By Steve Lichtenstein
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So much for last year’s NBA lockout goal of closing the competition gap between the big and small market teams in the League.
After living in squalor for two years in New Jersey, Nets’ owner Mikhail Prohkorov committed over $300 million in contracts this offseason to maintain and upgrade his club’s personnel as they moved to their new home in Brooklyn. Since the summer, I wondered if money would be enough to launch the Nets into a more upper-class stratosphere.
The Nets needed almost every penny to defeat Toronto last night, 107-100, before a packed house in their opener at the new Barclays Center.
Nets coach Avery Johnson mixed and matched his way to get past the Raptors, a team that struggles to sign quality free agents and as a result looks like they’re lottery-bound for a fifth straight season. The Raptors filled up their salary cap with subpar performers like Landry Fields and Amir Johnson. In New Jersey, it was painful to watch the Nets play that poverty-stricken role, with little invested in high-caliber NBA talent and no depth.
Brooklyn rid itself of that image overnight. The big contracts to Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries, plus the trade for guard Joe Johnson (and his enormous contract) became an indicator to other free agents that Brooklyn was going to be a big-time destination. That in turn helped general manager Billy King surround his stars with capable backups.
So after Johnson saw his mega-million dollar starting unit open the 2012-13 season with a horrible defensive effort in the first quarter, he turned to his bench for a momentum swing. This time he had reason to believe it would be a positive one.
Guard C.J. Watson, who signed for the veteran minimum despite his experience subbing for Derrick Rose in Chicago the last two seasons, spearheaded the comeback from eight down after one quarter to a 60-52 halftime lead. Watson scored 15 points (including a three-of-four performance from the three-point line), with 10 points coming in the key second-quarter spurt.
Watson also played in role in staying close to the Raptors biggest threat, Kyle Lowry, who followed an 11-point first quarter with a three-turnover effort in the second quarter.
Watson was aided by more aggressive help defense, especially from forward Reggie Evans. Evans, another bargain-basement free agent signee, just might be the toughest hombre I’ve seen on the Nets since they let Kenyon Martin walk in 2004. Now that the Nets have others, like Watson, Andray Blatche and Marshon Brooks, capable of scoring on the second unit, a player like Evans can focus on ancillary matters.
Like rebounding. Evans was voracious going after the ball, with a ridiculous 13 boards in 16 minutes. His hustle proved contagious. Even sophomore Brooks, who is hardly known for his defensive prowess, looked much more engaged on that end while also contributing eight points off the bench.
When Toronto made its obligatory run early in the fourth quarter, the Nets did not panic, another nice change from their New Jersey customs. Williams and Johnson, the high-priced backcourt, did not settle for the long-range shots that they have struggled with at the Barclays since the preseason.
No, the Nets didn’t need an Answer, like retired 76er Allen Iverson. Instead, the Nets had Answers, using a varied attack to close the game. Lopez, who must have put a down payment on the free throw line to earn 15 attempts, made a couple of huge plays down the stretch to keep the Nets in the lead.
However, I saw kinks in coach Johnson’s new ride. Johnson tried an offense/defense approach in the final minute, substituting Evans for Lopez on a Toronto possession. Following an Evans rebound of a Lowry miss, I guessed that Johnson did not want to stop the clock with a timeout while up by six just to get Lopez back in the game.
Except that Evans, an atrocious free throw shooter, was still out there looking to play hot potato with any ball that hit his hands. Of course, an inevitable pass intended for Evans was volleyed by him right into Toronto’s grasp, leading to a Lowry fast break layup attempt.
Though Lowry was fouled by Joe Johnson on the play, a hustling Wallace prevented the bucket. Unfortunately, Wallace landed on Lowry’s foot and was unable to play the final 28 seconds. Wallace, who found his mojo playing the power forward position in spots, has been diagnosed with a sprained ankle and is now day-to-day. All because Johnson got too cute with the Evans-for-Lopez platoon.
Then, Keith Bogans, Wallace’s substitute, suffered a brain cramp by helping out in the paint on a driving Andrea Bargnani , leaving Alan Anderson an open three-pointer to close the Nets’ lead to 103-100 with 20 seconds left. Finally an allusion to those New Jersey years.
Still, the Nets were not giving this one away. Not at the Barclays Center christening. Not against a concentrated team like the Raptors, who have no one outside of Lowry, Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan with the requisite offensive skills.
It may not have been the Knicks in a nationally-televised event, as was originally scheduled but needed to be postponed to November 26 due to the effects of Hurricane Sandy, but Net fans have to be satisfied with this preliminary showcase.
This was the Nets’ first step into the Big Time.
Are the Nets ready to join the NBA’s elite? Let us know…