BOSTON — Before all the punching and posturing started, with three players given the boot after a skirmish set off by Rajon Rondo and Kris Humphries, the opposing coaches could not exchange enough expressions of affection for each other.
“I played with him with the Spurs, and he’s probably one of my best friends,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Nets coach Avery Johnson. “I don’t know, I don’t rank them, but he’s probably one of my best friends in the league. We talk a lot, families talk a lot.”
Johnson had just as many nice things to say about Rivers, whom Johnson said challenged him in practice in their playing days and helped Johnson improve from a defender who was “below average, at best” to “average.” If Rivers and Johnson’s shared competitive fire made them fast friends, then judging by Wednesday night’s events, their respective teams should be BFFs before long. Rondo and Humphries, in particular, must be eager to see each other again on Christmas Day.
The rest of the Atlantic Division may not admit it, but the Nets’ move to Brooklyn changes things. With an infusion of talent to surround star point guard Deron Williams, the Nets’ basketball side considers itself a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference. With a new address in New York City, the Nets’ business side believes it belongs in the same big-market conversation as the Knicks, Heat and Celtics. While the opposing players were mostly complimentary in the run-ups to their matchups with the new-look Nets, the Knicks and Celtics tried to downplay that anything had changed, that the Nets were basically still a cute little brother in the division. Then the Nets went out and beat both of them in a three-day span.
Suddenly, the Celtics could have another rivalry brewing with a division foe. Philadelphia has been a despised opponent since the days of Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer, and Red Auerbach famously detested no team more than his hometown Knicks. But with an emphasis on physical defense and a grinding offensive style, the Nets have the makings of becoming fast rivals with a Celtics squad whose identity is not that much different from their own.
“This is how they play,” Kevin Garnett shrugged after Brooklyn’s brawl-marred 95-83 win. “This is their style. This is what they’re trying to establish about themselves. As a team, we have to adjust to it.”
Rondo adjusted in the wrong way, in his coach’s opinion. When the Celtics point guard came to the defense of his teammate after Humphries sent Garnett crashing to the deck late in the first half, several Celtics players took it as a positive sign of toughness and team unity. Rivers disagreed.
“That’s not toughness,” he said, and in Boston’s case he was correct. The type of toughness the Celtics’ franchise was built on was the mental toughness to overcome a seemingly unbeatable behemoth like Chamberlain, to soldier through a battle with the tough-minded St. Louis Hawks and even to stand up against racial prejudice.
The Nets, by contrast, are still building their identity. Their history is marked by six venue changes, including two in the past three years, interspersed with a couple of brief, shining eras led by Julius Erving and Jason Kidd. For the Nets, the road to legitimacy begins not just with beating established teams like the Celtics and Knicks, but by standing up to them and making those team’s players stoop to their level.
“We were in a situation where we had our brother out there battling and he had to protect himself,” Joe Johnson said. “From that aspect, it’s pretty understandable. We’re not a team that’s going to be pushed around or back down from anybody. I was proud of our guys and the way we fought.”
Certainly, Rivers and Johnson would prefer that their relationship did not include officiating an altercation between their players. Of course, Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy were former associates as well, if not as close as Rivers and Johnson, when their teams met four consecutive times in the playoffs from 1997 to 2000. That did not stop Riley’s Heat and Van Gundy’s Knicks from engaging in some of the all-time classic postseason bouts — which their showdowns often literally became.
Rivers sensed that the Nets came into Wednesday’s game seeking to make a statement. After five straight losing seasons, they are sick of getting pushed around and approached their face-off with the Celtics with the intensity of a playoff game. The Celtics, meanwhile, approached this as just another game.
The days of playing “just another game” against the Nets might be gone now. No longer will Johnson sit back and take a beating from his old friend’s squad. Wednesday’s victory, as much as the tussle itself, showed that the Nets are ready to fight.