With the Nets’ 88–85 MLK Day win over the Knicks yesterday, the two teams have completed their series of four regular-season games against each other. Of those four games, three of them were within three points — the Knicks had a fourteen-point win on December 19 — two were decided in the final seconds, and one went into overtime. Each game featured roaring home crowds — albeit a far more pronounced home advantage at the Garden than Barclays — superstars on each team playing among their best games of the season and juicy plotlines moving forward, most notable was yesterday’s amusing and potentially fruitful “J.R. Smith makes fun of Kris Humphries on Twitter” subplot. We’re still not necessarily sure this Knicks-Nets business is a “rivalry” yet, but you can’t ask it to be much more fun than it has been already. Imagine if these teams meet in the playoffs.
The game yesterday was decided by some inspired Heroball from the Nets’ Joe Johnson, who is at last becoming the player everyone thought he would be once he wasn’t being triple-teamed and still trying to Iso-Joe his way through everything. With Johnson as the second, or even third, option after Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, he’s become the pure scorer the world has always wanted him to be, and he was the clutch scorer last night that Carmelo Anthony wasn’t. While Anthony was air-balling contest shots in the final seconds, Johnson was draining a huge jumper over J.R. Smith with twenty seconds left. Johnson had 25 points on the game and is starting to look a little less gruesome as the fifth-highest paid player in the NBA. He might not necessarily be worth the money just yet, but he’s in a situation that’s allowing him to thrive.
Speaking of people who are in the top five highest-paid NBA players but probably aren’t worth it, boy, did Amar’e Stoudemire ($19,948,799 this year) have an active day yesterday. On one hand, he showed occasional pseudo-glimpses of his old explosiveness on offense, including some nice sudden bursts to the bucket off excellent Carmelo feeds; much of the game, Amar’e actually played the center position so Carmelo could stay at the four. Amar’e finished with fifteen points in 26 minutes, his second-highest total of the season in both categories. The issue, as it tends to be with Amar’e, was his defense; at this point, we’re fairly certain Amar’e could be beaten off the dribble by a sedimentary rock with eyebrows painted on it. Brook Lopez scored at will off Amar’e, and even when the Nets would miss a shot, Amar’e wasn’t much help on the boards. (The Knicks were outrebounded 52–37.) The Knicks miss the elderly bigs of Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby on defense almost as much as they miss Raymond Felton on offense. When you look at the box score, it’s surprising the Knicks were even close. Carmelo had a rough game, the Nets shot 50 percent from long range, and the Knicks could barely find an assist. The only reason the Knicks hung around was because of the 19–5 turnover discrepancy. All told: As the rosters are currently constituted, it was difficult to make an argument that the Knicks were better than the Nets.
And so, before the regular season is even half over, the Nets and Knicks are done with each other. They’ll be watching each other all season, though; With the win, the Nets are now only a game behind the Knicks for the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference. (The Pacers, with a win last night, are only a half-game back.) The Nets are rolling right now, playing as well as they have all season — they’re now 11–2 under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo — and the Knicks are banged up and still disjointed on offense and defense. The NBA season is nothing but a series of momentum-induced swings and random variance, but the way things looked yesterday at the Garden, if you’re going to bet on someone moving forward, it should probably be the Nets. Though, like the weather, that’ll change, too. In the NBA, it always does.