Nets' long journey reaches a fine destination

Nets' Deron Williams lays up the ball after

Nets' Deron Williams lays up the ball after getting past the defense of Chicago Bulls' Richard Hamilton in the first quarter of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. (April 20, 2013) (Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.)

Mark Herrmann

Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988,

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This certainly was a more promising occasion than the first time this franchise waded into the postseason after crossing the Hudson River.

In the spring of 1968, the then-New Jersey Americans were tied for the final playoff spot in the American Basketball Association's Eastern Division. Blocked out of the Teaneck Armory because of a circus, the team scheduled a tiebreaking game with the Kentucky Colonels at Long Island Arena in Commack. In what a Newsday headline at the time called a "fiasco," the Americans forfeited because the creaky court was deemed unplayable.

Amazingly, they scheduled all of their home games in Commack the following season and changed their name to the New York Nets. Thus began a long, twisting sojourn -- three home arenas on Long Island, three more in New Jersey -- that ultimately led to the Nets' first-ever playoff game in Brooklyn.

Yes, those origins did matter Saturday night, when Barclays Center was packed and rocking for the Nets' 106-89 win over the Bulls in Game 1 of their series. It means something that the former New Jersey Nets made the playoffs during their first year in Brooklyn. It means they took a huge step toward ending 45 years of wandering.

That background explains why these Nets were put together the way they were. Granted, it appears that Billy King put together a team for the short term, with a bunch of high-priced veterans who aren't likely to get a whole lot better than they are now. But he really did it for the long term. The Nets needed to make a splash this season to get a firm foothold in Brooklyn. We will have to look back 45 years from now to see how successful they were. So far, so good.

"This is, I think, pretty historic: the first year the Nets move to Brooklyn, and now we're in the playoffs. It's definitely an honor and a privilege," said guard Joe Johnson, whose huge contract represents part of a big roll of the dice by Nets ownership and management.

They had no choice but to overpay, in dollars and draft picks. Trading a first-rounder for an aging Gerald Wallace may not rank as the most future-focused move of all time, but the team needed to do whatever it could to convince Deron Williams to stay and persuade fans to come. The 30-year-old Wallace (14 points) played with the verve of a rookie and his team seemed to embrace a fresh start.

Attendance has been strong and merchandise sales have been stunningly good for a team that, last year in Newark, sold less stuff than even the defunct Seattle SuperSonics. Maybe they were a tad over the top with the black uniform motif throughout Barclays Center Saturday night, but if they didn't go over the top for this game, when would they? Reaching the playoffs is a shot in the arm for the fans, the front office and the star point guard.

Said Williams, "There's definitely a lot of excitement. We're locked in right now as a team. It goes from top to bottom."

Saturday night was an occasion to remember that the Nets always have been capable of playoff magic: Jason Kidd scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter and two overtimes in a climactic game against the Pacers in 2002. Micheal Ray Richardson leading a major upset over the defending champion 76ers in 1984. John Williamson blitzing the Nuggets to lead the Dr. J-led Nets in the last-ever ABA game (1976). Rick Barry missing a pivotal game against the favored Colonels (1972) and his replacement, John Baum, scoring 25 points in a win.

With all due respect to Johnson, who said "the sky's the limit" for these Nets, it is hard to see this trip to the playoffs as a step toward a championship. Their best players are not in the emerging stage and their salary- cap situation will not allow them to acquire many more big pieces.

Still, Game 1 -- with fans singing "Brook-lyn," shouting "Let's Go Nets" and chanting players' names -- has been a long time coming. You could say the Nets are going nowhere, and finally that is a compliment.