There are some who will contend that a rivalry isn’t a rivalry just because one person declares it so, but in the case of the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks, it only took one meeting to get a sense of how grand the battle for New York basketball supremacy already is.
In front of a packed and contentious Barclays Center house that fluctuated all night between pro-Knicks and pro-Nets leanings, Brooklyn struck first blood with a 96-89 overtime win in a game that had previously been scheduled for Nov. 1 but was postponed by Hurricane Sandy.
As the game played out, one couldn’t help but wonder how spectacular it might have been had the two crosstown foes gotten the chance to open the season against one another. But the most highly anticipated game in recent New York hoops history was also most definitely worth the wait.
“I think the fans have really billed it (a rivalry) already, and they do a lot of talking themselves, given the proximity,” said Nets center Brook Lopez, who had a team-high 22 points to go with 11 rebounds and five blocks in the win. “So being there with two very good teams, it’s going to be a good, heated game whenever we’re on the floor.”
For most of Monday night, it felt like a home game for whichever team was playing well at a given moment, and the advantage seemed to change hands on every possession. Monday’s game featured 13 ties and 14 lead changes, and neither team led by more than seven points all night.
Nets’ supporters made up a little more than half of the crowd, and, on the whole, were more vocal than those pulling for the Knicks, but that didn’t stop a number of "MVP" chants from drumming up as Carmelo Anthony worked his magic on the Nets. However, every time the Knicks fans put ‘Melo on a pedestal, Nets fans were quick to scramble to their team’s defense, drowning out the New York fans with boos or starting a long, drawn-out “Brooklyn” chant of their own.
“Every time some sort of Knick contingency started to cheer, our fans got louder, and this is what we’ve been dreaming about since I’ve been here,” Nets coach Avery Johnson said. “It’s a nice feeling and I’m glad we rewarded our fans with a victory. They deserve it.”
Nets point guard Deron Williams had 16 points, six rebounds and 14 assists in the game, and afterward said the scene Monday was part of the reason he decided Brooklyn was where he wanted to play.
“This is what they visualized, games like this,” Williams said. “It was a playoff-type atmosphere, and you could feel it on the court. It was a great game to be a part of.”
The 17,732 fans at Barclays Center Monday night definitely got their money’s worth from a contest that was marked by a number of highlight-reel plays from both teams, starting with Anthony’s alley-oop pass to Tyson Chandler to give New York an 8-5 lead early in the first quarter. Later in the quarter, Chandler soared over Lopez and Gerald Wallace for an offensive board, slamming home two of his career-high 28 points on the way down.
Near the end of the first, Knicks swingman J.R. Smith offered up a valiant, but ill-conceived effort to posterize Lopez with a one-handed baseline jam of his own, but instead found himself on his back after an encounter with the business end of a Lopez block. It was that kind of night for Smith, who finished with just five points on 2-of-7 shooting in the game.
Anthony finished with a game-high 35 points and earned three of them in the second quarter on one of the crazier shots he’ll ever make. With the shot clock winding down, Anthony hoisted up a 3 from the corner, only to have it bounce straight up off the back iron, off the top of the backboard and back through the hoop.
The Knicks fans loved the lucky bounce, but the elation didn’t last long, as Gerald Wallace (16 points) handed the lead back to the Nets with a soaring dunk on the next possession, and Joe Johnson (eight points) added his only 3-pointer of the night 30 seconds later to push the advantage to 43-39.
After allowing New York to shoot 50 percent from the floor in the first half, Brooklyn turned up the defensive intensity in the third quarter, starting with Wallace’s emphatic block of a Ronnie Brewer shot with 7:15 to play. Later in the third, with the Nets down by seven with 1:43 to go and the game perhaps starting to slip away, the unlikely lineup of Williams, Keith Bogans, Jerry Stackhouse, Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans keyed an 8-0 run to end the quarter.
One of Stackhouse’s four 3-pointers and a cutting dunk by Lopez gave Brooklyn an 81-76 lead with 3:57 left in regulation, and Lopez had the opportunity to give the Nets a one-point lead when he went to the line for two free throws with 24.1 seconds left.
Lopez split the pair and the game went to an extra period as a result. But Brooklyn locked down ‘Melo in the bonus frame, holding him to just one point, and Williams’ two free throws with 30 seconds left iced the game — earning the All-Star guard an “MVP” chant of his own as Knicks fans flooded for the exits.
The win was huge for the Nets from a practical standpoint. Though it’s early in the season, Brooklyn (9-4) is now tied with New York for first place in the Atlantic Division and now has some momentum as it hits the road for a three-game swing through Boston, Orlando and Miami.
“It’s a great benchmark for us,” Lopez said. “We knew coming in they were one of the best teams in the league, no question, and we wanted to really come out and show something tonight. I keep saying, we continue to improve every game, and I think it’s scary how good we can be.”
More importantly, however, the win served a greater purpose for a re-branded franchise trying to win over a city steeped in so much basketball tradition.
With a loss, Brooklyn would have found itself out of the New York City spotlight at least until the teams’ next meeting, in Brooklyn on Dec. 11. Instead, the Nets reclaimed some of the attention from the Knicks, whose resurgence has overshadowed the excitement of Brooklyn’s debut over the first month of the season.
That said, it was just one win, and the entire Nets locker room was quick to point that out.
With three more regular-season meetings and the potential for a playoff matchup, there will be plenty more opportunities for the ballooning sense of Nets-Knicks enmity to take on a whole new life — and that’s good news for the fans, who have already made it one of the league’s best rivalries.
Said Lopez: “Having two great teams in New York, the fans are in the best position of all.”