The sellout crowd in Brooklyn Friday night was there for one reason: Kobe Bryant. Gold and purple flowed throughout the stands, and the fans erupted every time the future Hall of Famer touched the ball. Even though it was a road game, Bryant and the Lakers felt right at home.
In a battle between two winless teams, Staples Center East–for lack of a better term–cheered on the Los Angeles Lakers to a 104-98 win. The Nets fell to 0-6 with the loss, and the only ones leaving Barclays Center upset were the Nets players.
Bryant received “MVP” chants and raucous applause every time he went to the scorer’s table to check into the game. When he scored, the arena felt like the NBA Finals. No one on the Nets was particularly surprised by the reaction, with Joe Johnson admitting that the team was expecting the hostile environment.
“We understand what it is,” guard Jarrett Jack said before pausing. “(Kobe’s) a first ballot Hall of Famer, so we understand what it is.”
Nets CEO Brett Yormark surely did not understand it. He envisioned this type of reaction when the team acquired Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. East Rutherford always drew rabid Boston Celtics fans, but that enthusiasm never made its way into New York when the Nets acquired the famous duo.
“We’ve been here before,” head coach Lionel Hollins said. “We played [Maccabi] last year, they were rooting for them. We played the Turkish team, they were rooting for the”m; it happens. When Cleveland came to town and Miami comes to town, they root for them.
The Lakers fans in attendance treated Bryant to his Derek Jeter moment. Although the guard has not formally said this will be his last season, it felt very much like a retirement tour. Despite missing his first five shots, he looked to shoot early and often. It seemed as if head coach Byron Scott drew up plays intended to feed the crowd, as Bryant embarked on numerous clear-out isolation sets.
The famed Laker is a shell of his former self. He scored 18 points but went 5-for-16 from the field. Several of his shots were not close and one time he had his pocket picked while simply dribbling the ball out by the top of the key.
The Nets received solid efforts from their starters, but that was not enough as the Lakers’ bench outscored the Nets’ reserves, 38-16. Brook Lopez scored a game-high 23 points, and Johnson put forth his best game of the season with 22 points (8-for-16). Jack notched a double-double with 18 points and 12 assists.
But the wheels were in motion early for the Nets. Brooklyn turned the ball over 12 times in the first half and finished the game with 16. Hollins’ squad managed only 43 percent from the field, and Thaddeus Young committed a costly 5-second violation with the Nets down three and 24 seconds remaining.
Hollins referenced previous situations where he coached under similar circumstances. It was not until the Memphis Grizzlies became relevant that their fans became some of the more boisterous and supportive in the league.
“We have to step up and become the Brooklyn Nets by our playing performance and make them want to cheer for us,” the head coach added. “I have been in other situations where the same thing happened.”
One day, the Brooklyn crowd will get behind the Nets. The first step, however, is winning. “You have to win your fans over by going out and playing hard, playing well, and being successful,” Hollins said.
Right now, the Nets do not look like they are anywhere near winning. As Jim Mora famously said, “I just hope we can win a game.” The Nets are in very much the same territory. They remain one of three winless teams on the season, along with the Philadelphia 76ers and New Orleans Hornets.
Those teams have a closer resolution, though. The Hornets own one of the two best players in the NBA in Anthony Davis, while the Sixers sport a plethora of upcoming draft picks and several promising big men.
The Nets, on the other hand, will not control a first round draft pick until 2019, and two of their next three first rounders go to the Celtics–unprotected, too. For Nets fans, they need to hope Rondae Hollis-Jefferson hits. They need to hope Chris McCullough one day becomes a player. Aside from that, a young Kobe Bryant is not walking through that door.