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By Steve Lichtenstein
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Bring on those Knicks.
I wasn’t one of those who worried that the Nets would have their focus diverted and “look past” Portland, yesterday’s opponent, in favor of Monday night’s uber-hyped make-up contest with their interborough rivals.
That always seemed like an excuse anyway. I mean, I can’t see a player like Nets forward Reggie Evans taking a play off because he’s saving himself or thinking too much about a game the next day.
No, Evans, like always, went after every 50-50 ball as if he were starving and rations were running low, the epitome of the Nets’ new attention to detail, contributing 14 rebounds in his 23 minutes in the Nets’ 98-85 victory over the Trail Blazers.
I’m happy that the Nets, now at 8-4 and a game back of the Knicks for first place in the Atlantic Division, did not need to be reminded that they had to conduct business on a Sunday afternoon before Monday night’s main event, which was originally scheduled for Opening Night but had to be postponed due to the effects of Superstorm Sandy.
If anything, yesterday’s game worked well as a tune-up for the Nets. With star big man LaMarcus Aldridge sitting out with a back injury, Portland came to Brooklyn pretty much a perimeter team, spearheaded by its threesome of three-point shooters—Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and rookie sensation Damian Lillard. Though the Blazers did receive solid above-the-norm scoring from J.J. Hickson and rookie Meyers Leonard up front, they would have been run out of Barclays Center if not for their uncanny ability to knock down threes as the shot clock was about to expire. Matthews was a particular thorn, with 20 points through three quarters.
But, just as they did in Friday’s win over the Clippers, the Nets clamped down in the final stanza, holding the Blazers to 15 points, two more than the Clippers could muster. The Nets forced seven turnovers in the quarter and Portland missed its only three-point attempt.
The Knicks, ranked fourth in three-point field-goal percentage (at nearly 41 percent), are even more reliant on these bombs than the Blazers, who are ranked sixth in the category. Just about everyone on that team except for Tyson Chandler is a threat from behind the arc.
There are other reasons why Monday night surely won’t be as simple. Nets point guard Deron Williams won’t be able to push around his counterpart Raymond Felton as he did the young Lillard. Lillard, who would have been available to the Nets in the 2012 draft had general manager Billy King insisted on lottery protection (instead of merely top-three protection) when acquiring forward Gerald Wallace last season, had his worst game in about two weeks. Williams hounded and pounded Lillard on both ends, blocking four shots and backing the rookie down to drive for scores and assists.
Felton is much more physical, and is experienced running Knicks coach Mike Woodson’s pick-and-roll system. He has been on fire (44 percent) from three-point land, and he will finish in the paint even if the Nets’ big men are forced to switch out on the screens.
Of course, Felton benefits from having a proven scorer in Carmelo Anthony on the wing should any play break down. Anthony may have been shadowed by controversy since his trade to New York less than two years ago, but he’s playing at the top of his game without appearing to monopolize the offense.
Nets coach Avery Johnson might not be able to get away with his usual rotation to combat the Knicks’ small lineup with Anthony at power forward. The Kris Humphries/Evans combo is much more effective at working and helping in the paint, as opposed to guarding their man out on the perimeter. That would mean we should see a lot more of Wallace on Anthony at that spot and swing subs Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Josh Childress and/or Jerry Stackhouse on the court to match the Knicks’ athleticism.
And, finally, the Nets won’t be able to count on the Knicks’ bench putting up a doughnut on the scoreboard for three quarters, as the Blazers did yesterday. Knicks reserves J.R. Smith, Steve Novak and Rasheed Wallace all have the green light from three-point land, and each can alter any game in a New York minute.
Johnson will surely continue to preach about the importance of denying points in the paint. But he has 24 hours to look at the tape from yesterday and tweak his defense in preparation for all those Knicks in shooting position along the three-point arc on every possession.
The symbolism of Monday night’s game will supersede anything that will be relevant to the ultimate composition of the 2012-13 regular-season standings. Like all Nets fans, I can be intrigued by this Battle for the Hearts of New York City basketball fans while also being aware that nothing gets decided by one game played on November 26. I can be amazed at the Knicks’ surprisingly strong start while at the same time appreciating the effects that one-time Nets deity Jason Kidd has had on the team despite his advanced age and limited minutes.
In the end, I just want to see the Nets continue to show signs of improvement on their trek to their first postseason appearance in six years. Losing at home to a Portland squad minus its top star would have been a sign that they weren’t ready for primetime, no matter Monday night’s result.
And the Knicks finally head to Brooklyn. Who do you think takes this highly-anticipated matchup? Sound off with your predictions below…