BROOKLYN, N.Y. — On what’s hopefully the final glorious first in a long, raucous series of firsts, the Brooklyn Nets picked up their first victory in their first official game in their sparkling new arena, taking down the foe nobody wanted them to play in their first game, the Toronto Raptors. With Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, NBA commissionner-incumbent David Stern, NBA commissioner-elect Adam Silver, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, and more on hand, opening night was every bit the spectacle you’d imagine.
Deron Williams entered the record books with the first two points in Brooklyn Nets-Barclays Center history, a long two-pointer off a few swing passes. He also recorded the final points in the game, a fitting opening bookend for the $98 million man, and finished with 19 points to complement nine sharp assists. Williams’ outside shot was not falling this evening, but that was no fault of his looks, just lady luck. Next time.
The spry, youthful Raptors posed as a bemusing threat in the first frame. Kyle Lowry rained threes from the Prudential Center, and the Raptors took advantage of a simplified defensive system that still proved too complex for the Brooklyn Nets to master. What the Nets — particularly Brook Lopez — exhibited in defensive desire, they merely lacked in ability.
That all changed when the second unit took the reins in the second quarter; the once-open Toronto pick-and-rolls suddenly squeezed, open shots materialized from white uniforms, and the barrage of Toronto shots that seemingly dropped from thin air started clanging off side rims. With a bench mob led by starter/initiator Joe Johnson, the fearsome foursome fell into their roles; MarShon Brooks threatened to score each possession, Dray Day Blatche lofted orange into nylon, and C.J. Watson & Reggie Evans raised their own unique hells.
The 6’0″ on a tall day Watson hit open shots like a backup point guard should (#HelloSundiata), played tight man defense, created in transition for self and others, and blocked two shots — leading the Brooklyn Nets and tying seven-foot Raptors rookie Jonas Valanciunas for the game high. Evans was a monster unto himself: with a grasp of the defensive scheme that embarrasses his slow compatriots, Evans locked down lanes and gobbled rebounds as if his NBA career depended on it — which, after all, it does.
After a sixty-point first half — a larger front 24-minute figure than any New Jersey Nets game last season — the Brooklyn Nets extended their barrage of buckets into the third quarter and beyond. By utilizing a smart set, with Kris Humphries functioning as a double-screener for Williams and then Gerald Wallace, the Nets found action for Lopez, Wallace, and Deron Williams early in the third to build their lead into double digits.
Lopez deserves special mention here. He attacked early, drawing five shooting fouls in the first half and utilizing his patented rip move and deke to throw Valanciunas and Aaron Gray off balance. He dropped 27 like it was both a duty and a breeze. None of his concerns dissipate after a five-rebound, low-defense affair, but it’s worth noting that Lopez blitzed ballhandlers, cutting off penetration early and not allowing guards to get deep into the lane. The trade-off here is that Lopez is too slow to then backtrack to his man — the one that set the screen — and that forces the rest of the defense to rotate and leave someone open while Lopez scrambles. That’s a trade-off the Nets have to build around.
Both Watson and Evans earned second-half and crunch-time minutes from their first-half exploits, both at the expense of Kris Humphries, who played an underwhelming 22 minutes, and just 32 seconds in “crunch time.” Part of this was the matchup advantage: Raptors coach Dwane Casey experimented with a two-point guard set with Kyle Lowry and Jose Calderon, and considering Watson’s considerable talent as a backup, it only made sense to counter with the same.
As the Brooklyn Nets closed this victory out, the crowd owned the word — because “cheer” doesn’t seem like the right term here — and, conversely, the word owned the crowd. The haunting enunciation filled the arena, as if it were designed to hold nothing but those two syllables. Like the game’s outcome, it took some time to master — the chants were scattered some times, flat-out boring in others — but once victory was within reach, it all came together, chillingly and seamlessly.
They’ve come a long way from “LET’S. GO. HEAT.”