Nets-Cavaliers game remarked that he believed Brooklyn provided "more energy than New Jersey. You don't see as many fans wearing the opponent's jerseys."

However, it hasn't exactly translated to the Nets' play on the court. In their three home games prior to last night, all versus teams likely headed for the lottery, the Nets rolled to big leads, but blew one to Minnesota while barely holding off Toronto and Orlando.

As new fan favorite Jerry Stackhouse explained, "You've got to remember that it was the first time we've played here. It was almost like a neutral site. We're still a work in progress."

I couldn't get a good feel for the new building from watching those games on YES, so I decided to venture to Brooklyn last night to get a personal view. I picked a weeknight game against a nondescript opponent. The Cavs, though electric guard Kyrie Irving is a player you should pay to see in person, were just the type of inferior visitor against whom the Nets used to play down.

Forget the glitz; I wanted to know, was this going to be a building that rocked for a team it truly loved, like in Boston? In the fourth quarter, could the crowd boost their team through adversity, like in Manhattan? Influence the officials, like in Miami?

After sitting through the Nets' 114-101 victory, I can't see what all the fuss is about.

Sure the Barclays has a tattoo parlor and more overpriced dining options (every night is $9 beer night), including a sushi bar, but the in-game experience has a lot of similarities with Newark.

There's the same loud music drowning out the crowd every time the fans want to let loose after a Nets' run, the same time-out routines with t-shirt cannons and shooting contests. They did decide to change the name of the dance team and get a new mascot, though this one similarly makes fans wonder what the heck he has to do with the Nets.

Then there's the same awkward moments of silence during the action. Several times I could hear coach Avery Johnson's squeaky voice from afar.

I was also privy to one fan's game-long riding of center Brook Lopez, who was having difficulties with the Cavs tenacious Anderson Varejao. Though I can relate to the fan's frustrations, as I've wasted too many breaths in the past screaming at stiffs like Travis Outlaw, I expected the rest of the crowd to be more engaged so the lone wolf would not stand out.

Instead, there were only the typical oohs and ahhs following great plays. But it was more like being at a tennis match, with the crowd paying tribute to Irving's mastery enough to invigorate him during a late third-quarter run that cut a 22-point halftime lead to 10 entering the fourth quarter.

The fans then got more into it when the Nets kept the Cavs from closing further, thanks mostly to a Joe Johnson hot streak from long range, where the newly acquired shooting guard had previously struggled.

Still, it wasn't what I expected. There wasn't that rush of energy to give the Nets an extra push. The few chants that sprung were short-lived. And superstar guard Deron Williams is not getting the superstar calls, certainly not the way I've seen it in other arenas. We've all shook our heads after a ref whistle for a defender breathing too hard on Dwyane Wade. Williams made his displeasure known a few times after what he perceived were missed foul calls.

The Nets may be 3-1 at home, but "all the teams we've played hadn't made the playoffs," said Stackhouse. "We'll really see what type of vibe the building has" when the Celtics come to town on Thursday.

Yes, I know I'm being picky. I will agree that the Barclays Center has its charms, with an impressive architectural design and seating layout.

But the Prudential Center, which opened way back in 2007, was no dump, far superior to the old Byrne-Continental-Izod Swamp Thing in East Rutherford. The fans just stopped supporting the team in Newark when it announced its departure date and drained the talent from its pool.

And that's really the only difference I found from the home games I attended a year ago—the Nets are now a much better team. Against the Cavs, Williams and Joe Johnson were "efficient," according to coach Johnson, who also praised his bench, led by big men Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans, "for giving us a huge lift in the second quarter" after a lackluster start. The Nets, once they find the right fit for all their new pieces, will only get better.

Neither the borough nor the building will have anything to do with it. Still, there's this fantasy that the Nets and the Barclays Center are part of a Brooklyn Renaissance, that this is karma for the Dodgers' divorce over 50 years ago. Maybe that's why Stackhouse, who received as loud an ovation upon entering the game from the 17,032 fans as any Net other than Williams, is honored to be here at age 38 and donning Jackie Robinson's uniform number 42.

Those Dodgers were beloved in the community. The Nets just got here, with many in the neighborhood lifelong Knicks fans. As the Nets start playing the tougher teams, we'll know if the Barclays Center is just a tourist attraction or if the Nets have a solid fan base that can rally around their team and finally create a true home court advantage.

Have you seen the Nets at Barclays yet? Tell us about it in the comments below...

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