The NBA tends to come full circle. I mean, did we ever think that after the Mavericks watched the Heat celebrate on their home floor that they would come back to South Beach a mere five years later and return the favor? Did we ever think that the great Phil Jackson could have even had a chance to win 12 titles, coaching two different teams in three different decades? But the NBA has been around a long time, and while we may not have anything on a Red Soxâ€“Yankees level, there are several matchups that come back to rear their ugly head, again and again, kind of like a bad Freddy vs. Jason movie. In honor of this week’s Sox-Yanks series, here is one of our favorite rivalries, Knicks vs. Celtics, which has been renewed from decade to decade.
*** *** ***
This past April, the Knicks and Celtics renewed a rivalry that had been dormant for 20 years. When the Knickerbockers and Celts truly last met up, Paul Pierce was a 12-year-old kid in Los Angeles, players were still playing in short shorts, and Larry Bird was still a top-5 player.
During that series in the spring of 1990, the Knicks rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win a deciding Game 5 in the Boston Garden, the first time the Knicks had won there in six years. The Celtics would remain competitive as long as Bird was on the team, but that loss to the Knicks signaled a changing of the guard. Patrick Ewing (and his flat-top) finally made a name for himself in the playoffs, pouring in monster numbers of 29.0 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, and proved to be too much for Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to handle.
As the story goes, McHale and Parish wanted to double team Big Pat, but Boston coach Jimmy Rodgers wouldn’t allow it, saying they could win without giving Ewing special attention. The addition of Charles Oakley gave the Knicks some much needed physical toughness inside, but it was role players like Maurice Cheeks, Gerald Wilkins and Kenny Walker who got the job done in Game 3 and 5.
This would not be the first time the Knicks would test the mettle of a Celtics dynasty, however, we’re not going to even delve into the record books of the early 1950s when the two teams met in the playoffs (and round-robin tournaments) in five straight years. Let’s instead jump ahead to when Green went against Blue in the late ’60s and early ’70s, toward the end of Bill Russell‘s reign and the beginning of the Walt Frazier–Willis Reed era in New York.
In the 1968-69 season, the Knicks swept the Baltimore Bullets to setup an Eastern Division Finals matchup with the Celtics. Despite the Knicks’ midseason acquisition of Dave DeBusschere from Detroit, the experience of Russell and Sam Jones, who had 19 championships between them, was too much for the Knicks to handle – they fell in six games. It would be the last time Russell and Jones would face the Knicks, as they both retired following the season. However, it’s not as though Russell went quietly into the night. He grabbed 29 boards in a Game 2 Celtics win.
The 1969 Celtics draw a lot interesting comparisons to the 2010 team. Russell and Jones were well into their thirties and in the twilight of their careers, much like Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. The star on the come-up was John Havlicek, who would take over the team in the post-Russell era, much as Rajon Rondo is poised to do now. Both teams suffered through extended stretches of bad play during the regular season, finished fourth in the East, then surprised people in the playoffs by knocking off heavily favored teams: in ’69 the Sixers then the Knicks; in 2010 the Magic and LeBron‘s Cavs. Of course, the common denominator in all of this is the Los Angeles Lakers. After Russell’s Celts and Garnett’s Celts slogged through the playoffs, they had the pleasure of going seven games with the Lake Show.
In the 1969-70 season, the Knicks retooled and gave the city the championship that it had been waiting on for 20 years, however, there would be no Celtics rematch… yet. That would have to wait until the spring of 1972. Frazier now had a new teammate in Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, acquired from the Baltimore Bullets. The “Rolls Royce Backcourt,” as they would come to be known, kicked the Knicks into a new gear. Despite the flash of these two dynamic scorers, the Knicks won with defense, due in large part to the tenacity of Phil Jackson, who tangled with his Boston counterpart Dave Cowens in back-to-back Conference Finals in ’72 and ’73.
The 1973 champion Knicks are still considered one of the greatest and smartest teams in NBA history. Four times in six years, the Knicks met the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, each team having won twice. By 1976, Havlicek and Cowens’ Celtics had created their own mini dynasty, as the Knicks struggled to be relevant again until the Ewing era.
So do the Celtics and Knicks have a rivalry right now? Hard to tell. The Celtics made such quick work of the Knicks this past April with their ball movement and defense that it was hard to gauge just how much bad blood was there really was between the two teams. But just like at Yankee Stadium, the intensity levels go up when Boston comes to town – just ask anybody who was at Game 3 or 4. As long as Jared Jeffries does not play a major role, expect the Knicks and Celtics to have a few more playoff battles before The Big Three call it quits. After all, it is the Knicks’ turn to win one.
What are your greatest memories of the Knicks-Celtics rivalry?
Follow Mike on Twitter at @Mike_Aufses.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.