NEW YORK -- For three hours on Monday night, the Barclays Center hosted a crowd divided. Blue mixed with black. Fans in Knicks jerseys passed an equal number decked out in Nets gear on the concourse. The crowd chanted defense -- on every possession. MVP chants rang down from the rafters for Carmelo Anthony in the first half and Deron Williams in the second.
Any expectations for the first meeting between Brooklyn and New York were surpassed in the Nets' 96-89 overtime win. And then some.
No one soaked up the moment more than Brook Lopez, the longest-tenured Net, the man who endured four seasons of win totals that looked like locker combinations, the 7-foot center who suited up in front of half-empty houses -- on good nights -- in New Jersey.
"Hump [teammate Kris Humphries] and I talk about that a lot," Lopez said. "We're just glad that's not the situation anymore."
Of all the bad years, of all the seasons Lopez would like to scrub from his mind, none was worse than last. He missed all but five games with a foot injury and woke up every day wondering if today was the day he was relocating to Orlando. But there he was on Monday, putting up a 22-point, 10-rebound, five-block stat line against reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler (who countered with 28 points on 12-of-13 shooting and 10 rebounds). Keep Chandler on the move, Nets coach Avery Johnson told Lopez in huddles, and for the most part, he did. Lopez's free throw in the fourth quarter forced overtime. His rebound in traffic with 48 seconds left and the Nets leading by five sealed the game.
Sitting in front of his locker, Lopez summed up his feelings succinctly: "This was fantastic."
This is what Lopez held out hope for, what pushed him through lost season after lost season. For the last two years the dream of Brooklyn, the dream of winning, was moving closer to reality. First came Deron Williams. Then Gerald Wallace. Change was a-coming and, Lopez said, "I knew I wanted to be a part of it."
The Nets weren't sure they wanted him, though, and Lopez knew that, too. They said the right things, offered the obligatory platitudes, paid a premium to keep him -- a four-year, $60 million contract -- in the offseason. But Lopez understood that if Orlando signed off on a deal for Dwight Howard, he was going to be a part of it. Yet his message to his teammates, Johnson and general manager Billy King was the same: I want to be here.
"I made that point to everyone," Lopez said. "At no point did I want to be anywhere else. I stated my case."
He's here now, the leading scorer (19.2 points per game) on a (gasp!) winning team. Hype aside, Monday's victory was a legitimate statement for the Nets. Miami remains the team to beat in the Eastern Conference, but the spots below the Heat are completely up for grabs. Boston has struggled to incorporate all its new parts. Without Danny Granger, Indiana has fallen back to the pack. Beating the Knicks didn't just put the Nets right behind Miami in the standings; it may have validated them, for now, as the second-best team in the conference.
"We just keep improving," Lopez said. "It's scary how good we can be."
There is still plenty of work to be done in Brooklyn, beginning in the backcourt. Williams and Joe Johnson have yet to click -- the two combined for 24 points on 31 percent shooting against New York -- and they know it. The bench is a work in progress; it's unlikely 38-year-old Jerry Stackhouse can be counted on for too many nights of scoring 14 points in 22 minutes, as he did Monday in helping Brooklyn improve to 9-4 overall and 7-1 at home. The Nets will need more production from the subs to keep the starters minutes down (Williams, Joe Johnson and Wallace played more than 41 minutes against the Knicks) so they will be fresh down the stretch.
These are real problems, of course, but Lopez is happy to deal with the issues of a winning team. There was a palpable energy in a building packed with 17,732 people who were invested in the outcome. They may not all have been supporting the home team but, one win at a time, the Nets are putting a dismal history behind them and winning people -- and maybe the rest of the NBA -- over.
"I talk to guys about [the past] a lot," Lopez said. It's a boring answer, but [playing] is fun for me. It's really fun to be out there playing for something every night and being in big games."