NEW YORK – Thirteen straight times, the Miami Heat had pounded these Nets. From New Jersey to Brooklyn, the Nets had been gutted, reconstructed and ultimately still too flawed to beat LeBron James in his three seasons on the shores of Biscayne Bay. The Nets were so soft, so pliable, so susceptible to the monolith.
"SET THE TONE!" Paul Pierce yelled to Jason Terry.
"SET THE TONE! …"
Over and over, a 101-100 victory done, Pierce blurted those three words to Terry late Friday. Pierce had showered, dressed and answered questions in the middle of the locker room. Still, this fight illuminated him. He was exhausted, but emboldened with a vanquishing of the Heat. As Pierce marched back into the shower stalls, he found a man with a history of beating James and Dwyane Wade on a championship stage – Terry, a man harboring his own hatred for the Heat.
Pierce deemed it his duty to remind Terry of a mantra that had played out far more in deeds than words on the night championship aspirations marched into the Barclays Center with the exiled Celtics wearing black now.
Pierce and Kevin Garnett hadn't come to the Nets to be the two best players, because their advanced age would doom the franchise to mediocrity. Those are the duties of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. Here was opening night at the Barclays, and everyone had been left to marvel over Brooklyn's oldest bones delivering the most important performances, delivering peerless passion.
From hitting big shots on the way to 19 points, five rebounds and six assists to blocking a James shot in the fourth quarter, Pierce had been the difference. For Garnett, there was one unforgettable image out of Friday night here, one that'll be ingrained in the minds of these Nets.
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There was a loose ball near the stands that Garnett never, ever could've reached, and 17 seasons in the NBA had to make him understand that truth. This wasn't about saving the ball, but growing a collective psyche. Garnett leaped over the front row and landed hard on his side, crumpling to the floor. All 6-feet-11 inches tumbled into the stands, at once foolish and ferocious.
As Garnett went down, everyone else in the arena stood and gave him a long, loud ovation. The message was unmistakable: To beat Miami, to be a champion, it'll take these Nets pushing to unprecedented lengths on pursuits big and small.
"That was electric," Terry said. "We feed off that. How can you not want to play hard every minute for a guy like that?"
When the Nets lost to the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Nets general manager Billy King had one word in the immediate aftermath of the loss: "toughness." The Nets were devoid. This wasn't simply physical toughness, but mental, too.
The old Celtics brought it down Interstate 95, and it appears Garnett is going to love playing in the Barclays Center more than he ever imagined. "I had to stop looking in the crowd," Garnett said. "It was a huge distraction, but it was beautiful. The energy here is incredible."
All of it ascended the moment Garnett and Pierce walked through the doors. This was an early November night, and so much can happen between now and May and June. Nevertheless, the Nets were determined to deliver a message to Miami – here we are, here we go – and that happened with the first victory in four years over the Heat.
"They don't like us, and we don't like them," Terry said. "Each individual guy has his reasons, dating far, so far back…"
Three weeks ago, James had come to Brooklyn for a preseason game and described Garnett and Pierce as hypocrites for leaving Boston after they had been critical of Ray Allen's departure to Miami. Garnett barked back publicly, telling him to mind his own business. When offered a chance to compliment the Nets' deep, unselfish roster on Friday, James passed.
"I don't know," James sniffed. "I am not commenting on any other team in the NBA."
Garnett and Pierce could no longer beat James and Dwyane Wade as the stars in Boston, but they don't come to Brooklyn to burden the biggest shares. What $187 million in salary and luxury tax buys the Nets is star power in the starting lineup and a deep, deep bench. Afforded is a window of one season – maybe two – that Brooklyn will have such a confluence of talent, toughness and teaching.
Near midnight, everyone else had cleared out of the locker room and K.G., 37 years old, lingered in the back.
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"TICKET!" Pierce yelled to him. "TICKET!
"You out man?"
The Big Ticket walked deliberately, a little sore on that side, paying a price for such a leap of faith on opening night. Kevin Garnett looked up, and declared to Paul Pierce, "Let's do it," and soon they were walking through the doors and on the way out into a Brooklyn night.
They won't be Nets long, but they're chasing a championship, chasing a history here, that'll make them forever players in the franchise's forlorn yesterday.