11:23 am Oct. 22, 20121
The first thing to notice at a Brooklyn Nets game is the complete severing of the past.
On Friday night, a few stray Nets fans made the trip from New Jersey, where the franchise played for 35 seasons, but they were the overwhelming exception. The bright colors and losing seasons of the past are gone. The Nets wear black and white now, and the interior of the Barclays Center is a gleaming gray.
The fresh start, actively cultivated by Mikhail Prokhorov's franchise for the past several years, offers some advantages and challenges, as the Nets and their arena prepare for a big opening night on November 1 against the Knicks.
Nearly all those factors were on display Friday night, during a listless 106-96 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The red, white and blue jerseys of past heroes like Derrick Coleman or Jason Kidd—along with the fans who owned them—had been replaced by the black-and-white apparel on the backs and heads of the 13,270 in attendance. The brand new gear was, at times, as awkward a fit as the act of rooting for a brand new team.
That the arena appeared mostly empty for the first half might be expected in a new venue that has its own built-in attractions. But it also spoke to the chasm between attending a Knicks game, even a preseason one, and attending a Nets game, at least so far. The crowds for both preseason games at Madison Square Garden last year were amped up for player introductions, and gradually tapered off as the Knicks substituted for their best players. (A keeping-up-with-the-Joneses renovation of M.S.G. this fall has kept the Knicks on the road for the duration of the preseason.)
As for the Nets, they embraced the N.B.A. cliche of overdoing player introductions, complete with dimmed lights and explosions of manufactured noise, but the fans who were supposed to be whipped into a frenzy appeared to be waiting for a Brooklyn Burger, a Junior's Cheesecake, or possibly just surveying the team store. (The scoreboard player introductions were also uniformly black and white; a color-blind Nets fan misses nothing.)
"Even for our fans, a lot of them are obviously new to this," Nets coach Avery Johnson said in his postgame press conference. "It's a learning process for everybody."
The Nets themselves came out and played like it.
There's little doubt that the Nets can score with virtually anyone in the league. Brook Lopez had ten points in the first quarter, dominating when he received the ball. The Nets played Lopez, along with starters Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace, heavy minutes in the team's second game in as many nights. Lopez, Williams and Johnson combined to shoot 25-for-48 as a threesome, and gave the Sixers matchup problems all night.
And still, the defensive shortcomings of the group meant the Nets were always playing from behind.
"We really haven't come out and executed, taking our time at the start of the game," Johnson told reporters as he sat at his locker following Friday night's loss. "It's almost as if, once we got hit a little bit, we lost sight of what we were supposed to do."
Perhaps that's why the crowd, even those who were in their seats during the first half, never got into the game. The fans barely tried the familiar "De-Fense! De-Fense!" chant, and when they did, it was quickly snuffed out, usually by an uncontested Sixers basket.
Things picked up a bit in the third quarter. Some additional fans had apparently gorged themselves sufficiently on food and souvenirs, and the Nets, led by Joe Johnson, turned a 69-57 deficit into a more manageable 76-73 one near the end of the period, despite letting the Sixers shoot 50 percent for the quarter.
What was most striking, despite the presence of televisions throughout the corridors of the arena, was the lack of fan reaction to any positive or negative developments on the court. That is the result, without a doubt, of putting what amounts to an expansion team into Brooklyn. Fan loyalty takes time to incubate, much like a defense takes time to coalesce.
That a 76ers team missing its key offensive player in center Andrew Bynum, still managed to get open shots at will, even down the stretch, spoke to the vast distance between the team's defensive aspirations, and the reality of its current skill level. And the uncertain way the crowd chanted for it, along with its pro forma embrace of Deron Williams, seemed to reflect a fan base trying to conjure up enthusiasm to substitute for the real thing.
"It's preseason," Williams told reporters gathered around his locker. "I think it will be a lot better atmosphere, come November 1."
What both the Nets and their fans do have is time. All the building blocks for success are there, from a roster filled with talented players to a coach who understands the value of defense. And a team like this one should offer the kind of thrills that a typical expansion team, filled with castoffs from other organizations, doesn't usually provide in its inaugural year.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, those few fans who hadn't checked out early when the Sixers put the game away, applauded their new home team. In Madison Square Garden, they'd probably have booed such an underwhelming defensive effort.
But the fans in Brooklyn seem ready to provide the Nets with patience, just as the players are willing to avail the fans some time—to check out the arena, or buy some new gear—before they start expecting a compelling home court advantage.