Knicks-Heat set to renew rivalry in the playoffs that once featured brawls and suspensions in the 1990s

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untitled design 2023 04 28t181421 871

There are probably more significant rivalries in NBA history, ones that decided championships like the great battles between the Lakers and Celtics back in the day. There are rivalries that, for geographical reasons always carry a little bit of weight whenever the two teams meet each other, like the Lakers and Clippers. But you would be hard-pressed to find two teams that hated each other more than the New York Knicks and Miami Heat did in the 1990s. Between 1997 to 2000 the Knicks and Heat faced each other four-consecutive times in the postseason. Both teams had star power to make each meeting enticing, but it was the fights, suspensions and trash talk that made it one of the most memorable rivalries in NBA history.

That final meeting in the 2000 postseason served as a bookend to that era for both teams and since then the Knicks and Heat have only met in the playoffs one more time, in 2012. That’s about to change as the Knicks and Heat are set to renew this once hostile rivalry when both teams meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday. The names may change, and the bad blood may no longer be simmering just below the surface, but it’s impossible to ignore the history between these two teams as a new chapter is about to get added to this saga.

In preparation for the Knicks-Heat series, it’s only fitting to take a trip down memory lane and go through all the heated battles between these two teams.

1997: The beginning of a rivalry

The fireworks that set this rivalry in motion may have gone off during the 1997 Eastern Conference semifinals, but the seeds had been planted before the No. 2-seeded Heat took on the No. 3-seeded Knicks. The tension that overtook this series stemmed from a variety of factors. There was the fact that Heat head coach Pat Riley, who coached the Knicks from 1991-1995, plotted his exit to Miami during his final season with New York. Miami was hit with tampering charges and had to fork over their 1996 first-round draft pick and $4 million to the Knicks. The connection between the players on both sides of this matchup also added fuel to the eventual fire. Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing, two former Georgetown big men, had a rivalry before Mourning joined the Heat. Mourning also had a history with Knicks forward Larry Johnson who he played with in Charlotte, and whose tenure together ended unceremoniously.

So when these two teams met in the postseason in 1997, there was already some disdain. Fast forward to Game 5 of the ’97 playoffs, the Knicks were up 3-1 in the series, but the Heat were on the brink of staving off elimination. With two minutes left in the game and the Heat at the free-throw line, New York’s Charlie Ward and Miami’s P.J. Brown got into a sort of wrestling match that involved Brown picking Ward up off the ground and basically throwing him out of bounds.

It caused a huge dogpile of players, with both coaches trying to intervene. However, several players from New York’s bench stepped onto the court and were hit with suspensions from the league. That included Ewing, Johnson, Ward, John Starks and Allan Houston. Meanwhile, on Miami’s side, only Brown was suspended. To make it even more interesting, the suspensions had to be staggered due to the NBA’s rule of outfitting at least nine players for a game. As a result, Ewing, Houston and Ward missed Game 6, while Starks and Johnson missed Game 7. With the Knicks being shorthanded in Game 6, Miami managed to steal another win, and with Starks and Johnson out for the deciding Game 7, the Heat went on to win and advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

1998: Punches fly, and a clinging Jeff Van Gundy

After sparks flew in the ’97 playoffs, literal punches flew in the rematch between the Heat and the Knicks, this time in the first round of the playoffs. It was Game 4 of the series, with the No. 7-seeded Knicks about to even it up at two games apiece against the No. 2-seeded Heat. Former teammates Mourning and Johnson got tangled up fighting for position to grab a rebound with five seconds left in the game and the two immediately started throwing punches. Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, standing just a few feet from the fight ran to try and break up the altercation, but his small stature was no match for these two athletic giants. Instead of breaking up the fight, Van Gundy ended up clinging onto Mourning’s leg, just trying not to get trampled. Van Gundy’s “role” in the scuffle unintentionally created an iconic image that was used on the front page of major newspapers highlighting the fight.  

New York Daily News Archive / Getty Images

Both Mourning and Johnson were suspended for the decisive Game 5, which the Knicks won to advance to the second round of the postseason. It was the second-straight year that these two teams got into a physical altercation, which NBA Commissioner David Stern wasn’t too happy with. It resulted in Stern summoning both Van Gundy and Riley to his office in which he told both coaches to stop stoking the flames of this rivalry. That came after Riley supported Mourning for throwing punches at Johnson, saying after the game, “I would have swung on him in a minute myself,” and also saying he wished Mourning would’ve connected on a punch. While neither team nor coach was hit with anything other than just a stern talking-to, it certainly sent a message for this rivalry going forward.

1999: An upset for the ages

For once, when the Knicks and Heat faced each other for the third-straight year, there weren’t any physical altercations that took place. In fact, when these two teams met in the first round of the playoffs of a lockout-shortened season, the first four games of the series were decided by 10 or more points. The back-and-forth nature of this series once again set up a win-or-go-home Game 5, with the No. 1-seeded Heat favored heavily over the No. 8-seeded Knicks. 

The Heat had been a dominant force all season long, and with Michael Jordan retiring for the second — and final — time, Miami felt like this was their moment to finally capture a championship. They had finished second in the East standings the previous two years behind the Bulls, so everything was starting to line up for a potential Heat championship.

But then, the Knicks happened. 

With 4.5 seconds left in Game 5, and the Heat up 77-76, Allen Houston put up a running jumper at the elbow. The shot ricocheted around the rim and backboard before sinking through the net with eight-tenths of a second left. The fans in Miami Arena fell silent. 

Not only did New York beat the Heat in a dramatic fashion, but the Knicks became just the second No. 8 seed to knock off a No. 1 seed in NBA history. Ironically, the Heat just did the same thing to the Milwaukee Bucks a few days ago to set up this meeting with the Knicks in 2023. The magic continued past the first round for the Knicks, who went on to the NBA Finals and lost to the next emerging dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs.

2000: Another nail-biting finish

If the first two years of this rivalry were highlighted by the fights, then the last two were purely about basketball. The coaches were the same, and so were the stars. And like a full circle moment, the Knicks and Heat met again in the Eastern Conference semifinals, as they did back in 1997 when this whole thing started. The teams took turns winning the first six games of the series, once again setting up a decisive Game 7 with a spot in the Eastern Conference finals on the line. 

The Heat inbounded the ball to Mourning with 12.4 seconds left and the Knicks up by one point. After New York sent a double team at Mourning, Miami’s star player found Jamal Mashburn who was open just at the top of the key. Instead of pulling up for a jumper, Mashburn dribbled into a double team and in a panicked state gave up the ball to reserve forward Clarence Weatherspoon. He put up a midrange jumper that bounced off the back of the rim and the Knicks secured possession and called a timeout. After the officials confirmed that Latrell Sprewell did not in fact step out of bounds while securing the rebound, New York ran out the clock and advanced to the East finals.

For the third-straight time, the Knicks eliminated the Heat but lost to the Indiana Pacers in the East Finals in the next round. 

2023: A dormant rivalry gets a new chapter

Since that meeting in 2000, the Heat and Knicks have only met once in the last 23 years. That happened in 2012 when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh finished off Carmelo Anthony and New York with a gentleman’s sweep of five games in the first round. The Heat went on to win the first of two-straight championships that year and the Knicks continued to struggle through rebuilds, new coaches and minimal success.

But now, 26 years after these two teams first forged an iconic rivalry, their paths will once again cross in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The hatred may not be there, but even Heat coach Erik Spoelstra acknowledged the history between these two teams, saying “It’s always good for the league when there’s a Heat-Knicks playoff series.” The names may not be the same, but there are still some connections to that heated era of this rivalry. Riley, no longer stalking the sidelines for the Heat, is now the team’s president. Tom Thibodeau, who is now the coach of the Knicks, was an assistant under Van Gundy throughout the entire ’90s era. 

While there may not be all-out brawls in this series, both teams feature physical styles of play, just as they did back in the day. Miami’s star player Jimmy Butler also isn’t one to shy away from trash talk, so you can bet that there will be some of that, too. And although players on both sides may not feel a connection to that period of time for these franchises, the fanbases of both teams will surely bring some of that historic hatred to these games. 

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Publish Date:2023-04-29 23:38:59

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