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How the Knicks vs. Nets rivalry is slowly rising from the dead

A cross-city rivalry that never got off the ground is getting a second chance to shine, thanks to two teams rebuilding slowly, but surely.

NEW YORK — After the Nets beat the Knicks, 107-105, in Brooklyn’s Oct. 19 home opener, D’Angelo Russell said he considers the Knicks “a team we’re supposed to beat,” and head coach Kenny Atkinson said “the New York rivalry [gave the win] a little more meaning.”

Oh how the tables have turned.

New York punched back in their first home game against Brooklyn, leading by as many as 25 to walk away with a 115-96 victory. If there isn’t a rivalry between these two teams yet, then one is brewing, or at least preparing to brew.

“It’s a cross-city matchup,” Tim Hardaway Jr. told reporters on Monday. “We all know each other. We’re close off the court. On the court, everybody knows it’s business. Everybody’s trying to go at one another, and that’s when the competitive fire comes out and the bragging rights.”

The New York rivalry was hot when the Nets first moved to Brooklyn, featuring dueling billboards in enemy territory, owners sniping, and competitive games. But then New York imploded, and the Nets traded their future for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. When that future came faster than they expected, New York’s teams both became irrelevant. The rivalry died.

Now, both franchises are preaching patience in building a winning culture from the ground-up. The Knicks and Nets have promising young players, solid coaching and management, and what they finally hope to be a bright future ahead of them.

That means the rivalry is coming back, ever so slowly.

It’ll certainly take time, because as Knicks coach David Fizdale noted, rivalries don’t come easily. Fizdale spent eight years assistant coaching with the Miami Heat, including their run as repeat NBA champions in 2012 and 2013.

“I’ve been a part of rivalries, and those things are hard,” he told reporters. “And you’ve gotta really make the other team feel a lot of pain both ways for it to really become a rivalry.”

Lance Thomas, the longest-tenured Knick, is also well-qualified to speak on sports rivalries. Thomas spent four years at Duke and was a leader on their 2009-10 championship team.

“A rivalry in sports is two teams that do NOT want to lose to each other,” Thomas told SB Nation. “That’s what creates a good rivalry. It’s refusal to lose to another team.”

A rivalry must also be two-sided. Kobe Bryant also once famously said his Lakers showdowns against the Sacramento Kings — also a California team — weren’t a rivalry because “we beat them every time.”

The Lakers against the Suns, though?

“That was a real rivalry to me,” Bryant told Suns media in his final game in Phoenix. “Phoenix, I mean, they kicked our butts and we had to bounce back and overcome them. That’s a true rivalry.

So are the Knicks and Nets rivals yet?

At the moment, there’s more passion on Brooklyn’s side. The Nets are 12-14 against the Knicks since relocating from New Jersey to Brooklyn, and the two teams have each made one second-round playoff appearance in that time.

Brooklyn, however, lost all four games to New York in the 2017-18 season, by an average of more than 12 points. One of those games was a home loss by 21 points. The Nets never shook those losses off.

“That was tough last year, taking four on the chin and losing four. None of us liked it,” Atkinson said. “Those are the things during the summer you think about and motivates you to work a little harder.”

“I think this is a team that’s been winning over the years against us,” Russell added after the home opener against New York. “This year’s a new year, so we consider them a team we’re supposed to beat.”

The Nets, though, ended the season on a higher note than the Knicks, who lost Kristaps Porzingis to a terrifying torn ACL and fired head coach Jeff Hornacek right after the plane landed following the final game of the year. New York won four against Brooklyn, but they had problems to handle in their own backyard.

“I know we should have this certain joy about [beating the Nets], but we don’t have the luxury to pick games that are more important,” Fizdale said after Monday’s Knicks victory. “We don’t. We have to play every game to win it. I don’t look at us as a team with rivalries right now. I think you’ve gotta earn that.”

“It comes with the territory, but it’s not one of the bigger rivalries in sports,” Thomas added. “Both programs are establishing an identity right now, so rivalry aspect isn’t as potent as you expect it to be. We want to set our goals higher than just beating Brooklyn.”

There are two players, though, who are lighting the beginning sparks of Version 2.0 of this city showdown.

Caris LeVert and Tim Hardaway Jr. both played college basketball at Michigan, overlapping during LeVert’s freshman year and Hardaway’s final season. Now LeVert is on one side of the Brooklyn Bridge and Hardaway is on the other.

In their first game, LeVert scored a career-high 28 points, with Hardaway as his primary defender. On Brooklyn’s final play, LeVert faked left, crossed right, and scored the game-winning basket after getting the step on his college teammate. That shot delivered the Nets their first win against the Knicks since March 16, 2017.

“You’ve gotta know he’s going right. You’ve gotta know that,” Hardaway admitted after that game. “It falls on me. Just being around him all this time, I should know that.

“Next time, it won’t happen.”

Next time, it didn’t. In the second showdown of the season three days later, Hardaway took the challenge and ran up 25 points and eight assists while helping to hold LeVert to just four points on 2-of-11 shooting. Hardaway was now the best healthy basketball player in New York City, just a week after LeVert snatched that title from him.

“I got a feeling those two are gonna be going at each other’s necks for a long time,” Fizdale said Monday after the Knicks’ win. “I was really happy with the way Tim responded.”

Hardaway and LeVert will see each other two more times this season: once at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 8, and again at Barclay’s Center on Jan. 25. Those games will be circled on on their calendars. If the best players on the two teams continue to raise their level for each other, the rest will follow suit.

Fizdale told the truth, and it applies to both teams. Neither has the luxury of circling games on a calendar, and both need to play every game to win it. But it’s clear is the Knicks and Nets are two teams in the same boat, both building toward a sustainable future in the biggest city in the country.

The Nets started over after firing general manager Billy King. The first-round picks he traded away over the years became Damian Lillard, Jaylen Brown, Collin Sexton, and Markelle Fultz (or Jayson Tatum). That’s heartbreaking.

But replacement Sean Marks is righting the ship. He traded the selection that became Kyle Kuzma, but received Russell in return. In a separate deal with the Wizards, he acquired the pick that became starting center Jarrett Allen. This year, he selected Bosnian swingman Dzanan Musa at No. 29 and Latvian forward Rodions Kurucs at No. 40, both of whom are showing promise.

The Knicks similarly blew things up after replacing Hornacek and Phil Jackson with Fizdale and Scott Perry. New York’s biggest setback was Porzingis’ ACL injury, but Perry said New York would skip no steps in building a winning culture from the ground-up.

Perry’s Knicks got off to a good start in this year’s draft, landing rangy Kentucky wing Kevin Knox at No. 9 and a potential unicorn big man in Mitchell Robinson at No. 36. Porzingis may not play this season while he rehabs from surgery, but New York has a group of talented young players with a head coach in Fizdale known for player development.

Both the Knicks and Nets have their own draft picks going forward, so the job now is not to muck it up. If Marks and Perry don’t, New York basketball is back in good hands.

“I expect nothing less from our city,” Fizdale said. “They have two good teams they can be proud of. A lot of young kids out here that are playing really hard, and they represent the city well.”

“I’d love for both teams to keep improving and have these battles going forward into the future,” Atkinson added. “It’s great for the city and great for the fans of New York basketball.”

The Knicks haven’t been close to .500 since the 2012-13 season, and the Nets’ three years of playoff basketball with the aged ex-Celtics were sandwiched in-between eight years without postseason action. Barring a huge surprise, neither team will make the playoffs this year, and neither team is really banking on it.

But both are banking on a future developing their young talent and adding players who fit their style. The Knicks and Nets will each have cap space to sign a max free agent next summer: the banners for Kevin Durant to come to New York have already been raised, while Brooklyn is seeking the right fit for their culture.

The NBA is always better when New York is good, and there is no New York without Brooklyn. A little cross-borough conflict is good for the soul.

The Knicks-Nets rivalry is being revived, and that’s good for everyone.