Tonight, the 28-13 Miami Heat, defending NBA champions and top team in the Eastern Conference, travel to Brooklyn for the first time since the 27-18 Brooklyn Nets changed their logo, uniforms, arena, state, and shooting guard. The Nets have not beaten the Heat since LeBron James changed the course of basketball history and joined the franchise, coming close on a pair of occasions but never leaving Miami or Newark with a victory.
This game has some New Jersey-related special meaning for me: it was at the final Nets-Heat game in New Jersey that fans throughout Newark’s Prudential Center boomed “M-V-P!” — for LeBron James — and “LET’S GO HEAT!” in a surrealist painting masquerading as a basketball game. The Nets, who were down Deron Williams to begin with, even held a lead when the chants started, only to watch in awe as LeBron James poured in 17 consecutive points for Miami to end the game and give the Heat a 101-98 victory.
Some combination of enraged and perplexed after that showing — not by former Nets point guard Sundiata Gaines, but by the crowd — I wrote about how that fan performance perfectly encapsulated why the Nets needed to move to Brooklyn, and why a “Here We Stay”-esque movement a la Sacramento would never have worked in New Jersey. The team didn’t care about the state, the owner didn’t care about the state, hell, the fans barely cared about the state, and they damn sure barely cared about the team. Anyone that was a die-hard fan of this franchise wouldn’t have to travel far. This isn’t the Sonics swallowing Sacramento’s history. This is the Nets getting out of their rental state and moving home. It was a swift beheading, an easy concession. We’re here now. The blind see the benefits.
I’d venture to say that this is LeBron’s first “away” game against the Nets in a long time, if not ever. Yes, I’ll assuredly sit there mouth agape as LeBron does “it” again (whatever 5,000 iterations of “it” happens to come up this time), and fans will assuredly appreciate watching the greatest physical talent of their lifetime. I will. But I’d venture a guess — a hope — that the M-V-P chants will be few and far between, and The Brooklyn Chant will outstrip any “Let’s Go Heat” boasts scattered throughout the arena. I’m intrigued by the eventual crowd response, one that now has some vested interest in the team’s success, rather than an ironic detachment.
Will that change LeBron’s game? Will his first time in a new arena leave him flustered and unable to perform? Almost assuredly not. LeBron has only shot under 40% from the field once this season, and he was one assist from a triple-double in that game. He’s shooting a career-high 54.7% from the field, 39.4% from deep, and playing a positionless brand of basketball that only the most talented player in the NBA could pull off. James has led the Heat to two big victories over the Nets in Miami already. A new arena, even one that holds the BrooklyKnight, isn’t going to change that. But much like the first Nets-Knicks game in Brooklyn, this is a new atmosphere, with a new team, and now add a new coach. Anything is possible, right?