It may not have counted in the standings, but Brooklyn Nets coach Avery Johnson treated Monday night’s preseason game against the Washington Wizards -- his team’s first game at the $1 billion Barclays Center -- like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Johnson wanted to win -- even if it meant his starters were going to have to play extended minutes late in the fourth quarter of a meaningless contest.
“I thought it was important,” Johnson said after the Nets beat the Wizards, 98-88. “Our fans were terrific. When we get more people in the building it’s going to be crazy. We wanted the fans to go home feeling good about our team.”
Superstar point guard Deron Williams thought his night was over after the third quarter ended. Instead, he found himself back in the game with 3:28 left. And in the final minute, he was jawing with A.J. Price, telling the Wizards point guard, “This isn’t your house. It’s mine.”
“It was fine. Looking at the box score, Joe [Johnson] played 38 minutes,” Williams said laughing. “Coach wanted to win this one I guess, so that explains it.”
The Nets have never been known for winning. In their final three seasons in New Jersey, they went a combined 58-172.
That’s why owner Mikhail Prokhorov gave general manager Billy King a $330 million bankroll to overhaul the roster. And now that King has it, expectations are high. The culture has changed. Winning a championship has suddenly become an attainable goal.
That wasn’t the case when Johnson arrived.
“I know those of you who have been around the last two years that I’ve been here, I was trying to get really creative with some of my pregame and postgame speeches, you know that right?” Johnson said. “I started reading books so I could say something different, but it’s been all about a vision. Billy and I had a lot of long nights dreaming about what we thought our roster could look like, but what we’re really trying to do is build a team.”
It took several months to do that.
But finally, at 7:41 p.m., in front of 14,219 fans, basketball tipped off in Brooklyn.
“We’ve wanted to play in this building for a long time,” said Williams, who signed a five-year, $98 million contract to remain with the Nets rather than leave for his hometown Dallas Mavericks. “It was fun. I thought the atmosphere was great.
“I think it’s a great arena. The focus is all on the court. It’s like the Staples Center where the lights are off [in the stands]. The shooting background is great. I love our floor. I think it’s one of a kind.”
For much of the night, like the team on the court, the fans seemed to be in preseason mode. Then, with 2:30 remaining in the third quarter, the first “Let’s Go Brooklyn!” chant began.
And with outcome no longer in doubt, Williams heard the chant he had be longing for, the same one he heard in Atlantic City against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night: “Brook-lyn! Brook-lyn!”
“It’s great, man,” Williams said. “Like I said, I think this atmosphere is going to be great come Nov. 1 [against the New York Knicks], and hopefully for the rest of the season -- especially if we’re taking care of business at home like we hope to be. We hope to have a great crowd that’s going to provide us with a great home-court advantage.”
That’s something they never had in East Rutherford or Newark.
“The PA announcer didn’t even need to tell the fans to stand up [during pregame intros],” Avery Johnson said. “It’s nice to hear that ‘Brooklyn’ chant throughout the arena.”
“It’s not even a comparison,” said Joe Johnson, who showed his versatility and carried the second unit to victory in the final quarter. “It’s great. Everybody’s excited. The anticipation is high, and these fans, they want to win.”
Joe Johnson didn’t mind playing 38 minutes. To him, it was all worth it -- even if no one remembers the outcome a month from now.
“Certain things you don’t have to say, they’re just kind of understood,” Johnson said. “This is our first game in this building. You don’t want to take an ‘L’ regardless.”