The Brooklyn Nets introduced the Brooklyn Knight, their new mascot, as part of the pomp and circumstance of the first professional team sporting event to take place in Kings County since the Brooklyn Dodgers in September 1957. Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner and White Knight of the franchise, is big on money, big on aura and gigantic in terms of expectations.
Prokhorov, who spent zillions, billions and trillions on the Barclays Center and retooling a Nets team that three seasons ago won 12 games, is demanding not only excellence, but mastery. A team absent from the playoffs since 2007 and tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the worst record in the NBA over the last three seasons spent approximately $330 million on people in guaranteed contracts, highlighted by a five-year, $98 million deal given to the face of the franchise, Deron Williams.
On paper, the Nets are now a playoff team. If you ask Prokhorov, a team that helped a suffering city escape from the perils of Hurricane Sandy for a few hours with a 107-100 victory of the Toronto Raptors on Saturday night is one "that can put together the great story of a championship." The Big Russian is thinking big -- very big.
"A conference final," Prokhorov said when asked what defines a successful first season in Brooklyn. He's far from satisfied with opening the $1 billion Barclays Center. There are bigger prizes up for grabs decked in diamonds and gold. "We are waiting for the ring first."
The Nets earned their first win on Saturday, but there remains plenty of work to do. Their generous defense parted the way for a 35-27 Raptors lead after one quarter and it wasn't until three minutes remaining in the second that Brooklyn enjoyed their first lead since Williams' jumper made it 2-0. Coach Avery Johnson's bench sparked a turnaround led by C.J. Watson's scoring (15 points on 6 of 9 shooting in 28 minutes) and Reggie Evans' grit that held Toronto to 17 second-quarter points. Unlike the start of the game, the Nets' defensive effort before halftime was more indicative of the hit-first, hit-hard DNA Johnson's been seeking since training camp.
"The defense you saw in the first quarter," Johnson said. "we are not going to beat anybody. So we’ve got work to. But fortunately, I’ll take 107 points. That’s even more than kind of our goals, but where we are defensively right now, we are not going to beat many teams consistently."
Despite nearly blowing a lead as large as 13 points, the Nets also played tough and delivered when it mattered. Late in the game, Gerald Wallace (10 points, six rebounds, four assists) penetrated with the shot clock dwindling and dished to Brook Lopez for a three-point play to put the Nets up 100-95. (Wallace left the game 18 seconds later with a sprained ankle. X-Rays were negative and "Crash" is day-to-day.) Victory was later secured, but the Nets have only just begin. Prokhorov wants a ring and is not afraid to spend the money. That means expectations are twice as high as his payroll.
"It concerns me only to the level we can reach championship or not," Prokhorov said. "That’s it. My (money) is still in very good shape."
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