by Lang Whitaker

Any time we have a chance to visit The Swamp is cause for celebration. Between the depressing ride out through the Lincoln Tunnel, the unavoidable rush hour traffic and the apparently abandoned construction (more like destruction, actually) project next to the Continental Airlines Arena at the horrible idea for a mall called Xanadu, going to games in Jersey can be a chore. There’s also sort of an underlying sadness inside the CAA, knowing that the Nets are trying to get out of there as fast as they can. But this was opening night, when everything is new and everyone is excited.

Ryan, Ben and I rolled out of the SLAM Dome and fought through traffic to arrive at The Swamp just as the locker rooms were opening. We went straight for the Raptors locker room, where a horde of Italian media was milling around smoking cigarettes and reading Vogue magazines, waiting for Andrea Bargnani to appear. (OK, so they weren’t smoking.) TJ Ford was in a folding chair, studying tape of the Nets, while Morris Peterson was getting ready to go out and shoot around. I asked MoPete if they were going to run the same play the entire game like they did every game last season, but instead of answering he just smirked and walked away.

While the Nets could easily just play out the string in Jersey until their arena in Brooklyn gets built, their sales staff appears to have had a record-breaking summer. Everything in the CAA seems to have been sold or sponsored, from the courtside seats (presented by Rocawear) to even the time on the scoreboard (presented by Movado). The press room even has a sponsor now, as Vonage (woo-hoo, woo-hoo-hoo) is the official sponsor of the Nets press room. This is about as advantageous as someone sponsoring the SLAM Dome or even my cubicle. (And if you’re interested in that, holla. We’ll work something out. “Lang’s office, presented by Zantac!”)

In the back of the press room, Vonage had set up a table where we were told by Nets PR kingpin Aaron Harris that we’d be given a USB plug that would allow us make free long-distance calls. I was going to tell Aaron that I make all my long distance calls at work anyway, but I didn’t get a chance. We looked back at the Vonage table and noticed Nets analyst Mark Jackson back there signing up for the service. Like a magnet, Ben zoomed back there and we followed, and we were told that Vonage only works on PCs. Since we all use Macs, we were out of luck. Apparently Vonage isn’t interested in having creative customers. Another company called Zebra pens also had a deal and a bunch of free pens set out. I grabbed a few and give them my full endorsement.

(By the way, Mark had humorous beef with us because of the category in our annual “Rookie Most Likely To…” poll in the current issue, in which we ask everyone which rookie is most likely to average 10 assists per game. Mark pointed out that no rookies have ever average 10 assists per game…except for Mark himself back in 1988, when he averaged 10.6 per game.)

Dinner was turkey and dressing with baby carrots on the side, plus a salad. And as always in Jersey, hot dogs were an option. Or all of the above. Nets blogmaster Gary Sussman was bursting with pride at the selection available. And since the press room — sorry, the Vonage press room — is always jammed with people, the Vonage tables in the back took up precious space, so SLAM editor-in-chief Ryan Jones was forced to eat dinner while standing up. Thanks, Vonage. (Ryan’s legs will probably have a sponsor by the time the next Nets game rolls around.)

To the game…
• The game was close early on, but the Nets pulled away down the stretch and won easily behind a triple-dip from Jason Kidd (14, 10 and 10), which puts him two behind Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time list with 76 for his career. Jersey’s best player, though, was probably Vince Carter, who finished with 25 and 11 and hit a couple of big shots down the stretch. Toronto couldn’t get anything to fall, and they finished shooting 37 percent from the floor (a horrific 20 percent on threes). TJ Ford played great, and Anthony Parker led the Raps with 22 points, which were almost all accumlated on drives to the basket. Chris Bosh couldn’t get anything going and finished with 14 points, 5 rebounds and 3 turnovers. Really horrific. He looked like he was uncomfortable out there, kind of like he did during the Team USA training camp in Vegas.

• Richard “Burgundy” Jefferson welcomed the crowd with a little speech, which he ended with, “Stay classy New Jersey.”

• The best true rookie on the floor tonight was Marcus Williams, who had 7 points and 8 boards in 23 minutes. Bargnani got in early, immediately got in foul trouble and just never got into the swing of things. He finished with 2 points in 8 minutes. Nice hair, though.

• The AP game story noted that new Raptors big guy Jorge Garbajosa “wasn’t very impressive,” and statistically, he wasn’t, finishing 1-for-8 from the floor. But I thought he was rather impressive, shooting aside. He was great at reading the action on the floor, spacing things out, and his defensive rotations were impressive considering this was his first NBA game. Plus he just looks really cool, with his stubble and curly hair.

• The Raptors kept it close until late, when the game really turned on one play. With 8:50 to go in the fourth, and the Nets leading 80-76, the Nets came flying down the floor on a break. Kidd had the ball and was heading for the rim when TJ Ford popped out of nowhere, reached in with two hands and cleanly ripped the ball out of Kidd’s possession. TJ was taking off back the other way when ref Leon Wood blew his whistle. A foul? A replay showed there was absolutely no contact between Kidd and Ford. The refs huddled quickly and announced it was an “inadvertent whistle.” Whatever. But what was really strange was they awarded the ball back to the Nets.

Sam Mitchell stomped around but nobody really complained, because the Nets quickly took the ball out of bounds. But that play seemed to simultaneously embolden the Nets and dishearten the Raptors. After that terrible call, the Nets went on an 11-2 run and closed out the game.

I was going to ask Sam Mitchell about the call after the game but I couldn’t get close to him because of all the media. Not sure if anyone else asked him about it or not.

• We headed for the Nets locker room postgame, but only got as far as the outer area, where a TV was showing the Knicks/Grizz game, and the Knicks were in the midst of their patented Uptempo Collapse (TM). Ryan, Ben and I stopped along with a few Nets staffers to watch the Knicks complete the unthinkable. Vince Carter came bounding in and plopped down on a couch in front of us. On screen, Rudy Gay pinned a shot against the glass. Vince asked if that was (Rudy) Gay. We said it was. Vince watched for a few minutes before heading in to do his press conference.

From the locker room, Marcus Williams and Hassan Adams walked in and stopped to watch. Marcus said that Memphis guard Kyle Lowry was amazing, that he somehow managed to make the floor feel bigger than it really was. Ryan pointed out that Marcus’s special edition LRG Sidekick 3 was the exact same moss green color as his rugby shirt, which Hassan noticed was also made by LRG. Marcus loudly protested that he hadn’t meant to come dipped in matching LRG. Right.

• The Nets Dance Team has added “a great rookie class,” in the words of one observer. And former sponsor Dance Team sponsor Applebottoms has been replaced by adidas.

• Fan of the game was some guy near halfcourt who stood up during a lull in the second quarter after several bumbling plays from Jason “The Greater” Collins. The fan, his face beet-red, screamed, “Don’t pass it to Collins! Do no pass it to Collins! Don’t…give it…TO COLLINS!” He was probably fifty feet away from us but we could hear him clearly.

“It was good analysis,” Ben noted.