What we’ve been waiting for

Chris Trotman – Getty Images

Ever since the beginning of Prokhorov-King-Johnson era, the Nets front office has sold a supposed “rivalry” between the Nets and the Knicks. The billboard wars, Prokhorov one-upping Dolan’s private jet, “turning Knicks fans into Nets fans,” Melodrama… It’s fair to say that this “rivalry” has had more off-the-court incidents than on-the-court ones. It’s been more of a battle between owners and cities than it has been about basketball.

Last night, in Madison Square Garden, we witnessed one of the first, hopefully of many, rivalry games between the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks. A chance at revenge for Deron Williams, a chance for further embarrassment for Jeremy Lin, a chance at belonging in the Knicks’ lineup for Carmelo Anthony, and what the hell, a chance at a new beginning for Baron Davis. The lowly Nets, coming off a back-to-back and an obliteration from the Bucks, against the much-hyped Knicks, smack-dab in the middle of Linsanity. It was clear who the favorite was from opening tip-off.

And the Nets followed that up with a stinker of a first quarter, one that had me wondering what was more shocking: that the Nets had actually scored what they had scored (18 points) or that they were still in the game. But from then on, the Nets completely dominated their biggest rivals in front of a hostile Madison Square Garden.

To take off the writer-analyst hat for just a moment, it was games like last nights that are the reason I fell in love with basketball when I was nine years old. And honestly, I felt like my nine-year-old self watching the game, sitting on the edge of my seat, shaking knees on the floor, standing, pacing around my room throwing my pillows against the walls, literally jumping and screaming at Deron Williams (much like I used to jump and scream at Jason Kidd not too long ago), nearly tearing my hair out by the root, followed by moments of sheer joy. And I’m not exaggerating. I wanted to beat the Knicks so bad, and for that, this win felt like more than just a regular-season basketball game, with the winning team still far out of reach from a successful season. It was a total turning point for the New Jersey Nets.

It wasn’t just the fact that the Nets won a game — it was the environment in which they won. I listened to Bill Simmons’ BS Report a few weeks back where he interviewed a hero of mine: Flea, the bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a well-known Lakers fanatic. Flea and Simmons talked about the fun of hating other teams and the passion it creates in sports fans. They are right; my hatred of teams like the Knicks (and the Patriots, sorry, gotta add it) stir up just as much adrenaline in me as my love of the Nets. Sometimes, my hatred of other teams drives me to love my team even more because few sports moments are greater than demolishing your rivals and hanging them out to dry.

For the first time in years, the Nets-Knicks rivalry felt real, and not a contrived marketing ploy by the two franchises’ owners. It felt boiling. You could hear the anger of the Knicks fans in the building and see the tension between the players. When Kris Humphries “shhh-ed” his boos out, he represented every Nets fan who hated the Knicks just as much as Madison Square Garden hated the Nets.

During the second quarter, I started keeping notes on the scoreline when Deron Williams sat on the bench, but I got way too caught up in the action to continue with it. One thing that totally blew me away on those D-Will-less minutes was how the Nets heavily, and rightfully, criticized bench hung in there with the Knicks starting rotation. They may have had moments of caving where it looked like the game could’ve spiralled completely out of control, but they held the lead and got the W. That is not something you see out of this Nets team two weeks ago. This team got caught up in the moment, caught up in the crowd, and most noticeably, caught up in the hatred of the Knicks fans to lose this game. And they didn’t. Even without their ringleader.

(For the record, with 3:30 left in the fourth quarter, I had a full set of fingernails. Now I have stubs.)

I’m not saying the Nets are going to start a winning streak, or turn this win into a magical, playoff clinching run. It probably won’t happen. But I will say, for one of the few times all season, the Nets played through vitriol, and emerged victorious.

It was about time.