I slumped back in my seat time after time, stunned at the game that was taking place in front of me. Quarter after quarter, the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers continued to shake convention in a contest that couldn't be any less believable. Still, I whispered in amazement for 48 minutes, sometimes with a smile on my face and others with a bewildered scowl, hands atop my head.
The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Brooklyn Nets in their first visit to the Barclays Center last night, 92-83, in a game the Lakers had to have, Brooklyn couldn't have tried harder to give away and ultimately, Pau Gasol would love to have back.
The Barclays Center is merely a 30-minute train ride away from my apartment. This gigantic iron behemoth is brilliantly located in the middle of New York's second most heralded borough, crossing almost a dozen subway lines and the Long Island Railroad. It stands out from the surrounding environ of a typical urban center, as if Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum lost the war on July 4th and a spaceship landed in the middle of the BK. The Barclays Center is convenient, marvelous, and most importantly, thanks to its NBA tenants, cheap.
Despite a move out of the swamp in New Jersey to a brilliant, shining, $1 billion dollar arena, the now Brooklyn Nets are struggling to find their place in NYC. Attendance is up to 16th this season, a solid upward trend from finishing no better than 25th in crowd support since 2009. However, like with any expansion or relocation franchise, it's been difficult to find a fervent, dedicated fan base when a team has little tradition, few marketable stars, and generations of followers tied to another organization. New Yorkers are still very dedicated to their beloved Knicks, and the ticket price to see the now contending Bockers is sky high. For the playoff-bound Nets? There's a far smaller mortgage to be paid for attending a game in Brooklyn. Knowing all of this before showing up to Barclays tonight, I shouldn't have been so surprised by the swath of Lakers fans in front of me.
Arriving 30 minutes before tip, the arena was very squarely 60/40 Purple & Gold to Black & White. I suspected that like myself, So Cal sports expatriates would try their damndest to be on time in preparation for a once a year visit to town. The home town crowd I thought, like in LA and any other city, would show up closer to 7:30 start.
As people filed in, it was clear that this crowd was going to be a 50/50 split. Lakers fans were numerous and vocal, sporting jerseys from Magic to Kobe to Nash to Blake (Seriously. My buddy had on a Steve Blake jersey).
Still, even high fives from strangers clad in Lakers hats and headbands couldn't distract me from the task at hand--defeating the then 28-19 Brooklyn Nets. LA came into the game short-staffed, with Dwight Howard missing his second consecutive game due to a re-aggravated shoulder injury and Metta World Peace due to a bogus suspension for "punching" Brandon Knight during Sunday's Pistons game. Chief amongst my concerns were how anyone would be able to check the 6'7" Joe Johnson, if Reggie Evans would now gobble up 25 boards instead of 16 now that Dwight was ruled out and if Steves Nash and Blake would just spot Deron Williams the 20 he would eventually score.
Amazingly--unreal-ly--this never came to pass. The Brooklyn Nets did everything they possibly could to give this game away, beginning with unacceptable nights from three of their "stars". Joe Johnson and Deron Williams shot a putrid 9 for 28, hesitating on open looks and missing deep in the lane despite a night full of mismatches. Both D-Will and JJ regularly had 2-5 inches on their assigned defender, with Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake, Steve Nash and Chris Duhon trying to check the much larger guards. Still, the two Nets lacked the aggression and conviction to punish their undersized opponents at any point on the floor, at any point during the night. Deron in particular had a difficult night, with 5 turnovers to only 6 assists and an egregious foul on Kobe in crunch time, 30 feet away from the basket with only 2 seconds left on the clock.
Gerald Wallace miraculously turned in an even more vapid performance than his two back court teammates, throwing in just 9 points and 4 rebounds on 3 for 10 shooting. However, the numbers don't accurately describe just how awful he was; with 4 turnovers, several that went right through his fingers, and four missed wide open three point shots, Wallace's ineptitude was one of the primary facilitators for a Lakers W. Between "Crash", Johnson and Williams, the three are making in excess of $50 million this year and somehow couldn't defeat a shorthanded Lakers team. Watching from the stands, I couldn't believe just how little of a positive impact any of the three had on the game, in almost every way. Their carelessness with the ball and inability to dominate a hobbled team kept an already quiet Brooklyn crowd from exploding all game long.
Brook Lopez was the lone bright spot for the Nets tonight, and re-affirmed live what I'd thought of him all season long. The Stanford stand-out had long amazed me with his play; not because he was so amazing, but rather because I was amazed at how good he was. Lopez is a physical specimen, standing every bit of his 7 feet tall with about as broad a body as Volvo. He's a plodding, slow throw-back big, who lacks the athleticism to become an elite rebounder, has the vertical leap of a 2 year-old and whose every offensive move is telegraphed from a million miles away. Still, Lopez is so gigantic and strong, that despite it being clear to even fans in section 221 exactly where he's going to put the ball, it's incredibly difficult to stop him. The only thing that stops Brook is Brook, as the big man often tires and settles for mid-range "jumpers".
With the Nets playing so poorly, especially its stars, it came as no surprise how loud and lively the Lakers fans in attendance were. In other arenas, there's usually an air of hostility towards the purple & gold--no matter who the opponent, whether it be Boston, Philly or Denver, there are going to be a ton of Lakers fans, but also a ton of cursing and smack-talking from the home town crowd. However, I was taken aback that despite being in the middle of New York City, in the middle of a freezing cold New York winter with freezing cold New Yorkers how Nets fans generally abstained from berating the invaders. Don't get me wrong: I had to say "Look, you need to have a franchise for more than 7 seconds before you start talking crap to me" at least four times. But on the whole, the atmosphere was akin to a professional wrestling match in which Hulk Hogan was facing off against the Ultimate Warrior--the crowd chose their favorites, with equal parts booing and cheering for Kobe Bryant and Brook Lopez.
The Lakers earned their fair share of both tonight. For a fifth consecutive game, the Lakers blew a double-digit lead (13 points early in the third quarter) and went into the final frame just having been outscored by their opponents. They were badly out-rebounded, 52-40, by a much bigger, more physical team in the Nets, managing to take 7 fewer field goal attempts and 1 less free throw, but still win the game. The Steves controlled the pace of the game from the top, with the former MVP turning into more of a playmaker than he's been recently (with MWP out), and Blake pouring in 7 big points to maintain a Lakers lead with a short bench unit. Earl Clark played magnificently with two starters out again with 14 points, a game-high 12 boards, and excellent defense on several Nets, rotating from Wallace to Lopez to Williams and back again. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant reverted back to the bomber Mamba we've seemingly long-since forgotten, slumping in his efficiency (9 for 24), but hitting key shots in the fourth quarter, including a titanic dunk over Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace, which looked just as devastating in person as it did on the video I just watched seventeen times.
In the absence of Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol got another start at center on a night that he'd love to have back. The Spaniard had an awful night on the court, scoring 15 on 6 for 16 shooting, including several looks at point blank range that simply wouldn't fall. He was regularly out-muscled in the paint for rebounds by a cadre of Brooklyn bigs, mustering only 4 boards in 34 minutes. Lakers fans in attendance were crying for him to stop shooting, as Pau missed on short jump hooks and lay-ins. It seemed as if his night couldn't get any worse...
With 3:51 left in the game, Gasol came down on his right foot, crumpling down in a heap. After trying to play on it for a couple possessions, Pau came out of the game for good with Antawn Jamison replacing him. We'd later learn that the center had--at the very least--a strained foot, though results of a MRI will be more telling later today.
Sitting there, watching another Lakers big hobble off the court was nearly as unreal as watching the Nets do everything possible to blow a game, Kobe dial back the meter with a marrow-shaking jam, or watching a Brooklyn crowd chant loudly and proudly "MVP" in the waning seconds. With Dwight Howard watching in street clothes, suffering from shoulder and back injuries that he can't shake, as well as Jordan Hill being out for the season, it seems implausible that yet another Lakers big could go down in what seems to be the most cursed of all LA seasons.
The Lakers have three games to go on this road trip, with contests against Boston and Miami, as well as the always strangely competitive Charlotte Bobcats. The W last night got the Lakers 3 games under .500, but the victory might have done more harm than good.
Seeing was believing. We've said before that this Lakers season couldn't get any worse. What could happen next?
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino