It certainly didn’t have the feel of any old preseason game, with the longsuffering but prideful fans from Brooklyn finally able to embrace a team – their team – in a sparkling, new palace with a rusty exterior meant to represent its industrious surroundings.
The NBA welcomed Brooklyn back into major professional sports on Monday and the Wizards served as the first opponent for the new-look and re-branded Nets.
The Wizards tried to play the role of spoiler early on but by the end of the night, they had become mere props for a celebration almost 55 years in the making; ever since baseball’s Dodgers bolted for Los Angeles and left a sizeable crater in the hearts of the people of New York City’s largest borough.
Chants of “Brook-lyn!” were heard throughout Barclays Center in the fourth quarter as the Wizards lost to the Nets, 98-88, in a game that was even hard for the participants to not get caught up with excitement.
“You know when you get a new car, you’ve got go out and floss a little bit,” said Martell Webster, who led the Wizards with 18 points. “The city definitely came out to support the new arena and the new team. It was definitely exciting. It’s definitely going to be one of those grand stages.”
Emeka Okafor used his debut with the Wizards as an opportunity to score the first points ever scored in the arena. He caught an underhand scoop pass from Jan Vesely and dunked. Held out for the past few days because of nasty stomach virus, Okafor was extremely active on the offensive end, as he played with his back to the basket, made bank shots and jump hooks and even had a vicious two-handed dunk on Nets center Brook Lopez.
“I was able to stretch my legs out, get a game feel. And just start to remember,” said Okafor, who finished with 12 points and six rebounds in 28 minutes.
Bradley Beal continues to impress with his subtle, unpretentious style. He scored 13 points and held his own for the most part against Nets all-star shooting guard Joe Johnson. He outscored Johnson, 9-6, in the first half, beating Johnson around a screen to knock down a jumper and also refusing to let the 6-foot-7 Johnson dominate him in the low post.
“Well he better, he’s in the NBA,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “No, I mean, hey, listen he’s going to play against a lot of good players in this league and this is the process of how he’s learning what you can do and what you can’t do against great players. He got a good feel for that with Joe. He battled. I don’t have any problems with what he did defensively.”
But as he has done in his previous two games, Beal faded in the second half. Beal isn’t one to hog the ball but he is learning that he might need to do more toward the finish.
“Some of it, on the offensive end, I got lost,” Beal said. “I’m not trying to be selfish to go get the ball, jack up a shot. I’m just doing what coach wants me to do and being aggressive. I mean it’s times I’m going to have to get the ball, be aggressive and try to make a play, but that doesn’t mean it has to be myself. As long as it gets the team going.”
The standout performer for both sides was arguably former Wizard Andray Blatche, who is turning a chance to make the Nets roster into an opportunity to become a part of the rotation. He had his second solid performance with the Nets and was especially fired up against his old teammates, and the coach who had grown tired of dealing with him in Washington.
Blatche came off the bench and scored 16 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and probably dunked more times than he did in a good month last season. Trying to make the most of his second chance in Brooklyn, Blatche was soaring over the rim, scrapping for rebounds and even recorded two steals and a block. When asked if he would’ve liked to have had that Blatche more last season, Wittman replied, “No. We’ve seen that.”
But Blatche’s outing highlighted the Wizards’ problems inside with Nene, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker and even Chris Singleton out: Teams are having their way in the paint. Blatche and starting center Brook Lopez combined to score 34 points with 19 rebounds as they were matched up against Shavlik Randolph, Earl Barron and Jan Vesely. Cleveland’s big man duo of Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao combined for 29 points and 20 rebounds.
“We’re playing a little undermanned right now,” Wittman said. “We’re stepping up and battling.”
Wittman is hoping to have Booker back in uniform on Wednesday when the Wizards play Toronto. Booker also said he planned to test out his hamstring against the Raptors. He might have a starting job waiting for him given Vesely’s struggles against the Nets.
Coming off his best performance of the preseason, when he scored 13 points in Cleveland, Vesely went scoreless with five rebounds and five fouls. He was extremely tentative offensively, taking just three shots, and didn’t appear to be interested in taking those.
Dunking is usually his strong suit, but he missed an easy slam when he threw the ball over the rim. Vesely also barely hit the front of the rim on a short jumper. He has scored two points or fewer in three of the games.
Trevor Ariza has had some trouble get comfortable within the offense through the preseason, but he was much more assertive against the Nets. He didn’t always take good shots, but he also didn’t pass up his open looks, finishing with a preseason-high 10 points.
“I’m trying to find a groove. The best way to do that was to shoot the ball,” said Ariza, who took 10 shots. Some of them went in, some didn’t. But I’m going to keep shooting it, to get myself going, to try to find a rhythm.”
Ariza admitted that playing in the new arena, on an emotional night, helped raise the level of play.
“Their floor is dope. The arena is dope. It’s a cool place to play,” said Ariza, whose career began across the bridge as a member of the New York Knicks. “I think this city of Brooklyn is a proud city. They back anything that comes out of their city, they rep it, they love it with all their heart. So they show support to it.”