By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Brooklyn Nets certainly made the most of their first impression.
I had reason to be concerned about the Nets’ “home-court advantage” as Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round matchup with Chicago approached. Brooklyn had barely provided any significant boost to the team’s results during the inaugural regular season. And it didn’t help that I was able to purchase decent still-available upper-deck tickets for my son only a few days prior to last night’s opener.
But the organization made sure to empty the playbook to christen the Barclays Center’s first-ever NBA playoff game.
There was the infamous “Black-out”, with t-shirt giveaways to match.
Nets reserve forward Jerry Stackhouse gave a stirring rendition of the national anthem, sending the capacity crowd into a frenzy.
And Brooklyn owner Mikhail Prokhorov took over the public address system to thank the fans and then warned the Bulls, “I will break you!” (OK, that last part I made up).
But all the pageantry would have been irrelevant had the Nets laid an egg on the court.
While the Nets 106-89 victory won’t break the hard-working Bulls’ spirit, it was nonetheless crucial for interim coach P.J. Carlesimo’s club to make a statement that they can take their talents to the next level after an inconsistent regular season mark against the League’s better teams.
In the end, it was the game–the way the Nets took the Bulls by their horns and let them know they were in on the fight–that made this the most fun I’ve had at a Nets game in a decade.
“The atmosphere in the building was great before it started,” said Carlesimo. “I thought the whole concept, as with virtually every idea that our guys (in promotions) had, they did it very well. I’ve also said a number of times, we need to give them (the fans) things to cheer about. ”
Unlike their 92-90 home loss in their last meeting two weeks ago, the Nets were not outworked in this one.
Small forward Gerald Wallace set the tone with his all-court play. Wallace, who struggled mightily with his confidence on the offensive end all month, finished with 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
Of course, Wallace didn’t neglect his other responsibilities, accumulating 6 rebounds, 2 blocked shots and a steal, all the while frustrating the Bulls’ All Star forward Luol Deng into a 3-for-11 shooting night. My favorite highlight was his stuff of Jimmy Butler at the rim in the second quarter, which transitioned into C.J. Watson’s three-pointer that pushed the lead to 20 points.
“He (Wallace) could have had zero points tonight—he might have still arguably been one of our two or three best players,” said Carlesimo. “Gerald Wallace is a warrior.”
Sure it wasn’t all perfect–Carlesimo was displeased with his club’s second-half defense and I wasn’t thrilled with the way Carlesimo again chose to send out four or five reserves at once in the second and fourth quarters (though the Nets got solid contributions from Watson and Andray Blatche, who scored 14 and 12 points, respectively, off the bench).
On the other hand, I loved how Carlesimo used the Twin Towers pairing of Blatche and center Brook Lopez early, which set up an 8-2 Nets’ run to close the first quarter with a 25-14 lead.
The domination continued into the second quarter, with the Nets taking a commanding 60-35 advantage into the locker room thanks to a 16-for-20 tear from the field.
For those of us who have become accustomed to the Nets’ El Foldo’s in third quarters this season, there was still plenty to fear. After all, Bulls’ coach Tom Thibodeau is well-known for making defensive adjustments, including outwitting Carlesimo to set the table for the comeback from 16 points down in the previous meeting.
But the Nets continued to get the shots they wanted by using exquisite ball movement and limiting turnovers.
Point guard Deron Williams (brilliant again with a team-high 22 points, 7 assists and 3 steals) put the finishing touch on the party when he took off after a steal in the last-minute of the third quarter and sent the ball emphatically through the hoop with a 180-degree reverse dunk.
Now I know playoff blowouts still only count as one win in a series. And, despite the Nets’ 7-2 all-time series record when winning Game 1s, the Nets will be in serious trouble if they don’t follow it up with a win on Monday. (My old colleague Ed is a firm believer in the magic of Game 2–he used to constantly send me I-told-you-so’s after every series won by the Game 2 victor. His research was purely anecdotal, but I don’t need that in my head if the Nets lose on Monday.)
But there’s no denying that last night was special. It may be a cliché, but there will only be one first game in Brooklyn Nets’ playoff history. The Nets made it a memorable one.
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