When we talk “rivalries” in sports, the first question that needs to be asked is the following: Have both teams been competitive during the same established period of time?
The answer, of course, when it comes to the Knicks and Celtics is “No.” We are not talking about Boston vs. New York, which has been dominated by Yankee/Red Sox in terms of a sports rivalry with sprinkles of Jets/Patriots and even Giants/Patriots (Super Bowl XLII) recently mixed in.
As a lifelong Celtics fan that grew up in New York, I want tonight’s nationally-televised Knicks/Celtics game very badly, as I took a lot of nonsense from Knick fans during the post-Bird/Parish/McHale era and post-Reggie Lewis era, from about 1993 through 2001, when the Knicks were a high-quality playoff team most of those seasons.
Tonight marks what could very well be the rebirth of what used to be a marquee matchup throughout the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Here is a quick look back at the on-again, off-again Knicks/Celtics rivalry:
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The 1967 Knicks finished under-.500, but snapped a streak of missing the playoffs that had gone seven years. Two years later, New York advanced to the East finals, but ran into a Celtics team that was on, as Boston fans call it, “The Last Stand.” Bruised and battered, Bill Russell, in his last year as a player, led Boston to three series upsets, taking down the Sixers, Knicks and Lakers to win another NBA championship.
That loss was exactly what the Knicks needed in order to become champions, however. The next year, 1970, Knicks coach Red Holzman‘s group was a true testament to what team basketball meant and won the franchise’s first championship. Much of the Celtics’ success in the 1960’s had to fuel the fire for those 1970 Knicks.
Following the retirement of Russell and Sam Jones, the Celtics rebuilt their team around John Havlicek and added Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White to battle New York’s Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. From ’71 to ’75, those teams battled and produced the peak of the Celtics/Knicks rivalry. New York beat Boston in the ’72 Eastern Conference Finals, then Boston came back with a vengeance in ’73, winning a franchise-record 68 games before meeting the Knicks in the conference finals again. But with Havlicek injured and the backcourt combination of Frazier and Earl Monroe too much to handle, the Celtics couldn’t get past New York. The Knicks went on to win another championship.
In 1974, the Celtics finally got over the hump, beating the Knicks 4-1 in the conference finals on their way to beating Milwaukee in the NBA Finals. Two years later Boston was back in the Finals (beating the Suns), but by then the Knicks had faded from contention.
The Knicks were back in ’81. Led by third-year guard Michael Ray Richardson, they won 50 games in the regular season but couldn’t get past Chicago in the first round of the playoffs. That was the same season Larry Bird captured his first title as the Celtics/Sixers rivalry was at its peak.
Over the course of the next decade going into the early-1990s, there were a few memorable Knicks/Celtics matchups — notably featuring Bernard King, Bird, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Lewis — but the intensity of the ’70s rivalry was gone. That last great year was 1992, which was Pat Riley‘s first year in New York and Bird’s last in Boston. The Knicks had a five-game lead on the Celtics for the division title with eight games to go in the regular season, but Boston ran the table (without an injured Bird) and both teams finished with 51 wins. Boston got the tiebreaker and the No. 2 seed in the playoffs, but both teams were eliminated in the conference semis.
In ’93, the Knicks took ownership of the rivalry, as the Celtics entered some of the franchise’s darkest days, defined by Reggie Lewis’ death and the Rick Pitino era. Both teams had their subsequent ups and downs, but after Boston brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce in 2007, the Celtics really put some distance between the franchises. Until tonight.
With the Celtics standing at 19-4 in the fourth year of their franchise rebirth and currently on a 10-game win streak, and the Knicks at 16-9 having won eight straight, both will be amped up and ready to go tonight. The game is nationally televised on ESPN and has been hyped all week. New superstars have been appointed to carry the torch in Amar’e Stoudemire and Rajon Rondo. And Madison Square Garden promises to provide that necessary energy that makes you say and feel “rivalry.”
Tonight could be the first step back towards just that.