Bring it on. It's finally time.
Originally scheduled for November 1 until Hurricane Sandy hit the tri-state area, the Brooklyn Nets will finally host the New York Knicks on Monday night in an eagerly anticipated contest at the Barclays Center. It's the main course of a week that sees the Nets travel to Boston on Wednesday, Orlando on Friday and Miami on Saturday.
The Boston Celtics? The Orlando Magic? The reigning champion Miami Heat? Who are we kidding? The Knicks (9-3) and Nets (8-4) are the top-two teams in the Atlantic Division and have been chomping at the tantalizing prospect of playing one another since the Nets uprooted from New Jersey to settle in Kings County. They've established the borough of Brooklyn as not only a legit home, but a tough place to play. Sunday's 98-85 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers was the Nets' fifth straight game at home, a streak last established in March 2011 during their final season in the Garden State. In addition, the 6-1 start is the Nets' best since the 2002-03 season when they won 18 of their first 19 at home.
Brooklynites have supported the team wearing the hip black-and-white colors and hollering "Brook-LYN! Brook-LYN!" during games. The fan base is growing, but the first true test comes on Monday facing the team that's enjoyed a stranglehold on New York City basketball, even during its leanest of years.
"It's a game a lot of people have been waiting for," Johnson said. "We're excited about it. We're at home. I know our guys are going to be jacked up and ready to play, but we have to be ourselves."
Winners of two straight and seven of nine, the Nets enter the first "Grapple for the Apple" with momentum off an impressive win over Portland when they took full control of the game in the second half. Joe Johnson led the Nets (8-4) with 21 points on 10 of 19 shooting. Deron Williams and Brook Lopez each finished with 15 points and Kris Humphries added 14, and Andray Blantche (13 points) and Reggie Evans (14 rebounds) sparked the "Bench Mob."
In their last two games, wins over the Blazers and on Friday against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Nets have stepped up defensively and closed the deal in crunch time. Johnson has demanded such toughness be a part of the Nets' DNA since training camp. The Nets showed it when it mattered against Portland, but not after something just short of a tongue-lashing at halftime.
"There was a sense, a spirit of urgency," said Johnson of how the Nets stepped up in quarters three and four on Sunday. "It was the type of spirit we just didn't have, especially midway through the first quarter and the rest of the first half. We visitied it at halftime. I told them I'd refuse to go crazy or use bad language, but I was really disappointed with our defense in the first half. But they responded. They really clamped down defensively in the second half and it was fun to watch."
Nets players, who during preseason discussed championship aspirations, held true to form during postgame. Williams is looking forward to the Knicks game not necessarily due to the rivalry, but because it's the Knicks who own that one-game lead over the Nets for first place. During an interview with the YES Network's Sarah Kustok piped over Barclays Center' sound system, Evans didn't buy into what's expected to be an emotional atmosphere that will feature more Nets fans than previous Knicks-Nets games in recent memory.
"We tryin' to win championships," Evans said. "We ain't worrying about being the best team in New York. It's just another game. We want to win championships."
Knicks forward and Brooklyn native Carmelo Anthony, fresh off his game-high 29 points in the Knicks' 121-100 spanking of the Detroit Pistons, is choosing to play off the emotions of the rivalry.
"If we don't get up for this game, then I don't know what games we'll get up for," Anthony said. "It's an inner-city game, New York vs. Brooklyn. To me, going back home, going back to my borough, playing my first game back there is a very special moment for myself."
Like most rivalries, the intensity is saved for the court with the buildup left for the fans. A peek at Nets New York Times beat writer Howard Beck's Twitter timeline served as a hub for Knicks fans already proclaiming a hostile takeover. Brooklyn Nets vs. Manhattan Knicks will set the tone for both teams this week and dish out the most fun. Whose side are you on and why?
Game time: 7 p.m. ET
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @@JonLaneNYC