BROOKLYN – The rivalry had devolved into a sorry spectacle, a battle waged not for bragging rights, but for a shred of dignity, a desperate grasp for momentary relief from ridicule.
The Battle of the Boroughs? That sounded poetic last year, when the Nets invaded Brooklyn and engaged the Knicks in a season-long tussle for supremacy over the city. What took place Thursday night, in a nationally televised game at Barclays Center, lacked any hint of gravitas.
The putative rivals entered the game having combined for eight wins, 26 losses and $190 million in player salaries. The Knicks came in with a nine-game losing streak, their longest in nearly eight years.
“A laughingstock,” Carmelo Anthony had said.
“Comedy Club,” proclaimed the back page of the New York Daily News.
Someone had to win Thursday, but there would be no winners.
The Knicks claimed their share of relief and self-respect, and might have robbed whatever was left of the Nets', with a 113-83 rout.
For one night, at least, coach Mike Woodson’s job was safe. For one night, the Knicks looked functional on offense, competent on defense. Carmelo Anthony moved the ball (six assists). Iman Shumpert, the subject of daily trade rumors, broke out for a season-high 17 points in just 23 minutes. Everyone hit three-pointers. The bench spent a lot of time whooping.
“They looked like the team of last year,” said Nets coach Jason Kidd, who was a key part of that 54-win Knicks team.
That the Knicks’ moribund offense suddenly came alive Thursday was no coincidence, coming as it did against the Nets’ 29th-ranked defense. But it could serve as a kick-start for the Knicks, who play a very favorable schedule over the next three weeks.
Between now and Dec. 31, the Knicks will play nine opponents with losing records, three teams at .500, and just one (Oklahoma City) with a winning record. Eight of the 13 games will be at home.
Somewhere along the way, Tyson Chandler should return from a broken leg and prop up the defense.
The Nets also see relief on the horizon, with Deron Williams—out since Nov. 20 with a sprained ankle— expected to return as soon as Tuesday.
“I’m shooting for it,” Williams told Bleacher Report late Thursday.
In an Eastern Conference wracked by ineptitude, there is always time to recover, and always room near the top of the standings. The Knicks and Nets may yet claw their way into playoff contention and avoid the humiliation of sending lottery picks to former trading partners (the Knicks’ pick belonging to Denver, the Nets’ to Atlanta).
Their flaws run deep, though, and the potential remains for an epic basketball calamity spanning two boroughs.
The Knicks do not have the wealth of three-point shooting that made them so potent last season, nor enough frontcourt depth to protect them against the fragile knees of Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin, nor enough defensive grit to carry them on the nights when their offense stalls.
The Nets? It is hard to know where to begin. They look old, slow, joyless, disoriented, disengaged and uninspired. If there is an offensive game plan, it is hard to ascertain.
Rather than attack the Knicks with the pick-and-roll—as every other opponent has, to great success—the Nets settled for one isolation play after another Thursday, their offense lacking any sense of rhythm and producing just 11 assists.
“Offensively, we don’t really have an identity,” said Joe Johnson, which could be taken as an indictment of the rookie head coach.
The franchise continues to stand behind Kidd, who dismissed Lawrence Frank, his top assistant, earlier this week. But the patience among the fanbase is growing thin, as evidenced by the brief attempt to start a “Fire Kidd” chant in the fourth quarter.
For the first time, Kidd is sounding defensive about the scrutiny. Asked to evaluate himself, he said, “I think you get evaluated by being whole”—the point being that the Nets are far from it.
The starting lineup the Nets envisioned—the one with two future Hall of Famers and three other All-Stars, the one that inspired magazine covers and visions of a title run—has played just 78 minutes, spread across eight games (the last on Nov. 15).
Then Williams and Brook Lopez (sprained ankle) went down, followed by Paul Pierce (broken hand). Andrei Kirilenko, the Nets’ most versatile defender, has played in only four games. Jason Terry, their top scoring guard off the bench, has played in 11 games.
The absence of so much talent—Lopez and Williams, in particular—meant a greater burden on Garnett and Pierce, who came here to be complementary players, not foundational pieces. The injury to Williams has left Kidd with a point guard rotation of Shaun Livingston and Tyshawn Taylor, neither of whom should be playing 25 minutes a night.
Kidd’s search for a coaching identity and a workable playing style has only added to the confusion.
Exasperated, Garnett dropped his old-school warrior persona just long enough to admit the obvious: The Nets cannot function as expected under these circumstances.
“We have a new system—we’re changing things on the fly,” he said. “Jason’s putting in a lot of new stuff since Lawrence has left. … We don’t have Kirilenko, we don’t have Paul, we don’t have Deron. We just got Brook back. It just doesn’t snap and wave the magic wand, voila. Those things play a big part into this. I’m a firm believer when we’re whole, when we have our team full throttle, then that’s what I believe in.”
For all of the hype over the Garnett-Pierce trade, the most important player in Brooklyn is still Williams. This team will go as he goes.
It is possible that all of the worst fears about the Nets will turn out to be true: that Kidd is overmatched, that Pierce and Garnett are too old, that the All-Star lineup will not mesh. But none of that can be known until the Nets have the roster they envisioned, the one that infamously cost $190 million in salaries and luxury tax.
The Knicks earned the victory and a momentary reprieve Thursday night. But on a soggy, gray Gotham night, there was nothing worth boasting about in any borough.