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NEW YORK -- The Nets can move into a new arena just 5 miles from Madison Square Garden instead of 11. They can change the name on everything from their jerseys to their stationery from New Jersey to Brooklyn. With any luck, they will never have to hear another wisecrack about being swamp creatures, or the Exit 16W Nets.
They can even try to conjure up a little old-time magic by planting a flagpole from Ebbett's Field at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic and consecrate it by asking a member of Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson's family to drop by, as the Nets did before Tuesday's second game of the season against the Knicks at Barclays Center.
But then, inevitably, the game has to start.
And someone like Carmelo Anthony -- another one of those recently relocated superstars who got away from the Nets, same as Dwight Howard -- vividly reminds them of the bitter truth from which no amount of noise or marketing can save them.
|Carmelo Anthony scored a season-high 45 points in the Knicks' 100-97 defeat of the Nets.|
The Nets, for all their repackaging and promise, still have work to do before they can deliver on talk that they're in a genuine neck-and-neck rivalry with the Knicks for the hearts and minds of New York City, let alone something even more ambitious such as the Atlantic Division title.
In the NBA, talent wins. And in Anthony, the Knicks have a superstar who is better than the Nets' best player, Deron Williams. And the Knicks' best offseason acquisition, 39-year-old Jason Kidd, has so far been better than the Nets' splashiest backcourt addition, Joe Johnson. Those were two main points -- but hardly the only ones -- that the Knicks hammered home Tuesday night. They roared back from an early 17-point hole for a rousing 100-97 win that wasn't decided until Williams, given his own chance to match Kidd's clutch 3-pointer with 24 seconds remaining, launched a 3 of his own that rattled out at the buzzer.
And all of that happened after the Nets had to suffer through not just blowing their huge first-half lead or squandering a gift 23-point night from their emergency starting center Andray Blatche. The Nets also had to hear "MVP" chants for Anthony in their own building, along with chants for "DEE-fense! DEE-fense!" for the Knicks as the boys from MSG were roaring back in the third quarter and trying to stop the home team when it had the ball.
The Nets are better than they've recently been, but they don't particularly scare the pants off the Knicks just yet. Except for Anthony, who was born in Brooklyn, most of the Knicks have downplayed this "rivalry" since training camp. And they played like it was just another game for most of the first quarter on this night.
"We started tonight with low energy," Knicks center Tyson Chandler admitted, "But I figured the way he [Anthony] was going offensively, he would get us over the hump. We just had to make some defensive stops."
The Knicks were supposed to win this game all along. They had Kidd back in the lineup, unlike the first time they visited the Nets and lost in overtime, on Nov. 26. And their struggling N.Y. counterparts were without center Brook Lopez for a sixth straight start. Five of those have now been losses.
In the end, the Nets also lost because nobody they could throw on the court can match what Anthony does. Or what Kidd brings.
Even Williams -- their franchise cornerstone -- admitted as much.
"I don't feel like I've had a good game yet this season," Williams said after being outscored 45-18 by Anthony and seeing Kidd bury the same sort of clutch open look he missed.
Anthony got a lot of credit from several Knicks for passing on the last possession rather than trying to muscle through or shoot over the double-team the Nets sent at him, as expected. But Kidd's last-minute instructions to his younger backcourt partner, Raymond Felton, just before the Knicks inbounded that last time was important, too.
Kidd, who was walking around after the game with an ice pack taped to his balky back, said, "I talked to Raymond a little bit and told him, 'Any trouble, I'll be open.'"
He was right.
He nailed the shot.
The replay is worth reviewing, even if you know how it ends, because Kidd not only called the play and then made the shot with Jerry Stackhouse flying out at him. Just in case he happened to miss, Kidd also kicked out his right leg to draw contact as if he were the second coming of Reggie Miller. And it was another of those unsung veteran tricks the Knicks always rave about Kidd making. The stunt worked for him just like it did for Miller so many times in his Hall of Fame career. Kidd hit the deck as his shot rattled in. He also got the foul call.
The only glitch was he missed the ensuing free throw that would've given him a four-point play and made Williams' last shot moot, even if Williams hadn't missed.
When asked if he felt any extra excitement in beating his old team, Kidd joked, "I'm too old for that."
When Williams did miss, the Wallace ripped his headband off and threw it on the floor in frustration. And Williams walked off, shoulders slumped, and later said this about Anthony: "You definitely have to look at him as an MVP candidate right now."
And Williams is definitely not.
This rivalry might yet turn in the Nets' direction somewhere down the line. The Knicks are built to win now, not for years and years. But this Battle of the Boroughs, East River Rivalry or whatever you want to call it feels lopsided in the Knicks' favor despite the season series being tied at 1-all. And it could feel even more tilted once they get Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert back.
This was just one game. But the message remains unchanged.
The Knicks are still the iconic franchise. Madison Square Garden, not Brooklyn, is still the basketball mecca. And the Nets, by any name, still have work to do. Wishing they owned the city won't make it so.