By Steve Lichtenstein
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The Nets talked big in advance of last night’s home opener versus the Heat, with several players unafraid to go on the record spouting that the Nets were now better than the two-time defending champions.
I’m used to this–the Nets have been talking big since the moving vans arrived in Brooklyn a year ago–only they usually followed it up with duds of performances.
And just because the Nets came away with a 101-100 victory this time, the game had little value in determining whether they will ultimately back up their boasts at season’s end.
However, I’m satisfied just knowing that game was a statement that they’ve definitely taken steps to get closer to where they need to be.
This may have been just game 2 of a long season, but it was important for the Nets to show the fans something after an uneven effort in their opening-game loss in Cleveland on Wednesday.
The Nets did not benefit much from a home-court advantage last season, going 26-15 at the Barclays Center and then splitting their four home games in the first round of the playoffs, including a disappointing game 7 loss to Chicago.
Defending home court is “very important,” according to Nets forward Kevin Garnett, who made his Barclays debut along with Paul Pierce and Jason Terry following their acquisitions in a draft day blockbuster trade with Boston. “Home is where your heart is. This is where at some point you’re going to have to hold it down. We’re fighting for home court like any other team. It starts here.”
The Nets also often melted when facing the League’s elite last season, padding their 49-win total mainly by beating up on the meek.
They were obliterated by the Heat in all three of their meetings last season and the franchise hadn’t defeated a LeBron James-team in 17 prior attempts.
“I didn’t know about it (the losing streak) until I saw it scroll up on the screen (before the game),” said Nets point guard Deron Williams, who slightly increased his workload to 27 minutes last night after coming back from preseason ankle woes. “You don’t want to have those losing streaks to any franchise, so that was definitely on our minds.”
The three Boston transplants were acquired to give the Nets the mental and physical toughness necessary to play with the big boys.
Pierce, in particular, was key for the Nets with his two-way energy in the third quarter, a notoriously difficult stanza for the club last season that managed to resurface in Cleveland. Pierce hounded James into a 1-for-4, 4-point quarter with solid defense while contributing 11 points and 3 assists in his 10 minutes on the floor.
“The first thing I told all these guys on the team was that it’s going to be a pleasure watching this guy (Pierce) every night,” said Garnett. “I get the pleasure of having the front row, being on the court with him. I always call him Picasso. He’s like a beautiful painting.”
Garnett, though, also added that the Nets’ “strength is in our numbers. We have a lot of first-option guys–a lot of talent.”
The Nets hit the Heat in waves. While James played 42 minutes, including the entire second half, nine different Nets played at least 19 minutes. No Net played as much as four of Miami’s starters (Heat forward Udonis Haslem was hindered by foul trouble, which actually proved beneficial to Miami when he left the court).
That diversity will serve the Nets well in the strange landscape that is the Eastern Conference.
Among the contenders, teams like the Heat and the Knicks spread the floor and goad you into playing small, while the Bulls and Pacers play more traditional big lineups.
The Nets, with their deep bench, might not mind it either way. It didn’t matter that Brook Lopez, the Nets’ All Star center who finished with 13 points, played just four minutes in the second half last night. Lopez can look like a dinosaur on defense against some of these small-ball teams.
But the Nets are covered. Backup Andray Blatche made some big plays and they got solid contributions from swingman Alan Anderson and forward Andrei Kirilenko off the bench to help the Nets maintain a double-digit lead until a furious fourth quarter rally made the Nets sweat out the last two minutes.
“We talked about before the game that this is a great team we’re playing against,” said Nets coach Joe Prunty, who ended his two-game stint as head coach as Jason Kidd will return from his two-game suspension on Sunday in Orlando. “You know they’re going to make a run. They hit some tough shots so you give them credit. If it was a different scenario and we hit a shot at the buzzer and win by one, everybody thinks, ‘oh, wow’–it’s a different feeling. The reality is it’s a one-point win and every possession matters.”
This win delighted the sellout crowd—a sellout that must have been thanks to a big walk-up, as there were still seats available a few hours before game time. A pitiful reminder–considering the opponent and that it was the home opener for a new cast–that the Nets have a long way to go before they own the borough, never mind New York City and beyond.
Another reason that last night’s game didn’t need to prove the Nets’ pre-game boasts, but still meant a lot more than an ordinary early November contest.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.