Amid Criticism, the Brooklyn Nets Squeak Into the Playoffs

It seems that, in the end, the Brooklyn Nets had the last laugh.

A day after Washington Wizards forward Paul Pierce unleashed on his former teammates in an interview, calling his time in Brooklyn “horrible” and criticizing the leadership of guard Deron Williams and forward Joe Johnson, the Nets beat the Orlando Magic 101-88 on Wednesday night to head to a first-round playoff series against the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks.

The Nets did need help to get there, however. If the Indiana Pacers had won their game against the Memphis Grizzlies late Wednesday night, the Nets’ season would have ended. Instead, the Grizzlies won 95-83 to send Brooklyn into the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

“I am just thankful that our guys stepped up and did what they had to do,” Nets’ head coach Lionel Hollins said after the game. “That is the only thing that they had control of. I thought that this was a big team win.”

A day earlier, in an interview published Tuesday, Pierce said he was “much happier” in Washington after going through a “tough situation” in Brooklyn last year. “It was just the guys’ attitudes there,” Pierce said, according to ESPN. “It wasn’t like we were surrounded by a bunch of young guys. They were vets who didn’t want to play and didn’t want to practice. I was looking around saying, ‘What’s this?’ Kevin [Garnett] and I had to pick them up every day in practice.”

“If me and Kevin weren’t there, that team would have folded up,” Pierce added. “We kept them going each and every day.”

Pierce went on to denigrate Williams and Johnson in particular, calling Williams underwhelming and Johnson too quiet. He said he expected them to be the ones leading the Nets and was frustrated when they did not assume those roles.

In the end, Pierce’s comments didn’t seem to affect either Nets player or Hollins. On Wednesday, they all expressed indifference.

“I don’t really care,” Hollins said during a pregame press conference. “I wasn’t here. All I can go by is how we are this year, and as I’ve said many, many times, the vocal leader of our team early on was [Kevin Garnett], and since he’s left it’s been more of a collective.”

Hollins, who came onboard to lead the Nets this season, said his time in Brooklyn “has been good” and that Pierce “is entitled to his own opinion.”

“I don’t get into that kind of stuff. Players say stuff all the time,” Hollins said. “Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Both Williams and Johnson also dismissed the comments. Williams said Pierce was entitled to his own opinion and that he was “not bothered at all” by them. “Being here, I’ve got pretty thick skin,” Williams said.

Johnson agreed with Pierce that he is too quiet and said, “I’ve been criticized before. That’s not the first time, definitely won’t be the last. It doesn’t bother me one way or another.”

The Wizards, meanwhile, have secured the fifth spot in the playoffs and will play the fourth-seeded Toronto Raptors on Saturday. The Nets kick off their series against Atlanta on Sunday. Though it’s unlikely the Nets and Wizards will meet each other during the playoffs, each has won two games in their four head-to-head match ups during the season.

Wednesday night’s game at the Barclays Center was also fan appreciation night, during which the Nets, who moved to Brooklyn from New Jersey for the start of the 2012 season, recognized its fan base and several fans got the chance to win money and prizes. One fan won a brand new Honda Civic.

The arena was 96 percent full, according to the NBA’s estimation, though throughout the game, the crowd seemed largely apathetic. It was roused only during those times when the announcer demanded it or the Jumbotron asked for noise. The crowd also loudly cheered when the “kiss cam” alighted on a couple sitting in the stands and the man then got down on one knee, apparently to propose.

Attendance at the games has increased over the past three seasons however, though the Nets hover at 16th in attendance records this season per the NBA’s figures.

“I’ve embraced the Nets because they’ve come to Brooklyn,” said Dale Dauphine, a Brooklyn native who now lives in North Philadelphia. He had driven up to watch the game with his wife, Keenya, and to attend their nephew’s 13th birthday party at Barclays.

Dauphine, who is also a Knicks fan, said he didn’t follow the team before they moved to Brooklyn. But, he added: “As long as they carry the Brooklyn name, they have to step up.”

Attracting more fans like the Dauphines, whose allegiance to the New York Knicks is entrenched but fungible, may ultimately be the key to the Nets’ success in Brooklyn.