It was a basketball rivalry born not of a thrilling comeback or a hard-fought series, but of a fight. And then it became even fiercer — after yet another fight.
It took two upsets in these N.B.A. playoffs — the fifth-seeded Knicks over the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and the eighth-seeded Miami Heat over the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks — to get here. But the Knicks-Heat rivalry that burned through the late 1990s has unexpectedly been renewed in an Eastern Conference semifinal series that begins Sunday afternoon.
The personnel of the teams is different from a quarter-century ago, but many of their fans are not, and their long memories will naturally be going back to the days of Pat Riley, Charles Oakley, Patrick Ewing and Tim Hardaway. And more than a few will have vivid images in their minds of a 5-foot-9 coach clinging to the leg of a 6-foot-10 player.
1997: The Fracas That Started It All
The elements were there. Riley, who had led the Knicks for three seasons, had become the coach of the Heat, and there was bad blood over the move. The Heat eventually had to send the Knicks a first-round pick after they were found to have tampered with Riley while he was still under contract.
The Eastern Conference semifinals did not cool things off. The Knicks led, three games to one, but the Heat were on their way to a win in Miami when, with two minutes left, things broke down.
It started when Charles Oakley of the Knicks bumped Alonzo Mourning of the Heat and was ejected. On the next play, Charlie Ward of the Knicks squatted and bumped into P.J. Brown at knee level. Brown then picked up the 6-foot Ward and threw him out of bounds. This started a melee with plenty of grabbing and at least one obscene gesture. Riley ended up in a screaming match with Dontae’ Jones of the Knicks, who wasn’t even dressed for the game, and Jones exchanged words with some Miami fans.
The most crucial factor was that most of the Knicks team left the bench, and although they did not become deeply involved in the tumult, this violated a sacrosanct N.B.A. rule designed to limit combat to those already on the court. Five Knicks were suspended — Ward, Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, John Starks and Larry Johnson — and only one Heat player, Brown. It was a record for heavy postseason suspensions.
Because so many Knicks had been suspended, the penalties were staggered: Three Knicks were to miss Game 6 and two Game 7. Short-handed, the Knicks lost both games, blowing their 3-1 lead and the series. Miami lost in the next round to the Chicago Bulls.
1998: ‘That’s Cold. That’s Cold.’
Everyone wanted a rematch, and they got it in the first round, because the Knicks — hampered because Ewing had played only 26 games that season as a result of a broken wrist — were the seventh seed. The New York Times’s headline on its preview of the series was “Gentlemen, Sharpen Your Elbows.”
With a second to go in Game 4 at Madison Square Garden, and the Knicks about to even the series at two games apiece, Mourning and Johnson tangled beneath the basket. Punches were thrown, and it all ended with Coach Jeff Van Gundy of the Knicks on the court, hanging on to Mourning’s leg.
“I am not an idiot,” Van Gundy said. “I wasn’t attacking nobody. I was trying to get between the two guys so there weren’t any punches thrown.”
“I’ve never been one to let a guy swing at me,” Johnson said, “especially when it’s a punk like that. There’s 1.4 left. That’s cold. That’s cold.” Both combatants were suspended for the finale of the five-game series.
This time, though, the Knicks seemed to benefit and won Game 5, 98-81, and the series in Miami. They were eliminated in the next round by the Pacers.
1999: A Giant-Killing
Round 3 came in a strike year when the regular season had been only 50 games. The shortened season threw up some strange results, and the Knicks only barely sneaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed. That gave them another first-round matchup against the Heat, who were tied for the conference’s best record.
The teams traded wins, setting up a decisive Game 5 in Miami. For once, the most memorable moment of the series involved basketball rather than fisticuffs.
Trailing by 1, the Knicks inbounded the ball with 4.5 seconds left. Allan Houston got off a jumper from the free-throw line. It bounced off the front of the rim, bounced off the backboard — and went in.
“It seemed like it hung for two minutes, not two seconds,” Houston said. “It’s the biggest shot ever for me.”
“If we didn’t get the bounce, we’d be talking about something totally different right now,” he added.
The Knicks became the second eighth seed to beat a No. 1, a feat matched a few times since, including this season, by the Heat. They went on to make the finals in the topsy-turvy season and lost to the San Antonio Spurs.
2000: A Whisker of a Difference
For the fourth time in four years, there was a Knicks-Heat series, and for the fourth time it went the distance. In terms of pure basketball enjoyment, this conference semifinal probably ranked first of the four matchups. The teams alternated wins for the first six games, which were decided by margins of 4, 6, 1 (in overtime), 8, 6 and 2 points.
Game 7 was in Miami, and it was fought hard. With 12 seconds left, the Heat, trailing by 1, inbounded the ball. But Ewing and Johnson prevented Mourning from getting the ball, and Jamal Mashburn declined to shoot. That left the potential Heat game-winner to an unlikely marksman: Clarence Weatherspoon, who missed his jumper.
Latrell Sprewell got the rebound for the Knicks but was ruled to have stepped out of bounds with two seconds left. But the referee Dick Bavetta overruled the call, and the Knicks won the game and the series, their third straight over the Heat.
Angry Heat fans pelted the court with debris. “That’s why they call him Knick Bavetta,” Hardaway said. “It’s not right.”
The Knicks lost in the conference finals to the Indiana Pacers.
The Last Two Decades
Rivalries like Knicks-Heat don’t last forever, at least at that level of white-hot intensity.
After four consecutive playoff meetings, they have met only once in the intervening years, in 2012. The drama was not the same, and the Heat, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, won in five.
But now the rivalry is back. The eighth-seeded Heat shocked the Bucks in five games, helped when Giannis Antetokounmpo left Game 1 early and missed Games 2 and 3. The series was capped by a 16-point fourth-quarter rally and an overtime win in Game 5, with Jimmy Butler scoring 42 points.
The Knicks beat the Cavs in five, as well, their first playoff series win in a decade. Their defense held Cleveland to 94.2 points a game, and Jalen Brunson averaged 24 points.
Butler, Brunson and their teammates will decide the series, not Oakley or Mourning. And maybe it will be cleanly played and a showcase for outstanding fundamentals.
But forgive some fans for secretly rooting to see Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau hanging from Bam Adebayo’s legs.