BROOKLYN -- There are certain players who thrive on the crowd, who feed off the atmosphere in the building and are able to channel all that emotion into their play. Paul Pierce is one of those players.
But Pierce doesn't just elevate his play in those minutes. He needs the reaction and he's not above working the crowd for his own purposes.
So there was Pierce on the end of the bench late in the third quarter playing the hype man to a suddenly energized Barclays Center. The Nets were bombing threes all over the place and about to take control of a gotta-have-it Game 3 against the Heat when a minor scuffle involving Alan Anderson and Pierce's old running mate Ray Allen broke out in front of the Nets' bench. It got loud at Barclays Center and it wasn't because of a t-shirt toss.
Much has been made throughout the season about the Brooklyn crowd and its underwhelming response to the team that happens to play in its borough. Perhaps it's the polished building the Nets now call home that lacks the well-worn grit and embedded memories of generations past. Or maybe it's the arranged marriage between an area that's in a state of perpetual evolution and a franchise from New Jersey that showed up one day on Atlantic Avenue with a collection of star players from other cities.
The Home Team
The Home Team
That was magnified during the first round series with Toronto where the manic energy that pulsated through the Raptors' building and out into the town square presented one of the best playoff atmospheres this side of fabled Oracle Arena in Oakland. Aside from a few committed pockets of rabid fans, this is a group that waits to be prompted, and it doesn't take much for the game ops to try and solicit a reaction. Literally everything is cause for the PA man to try and get a reaction.
But this scene was different. It wasn't forced or contrived. It was a real connection between a crowd and a team.
"Loved it," Pierce said, his eyes lighting up. "I loved it. We feed off that stuff. It's like an adrenaline rush. I just love the atmosphere when it's like that. Whether it be at home or on the road where they're booing us, I love the atmosphere of the game of the basketball. It's the reason I play the game. That rush."
Watching Pierce play in the black and white of Brooklyn has been like observing a tourist try to navigate a foreign country. In Boston, he was one with the Garden crowd and they with him. They pushed him and prodded him, egged him on and gave him life. Pierce was never shy about giving it right back.
One of his iconic Garden moments was jumping on the scorer's table at the frenzied heights of the greatest fourth quarter comeback in playoff history, against the Nets, no less. That clip was replayed over and over again during timeouts whenever the Celtics were attempting to pull off something similar in later years and each time Pierce would steal a glance up at the screen above center court and relive it all over again.
Pierce stares down LeBron James in Game 1 (Photo: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)
The Brooklyn Nets don't have anything close to that yet. Beating the Raptors was a prerequisite and anything short of advancing to the second round would have been an unmitigated disaster for a team that sunk over $100 million into a team designed to create credibility. This series with the two-time defending champion Miami Heat is the true test.
Pierce brought his own history with him and outside of the Lakers, no team and no player has defined Pierce like LeBron James and the Heat. He was the measuring stick once for LeBron, and while James has surpassed him and brought his game to an entirely different level, they will always have that history.
"We wasn't gonna panic," Pierce said. "We're not scared of them. Everybody figured saying the series is over, they're talking about this, or that. They did some good things. All they did right there was hold up the homecourt. It's our job to hold up the homecourt."
If the Nets can hold serve in Game 4, then we will have a series. What they have done with their 104-90 Game 3 victory is turn the inevitable into a possibility, thanks to an 11-deep roster and a spread the wealth arrangement that saw eight different players score at least eight points.
For a while it was Andray Blatche who did the damage. In his uniquely Dray way, Blatche poured in 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds with an assortment of moves they don't teach at Hakeem Olajuwon's big man camp. Then it was Mirza Teletovic, the forgotten forward who languished on the end of the bench last season, but has found a role on this versatile roster of interchangeable parts.
Back to the finish line
Back to the finish line
There was Deron Williams, the nominal franchise player, who took two days worth of shit for his scoreless Game 2 and responded with a phenomenal floor game that produced 11 assists. Joe Johnson, cool as ever, knocked down shots. Andrei Kirilenko played "center." Even Kevin Garnett, whose desultory play has put the press on high alert for signs that he might shut it all down soon, turned in some vintage KG moments.
"The big thing about this team is we trust everyone and when you look at what Dray and what Mirza did for us off the bench was big," first-year coach Jason Kidd, the one true link between the Nets past and present, said. "D-Will set the tone by being aggressive and attacking. Again, it's not just Mirza we trust, we trust everybody."
There was Pierce too, who contributed in ways big and small. He was on the receiving end of a LeBron first quarter flourish, when Bron scored 16 points on seven shots and looked like he was going to have one of those LeBron nights. James scored 28 points, but it was a quiet 28 in the context of the evening and Pierce had a hand in that, as well.
LeBron and the Heat are still in control of this series. The way they see it, they have only played one solid game and one excellent fourth quarter to get their two wins. Their best is still ahead of them and if the Nets are going to truly make this series compelling, they had better be prepared for anything and everything in Game 4.
It's in those moments that true bonds are formed. Game 3 may have been the start of something, but Game 4 will be everything for a team trying to forge its identity and a true connection with its adopted home.