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Hahn's analysis: Knicks, Nets playing high-stakes game of one-on-one

File photo shows New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail

File photo shows New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, of Russia, speaking to reporters during a basketball news conference. (May 19, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

CLEVELAND - Aside from the importance of whom this day was all about, there also was some significance in what this day was all about for professional basketball in New York.

It wasn't just the official start of the NBA's free-agency period, but perhaps the opening tip of a rivalry between two teams that just never really seemed to be able to spark anything more than misery and apathy.

Mikhail Prokhorov said he wanted to buy the Knicks. When he found out he couldn't, he set out to destroy them. Nothing would be more damaging to the Knicks than if the Nets sign LeBron James.

Game on.

And there they were Thursday, on the first day of the NBA free-agency period, with a fleet of cars containing Knicks officials arriving at the IMG Building just as Prokhorov and his Nets staff were leaving. Donnie Walsh's car literally passed a ride containing Jay-Z, the hip-hop superstar and most ubiquitous minority-share partner in professional sports. He also is tight with 'Bron, you know. The two were seen dining in Manhattan last Friday.

The NBA has rules about tampering, but you know how "Hova" rolls. To borrow from one of his hits, he's got 99 Problems, but a Snitch Ain't One.

Eight floors above the street where Jay-Z and Walsh were two very different generations passing in the noon sun, Nets staffers had just finished packing up gear from their presentation to James when a group of Knicks staffers arrived to set up shop.

The Knicks presented a case that they have the proven ability to not only bankroll a championship-caliber team but have the resources to keep a team together no matter the cost. They have the Garden, the original global icon, as a stage that is unmatched anywhere. They have Mike D'Antoni's dynamic offensive system and they have the room to add talent that complements James' skill set.

The Nets boasted new coach Avery Johnson's history of success as a championship player with the Spurs and a coach who led the Mavericks to the NBA Finals in 2006. But they spent most of their pitch, according to sources, emphasizing the business angle and how Prokhorov's global connections can be a great benefit to James' billionaire aspirations.

And they both walked out of the meeting feeling as if they won the day. And they'll do it again Friday in Chicago with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Both teams again are scheduled to be in the same city to talk to the same players.

This clearly is the most competition the Knicks ever have received from their cross-Hudson rivals, and that includes the years when Jason Kidd led the Nets to consecutive NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and '03. That era hardly put a dent in the Knicks' fan base. But Prokhorov seems determined to make a difference this time.

It started with a teasing nudge, when the towering Russian billionaire suggested a plan to "turn Knicks fans into Nets fans." Then came the 225-foot mural looming on the west side of the Garden of himself and the franchise's best asset, Jay-Z.

There were reports that the Knicks complained to the league about the billboard, but a source in the NBA office denied it.

"We welcome any competition," the Knicks said in a statement, "and we wish the Nets well on their move to Newark."

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Knicks, MSG and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.

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