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Hartnett: The unnatural rivals of NYC (Jan. 24)

Brian Hartnett | Thursday, January 24, 2013

The recipe for the NBA’s current hot rivalry features two teams that share the same geographical area. One of these teams has long been a bottom-dweller but has recently risen from the deep, while the other is one of the league’s marquee names with several all-stars and surrounded by enough celebrities to give its arena the feel of Hollywood.

Clippers-Lakers? Not quite.

Try Nets-Knicks, a series that is quickly becoming one of the most entertaining in the NBA.

It only seems natural that the two teams would become rivals in the New York City area, a major basketball hotbed. Unfortunately, the two teams have historically failed to be in the playoff picture at the same time.

The Nets struggled to make the playoffs in the 1990s, while the Knicks routinely competed into late May. Similarly, the Knicks had fallen into the basement of the Eastern Conference by the time star point guard (and current Knick) Jason Kidd was leading the Nets to consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

However, this season marks a rare crossroads, as the two teams finally both look to be prime playoff contenders.

The Knicks managed to recover from the destructive decision-making of former coach and team president Isaiah Thomas by acquiring several high-profile stars, including forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire and center Tyson Chandler. Anthony’s explosive offense (He’s averaging over 29 points per game this season) and Chandler’s stout defense have indeed been major reasons for the Knicks’ recent success.

 Yet, it is contributions from bench players like guard J.R. Smith and three-point specialist Steve Novak as well as the nearly 40-year-old Kidd that have catapulted the Knicks to second place in the conference.

The Nets also made a splash with some acquisitions of their own, trading for point guard Deron Williams in 2011 and signing shooting guard Joe Johnson last summer. Yet the development of center Brook Lopez, as well as strong play on the boards from forwards Reggie Evans and Andray Blatche, has largely bolstered the team. A regime change also seems to have helped the squad, as it has gone 11-2 since interim coach P.J. Carlesimo took over for the fired Avery Johnson.

The Nets, an often-forgotten squad in New Jersey, have also received the benefit of increased attention since moving to their palatial new home in Brooklyn, N.Y., in October. The borough, which has been clamoring for a team to call its own since the Dodgers skipped town in 1958, has embraced the Nets as its own, and the team has moved up 13 spots in attendance from last season.

The Nets’ move to Brooklyn has divided loyalty among basketball fans in the city, giving Knicks-Nets contests the feel of baseball’s “Subway Series” or one of the area’s hockey rivalries. And the game has become a hot ticket: The average ticket resale listing for the teams’ matchup on Dec. 19 was a whopping $630.

Fortunately, Knicks and Nets fans have gotten their money’s worth this season, as the teams split the season series after four close meetings. The Nets took the first game in an overtime thriller, while the Knicks won the second meeting by only three, with Kidd delivering the tiebreaker. The Knicks pulled away to win the third meeting, but the Nets evened the series Monday after a late Joe Johnson jumper with seconds left.

Even more foreboding for the rivalry’s future is the incredible play of the teams’ star players and emergence of some bad blood between the squads. Anthony averaged a staggering 35 points in the four matchups, while Williams recorded double-doubles in each contest. And Smith, notorious for his off-court troubles, got into it with Nets forward Kris Humphries, notorious for his ill-fated marriage, on Twitter after Monday’s contest.
 Surely, it’s one of the first outward signs of dislike the teams harbor for each other.

Unfortunately, due to some incredibly shortsighted scheduling, the teams will not meet again in the regular season. But with the Knicks sitting second in the conference and the Nets just two spots behind them, a playoff showdown continues to look more and more probable.

If the teams do have the chance to meet in late spring, look for a wildly intense series so unpredictable even Knicks super fan Spike Lee himself couldn’t possibly script it. And in an age where NBA rivalries feel so contrived, nothing will look better than an old-fashioned cross-city clash to determine the king of the Big Apple.

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu
 The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.