Remembering the Golden Days of NY Knicks & Miami Heat Matchups
It wasn't always like this.
Once upon a time, games between the Miami Heat and New York Knicks meant something more. In the most notorious of matchups—recurrent playoff meetings—they meant everything.
Nowadays, though, Heat-Knicks games are merely an opportunity to watch LeBron James wage battle against Carmelo Anthony and reflect on years past, when these games weren't nearly empty of mutual purpose.
Those days are long gone, mythologized by time and oft-idealized thanks to the absence of profound discussions now. And just as it wasn't always like this, it wasn't supposed to stay like this.
James, Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudemire were supposed to revive a dying rivalry. They were supposed to treat us to a modernized version of yesterday's competition. At the same time the Knicks were "back," the Heat were there, too.
Or so we thought.
Ahead of New York and Miami's Feb. 27 matchup, we're reminded of how regular-season bouts used to have playoff implications for both sides, and how these two teams met frequently in the playoffs as equals.
No such circumstances exist now, with enmity shared between these two teams at an all-time low, if only because the Heat play on a different plane.
There may be other playoff meetings in the near future, or regular-season contests that mean more than they currently do, but right now, unlike years ago, the Heat and Knicks are just two teams, traveling down two different paths that rarely converge.
Thankfully, there are plenty of trips down memory lane worth taking that still give us reasons to watch and grounds for hope of a rivalry reborn sometime in the near future.
Sideline Betrayal Comes Full Circle
Pat Riley's abrupt, allegedly sketchy departure from the Knicks doesn't necessary qualify as a matchup, but it bears mentioning as the driving force of why this rivalry took off.
In 1995, Riley, then-head coach of the Knicks, wanted more money and autonomy over personnel decisions. Anyone who follows the Knicks knows absolute control isn't an option for head coaches. The Knicks like their sideline meanderers the way they like their puppets—with strings attached.
Having reached a breaking point with New York's front office, Riley bolted. Per ESPN New York's Ian O'Connor, he had "his guy, Dick Butera, secretly hammer out a $40 million deal with Heat owner Micky Arison that included everything but a fleet of Arison's cruise ships. The Knicks coach abruptly took his talents to South Beach, and Miami would surrender a million bucks and a first-round draft pick in the nasty tampering case that followed."
In his first return to Madison Square Garden, on Dec. 19, 1995, as coach of the Heat, Riley could be seen egging on the angry cries and catcalls of fans, relishing in the adversity he created.
Riley's Heat lost, though, prompting him to wax nostalgia after the game.
"I spent four years here and I think that they know what I put into this and we were very successful," he said, via the New York Times' Mike Wise. "I always thought the fans of New York—I think they're the very best."
Halfhearted damage control meant nothing. With one premeditated decision, a seething rivalry was born.
Let's Bodyslam Like It's 1997
Game 5 of the 1997 Eastern Conference semifinals was a painful doozy.
Heat forward P.J. Brown responded to an overzealous box-out attempt from Knicks point guard Charlie Ward—yes, point guards used to box out, especially ones with football backgrounds—by literally flipping him over and onto the floor.
The incident took place near the Knicks bench, which was subsequently cleared. Havoc then ensued, culminating in a profusion of suspensions.
Afterward, then-Knick Buck Williams accused Riley of spearheading Miami's violent cause.
"More than anyone, Coach Riley was responsible for this," he said, via O'Connor. "By appealing to the emotions of his basketball team for two days, Coach Riley incited this sort of behavior. It was pretty much like a time bomb waiting to explode at the end of the game."
Miami would go on to win Game 5 and the best-of-seven series, but the war between these two franchises was far from over.
Hang in There, Jeff
Almost as if the NBA was scripted, the Knicks and Heat met again during the 1998 playoffs, this time in the first round.
With the Knicks on the verge of evening the series at two games apiece and forcing a deciding Game 5, emotions once again exploded.
Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, who spent time together with the Charlotte Hornets, started going at it. It was a more brutal fight than the one Brown instigated the year before. Legitimate punches were thrown in a boxing-style standoff, and the two-man battle soon became a lawless scrum.
Enter then-Knicks head coach and Riley disciple Jeff Van Gundy, who clang to Mourning's leg in an effort to stop the fighting.
"I wasn't going through a normal thought process at that very moment," Van Gundy later said, per the Associated Press (via Google News).
I'll say. Here was Mourning, a 6'10", 240-pound behemoth, dragging a diminutive and balding Van Gundy across the floor, as if he was nothing more than a compression sleeve.
Mourning and Johnson received suspensions, as did New York's Chris Mills, who was punished for leaving the bench. New York would close out Game 4 with a win, before taking down the Mourning-less Heat in Game 5 to secure a series victory, increasing existing animosity between both teams tenfold.
The Knicks and Heat met again during the first round of the 1999 playoffs, because of course they did.
New York barely qualified for the postseason, posting a 27-23 record during the lockout-truncated campaign. Miami, meanwhile, catapulted to the top of the Eastern Conference, taking advantage of Michael Jordan's "retirement."
The two sides traded victories through the first four games, all of which went down without anyone being bodyslammed, choked, drop-kicked or clotheslined. Three cheers for progress.
Down by one with under five seconds remaining in Game 5, Van Gundy ran a Triangle play for his Knicks. In those days, that usually meant Patrick Ewing was going to get the ball, but it was Allan Houston who caught the inbounds pass and converted a time-freezing leaner to give New York a series victory.
It was just the second time in NBA history a No. 8 seed dethroned a No. 1 seed. Ultimately, it was also a precursor to the Knicks historically improbable NBA Finals run.
Just as importantly, it was additional fodder for an already lively rivalry.
The 2000 Eastern Conference semifinals had everything.
From overtime-forcing shots to game-winners to blown leads to improbable comebacks, this series had it all.
"It was absolute madness," Riley would say following Miami's Game 6 loss, per the Associated Press (via Sports Illustrated). "Absolutely."
That it was. It was also a gripping conclusion to one of basketball's greatest rivalries.
After Miami blew a 3-2 series lead, going down 4-3 in a haze of Houston and the curious decision to allow Clarence Weatherspoon an opportunity to win the series for the Heat, that was it. This rivalry was largely over.
Ewing was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics during summer 2000, taking much of the interest and meaning from this once-heated, hate-filled rivalry with him.
Over the last 10-plus years, this rivalry has meant virtually nothing.
The Knicks and Heat wouldn't meet in the playoffs again until 2012, when James and Wade led Miami to a 4-1 series victory over Anthony's Knicks.
There have indeed been wrinkles of regular-season intrigue, including Wade's game-winner in 2005 and Jamal Crawford's 52-point outburst in 2007. But nothing compares to the rivalry of yesterday, when these two teams routinely met in the playoffs, both playing for the same thing.
These days, the Knicks tend to feign optimism and contention—save for this season, when they're just plain awful. While James, Wade and the Heat are grinding out a potential three-peat, the Knicks are fighting for their playoff lives.
And where there was once animosity, there is now only friendly admiration, with Anthony and the Knicks unsuccessfully lusting after everything the Heat have, in no position to make matchups meaningful, let alone rekindle a dying rivalry.
This should be a time where games between the two mean something. That was the hope when New York forged a theoretical star core in response to Miami's Big Three.
That was the hope when the Knicks finished second in the Eastern Conference last season.
Now it's a hope turned fantasy, leaving us to reflect on past battles in lieu of looking ahead to the deadening and monotonous remnants of a rivalry that, at best, is on life support.