NEW YORK –- What started as a faint “BROOK-LYN” chant grew louder and louder late in the second half at Madison Square Garden on Monday.
“We talked about it, called it ‘the payback game,’” Joe Johnson said. “We came and responded.”
At the moment, the battle for New York belongs to the Nets, who continue to get better with each game in the new year. On the other side, the Knicks showed little fight on Monday.
Jason Kidd’s team is only two games better in the win column. But it feels like the distance between the two New York teams is much greater.
The Nets (17-22) are surging, having won seven of their past eight games. The Knicks (15-26) are heading in the opposite direction, and hanging by a very thin thread. After a five-game winning streak, head coach Mike Woodson’s squad has dropped four straight.
But the most disturbing thing is, the Knicks have lost the past four by an average of 18.7 points. Things are definitely unraveling.
For the second straight loss, Tyson Chandler raised the Knicks’ strategy as an issue, saying the Nets “outschemed us.” Carmelo Anthony's frustration grows by the loss and he’s irritated by the Knicks’ lack of fight.
“That’s the only thing that kind of bothers me, today we didn’t even fight,” Anthony said. “I felt like we didn’t fight as a team. Those guys from the jump ball just came in and it felt like they owned us.”
The Knicks have dealt with their share of drama (see J.R. Smith and shoelace gate). They are fragile physically and mentally. They have key injuries and can’t take a punch right now on the court.
Sound familiar? That’s because this was the state of the Nets just more than a month ago. If the Knicks are going to make something out of their season, they have to emulate the Nets and come together like Kidd's squad has.
Back in early December, Kidd had demoted lead assistant Lawrence Frank. The Nets were rocked by injuries, and players were complaining about their roles. It was only a few weeks ago, on Christmas Day, that Kidd called out his team and Kevin Garnett stormed into the showers upset with their lack of fight.
Brooklyn seemed like it was on the verge of falling apart.
But Kidd and Garnett somehow kept the Nets from fracturing. Here they are now, winning games handily, and looking more and more like a team that will be a factor in the postseason. They are beginning to resemble the team they were supposed to be and are doing it without the injured Brook Lopez.
“The trust is there defensively and on the offensive end,” Paul Pierce said. “We have gotten to the point where nobody cares who gets the touches. The ball will always find the right players and it is evident from the last couple of games the way we make the extra passes. The ball is going to find the right person if we continue to play unselfish.”
Does that sound like the Knicks? No. But if there is one positive that can come out of Monday’s debacle, perhaps Carmelo and crew saw a blueprint of how to turn things around.
The Nets are the perfect role models for the Knicks.
A month ago, you could debate which team was a bigger mess, the Knicks or the Nets? Both teams were playing hideous basketball.
But the Nets stuck together. They began to buy into what Kidd was preaching. They followed Garnett’s lead in the locker room. Roles were defined. Joe Johnson is now the clear-cut go-to scorer. Everybody is starting to play defense, share the ball and trust one another. Players like Pierce have sacrificed ego and come off the bench at times.
On Monday, Deron Williams came off the bench and gave the Nets a spark, and it’s no coincidence Garnett and Pierce went out of their way to praise their point guard for his sacrifice and leadership. They are already looking one step ahead and leading, knowing they and the Nets need Williams to take them to the next level.
The Knicks don’t have an All-Star point guard coming back from injury to pick them up. But they can still look at the Nets and say, why not us?
The Knicks already have a go-to scorer in Anthony. Tyson Chandler can play the same interior defensive role Garnett does. The Knicks have perimeter players who can defend, such as Iman Shumpert, and guys who can hit outside shots.
The Knicks, though, need leadership in order to come together like the Nets have. Anthony and Chandler have to grab a hold of this season before it gets away from them. And Woodson has to find a way to push all the right buttons like Kidd has since December.
Back on Dec. 5, the Knicks crushed the Nets in Brooklyn, 113-83. The Nets’ season looked like it was on life support. A month later, the Nets got their big “payback.”
“When we first played them, they embarrassed us,” Garnett said. “We wanted to come back and get sort of a payback and kind of redeem ourselves.”
Now the Knicks are coming off a humiliating loss at the hands of their city rival. They are at a crossroad. It’s the Knicks’ turn to show what they are made of, and that they have it in them to turn this embarrassing defeat into a turning point.
It can be done. Just look at the Nets.