When the Nets arrived in Brooklyn a year ago, things never completely clicked. The team was talented but jumbled, the product of a Russian oligarch who was determined to spend whatever it took to win, with little regard for team cohesion.
The uniforms and arena were cool, but felt too much like Jay-Z's grand marketing experiment, a weirdly celebrity-based strategy that might have worked in Miami or LA but not in New York.
When the Nets were blown out at home in the playoffs by a Bulls team whose three best players were hurt, they became an afterthought. The Mets of the winter.
But in the era of Dante De Blasio's Afro and the Smorgasburg Ramen Burger, it's no surprise that Brooklyn's basketball team didn't stay down for long.
After the Bulls series, General Manager Billy King decried publicly that the team wasn't tough enough, and put Mikhail Prokhorov's money where his mouth is. King added Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, two veteran hall-of-fame players who've compensated for their age with a ferocity normally found in pit bulls or Carl Icahn.
The Nets slipped by the two-time defending champion Miami Heat in their home opener Friday night, but the final score wasn't the story. Wins and losses in November are basically meaningless, as evidenced by the truly bizarre start to this season.
What stood out was the new energy in the Barclays Center this year. A tenaciousness that was missing last year. When this Nets team is focused like they were Friday, every night will be a street fight.
You could see it in the rafters, where fans were standing and screaming from the first quarter on. (This baffled the Miami fans in attendance).
You could see it courtside, where a motley crew of celebrities from Hizzoner Bloomberg to Allen Iverson, (still not sure why..) were enthralled in a way that's normally reserved for NBA Finals games.
On the court, it was obvious from minute one that this year is different. Garnett and Pierce always bring the ruckus, but the normally stoic Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson were emotional throughout the game. Brooklyn bench sparkplug Jason Terry (a criminally underrated offseason acquisition) hit two threes halfway through the first quarter, and immediately alternated between spitting f bombs at the Heat bench, and raising his arms imploring the crowd into "BROOKYLN" chants.
The Nets withstood 26 points from LeBron James, including a flurry of fourth quarter scoring that almost brought Miami back. LeBron has major history with Garnett, Pierce, and Terry and likely hates the Nets more than any team in the league. The normally affable star bluntly refused to talk about them before the game. This hatred is encouraging for Brooklyn. The only people who hated them last year were Vegas odds-makers.
Perhaps most encouraging for the Nets, was the play of their bench. Terry and swingmen Alan Anderson and Andrei Kirilenko gave them solid minutes down the stretch and allowed them to matchup with Miami's devastatingly effective "small" lineup. As the rest of the league has learned, you can't beat the Heat if you can't go small, and for at least one game, the Nets were able to pull it off. The x-factor for this group is new backup point guard Shaun Livingston. The veteran was solid in 21 minutes, providing a matchup nightmare Miami's short guards with his "6'11" wingspan." Livingston's knees have faced more trauma than Captain Phillips over the years, and for the Nets to have a shot, he needs to stay healthy.
Not always the cheeriest fellow after games, Garnett was practically glowing Friday night. In his first big test in the Big Apple, a nationally televised cage match against the group from Miami that he loathes for a variety of reasons, the Nets sent a major message.
"We're trying to set a new culture here," Garnett said. "Big ups to Brooklyn, straight up. It's going to be a pleasure playing here."
I think that feeling is reciprocal.