Nets vs. Knicks provides exciting hoops for big city

Joe Johnson of the Nets drives on Iman

Joe Johnson of the Nets drives on Iman Shumpert of the Knicks. (Jan. 21, 2013) (Credit: David Pokress)

This was what we were promised back in October, when the Nets mostly were a marketing concept built around a cool logo, a cooler borough and the coolest of part-owner/rappers.

Brooklyn's new franchise would be so cool, in fact, that it could not help but generate a hot rivalry with the storied Knicks of Manhattan.

Monday, it finally felt like one.

After some real-world, early-season ups and down -- including a fired head coach -- the surging Nets showed up at the Garden and emerged with an 88-85 victory and a one-game deficit in the Atlantic Division.

It was quality theater. Even most Knicks agreed that despite a bad loss, it was all good for basketball in the big city.

"It is the beginning of something that is going to be there for a long, long time," the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony, a Brooklyn native, said after a game in which he scored 29 points but shot an air ball in the final seconds.

Said Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo, who improved to 11-2 since replacing Avery Johnson: "I think it's a good rivalry right now; it's a very good rivalry. And it has the potential to be even better."

Carlesimo spoke outside the visiting locker room amid a playoff-level scrum of cameramen, photographers and reporters -- in other words, not your traditional mid-January visit by the Nets.

The only negative was a curious misjudgment by the NBA's schedule-makers.

Despite all the talk about a budding interborough rivalry, the four-game regular-season series ended at midseason, precluding head-to-head matchups should the teams battle in the standings into spring, which now seems probable. "It is a little strange," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said. "Strange" is putting it kindly. The series will remain tied at two either until a postseason series -- which would be "a whole 'nother level," as the Nets' Brook Lopez said -- or until next autumn.

Playoff intensity would give the rivalry a huge boost, and its absence thus far was what J.R. Smith seemed to be getting at when he said he isn't ready to call it a rivalry because the "Nets haven't put in enough work yet."

But the guard, whose attempt to tie the score at the buzzer bounded off the backboard and then the rim, added that he did not mean to take anything away from the Nets' performance.

"Two-and-two against them stinks," he said. "It's like kissing your sister."

(After the game, Smith and the Nets' Kris Humphries engaged in some brief, colorful trash talk via Twitter.)

So the Nets are 25-16 halfway through their regular season -- a 50-victory pace. But there was something that seemed extra special about Monday, even compared to other milestones such as winning their home opener, beating the Knicks in the first meeting in Brooklyn and stunning the Thunder on the road.

This was a message for the Knicks and their fans to remember them by. "Our guys are obviously elated and they should be really proud," Carlesimo said. "I know it's going to sound silly because we won, but it was a hell of a basketball game for New York."

(Before the game, Carlesimo had made a point of calling the Knicks "Manhattan" rather than "New York.")

Lopez got so caught up in the excitement that he gushed afterward, calling the Garden "a very fun place to play" and noting that after Smith made a key three-pointer, "It was loud. It was exciting."

It was. Too bad we have to wait so long to do it again.

"I think it's going to be a nice fight down the stretch for the division," the Knicks' Tyson Chandler said. "It's good for New York basketball."

Amar'e Stoudemire added, "The turnout didn't come out like we wanted, as far as a loss, but it was fun to compete against them. They are a team that is going to continue to improve, as well as we are. It's going to be a great matchup from here on out."

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