It was a special Saturday night in New York.
Game 1 of the first-round series between the Nets and the Celtics wasn’t just about basketball. The crowd of 14,391 fans at Barclays Center was the biggest for any indoor event in the city since before the pandemic shut down New York 14 months ago!
The long wait of anticipation came to a close when Brooklyn’s “Big Three” finally hit the postseason hardwood in their Icon (black) uniforms, but it was the fans that made the night remarkable.
For the first time since March 8, 2020, when the old-look Nets — playing the first game of Jacque Vaughn’s interim coaching tenure — met up with the Bulls, the doors to the Barclays Center swung open wide to almost all. From the time the first fans showed up two hours ahead of tipoff to long after the last “Brook-lyn” chant echoed on the arena’s concourse, it was all about pent-up emotions for fans and players alike ... as well as anticipation of a championship for Brooklyn.
“The atmosphere was unbelievable. Our fans were incredible. We knew it would be fun to play in front of the fans but to step out there and see the place packed like that and the energy in the building was unbelievable,” Steve Nash said following Brooklyn’s 104-93 win over Boston.
The arena wasn’t just a large-sized crowd. It was a “pandemic sellout.” Those 14,391 fans packing the seats represented a little more than 80 percent of a normal arena capacity. A total of 93 percent of the fans at the arena were fully vaccinated with only two sections reserved for those who were not.
“Our players are super excited to have large crowds back at Barclays and we are laser-focused on doing everything we can to make sure it’s a safe and comfortable environment for everybody,” John Abbamondi, the Nets CEO said Thursday. “We’re excited to welcome them back on Saturday and think it’s going to be a great experience.”
That expectation turned into an exciting reality.
Those in attendance made sure the players knew they were back and here to stay during starting lineup introductions. It may not have been a full crowd, but it was just as loud, just as energizing as any who ever stood up and sat down at the nine-year-old arena at Brooklyn’s center.
Player intros inside a nearly full Barclays Center. It’s been a long 14 months. And so I found this 2:20 (and the Nets playoff win that followed it) sort of cathartic. #NetsCeltics #nba pic.twitter.com/ECFygVjLFw— John Chandler (@JohnChandlerNBC) May 23, 2021
It was certainly an unusual sight for the players to absorb, too. Seeing the Barclays Center crowd balloon from 1,773 — the attendance count in their regular-season finale against the Cavs — to the more than 14,000 fans to open up their postseason.
“It definitely felt different compared to what most of the season was like going to different arenas. Coming back home and welcoming a lot of our fans home, you can feel the anticipation for just a quality basketball game,” Kyrie Irving said. “The fans just want to see their team win — us — and I felt like we put on a good show. It was good to have some supporters there tonight.”
The high energy cheering that echoed from the crowd legitimately startled the players, some admitted. After all, for half the team and three-fifths of the starting lineup, it was a totally new experience. They had never played before a full crowd at Barclays Center.! That was true of Kevin Durant, true of James Harden, true of Blake Griffin. It might have even helped the Celtics jump out to a 13-2 run and take a 21-16 lead after one.
“I’m sure it’s some of it,” said Nash, who was also coaching in front of a Nets crowd for the first time. “I think it was more so the occasion. Everyone was excited, the place was packed and maybe we just rushed. We were a little bit impatient to start the game. The truth is somewhere in the middle of that. They haven’t played much together and it was an exciting evening for everybody to walk into the gym and see that many people. We just weren’t sharp offensively. A few factors contributed.”
Although the full crowd may have thrown things off a bit in that first frame, a thrilling sense of normalcy ultimately settled in — something the Nets have been patiently awaiting all season, the missing piece to their chip chase.
“The crowd kind of threw me off a bit. It was pretty loud in there and the vibe was what we’ve been missing,” Harden said. “It just threw me off a little bit.”
Brooklyn capped off the special night giving their fans, masked and unmasked, socially distanced or not, behind the screens or not a show. It will certainly be something the players will look back on, but the Nets want to provide them an even better show.
“It was incredible. Our fans were loud and they were there early. They actually gave us an advantage” said Durant on the soldout crowd for Game 1. “It was weird because we haven’t seen them all season and it was 1,500 there in the last couple months of the season.
“But to see people in the front row and then see more in the upper and lower bowl was pretty cool,” “I’m sure our fans enjoyed the win, but we want to play better for them as well.”
The Nets return to Barclays Center for Game 2 on Tuesday, May 25 and a similar turnout can be expected as the state’s new rules has given them a true home-court advantage.
Brooklyn is now 29-8 under the Barclays Center lights and 1-0 with a crowd backing them full-on. Fifteen more wins to go.