Nets finally land on center stage
Marquee matchup with Miami sure to boost Brooklyn brand
It took a year longer than Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King would have liked.
But the Brooklyn Nets have finally arrived on center stage.
Despite the New York Rangers’ ongoing Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, there’s little doubt now that the Nets are participating in the most-talked about and most-watched sporting event in the city.
Brooklyn, thanks to Paul Pierce’s “Block Heard ‘Round the World” in Toronto on Sunday afternoon, has finally taken sole possession of the Big Apple sporting scene.
Beginning with Tuesday night’s visit to American Airlines Arena for Game 1 of the much-anticipated Eastern Conference semifinal series with the two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat, the Nets are all but assured of front-, and perhaps even, back-page coverage in all the local tabloids.
They’ll get the lion’s share of incessant local sports-talk radio chatter.
They’ll also likely get the prime-time slot in the network and national cable TV rotation throughout the series.
All of these have been a rarity since the franchise officially arrived in Downtown Brooklyn in November 2011.
New York’s “second team” is front and center.
The time has finally come for the Nets to truly “Run this Town,” with Jay-Z, Beyonce and Rhianna likely to be sitting courtside.
To think, the Nets were one Game 7 win away from meeting the then one-time champion Heat in the same scenario exactly 12 months ago, but failed to close out the Chicago Bulls at Barclays Center on that infamous May day.
That left Brooklyn with a “Wait ‘Till Next Year” hangover it hadn’t felt since the Dodgers dropped the 1956 World Series to the hated Yankees only one year before permanently shoving off to the West Coast.
Prokhorov, the Nets’ ultra-demanding billionaire owner, and King, Brooklyn’s general manager, went right to work on making sure there would not be a repeat letdown in the opening round this year.
In fact, the duo combined to dole out an NBA-record $180 million-plus payroll for the 2013-14 campaign, acquiring future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from Boston while luring free-agent forward Andrei Kirilenko, along with the likes of Alan Anderson, Shaun Livingston and in-season addition Marcus Thornton.
Known as the deepest, and of course, most expensive roster in the NBA, the Nets overcame a horrendous 10-21 start, and the loss of All-Star center Brook Lopez to a season-ending foot injury by going 34-17 after Jan. 1.
First-year head coach Jason Kidd’s “small-ball” lineup provided a turnover-inducing, 3-point shooting barrage that baffled opponents for nearly four months.
Brooklyn then proceeded to engage in a thrilling first-round series with the feisty Raptors, and was on the verge of an epic elimination once again before Pierce rejected Toronto guard Kyle Lowry’s bid for a game-winning lay-up as time expired at the Air Canada Centre on Sunday afternoon.
The biggest play in the Nets’ brief two-year history here in our fair borough paved the way for Brooklyn’s marquee showdown with LeBron James, the best and most-recognizable player in the world, three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade and the rest of the decorated Heat roster.
If nothing else, the Nets will get at least two games on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues (Games 3 and 4 will be held there Saturday and Monday) against the NBA’s reigning champs, a team they happened to beat in all four regular-season meetings this season.
”That goes out the window,” Garnett noted of Brooklyn’s in-season mastery of Miami. ”This is the postseason. They’re playing very well, they went right through Charlotte [in four games in the first round] without [missing] a beat and they have a lot of confidence.”
With the Knicks idle until next season, the Mets and Yankees mired in the day-to-day grind of a 162-game regular season and the Jets and Giants getting ready for Thursday night’s NFL Draft, the only game in town with significant star power and widespread interest is Nets-Heat.
“This is why we came here,” insisted Pierce, who, along with Garnett, is 2-2 career in playoff series against James dating back to The King’s days in Cleveland. “These types of [playoff] wins build character.”
The star-studded Heat are wary of Brooklyn’s rebuilt roster, and won’t shy away from admitting they were had by the Nets throughout the regular season.
”They figured out a way to beat us four times and that hasn’t happened [since the Heat’s run of three straight NBA Finals appearances began in 2010],” Wade pointed out. ”So we’ve got to crack that code.”
Pierce, who ran past James and the Cavaliers en route to Finals appearances in 2008 and 2010 with Boston, isn’t the least bit interested in just getting to the second round during his initial campaign with the Nets.
”The goal from the beginning when we came in here was to win a championship and we understand that in order to do that, you have to go through the best,” he said. ”And Miami being that team over the last couple years, we figured this was going to be a test for us.”
Though it was a struggle, the Nets passed their first-round test in Toronto.
Beating the Heat at this time of the year with the nation, and most importantly, all of New York tuning in, will push their brand to a new level.
One that Prokhorov has insisted would be theirs sooner than later.
See you in South Beach.
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