This may be NBA Rivals Week, but Nets-Knicks is no rivalry.
And it won’t be until the two teams have history that counts in games that matter. And until the Knicks start holding up their end of the bargain.
The Nets led damn near wire-to-wire Saturday in a 122-115 victory before a sellout crowd of 18,100 at Barclays Center and now have won nine straight in the series — their best active run against any team in the NBA.
The Nets have owned the Knicks so thoroughly they haven’t lost to the team across the East River since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sure, the building was loud and energetic, and yes, the fans of the two teams went back and forth. But how many of those fans have watched a game when both teams were good at the same time? How many have watched them face off in the playoffs? And how many truly hate the other team?
The circles on that Venn diagram don’t do a lot of overlapping.
“[It] probably [needs] a playoff series, something like that. Usually you need both teams to be really good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau admitted. “Hopefully we can get there. They’ve shown they’re a talented team. And so we have work in front of us.”
Thibodeau’s squad showed how far they have to go, letting a Nets team playing without Kevin Durant shoot a season-high 22-for-40 from 3-point range.
Kyrie Irving — who is undefeated against the Knicks wearing a Nets uniform — had another brilliant fourth quarter, and finished with 32 points and nine assists.
“The NBA calls it Rivalry Week, then it’s a rivalry. I’m cool with that,” Irving said with a smile. “I mean, I think it makes it great for marketing, it makes it great for us as competitors. But this is a different feeling for me, because I grew up in New York, New Jersey.
“So for me, I love beating the Knicks and playing against them. But all in all, it’s just about the objective, which is winning the game. Nothing personal.”
And therein lies the point. Rivalries are personal.
Former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was on hand to watch Irving, his former star. Rest assured, when Irving was with the Blue Devils, beating North Carolina was personal.
Yankees Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera was in the stands as well, and when he closed out games against the Red Sox, every one of those was personal.
Even in the NBA, Lakers-Celtics is a rivalry that stands the test of time, with generation after generation of hate built into the DNA of both teams’ fans. Nets coach Jacque Vaughn was part of that, growing up in Los Angeles during the 1980s heyday of that rivalry.
“Now, see, I can remember that as a kid. That’s a rivalry that’s generational,” Vaughn said. “I grew up Sundays going to church, couldn’t wait to get back home to see the Lakers play Boston. That’s a rivalry that I remember to this day, that still exists. There’s history.”
History can’t be accelerated, but must be earned. That’s another reason that Nets-Knicks has the seeds of a rivalry, but is nowhere near being one yet.
Watch the Nets’ games against the 76ers. That series is more heated. The Nets and Knicks have played 219 times in this cross-river matchup, but how many of those games meant anything?
“Yeah, I lean more in that direction of [it needing] meaningful games,” Vaughn said. “We need to grow more and have some more meaningful games before it gets to that level.”
“Kansas-Missouri used to be a rivalry, [North] Carolina-Duke. Those are rivalries where you have so many games and establish a rapport that probably isn’t likeable amongst the team for a long time, maybe generations. … You can try to create a rivalry, but until you have a history of playing each other, I don’t think it really exists.”
Generations have grown up watching less than enthralling matchups. The Nets and Knicks have met in the playoffs just three times, none since 2003-04. They’ve only been in the postseason simultaneously nine times, just twice since 2004-05.
The Nets are 11-2 in the series since Durant’s and Irving’s arrival in 2019, though both stars missed Dec. 26, 2019 and Jan. 26, 2020 losses to the Knicks.
Saturday was more of the same in the series. The Knicks led 1-0 and then never again. They fell behind by 19 and lost yet again. This won’t be a rivalry until the teams face off in another playoff series or three. But more important, it won’t be one until the Knicks hold up their end.