NEW YORK — The ball was skipping away, across midcourt, past the bold, black “B,” away from the crowd, there for the taking. So Kevin Garnett took it.
He dove on it, cradled it, ripped it away from Amir Johnson’s hands, as if Johnson were trying to steal his lunch. Then Garnett popped up, skipped a few feet, unleashed a primal roar and tugged at his jersey.
It was, quite possibly, the most celebrated loose-ball acquisition in Brooklyn Nets history.
It was, to be sure, preposterously over-the-top, given the time (second quarter) and the context (Game 3 of the playoffs), but there are no insignificant moments here, no minor gestures, as the Nets work to build something greater than a cool brand.
They won with Williams and Joe Johnson combining for 51 points, with Paul Pierce providing another 18 and with Garnett providing the theater.
Even at age 37, 19 years into his NBA career, Garnett is the first to sacrifice his body, all six feet and 11 inches of it, for the cause.
“He was his normal, fiery self,” Williams said. “It was big for us. He just provides so much energy, so much leadership out there on the floor.”
As Nets coach Jason Kidd said, poignantly, “Every possession is big for him.”
Much has been made this past week of the Raptors’ unlikely rise, of their polite demand for respect (“We the North”) and of their general manager’s impolite rallying cry (“F--- Brooklyn!”).
But Toronto is not the only NBA locale with an acute inferiority complex, and the Raptors are not the only team in this series grasping for an identity and a measure of respect in the increasingly competitive Eastern Conference.
The Nets, playing in a once-forsaken borough, and forever in the Knicks’ shadow, have even more at stake this spring. They have spent lavishly and marketed relentlessly—sometimes desperately—in an effort to carve their own niche.
“NBA playoffs only in Brooklyn this weekend,” a recent Nets press release proclaimed, highlighting their momentary advantage over the discombobulated Knicks.
On Friday, the Nets passed out white rally towels with the phrase, “This is Why We Are Here”—an echo of Pierce’s “That’s why I’m here!” exclamation after his clinching shot in Game 1 in Toronto.
Which brings us back to that desperate search for identity and respect.
A year ago at this time, the Nets were blowing home-court advantage and a seven-game series to a depleted Chicago Bulls team, a sour coda to their debut season in Brooklyn. The Nets fell behind 2-1 in that series and never led again, losing Game 7 on their home court.
It is early, but this Nets playoff run already looks, feels and sounds different, with Pierce supplying the bravado and Garnett supplying the volume.
“We’re up 2-1—that’s a little different,” Williams said with a smile. “This is a totally different team, a totally different feeling. I think we’re poised to make a run.”
This is, of course, why general manager Billy King made the blockbuster deal that brought Pierce and Garnett here last June, pushing the Nets’ payroll and luxury-tax bill into the stratosphere. The Nets needed credibility, sure, but they also needed some fire in the lineup, an edge and a cockiness that the old Nets lacked.
The attitude has even infected the marketing department, which used the Nets’ official Twitter account to mock the Raptors in the middle of Friday’s game.
These Nets still have their wobbly moments, though they manage them with a little more composure. On Friday, they let a 15-point lead diminish to one over the final five minutes, with Williams missing three free throws in the final minute. It was a game they should easily have put away, given how limited the Raptors were by foul trouble (Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas) and gimpy bodies (Lowry and Valanciunas again).
But the Nets held on, and Pierce and Johnson put the game away with four free throws.
“If you get to the next round, you cant afford those mistakes,” Pierce said. “So it’s best that we take care of them now.”
With another victory here on Sunday, the Nets could take firm control and position themselves for their first series victory of the Brooklyn era. They would move that much closer to a second-round showdown with the defending champion Miami Heat.
It’s worth noting that the very move that so enraged the Raptors—the Nets’ purported decision to “tank” their final game, to draw Toronto instead of Chicago—also put Brooklyn on an immediate collision course with the Heat, rather than delaying that possibility until the conference finals.
But these Nets, infused with Garnett’s snarl and Pierce’s audacity—and their accumulated postseason experience against LeBron James—have no fear of the Heat, a fact underlined by the Nets going 4-0 against Miami this season. Regular-season results mean little in the playoffs, but the record is noteworthy, given how easily the Heat dismembered the Nets of 2012-13.
With the Indiana Pacers imploding and the Chicago Bulls fading, the Nets might qualify as the biggest threat to Miami’s reign in the East.
Of course, Toronto will still have something to say about that, and they have turned this playoff run into a much larger campaign for respect. The Raptors have long been an afterthought, and Toronto a shunned destination among many NBA players.
It was the slights, real or perceived, that fueled GM Masai Ujiri’s ill-considered exclamation last weekend, at a rally outside the Air Canada Centre before Game 1.
“We’re trying a new movement, trying to believe in ourselves more over there,” Ujiri said Friday. “That’s why I said the comment. It wasn’t about Brooklyn—it’s about who we are, the Toronto Raptors, going forward, believing in ourselves, standing up.”
The sentiment could just have easily have come from Williams or Johnson or King, all of them trying to establish something meaningful in Brooklyn.
As Garnett demonstrated Friday night, respect—like a loose ball—sometimes has to be taken by force.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.