Knicks can still win the Big Apple popularity battle, but have to watch as rival Nets dominate on the court

Stefan Bondy, New York Daily News

NEW YORK — It’s just two games, but the speed of the excellence achieved by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn has been nothing short of remarkable.

For Knicks fans, it’s a sore subject and a reminder of the failed 2019 free agency, when former team president Steve Mills chased both stars but watched them sign across the Manhattan Bridge.

Knicks forward Theo Pinson was on the Nets the last two seasons, including last year when both Irving and Durant were mostly rehabbing injuries. He’s not surprised by their quick success.

“I mean they’re great players. everybody knew that,” said Pinson, who was waived by the Nets in June and signed with the Knicks five months later. “I’m not really shocked about it.”

The Nets dominated the Warriors and Celtics in their first two games, with Irving and Durant averaging 31.5 points and 25.5 points, respectively.

They’ve become a national story while the Knicks remain star-less and immersed in a lengthy rebuild. It’s prompted the yearly debate among media and fans about whether the Nets can ever surpass the Knicks in popularity.

On the court, the two franchises have never been farther apart. Yet the Knicks have always dominated the local media coverage and posted better attendance/local TV ratings.

Pinson indicated the Knicks’ fanbase is more widespread, noting the Nets moved to Brooklyn only eight years ago. It falls in line with the argument that the Knicks brand is too ingrained in NYC to fall.

“Brooklyn just became a team just recently,” Pinson said. “There’s Knicks fans all over the world. The following is unbelievable.”

Pinson, 25, who signed a two-way contract with the Knicks, logged one minute in New York’s loss Wednesday to the Pacers and is likely to split time in the G-League. He became a success story of Brooklyn’s G-League squad, the Long Island Nets, rising to the senior squad for 51 games over two seasons.

And he also got an inside view of Durant’s rehab season.

“The dude has an unbelievable work ethic, something that you can’t really explain,” Pinson said. “You’ve just got to see it yourself.”

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Over the years, Knicks players and coaches have explained struggles at home with a consistent explanation: the opposition is motivated for games at MSG because of the atmosphere.

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan all loved playing at MSG, but only as visitors. It always felt like a bit of a cop-out from the Knicks because if the visitors could boost their performance based on environment, why couldn’t the home team?

Regardless, the removal of fans this season will serve as an interesting test to the theory. RJ Barrett said it could help the Knicks at MSG.

“Actually having no fans might be an advantage. I know if I was a competitor coming into the Garden with all those fans, I’d want to have a great game,” Barrett said. “So coming in there with no fans actually probably gives us an advantage that way too.”