BROOKLYN – The last postseason game played in this borough, the guys from Brooklyn didn’t even score (Johnny Kucks and the New York Yankees shut out the Dodgers 9-0 in Game 7 of the 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field).
So things already were looking up when Brook Lopez turned teammate Reggie Evans‘ offensive rebound into a layup 62 seconds into Game 1 of the Nets’ best-of-seven series against the Chicago Bulls Saturday night at Barclays Center.
The thing is, it only got better from there. Everything got better. The Nets’ offense purred under the direction of Deron Williams. The Brooklyn defense clamped down hard on a Bulls team with a reputation for clamping down (“I think we’re better,” Nets forward Gerald Wallace said).
Lopez played so well – 19 of his 21 points by halftime – that it might not have mattered if Chicago center Joakim Noah had had three good feet, never mind two. Brooklyn scored in the second quarter alone (35 points) what it took the Bulls a whole half to post and needed only three quarters to do (89 points) what took the visitors the entire game.
NBA playoff series are all about game-to-game adjustments, holding home court and never, ever getting out front of one’s self in excitement or assumptions. The Nets expect nothing less than a resurgence by Chicago’s players, properly chewed, spit out and told to do better by coach Tom Thibodeau.
Still, if a series opener could count double or at least set a tone for what’s likely to follow, this one would shoot to the front of the pack. This was one of the Nets’ most complete victories of their inaugural season at Barclays and it came precisely at the right time.
“Fresh start. New season. Playoffs are totally different,” said Wallace, who has seen performances by his squad similar to Saturday’s but only for partial credit.
“We’ve been doing that in the regular season against them but we’d give it away in the fourth quarter,” Wallace said, referring to Brooklyn’s 1-3 record against Chicago in the regular season. “We just been really inconsistent at times – we got comfortable during the regular season when we got leads as well as we did tonight. Tonight our focus was for 48 minutes.”
Funny how the urgency takes hold when the wiggle room vanishes. “You’ve just got to know that it’s win or go home,” said Wallace, whose 14 points, six rebounds and two blocks mattered less than the aggressiveness he showed, particularly on defense (his counterpart, Luol Deng, got sideways with just six points on 3-of-11 shooting).
“There’s no, ‘Well, OK, we’ll just chalk this one and come back tomorrow.’ We don’t have 82 games to kind of fix things. Four losses and we’re at home. And all the little nick-nack things and petty things that you had to deal with during the regular season have to be thrown out the window now.”
Swapping East Rutherford, N.J., for their fancy new digs, the Nets brought to their new home an almost entirely new team. That bunch got off to an unrealistically perky start – 11-4 through November for East Coach of the Month Avery Johnson, who was gone before their full reversal in December (5-11) was complete.
The parts didn’t always fit, especially with Williams out of shape, aching in his ankles and generally cranky about it all. Interim coach P.J. Carlesimo steered the Nets to the best winning percentage in franchise history (.648) but there still were hiccups late in the regular season, including a loss to Toronto and a scare against Indiana.
But Williams shed some weight, got specialized treatment on his ankles and came back from a getaway All-Star break in Miami looking like a new player, as in, the old D-Will. Guys around him got healthier and more comfortable playing with him, even as Williams’ bursts and jump shots improved.
The Nets’ attention to detail picked up. They have made it routine to get Lopez active early, because of the good things that usually follow. Just run to the rim, big fella. As forward Reggie Evans said: “I have so much confidence up to the point where I know he’s gonna bring it every night. I won’t worry about him … we’ve already been talking about this moment and stuff. Typical Lope – here early, ready to roll, and he did what he did. You can’t really argue, one of the top two big men in the league by far.”
There was hardly a thing to dislike, as “Brooklyn basketball” played to an identity Saturday rather than just a marketing slogan. Highlights abounded, from vet Jerry Stackhouse singing the anthem to Williams swiping the ball and racing downcourt for a reverse dunk.
Chicago was the team in off-day disarray, with a lot of its fans wondering if Noah’s sore right foot (plantar fasciitis) can heal enough again to allow him on the court. Failing that, some who noticed All-Star guard Derrick Rose on the visitors’ bench might be wondering if Noah’s heart could be transplanted into Rose’s chest. The healthiest guy on Chicago’s roster might be the one who hasn’t played since last April 28.
Still, this one was about Brooklyn, so much so that some were bemoaning the Nets’ failure to chase down the No. 3 seed, considering the second-round showdown it might have set up with the Knicks.
For now, though, one Brooklyn postseason game that went right nearly 57 years after the last one went wrong was cause enough for anticipation.
Williams, touting “ball movement, defensively being attentive and helping each other out,” called it “really unselfish basketball.” And “fun basketball.”
“We’ve had ups and downs all season,” the point guard said. “But I think we always expected to be in the playoffs. and hopefully [we're] clicking at the right time.”