Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Some things had not changed for the Nets in the 51 weeks since their previous playoff game at Barclays Center.

Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and a couple of other familiar faces still were around and Rihanna sat courtside, just as she had last May 4.

But most everything else was different, which was very much the idea in the aftermath of the lowest moment in the brief Brooklyn history of the franchise: a dismal first-round, Game 7 loss to the undermanned Bulls.

Friday night, the Nets got their first postseason chance to show the home fans whether the heart transplant that loss inspired had taken hold.

They did so -- narrowly -- with a 102-98 victory over the pesky Raptors to take a 2-1 lead in their first-round series.

"This is a totally different team, totally different feeling," Williams said when it was over. "I think we're poised to make a run . . . We brought in guys that have championship experience. It's rubbing off on everybody. It's contagious."

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Still, the Nets made it far more difficult than it should have been -- coming extremely close to blowing a 15-point lead in the final four minutes -- and they still must win Sunday to avoid giving back the home-court edge to Toronto.

So there will be more to prove along the way -- much more.

But this was a step, featuring vintage outings for Williams (before late free-throw misses tarnished it) and Johnson, with emotional and basketball support from future Hall of Fame imports Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

It took a while to warm up, though. Until late in the first half, the loudest cheer had been for the Netsational Senior Dancers as fans struggled to match the intensity of their Toronto counterparts in Games 1 and 2.

Then the vibe took a 180-degree turn during the final two minutes of the first half, which featured Garnett diving to secure a loose ball, screaming and grabbing his jersey, before Williams hit a foul-line jumper to make it 49-41, inspiring the first true playoff passion of the night -- just the sort of thing the Nets crave.

"Gradually, they got into it," Pierce said. "Hopefully next game, it'll get a lot better from the start. We want to come out from the jump, from the beginning, and just have them in the game. It shouldn't take a big play for us. We want them behind us, but it was a great crowd."

Said Williams: "That's part of playing at home. It happened to us in Toronto. The crowd gets into it from hustle plays, big shots, dunks . . . We feed off them, they feed off of us. I thought our crowd was great."

In the end, the Nets held on, barely, and the celebration resumed after the late scare. Or was it just relief?

The latter was how owner Mikhail Prokhorov looked when he raised his arms in victory during a rare Barclays appearance. But overall, he had to enjoy seeing some of his vast offseason expenditures pay dividends.

There was no evident response from the crowd to the expletive that Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri attached to the word "Brooklyn" before Game 1, even though he was in the building.

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Winning always is the best revenge, though. So consider Brooklyn vindicated, for now.

Beating the Raptors in this series is the bare minimum requirement after everything Prokhorov has invested. Nets fans probably would be able to live with that, combined with at least a long, competitive series against the Heat.

All of that will be answered over time. For one night, the Nets gave everyone a new postseason memory at least partially to erase last spring's nightmare.

When someone asked coach Jason Kidd about the win in Game 3 merely adding to the pressure to come, he said: "There's no pressure. This is a game. It's supposed to be fun. It's supposed to be enjoyable."

Friday night wasn't all fun, but it sure beat the last time.