Miami is considered one of New York’s fiercest foes from the late 1990s, but going strictly by postseason success they were no match for the boys in orange and blue, as shown 20 years ago this week, when the Knicks knocked the Heat out of the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
To be fair, there’s no question that the two teams were pretty evenly matched. Miami was quite good back then, and between Pat Riley, Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, not to mention P.J. Brown or Anthony Carter, there was plenty of hate to be had. From 1997 through 2000, the Knicks faced the Heat 16 total times during the regular season and the win-loss record for each team was 8-8. They played in the playoffs all four years, with the Knicks going 13-11 overall.
But when push comes to shove — and push did come to shove many times when the Knicks and Heat played — what matters in the playoffs is which team wins the series. And the Knicks were the victor thrice in four seasons, including 20 years ago this week, when the final Knicks team featuring Patrick Ewing finished off the Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Before we dig into what happened in Game 7, let’s set the stage.
The 1999-00 Knicks
You may remember that the Knicks made it to the NBA Finals in the lockout-shortened season of 1998-99. An ailing Ewing was unable to play during the championship, and the San Antonio Spurs had no problem putting away their weakened opponent.
The Knicks brought most of the boys back for the following year, and the team was stupendous, finishing 50-32, good for second place in the Atlantic Division, just behind the 52-30 Heat. Five Knicks averaged 10 or more points per game during the regular season: Allan Houston (19.7), Latrell Sprewell (18.6), Ewing (15), Larry Johnson (10.7), and Marcus Camby (10.2).
For his farewell season in New York, Ewing posted 15 points, 9.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, which isn’t too shabby considering he was a 37-year-old man with an injury history longer than your latest CVS receipt.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Knicks swept Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Charles Oakley and the Toronto Raptors.
Here, have some highlights:
The Semifinals Begin
The Knicks lost three of four regular season contests against the Heat that year, including an April 9 overtime game that Miami took 95-94 thanks to a monster effort from Mourning (33 points, 11 rebounds, 6 blocks) and a rock solid point guard showing from Hardaway (16 points, 10 assists).
The Heat were coming off a sweep of Grant Hill, Jerry Stackhouse and the Detroit Pistons in round one, with an average victory margin of 13 points, so Miami was not an opponent to scoff at heading into the second round. Meanwhile, based on how the previous playoff series between the Knicks and Heat had ended, Miami was likely chomping at the bit for payback.
In Game 1 at Miami’s American Airlines Arena, however, Houston had problems, shooting 8-18 from the floor, including a missed trey and three turnovers in the waning minutes. The Heat opened the series with a victory, 87-83.
Houston’s struggles continued in Game 2, when he shot 3-14 from the field for just 12 points, and overall the team shot a putrid 35% from the floor. It was ugly, but the Knicks clawed, scratched and bit their way to an 82-76 win to even up the series thanks to an impressive defensive effort that included 7 blocks and 6 steals while holding the Heat to 34% shooting as a team. There were 60 total fouls in the game, which serves as a reminder that these two squads did not like each other very much.
With the series tied, the teams headed to New York for two straight games at Madison Square Garden.
The Series Heats Up
Houston and Sprewell finally found their footing in Game 3, but their 24- and 23-point nights, respectively, failed to result in a positive outcome for the Knicks, which lost in overtime, 77-76, going down 2-1 in the series.
The importance of Game 4 cannot be overstated, because going down 3-1 in the NBA playoffs is almost always a death sentence. As of today, NBA teams have overcome 3-1 deficits only 11 times, including the 2016 NBA Finals when LeBron James somehow willed the Cleveland Cavaliers past the historically great Golden State Warriors (with some help from Draymond Green and his penchant for punching people’s private parts).
The Knicks rose to the occasion with the largest win of the series, besting the Heat 91-83 behind a balanced effort from the starting five. Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward led the way with 20 points, 7 boards, 4 assists and 3 steals, with Houston adding 17 points, Sprewell posting 16 points and 6 assists, LJ notching 13 points and Ewing compiling 12 points and 11 rebounds. The teams made their way back to Miami with the series tied.
Miami Tries To Take Control But The Knicks Don’t Let Them
The Heat won Game 5 in Miami, 87-81, giving them a 3-2 lead in the series. The Eastern Conference Finals were only one victory away. The next two games were hard fought efforts from both sides, emblematic of the rivalry writ large.
Game 6 was a defensive affair, as the Knicks and Heat combined to score 142 total points, with New York outlasting Miami 72-70. To show how much the NBA has changed, in an October 2019 game, the Houston Rockets beat the Washington Wizards 159-158. With 317 total points in that meaningless regular season game, the Rockets and Wizards combined to score 175 more points than the Knicks and Heat in Game 6 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Semis.
The Knicks were led in Game 6 by Houston’s 21 points and 5 rebounds, followed by Ewing’s 15 points and 18 rebounds and Sprewell’s 15 points and 9 boards. What a lovely trio.
Unsurprisingly, Game 7 was another barnburner. The Heat held Houston to 5 points on 2-10 shooting, but luckily the Knicks were a well-rounded squad. Sprewell had 24 points, 5 rebounds and 5 dimes, and Ewing dug deep for 20 points, 10 boards and 2 blocks. P&T’s very own MMiranda recently did a retro recap of the affair, which you should really read if you haven’t already.
The bottom line is that the Knicks subdued their rivals, taking the decisive game 83-82. The final points of the Knicks-Heat rivalry, as beautifully noted by MMiranda, was the following dunk from Ewing:
The years since have not been kind to the Knicks, but new team president Leon Rose might be enacting an actual plan that could lead to sustainable success. His recent hires are people most of us had never heard of before, but they seem to be viewed as proficient professionals. That’s a nice change of pace, as the Knicks have spent much of the last two decades hiring the biggest name imaginable regardless of whether they have the requisite experience.
Basketball might come back soon, or it might not. The teams might play at Disney World. Whatever happens going forward, no one can ever take away the fact that, in the late 90s, the Knicks knocked the Heat out of the playoffs three times in four seasons.