It was an enthralling match with the trappings of a high-stakes playoff game where the stranglehold of a basketball city so desperate to get back to NBA relevance hung in the balance.
It was the old power New York Knicks against the new order Brooklyn Nets in Atlantic Avenue.
In the end, a controversial call failed to give it a fitting finish as the Nets escaped with a 117-112 win on Monday night.
Perhaps this would be the start of a heated rivalry between the two resurgent New York teams.
Kyrie Irving saved the Nets from a complete meltdown with a swipe to Julius Randle’s three-point attempt to send the game into overtime. Randle went down with the ball and dribbled that earned him a traveling call.
It was an anti-climatic finish to a riveting game that had its ebb and flow.
The Nets came into the game the heavy favorites even without arguably their best player, Kevin Durant. They still had two of the best guards in the league in Irving and James Harden.
The Knicks tried to counter the Nets’ firepower by inserting the streak shooting rookie Immanuel Quickley into the starting lineup. For a while, it worked as the Knicks, behind Reggie Bullock’s red-hot shooting, led by seven early on, 18-11.
But it was just a matter of time before the Nets’ overwhelming talent took over the game. They extended a five-point lead to 17, 49-32, on a back-breaking 14-2 run at the onset of the second quarter. The Knicks’ second-unit offense suffered without Quickley. Frank Ntilikina continued to struggle, coming up empty in five attempts.
Brooklyn was led by as many as 18 and appeared cruising to an easy win, an encore of its 116-109 win at The Garden on the day the Nets completed the blockbuster Harden trade.
Harden had his first taste of the New York rivalry and quickly stamped his signature. He finished with his 10th triple-double (21 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists) of the season and became the first Nets player to register a triple-double with at least 15 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists.
“The New York fans, especially the Knicks fans, you can hear them. I don’t know how many fans we have in the building in total, but you heard a lot of Knicks fans. We understand the tradition, but I’m just happy to be part of the rivalry,” Harden said.
He would hear more of them once the arenas would welcome back fans at full capacity. But despite having only 1,600 people allowed for the game, the Knicks fans led by celebrity Spike Lee engulfed the Barclays Center, especially during the fourth quarter.
But they were silent for much part of the game when the Nets’ offense was humming.
Irving, who Blake Griffin described in his pre-game interview as a “creative scorer,” scored in a variety of ways — pull-up jumper, crossover, and stepback jumper, nasty drives, three-pointers with hand on his face.
The Knicks tried but could not contain Irving, the New Jersey native and a self-confessed Nets fan growing up. He led the Nets with 34 points on efficient 13-of-18 shooting.
The Knicks, though, did not back down from the challenge. They showed plenty of fight, and their grittiness enabled them to storm back from an 18-point third-quarter deficit and came within a three-point basket from forcing overtime.
Quickley, the rookie sensation out of Kentucky, did not disappoint in his first NBA career start. He had 21 points but fell silent in the fourth quarter.
It didn’t matter as Randle found his rhythm late, pouring in 12 points in the Knicks’ late fightback. He was furious after the traveling call and had to be restrained by his teammates, the Knicks coaching staff, and even William Wesley, the team’s executive vice president.
Randle tried to match Irving and Harden’s star power during crunch time, but his effort went down the drain with that call. Randle collected 33 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and three steals.
Barrett ended up with 23 points, six rebounds, and four assists after a rough start to the game. Bullock and Alec Burks had 19 and 12, respectively, combining for seven of the Knicks’ 15 triples.
After surviving the Knicks’ blistering start, the Nets’ supercharged offense overwhelmed the Knicks’ defense. Brooklyn shot 70 percent in the first quarter to take a 35-30 lead after being down by seven. The Nets ended up with 58 percent, still far from Tom Thibodeau’s liking.
If the Nets were silky-smooth on offense, the Knicks lived to fight with their grittiness that earned them 27 trips at the line. They hit 24 free throws that helped them hang with the Nets.
Their defense was air-tight in the closing moments, forcing two jump balls in the final 10.8 seconds of the game.
All the Knicks wanted was a shot at winning the game. They had their chances but couldn’t capitalize. And in the end, the breaks of the game didn’t go Manhattan’s way.
On the flip side, for all the talks that the Nets are just all offense, they leaned on defense to pull out this win. Irving, despite the controversial call, took care of business and made a game-winning defensive stop.
Crew chief Scott Foster explained after the game that it was the correct call.
“The defender (Irving) was deemed to touch the ball but not cause it to be dislodged or loose. Upon that, when the player (Randle) alights, he cannot purposely drop the ball or dribble the ball or be first to touch after he dropped the ball,” Foster said.
The Brooklyn franchise collected stars to establish a new order and try to end a New York tradition.
But not so fast.
The Knicks won’t give up their grip on the city without a fight. Monday night’s game was a testament.
The close call was the Nets’ 100th win over the Knicks, who hold a slim one-win edge in their all-time head-to-head matchups. The Nets could tie it with a regular season-sweep on April 5.
Brooklyn has a firm grip of the second spot in the East with a 27-13 record, half a game behind Philadelphia, after extending their winning streak to five.
The Knicks slipped to 20-2, still good for seventh place in the East.
A Knicks-Nets playoff matchup should be a perfect treat for New York fans.
But for that to happen, the Knicks should continue to defy the odds.
They will try to close out the tough four-game road trip to start the second half with a victory in Philadephia against the Sixers, the current best team in the East.
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