John Torenli, Sports Editor
The Daily Eagle
So you wanna be tough guys?
Just 14 games into the season, the five-time defending Atlantic Division champion Boston Celtics are not only looking up at the Brooklyn Nets in the standings, but looking up to them as a role model for toughness, resiliency and poise.
"They're playing like we're supposed to play," said Celtics forward Paul Pierce after Brooklyn buried Boston, 95-83, Wednesday night in Beantown before a hostile crowd of 18,624 at TD Garden.
"We're soft," lamented Boston coach Doc Rivers after Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo and Nets forwards Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries earned ejections for their part in a first-half brawl that spilled into the stands and energized Brooklyn to its 10th victory of the season. The win also helped the Nets keep pace with the East River rival Knicks for the top spot in the division.
Brooklyn had already built a sizable second-quarter lead when Humphries fouled Boston power forward Kevin Garnett, who tumbled to the parquet floor. Rondo, frustrated throughout the first half, took it upon himself to go after the 6-foot-9 Humphries, shoving him toward the stands and firing a punch.
Wallace, who had received a technical foul for complaining about a call a half minute earlier, jumped in and grabbed Garnett along the baseline as all 10 players on the court became engaged in a wild melee.
When the jersey pulling and trash-talking subsided, the Nets (10-4) went back to the business of beating Boston for the second time in as many meetings during their historic first season in our fair borough.
"We never back down," said Nets point guard Deron Williams, who finished with eight points, seven assists and four rebounds. "It's not about being tough guys. We did a good job of keeping our composure, maintaining our focus in the second half. Two guys got kicked out of the game and other guys stepped up. We're rolling right now."
The "Other Guys", in this case power forward Andray Blatche and sage sharpshooter Jerry Stackhouse, emerged as second-half heroes following the ejections of Wallace and Humphries. Blatche, enjoying a breakthrough early season after six years of disappointment in Washington, scored 17 points and pulled down 13 boards off the bench. Stackhouse, coming off a clutch 14-point effort in Monday night's "Clash of the Boroughs" win over the Knicks at Barclays Center, added 17 points on 5-of-6 shooting from 3-point range.
"We're all together. We're all starting to get it," Blatche said. "That's what family and brotherhood is all about. When I saw Rajon going at Hump, I knew everyone had his back. We're gonna stay focused and humble."
"This team has a lot of pride," added Stackhouse, who has drilled nearly 54 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc this year despite being one of the few 40-year-olds in the league. "It could have went the other way in the second half, but we stayed together and got separation again. There's a lot of pride on both sides, but we're not going to back down."
Starting shooting guard Joe Johnson led the stat sheet with a team-high 18 points to go with four rebounds and six assists, but it was the Nets' second unit, put together brilliantly this past offseason by general manager Billy King, that saved the day.
"Mentally tough," Nets coach Avery Johnson gushed when asked to assess his team's play. "A lot of fire on our team. They battled and fought hard -- literally, I guess. They didn't give in to the adversity. We're playing some hard-nosed defense."
Reggie Evans, who grabbed 14 rebounds in 18 minutes Monday night against the Knicks, pulled down 10 more boards for his fifth straight double-digit effort in that category.
After missing the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, and finishing dead last in the Atlantic during their first two campaigns under coach Johnson, the Nets finally appear poised not only to make a run at the division crown, but to establish themselves as one of the most cohesive and battle-hardened squads in the NBA.
Just ask the Celtics, who will return to Brooklyn on Christmas Day, hoping to exact some revenge for a humbling defeat and prove they can be just as tough as the first-place Nets.
Hoop du Jour: The Nets certainly weren't the only Brooklyn team that made a statement Wednesday night. Off to a disappointing 0-4 start under first-year coach Jack Perri, the two-time defending Northeast Conference champion LIU-Brooklyn Blackbirds finally "got off the schneid" with an impressive 70-61 victory over visiting Columbia. Reigning NEC Player of the Year Julian Boyd scored a team-high 19 points and fellow senior Jamal Olasewere added 16 as the Blackbirds won their 28th straight game at the WRAC. LIU-Brooklyn will be back in action Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. against visiting Lafayette as it continues a three-game homestand. Lafayette posted a 98-94 overtime victory against the Blackbirds on Nov. 12 in Easton, Pa. ...
The Nets will be in Orlando Friday night hoping for their third straight win against the Magic before heading to South Beach for a rematch with the defending NBA champion Heat on Saturday. Miami handed Brooklyn its worst loss of the season, 103-73, on Nov. 7. ... Coach Johnson didn't expect either Humphries or Wallace to be suspended for their roles in the brawl, but Rondo will likely face one after throwing a punch at Humphries. Rondo had his streak of consecutive games with at least 10 assists stopped.