Nets climb back to .500 in Collins' debut

NEW YORK -- With about three minutes left, with the Brooklyn Nets on their way to a pivotal win over the Chicago Bulls, a Jason Collins chant began to gain steam throughout Barclays Center.

Not long after, Jason Kidd sent Collins into the game with 2:41 remaining, giving Brooklyn fans their long-awaited chance to embrace the center with a warm standing ovation at home.

This was a meaningful night on many levels for the Nets. Besides Collins making his Brooklyn debut, the Nets finally climbed all the way back to .500 and got a major psychological boost by beating the red-hot Bulls, 96-80.

The Nets (29-29) haven’t broke even in the standings since they were 2-2 back on Nov. 5, and they got back there by beating a team that had tormented them.

“Just mentally the Bulls have really had our number," Paul Pierce said. "And to be honest, if I was them, I’d feel like when they come play the Nets, they feel like they can beat us anytime. But I think the guys had pride tonight and said, ‘We’re tired of being pushed around by the Bulls.’ We decided we wanted to take the fight to them, be the aggressor first.”

“Usually it’s been the opposite,” Pierce added.

It has been a long, grueling journey back to .500, one that has seen the kind of drama that would even impress the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Nets endured the loss of their franchise center for the season, the stunning demotion of lead assistant Lawrence Frank, embarrassing blowouts that often had you believing the Nets would be a colossal bust. There was a lot of soul searching, but here the Nets are in March, making their own march toward becoming a winning team and most important, a playoff team.

They made historic headlines last Sunday for signing Collins, but they’re quietly making their own progress on the court. They still play inconsistent at times, as evidenced last week by their 44-point loss at Portland followed by their 23-point win in Denver the next night.

But they completed a tough six-game, post-All-Star trip at 4-2 and followed it up with an impressive showing against the Bulls. Besides beating the Nets in seven games in the first round last year, Chicago owned the Nets this season -- before Monday night.

Chicago obliterated the Nets 95-78 on Christmas Day which led to Kidd calling his team out in the locker room and a frustrated Kevin Garnett storming out afterward, upset with his team's performance. That could've easily been a moment that did the Nets in. And Tom Thibodeau’s team also crushed the Nets 92-76 last month in Chicago.

The Nets finally decided to make a stand, fight whenever the Bulls made a run and finish strong on Monday.

With Chicago playing the second game of a back-to-back, the Nets jumped on the Bulls early with defense that would impress Thibodeau. They forced 28 turnovers that led to 30 points. The Nets led 14-3 early. Chicago got within three late in the second quarter but never any closer as the Nets withstood any Chicago surge -- another significant step for Kidd’s team.

And the Nets did all this without their heart and soul, Garnett, who was out with back spasms. Pierce took it upon himself to set the tone for the Nets without Garnett. And Deron Williams continued to show more and more flashes of a return to his All-Star form.

In order to reach the level they were designed to, the Nets have to prove they can beat the Bulls, Raptors and Wizards consistently before they can even think about the Pacers and Heat. To have any shot of making any noise in the postseason, the Nets have to secure a 3-through-6 seed.

Reaching .500 and doing it against the Bulls is a major moment for the Nets’ psyche after all they have been through. But what matters even more is what they do from here.

“We can’t rest right there,” said Pierce, whose Nets trail Toronto by 3½ games for the Atlantic Division. “We hit a benchmark that we have been fighting for all season. Now it is time to surpass that.”

Wednesday against Memphis at home, the Nets will have a chance to post a winning record for the first time all season long, as amazing as that may sound. Monday's win started a stretch that will see them play at home in four of five games, so this is a time when the Nets can make a move for the division.

Pierce said he would not have believed anyone who told him that the Nets would not be a winning team by the start of March.

“Sometimes chemistry and things take longer than you expect,” Pierce said.

Collins also probably didn’t expect it to take this long for him to play his first home game for a team after announcing his sexual orientation to Sports Illustrated in April.

But sometimes things take time. Collins certainly appreciated the perfect reception fans gave him.

And the Nets were thrilled to be able to witness and accommodate the memorable Brooklyn welcome by making the night meaningful in more ways than one.