The Nets are putting it all together and figuring out who they are very early in the process.
BOSTON -- There's a temptation to make everything that happens during the course of the NBA season the most important thing that has ever happened. So, when the Brooklyn Nets came to Boston and not only beat the hell out of the Celtics on their home court but literally took the fight to them, the obvious ploy is to proclaim that the Nets have arrived at some moment of significance in their very brief existence as a functional franchise.
There is no precedent for these Nets, only a before and after. They have taken great pains to remove all vestiges of their previous existence in New Jersey as they make their new home in Brooklyn and they have emerged as the blankest of slates. Perhaps if they were younger they would have been caught up in the moment, but while there are 10 new players there's a tremendous amount of veteran savvy in their locker room. It's personified by players like Reggie Evans who considered Brooklyn's 95-83 victory over the team that has set the standard in their division for a half a decade and took it for what it was.
"We ain't looking at it like, ‘Oh yeah we proved a point,'" Evans said. "We've got to prove a point to ourselves."
So let's take the long view. Barely a month into the season, the Nets may already require a bit of a reconsideration. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are a given even though they're obviously working out the kinks, and a starting five that includes Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries makes them formidable. But the real strength the Nets have displayed this season has been their vagabond bench, pieced together by GM Billy King with the leftover remains from the NBA's bargain bin.
It features players like Evans, now on his sixth team in 10 years, and Andray Blatche, who recorded 17 points and 13 rebounds and looks nothing like the lost soul who wasted away in the Wizards madhouse all these years. It has players like Jerry freaking Stackhouse who has used the corner 3-pointer to emerge with a highly improbable third act for a career that seemed dead years ago. The thing that stood out about the Nets was how casual they were about all of this.
"I'd be lying if I said I thought we'd be where we are right now, this fast," Stackhouse said. "But we've improved every game. We've got so much more stuff that we need to put in to really take that next step, but I got to say I am pleased with where we are so far. Through our growing pains we've been able to strong together wins and that's always a good thing."
The moment came late in the second quarter. The Nets' lead was 16 points when Kris Humphries fouled Kevin Garnett. From the Celtics' perspective it was a hard foul, made worse by Garnett being off balance when it was delivered. But that's basically all it was, as Garnett acknowledged later. "It was just a hard foul," he said. "I thought the antics after it were a little bit extra, but it was just a hard foul."
That's when Rajon Rondo got involved and we'll let Evans tell it from his point of view.
"I got to be conscious with what I say ... but he fouled and Hump respected the foul," Evans said. "He didn't argue with the foul or nothing like that. He accepted the foul, he turned around and all of sudden somebody's in his face. That's just like a mosquito in your face. Eventually you're going to swat at the mosquito, right? You let the mosquito in your face your going to get bumps all over your face, so you got to knock the mosquito down. Quite naturally Hump's not going to bully a little guard. Where I come from, you beat up a little boy you don't get no points for that. He didn't do that."
Or, in the words of crew chief James Capers: "Rondo initiated everything that proceeded after the foul. And when he and Humphries go into the stands, they are involved in a fight. Fighting is an automatic ejection."
Rondo was tossed. Humphries was assigned two technicals on the play -- one on the foul and another for the altercation -- and was also ejected. Gerald Wallace was tagged with a technical, his second, which ended his night and Garnett got one as well.
Here's where things get very tricky for the Celtics and why they'll be waiting anxiously for a ruling from the league. "Rondo initiated everything" is damaging enough, but the fact that it went into the stands is the key factor. Fights on the floor are one thing, but when they spill over into the laps of the paying customers all bets are off.
There will probably be suspensions forthcoming and Rondo has a history now including bumping an official and throwing the ball at another. He may have been rallying to the defense of his teammate but this was not his finest moment. There was no need to escalate what had been a mostly benign situation up to that point, and oh by the way, that assist streak is yesterday's news, as if anyone really cares at this point.
"I mean, hell, we didn't come to play," Doc Rivers said. "As a team, that was awful, basketball-wise. If I'm Brooklyn and the league, you've got to think we're pretty soft the way we're playing. We're a soft team right now. We have no toughness. And that stuff's not toughness. All that stuff, that's not toughness."
The strange realization on Wednesday night is that it's the Celtics who are searching for an identity. Once the most fearsome defensive team in the league, they are now getting routinely scorched on that end and have almost no chance against big, physical tough frontlines like the Nets. They get beat routinely at home and often by large margins against the teams in their own division they used to pound regularly.
"We have to have a little more fire playing at home," Garnett lamented. "Since I've been here we take a lot of pride in putting this jersey on. Sometimes I question if we really understand what it means. It's bothersome. There's a lot of people that built this before me and there's a diligence and a responsibility that comes with that to be a Celtic. We have to get back that somehow."
The Nets aren't trying to get back to anything. They are quite simply building a piece at a time and they seem to understand that all of it is simply part of a very long process. So yes, beating the Celtics was important, but one game in November does not make their season.
"This is a team that we look at as our barometer with their core guys," Stackhouse said. "I know it's a little different now. They made some changes, but with Doc as their coach we know they're going to be good at the end of the year. We've got to establish ourselves. If there's room to make up some ground or show that we're going to be for real and be there at the end then I think we're doing that."