In part 1, we looked at two timeless Knick rivals and exhumed the corpse of a once-great foe down I-95. Now let's look at a couple of (relatively) more recent hatreds.
"Style Makes The Fight" Rival
In an eight season span (1989-1996), the Knicks and Bulls met six times in the playoffs, with four of those series lasting 6 or 7 games. The seeds of this rivalry actually started in the 1982 NCAA championship game, when a skinny freshman from North Carolina with a jumpy tongue hit the game-winning jumper with 15 seconds left to beat a Georgetown team led by a defensively dominant big man. Two years later the Bulls made Michael Jordan the third pick in the draft; the following June the Knicks landed Patrick Ewing.
Their growth mirrored one another. While the Celtics and Pistons ruled the East, Chicago and New York took their lumps, finally enjoying playoff success in their fourth tries -- in '88, Jordan's (first) iconic game-winner turned Craig Ehlo from a hero to the first guy ever to be posterized on a jumper, leading the Bulls past the Cavs; in '89 the Knicks swept the 76ers. That year the two-seeded Knicks met the six-seeded Bulls. A Knick win would see them in their first conference finals since 1973, while the Bulls were aiming for their first conference finals since 1974, when they played in the Western Conference.
Ewing averaged 21 and 10, shooting 50% from the field, but not even a miracle 27-foot four-point play by Trent Tucker to tie game six in the final seconds was enough to overcome Jordan's 35, 10 and 8 (55% FGs). By '91 the teams had gone in wildly different directions. Chicago was a 61-win monster on its way to its first championship; the Knicks were sub-.500. Jordan's deputy was an ascendant Scottie Pippen. The Knicks' leading scorer after Ewing was an end-of-the-road Kiki Vandeweghe. The teams met in the first round. Calling it a massacre would be an understatement: the Bulls won game one by 41 and never looked back, sweeping NY.
That summer Pat Riley came to New York and the front office drafted Greg Anthony, traded for Xavier McDaniel, and signed a couple of no-names called Starks and Mason. In the '92 playoffs, the Knicks knocked off the Bad Boy Pistons in the first round. Chicago was so relieved not to face Detroit again several Bulls actually called some of the Knicks to congratulate them. That call was premature. The Knicks shocked the Bulls in game 1 (check out the Ewing crossover at the 00:46 mark!) and the rivalry was in full-swing.
The difference in each team's style made the games great theater. The Bulls were sleek and athletic. Their offense was a precision machine, full of movement and flow. On defense they liked to press and trap; Pippen, Jordan and Horace Grant were 94-foot nightmares. The Knicks were a team of bodybuilders. They didn't jump high or run fast, and they made sure their opponents didn't either. Their offense was Ewing, Ewing, some Starks, and Ewing, frequently leading to droughts. They made the game a matter of attrition. It was like watching the sun fight the wind.
Game 6 goes on Ewing's greatest-games list, when he overcame a sprained ankle to out-play Jordan (Starks did, too) and force one of only two Game 7's the Bulls would face in the 1990s. Though Chicago came out on top, it felt like just a matter of time before the Knicks toppled them. In the '93 playoffs, the Knicks had homecourt advantage and won game 1. They also won game 2. Thanks to:
The Bulls held serve in games 3 and 4, game 5 at MSG was back-and-forth, and then...well, I've been threatened if I post a link or video of what happened at the end of game 5. Google "Dharles Smith" videos if you're the masochistic type.
was suspended for gambling left to play baseball the next season, but the war continued to rage without pause. This series was the end of the hot hot heat -- Pippen refusing to play at the end of game 3 (when Chicago, down 2-0, blew an enormous fourth-quarter lead) because Phil Jackson drew up the last shot for Toni Kukoc (which never should have counted; after Ewing ties it with 1.8 seconds left, the Bulls inbound and then the whistle blows, yet they're allowed to move it up to halfcourt); Pippen fouling Hubert Davis in the dying moments of game 5 (yes, it's a foul, and at the very least it makes up for the refs missing that game 3 inbounds); Ewing and Starks playing brilliantly in game 7 to lead the Knicks to the series win. The high point for me? The brawl in game 3 right in front of Little Caesar himself, commissioner David Stern. This was a rivalry that could turn Jo Jo English into a lifelong memory. That's legit.
There was one more meeting in '96, when the Knicks won a game off the 72-wins-greatest-team-ever Bulls. They almost tied the series at 2-2, but fell just short at the end, oddly enough due to a pair of Dennis-Rodman-to-Bill-Wennington assists. This rivalry burned so hot for so long that to this day, Knicks/Bulls still has meaning to both fan bases.
"When You Look Into The Abyss, The Abyss Also Looks Into You" Rival
NYC and Indiana both consider themselves basketball's spiritual homeland. But the real reason this became such a hotly-contested rivalry is because the '90s Pacers unapologetically copied the Knicks and it was freaking creepy. Rik Smits was their international center with a deft shooting touch, an ersatz Ewing; Dale and Antonio Davis were their Oakley and Mason; Derrick McKey was their talented-but-infuriatingly-inconsistent oversized small forward, a.k.a. "Dharles Smith"; Haywood Workman was their hard-nosed point guard who couldn't shoot, a la Greg Anthony; Indiana's two-guard was a gunner who the rest of the league wanted to murder in his sleep, just like Starks. But the Pacers were uglier. Much uglier.
The heat began in '93, when the teams met in the first round. The main takeaway from that series was Starks' headbutt of Indiana's two-guard. Improbably, I can't find video of it anywhere, but to this day when I'm stressed and I close my eyes and go to my happy place, that's where I end up. Ewing and Oakley almost killed Starks for doing it, but all's well that ends well, and the Knicks won the series 3-1.
It was in '94 was when things really took off. The home team won the first four games, and the Knicks were up 12 entering the fourth quarter of game 5. Then my lifelong sports-hatred of Spike Lee was born. Spike decided to up the Knicks' degree of difficulty by antagonizing Indy's two-guard, and newly-inspired, he went on to score 25 in the fourth, hitting pretty much everything he threw up, launching from 30 feet out like it was nothing. The Pacers won and the Knicks were in danger of pissing away their Jordan-in-absentia championship window. But they stepped up and won an incredibly tense game 6 in Indiana (God bless you Derek Harper!), then came home for game 7. Ewing's 24 points, 22 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 blocks outstripped Indy's two-guard's 25, 2, 0 and 1; the Big Fella's tip-dunk in the last 30 seconds sent the Knicks to their first Finals since '73 and sent the Pacers crying in their corn fields.
The next year Indiana turned the tables in the conference finals, thanks in part to the referees forgetting what an offensive foul looks like at the end of game 1. Often forgotten: the Knicks were so rattled that even after a stupid Pacer foul on Starks gave them another chance to win in the final seconds, Starks missed both free throws, Ewing got the rebound but missed a bunny jumper, and the Knicks then fouled Indy's two-guard, letting him win the game at the line. By the time the Knicks got their heads back in the series, Indiana was up 3-1. NY won game 5 thanks to Ewing's late heroics and took game 6 in Indiana, but with a chance to tie the game at the buzzer the infamous Ewing finger-roll rimmed out. This marked the end of the Riley era and the birth of the Pacers as an established contender.
The teams met again in 1998, with Indiana winning. That series marked the return of Ewing after he'd missed the prior 60 games (including the first round of the playoffs) after dislocating his wrist in Milwaukee earlier in the season.
In '99 the teams met in the conference finals. Ewing was lost for the season after game 2 with a torn Achilles' tendon, but Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby and Larry Johnson stepped up and led New York to win the series in six games and advance to the Finals. A major reason why?
In 2000 Indiana beat the Knicks in six to advance to their first NBA Finals, closing the door on the Ewing era and, for all intents and purposes, the Knicks-as-respectable era, too. It'd be 13 years before the Knicks were any good again, and when they were, who was waiting for them in the second round? A large, long, strong, physical, bruising Pacer team. Despite their success all year as a small-ball team, New York played big to try and matchup with Indiana's size. Nope.
Like Ewing in '89, Carmelo did all you could ask of (29 and 8 per game), but the supporting cast didn't. Tyson Chandler averaged 6 and 6; his counterpart, Roy Hibbert, went for 13 and 10. Raymond Felton was outplayed by George Hill. Iman Shumpert shot 38% from the field. J.R. Smith shot 29%. Jason Kidd shot 0%. Literally.
Both teams are currently in rebuilds, but this rivalry transcends its history. Whenever both teams are any good, the old tensions will re-surface. Knicks vs. Pacers may take a breather, but it's only a matter of time before it's back.
Stay tuned for part 3, where we'll look at the hottest rivalry in Knick history, examine some mini-rivalries that could flare up in the future, and try to settle the question of just who is the biggest rival of all.