NEW YORK -- It's all so complicated for the Brooklyn Nets, isn't it?
The Nets are on different timetables, several of them in conflict with one another, only one of them about winning an NBA title. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov promised one in five years. A roster with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, in Year Two in Brooklyn, almost certainly doesn't have even that long.
And then there's the other thing, something that might be more important, yet the measurement of which is incredibly amorphous and endlessly subjective: When will the Brooklyn Nets matter?
It was fascinating to watch the Nets operate on all these tracks this weekend in Brooklyn. And despite splitting the games at home, returning the home court advantage they'd captured after Game 1, we may be on the cusp of seeing the Nets fulfill the wildest optimism for the former, though you won't fully appreciate how much of an impact it all had on the latter until years from now.
A generation from now, that little girl I saw clutching her father's hand with one hand and a Joe Johnson-jerseyed gray rabbit in the other with equal urgency walking toward their seats on Friday night will be buying tickets herself. She'll have stories to tell about experiencing Brooklyn Nets basketball from the very start.
What those stories will be, we don't know yet. But it's precisely this reality that makes all the Prokhorov spending and Billy King veteran betting less the desperate roster machinations of that team from Manhattan, and an actual, logical way to go about introducing basketball to Brooklyn at the very beginning.
And this is, let's be clear, the very beginning. These aren't the New Jersey Nets, no matter which ABA banners hang from the rafters at Barclays Center. Buck Williams, the franchise's all-time leading scorer, was introduced to the crowd Sunday night. A tiny ripple of applause, barely audible, suggested that few people present had seen any of those baskets in New Jersey outposts. Can you imagine that happening to the all-time leading scorer for any other franchise?
In fact, judging by the number of surprised looks I saw from groups passing the GP Barbershop, an actual barbershop on the lower level of Barclays, these weren't the same people who'd been to the Barclays Center for 41 home games this year. The fans are wearing a sea of black. There's Deron Williams jerseys and shirseys, Joe Johnson, the ultra-shimmering white letters of the Paul Pierces and Kevin Garnetts, barely if ever washed. It's a history with two seasons in it. I saw a couple of Jason Kidds, Vince Carters, a lone Drazen Petrovic. But then, I saw a Steve Novak Knicks jersey, too.
Still, if the fans are in the infancy stage, this is a Nets team overloaded with experience -- to hear many, to a fault. It's worth noting that extends beyond the oft-cited Boston years of Pierce and Garnett, into the pair of original Brooklyn Nets, dating back to a trade and a long-term deal, signed within days of one another: Johnson and Williams. And for all the talk about the fans at the start of their journey, the old Celtics at the end of theirs, these backcourt mates in the middle are going to decide the fate of it all.
Friday night, the Raptors had very little success stopping either one of them. A year ago, a Nets team slapped together the previous summer won 49 games, finished with the fourth-best record in the East, and with Johnson battling plantar fasciitis, fell to the Chicago Bulls in seven games.
Less than an hour before Game 3, the Nets had detailed plans on their white board in the locker room for how to handle Toronto's coming double teams of Johnson, something unimaginable last season. Johnson sat relaxing at his locker, finalizing ticket arrangements for family and friends.
Then he went out and made 11 of 17 shots, Williams finding him for many of them. He posted up frequently in the first half, forcing the Raptors to, yes, double him. The Raptors went away from that late in the first half, and Johnson really went off then, helping the Nets extend a lead they nearly, but didn't, relinquish.
It's vaguely amusing how many people declared the Johnson/Williams partnership a failure after that one season, injury plagued for both. It's much as those expecting Brooklyn fans to operate at a level of decades-long emotional buy-in were quick, too quick, to declare Nets fans short of the mark as well. The fluidity with which the team's two real building blocks operate, all apologies to Garnett and Pierce, has been striking to watch throughout the team's post-New Year's run, and clear to both men as well.
"I think it just came together in that second, third quarter," Johnson said after the Friday win. "I think a lot of it was knowing where Deron was spotting up, Deron knowing where I was spotting up. It's just instincts. You play off instincts, there's nothing you come through the game thinking about. It's just reaction."
As Williams put it, "We had to learn to play with each other. We're two guys that, we'd dominate the ball, have the ball in our hands a lot. So we had to learn to share the ball. Also, we had to learn where each other is gonna be. I think we have a great understanding of that right now."
But it almost wasn't enough to weather the final five minutes on Friday night, during a game where crowd excitement was more in line with a January game against a non-conference opponent. A media horde used to everything and every moment mattering in that other borough couldn't quite believe it. Empty seats were draped with playoff towels, making it easy to see how many no-shows there were in the lower bowl.
It took until a dive on the floor for a loose ball in the second quarter by Williams, then Garnett to secure it, to raise the crowd to playoff-level noise. Or if not playoff level, significantly louder than it had been. Garnett noticed. So did Pierce.
The Nets are just beginning. Pierce and Garnett are running out of time. And they know precisely what the Nets need to do to get from this spot in the first round, or where it all stalled out last year for the Nets, to the latter weeks of May and June. Giving a young team confidence late in a road loss was no more or less forgivable than a home crowd that didn't live up to those Pierce had on his side during Boston springs.
There may come a time here in Brooklyn, especially if Pierce can deliver this spring, when such crowds are commonplace. The little girl with a Johnson rabbit and the boy jumping up and down in his Deron Williams jersey leaving the arena on Friday night, a visual joke for those of us who see Williams himself regard us all with a mixture of skepticism and disdain at almost all times, coming together the way they do in Manhattan and Boston and Chicago because that's how their parents, and their parents' parents, sounded.
"No game is perfect," Pierce told us all Friday night, after taking one, then another position in the locker room, trying to get even his post game avail just right. "But you want to be as close to perfect as possible. And we didn't close the game out like we wanted to ... even though we won the game, you want to do a better job. Because as the games go on, the teams get better, and as you get to the next round, you can't afford those mistakes. So it's best we take care of them now... By no means should everyone be satisfied by the way we won. I'm looking for the long road, fellas."
Nor were the fans spared: "Eventually, they got into it. Hopefully, next game, it'll get a lot better from the start."
The fans did Sunday, but the team, not so much. The Raptors were making virtually everything, shooting 62 percent and taking a 35-22 lead after one. The defense, though, wasn't so much the issue: the Raptors were making plenty of tough shots.
The Nets were oddly disconnected on offense. Williams threw a pair of passes to no one. The team's ability to work quickly, weaving the ball through passes in and out of the paint, disappeared. Johnson and Williams simply couldn't find each other this time.
"This one, it's a little more frustrating because we know we shot ourselves in the foot," Shaun Livingston said when it was over. He had five turnovers, as did Williams. Toronto, for the game, had a total of 10.
And so it fell to Garnett, and mainly, Pierce, to lift everyone, the Nets on the floor, the young group in the crowd figuring out exactly how and why this all matters so much. And it worked. Pierce scored ten by halftime, the Nets cut the lead, which reached 17 at one point, to seven by halftime, a ferocious Pierce refusing to give the Raptors a final shot.
Less than two minutes into the third, it was 51-49, five more points coming from Pierce. Garnett's layup gave the Nets the lead. The formula, Johnson and Williams carrying the team, Pierce and Garnett to close as needed, had been upended. Sunday night, the Nets needed a little more. Toronto's double teams held Johnson to a total of seven shots. Williams missed all five of his three-point attempts. It fell to others to win the game, and the Nets got more from Pierce, who led them with 22 points, and Garnett, who scored 10 in 21 minutes.
They got more from the crowd, too. Critics can argue decibel levels, but Sunday night was a playoff crowd. Game 3's lazy return from halftime gave way to a Game 4 crowd in its seats, and quickly out of them, as the Nets made the kind of run that puts series away, keeps teams fresher for the next round, and propels tired legs of April into May and June.
"Brooklyn, stand up!", the Nets' PA announcer yelled, and the crowd did, as one. He didn't need to add, as he frequently does when he fails to get a response, "I said, Brooklyn, stand up!"
The Nets took a four-point lead with 6:11 to go, 77-73, on a Pierce layup. That followed a pair of Garnett free throws. The Nets had the lead, they had their veteran leaders, they had the crowd. A 3-1 lead, a solitary win from a likely matchup with the Miami Heat looked to be mere minutes away.
Oh, and in case you are wondering: a Nets team battling the Miami Heat, with the basketball world all but assuming the winner of the series will head straight to the NBA Finals, are going to matter. They'll also be 12 wins from an NBA title. Everything will be lined up, and in just the team's second season.
But then: complete offensive wasteland. Four turnovers, including two from Pierce. An offensive foul on Johnson. Two missed threes from Williams. The Nets held Toronto to 87 points after the Raptors had scored 35 in the first. And it still wasn't enough.
Some Nets fans left once the team fell behind by six, then eight in the final minute. Others remained, even as I made my way downstairs for the post game interviews. They sat in shock, unable to fully process what had just happened to the Nets. A teen boy in a Deron Williams jersey I passed actually had his mouth open, staring at the court. The game had been over for five minutes.
The Nets didn't win Sunday. But in that larger, amorphous way, they mattered to some.
After Game 4, Pierce sounded pretty much the same way he had after Game 3. He boasted as he took over the end of Game 1, "That's why they got me here!" But really, this is why the Nets got Pierce here. The Nets might well win the East, but they were never going to do it by rolling through the competition. Some ups and downs along the way, and navigating them: That's the path Pierce and Garnett needed to light, for Williams, for Johnson, for the rest of the Nets, and for fans still figuring it all out.
I asked Pierce what needs to change when a team gets hit like this, the way his Celtics were so many times, and responded so often.
"No, we just change our attitude," Pierce said of what has to happen next. "We understand look, this is what's been going on. Maybe it's an attitude adjustment to say, hey guys, we've got to be a little more competitive. The last game, we gave up 30 points-the last couple games, we've given up 30 points in the fourth quarter. Tonight, we only scored 12. Didn't give up 30 points, but those 30-point quarters got to go in the playoffs. I mean, we started off the game with 35 points.
"I think it's just attitude adjustment. Doing it faster, doing it harder, doing it better. That's all it is. The gameplan is there. I think it's a great gameplan. But you've got to do it a lot better."
The Nets will get that chance on Wednesday night in Toronto. Regardless of what happens, the fans will get the same chance to improve again on Friday night in a now-guaranteed Game 6.
And soon enough, we'll find out whether Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett get one final shot at a championship, a crowning achievement to their career, while that little girl clutching a Joe Johnson rabbit will have a story to tell her grandchildren about the Brooklyn Nets, the kind of story you tell while the whole family goes back to Barclays Center and makes the building sound like Boston Garden.