The resurrection of a rivalry
With the Knicks just 4 games behind the Celts, it's finally getting interesting again
BOSTON -- Paul Pierce has been a Celtic all his NBA days. He arrived in 1998, and has played for four coaches, two ownership groups and one icon.
He has experienced the intensity of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry with two matchups in the NBA Finals. He has witnessed the Celtics-Sixers rivalry in the form of an emotional, five-game series in 2002, his first playoff appearance as a Celtic.
One dormant rivalry remains for Pierce to sample, and Wednesday night might well present itself as the 21st-century kickoff of the renewal of Celtics-Knicks hostilities. The Knicks are (supposedly) back, sporting a 16-9 record and having won eight in a row. (Boston has won 10 straight.) They trail the Celtics by only four games in the standings and will be counting on a large, boisterous Madison Square Garden crowd to get them going in this one. It's the second game of a three-game "temperature check" week for the Knicks, who beat Denver on Sunday and face red-hot Miami on Friday.
Inarguably, it sets up as the biggest Celtics-Knicks regular-season game in decades. One of the last truly meaningful games between these two teams was May 6, 1990, when the Knicks won Game 5 of their first-round playoff series, rallying from a 2-0 hole to do so. They won the deciding game in Boston, snapping a hellish losing streak to the Celtics, in a contest that was marked by Larry Bird missing a crucial dunk and coach Jimmy Rodgers getting fired soon thereafter.
Since then, you'd have trouble finding an important Celtics-Knicks game, in that one team or the other was usually pretty bad. As for Celtics history, you can point to the Christmas Day debacle in 1985, when they blew a 25-point third-quarter lead and lost in double-overtime to a bad Knicks team. That proved to be a turning point for the 1985-86 team, which would steamroll the rest of the way to an NBA title.
When the Knicks were heading toward the Finals and becoming an Eastern Conference power under Pat Riley, the Celtics were in decline, reeling from the retirements of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. When the Knicks were battling Riley's Miami Heat for conference supremacy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Celtics were floundering under Rick Pitino.
When the Celtics finally did turn things around in 2007 with their new Big Three, the Knicks were in complete fire-sale mode, shredding names and numbers with an eye on the summer of 2010. To put things in perspective, the Knicks won 84 games the past three seasons. The Celtics won 66 in 2007-08 alone.
That's why Pierce was at a loss to discuss any potential nastiness between the teams.
"It's a rivalry?" Pierce asked. "Man, y'all are letting me in on all the new stuff, all the talk. I didn't know we had a rivalry going."
They don't, yet. Both teams have to be good for a real rivalry to blossom, and the Knicks, well, who can tell? They've fattened up on a weak schedule. But they also have won eight in a row on the road and have won 13 of their past 14. The Celtics, we know, are good and will continue to be so unless they are decimated by injuries.
These teams hated each other in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Red Auerbach, then the undisputed ruler of the Celtics as coach and later GM, loathed the Knicks. It stemmed from a slight before he even got to Boston. One of his many signature moves as Celtics GM was when he signed three Knicks to free-agent deals as a way to stop New York from signing free agent McHale. It worked. The Knicks took back their players, McHale stayed and the rest is history.
Auerbach had no use for the venerable Red Holzman, the future Hall of Famer who was coaching the Knicks. You wonder about the source of current Lakers coach Phil Jackson's enmity toward the Celtics? It came from that period in his life, when he was a reserve on the Knicks. Jackson also revered Holzman.
In the late 1960s, the Celtics were coming down after the Bill Russell years and the Knicks viewed themselves as the logical successor. The teams met in 1969 in the second round of the playoffs, with the Celtics upsetting the favored Knicks in six games. Boston went on to win its last title of the Russell era (and 11th in 13 years), and the Knicks displaced them as NBA champs the following year, buoyed by Willis Reed's heroics in the Finals against the Lakers.
In 1972, the Knicks beat the Celtics in five games in the conference finals, although they lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Knicks again eliminated the Celtics in the conference finals in 1973, a series most Celtics fans mark with an asterisk because John Havlicek got hurt. The Knicks became the first team to win a Game 7 in Boston that year and won their second title in four years.
By the end of that decade, the Celtics were in decline, and Auerbach was offered a four-year deal by Sonny Werblin, then the boss of Madison Square Garden, to run the Knicks. Auerbach came very close to taking the deal, primarily because of an untenable ownership situation in Boston. Celtics owner John Y. Brown had traded away three No. 1 picks to the Knicks for Bob McAdoo. The deal went down without Auerbach's knowledge, and he was furious about it. But he stayed in Boston and outlasted Brown, who eventually sold out to Harry Mangurian.
The teams met in 1984 for a great, seven-game series in the second round. Bernard King was at his gunslinger best, and Cedric Maxwell, forced to defend the unstoppable King, defiantly predicted, "No way that [blank] is going to get 50 on me." King did. But the Celtics prevailed as the home team won all seven games. The Celtics then won in four games in 1988 in a first-round series (highlighted by news during the series that KC Jones would step down after the playoffs) before the Knicks came back to surprise Boston in 1990.
Now, after seven dark years in New York, the playoffs appear to be a possibility rather than a concept. You could say the Knicks are due. Not only have the Knicks failed to appear in a playoff game since 2004, they haven't had a playoff win since 2001. They appear to be B-A-C-K, and that is good for all concerned. It should be fun.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.