For our special NBA playoffs preview, I ranked the NBA’s greatest rivalries. I actually made a top 10 list, but we only had space to print the top five. So I thought I’d go ahead and share the entire list with you.
The top few were easy. Then it became more difficult. Back in the ’90s, you had a bunch of Eastern Conference tug o’ wars. Pistons-Bulls. Bulls-Knicks. Pistons-Knicks. Pistons-Celtics. Lots of grudge matches. It was hard to distinguish.
I also became worried that the list was too Eastern Conference-centric. Sometimes, those Eastern Seaboard rivalries got too much attention at the expense of the West. For instance, until I started researching it, I had forgotten how ferocious was the San Antonio-Phoenix rivalry.
So this is the list I ended up with. Like I said, the top few were easy. I’d say top four. Either tons of historic playoff matchups, over multiple eras, or repeated matchups in a concentrated amount of time with lots of serious bad blood. Anyway, enjoy the list:
1. Celtics vs. Lakers: Professional sports really has nothing like it. Two franchises on opposite coasts that so frequently have met on the ultimate stage: seven NBA Finals from 1959 through 1969, all won by Boston; then three Finals meetings from 1984-87, two by LA; and finally 2008 and 2010, split. Bill Russell vs. Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and/or Wilt Chamberlain. Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol vs. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. NBA competition at its finest.
2. Celtics vs. 76ers: The Eastern version of Boston-LA. The Celtics eliminated the 76ers five straight years in the playoffs, 1965-69, and had eliminated the Philadelphia Warriors in 1958, 1960 and 1962. And just when Philly thought it had forgotten all about the Celtics, here came the ‘80s, when the old foes met in four East finals. The Sixers won in ’80 and ’82, the Celtics in ’81 and ’85.
3. Heat vs. Knickerbockers: The epitome of bad blood. Miami and New York met in four straight playoffs, 1997-2000. All went the maximum games; the Heat on in ’97, the Knicks the next three years. The games were physical, low-scoring brawls. Literally. Late in 1997’s Game 5, a Miami rout, the Knicks’ Charlie Ward dove at PJ Brown’s legs. Brown grabbed Ward and flipped him on his head, igniting a melee. The Knicks’ stars left the bench to join the fight, and the NBA levied suspensions. Ewing, Houston and Ward for Game 6, Starks and Johnson for Game 7. Miami won both games to win the series. The next year, Johnson and Miami’s Alonzo Mourning engaged in a shoving match that led to New York coach Jeff Van Gundy famously grabbing the legs of the giant Mourning, trying to break up the fight.
4. Spurs vs. Suns: The Southwest version of New York-Miami. Urban legend says that the rift between Phoenix and San Antonio kept Spurs coach Gregg Popovich from coaching the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, since Suns patriarch Jerry Colangelo heads USA Basketball. Who knows? But they certainly had ill feelings during repeated playoff matchups – 10 from 1992 through 2010. None of the 10 series ever went the maximum games. The rivalry climaxed in 2007, when in Game 1 Steve Nash and Tony Parker butted heads, leading to Nash bleeding through a bandage most of the game. Late in Game 4, the Spurs’ Robert Horry knocked Nash into the scorer’s table with a hard foul, leading to a short fracas. Horry was suspended two games, but Phoenix’s Boris Diaw and Ama’re Stoudemire were suspended one game for stepping onto the court, though neither joined the tussle. The Spurs won Game 5 and closed out the series in Game 6.
5. Celtics vs. Pistons: In the 1980s, Detroit replaced Philadelphia as the contender to Boston supremacy in the East. The Bad Boys – Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn, Isiah Thomas – eventually led Detroit to NBA titles in 1989 and 1990. But they had to get past Boston first. The teams met five times in the playoffs from 1985 through 1991, with the Celtics winning the first two.
6. Lakers vs. Spurs: Either LA or San Antonio won the West every season from 1999 through 2005 and played each other in five of those seasons. They were ferocious games, with Shaq and Kobe and Tim Duncan and David Robinson (early) and Tony Parker (late).
7. Pacers vs. Knicks: Reggie Miller vs. Spike Lee. The teams met six times in the playoffs from 1993-2000, and Miller, the Indiana sharpshooter, routinely engaged with animated trash talk with New York superfan Lee. John Starks headbutted Miller during a game in ’93, leading to the first ill will. And Miller’s performance in 1995’s Game 1 remains an NBA classic – New York led 105-99 with less than 20 seconds left, but Miller scored eight points in a span of 8.9 seconds left to produce a stirring comeback.
8. Bulls vs. Pistons: A short-lived rivalry, no more than 3-4 years, but tension galore. The Pistons were trying to take over the East. So was Michael Jordan. Detroit beat Chicago in 1988 East semifinals and the 1989 East finals, but only after Pistons coach Chuck Daly instituted the “Jordan Rules” defense, which was as much psychological as anything. Jordan and Isiah Thomas feuded – Thomas reportedly led a “freeze-out” of Jordan in the 1985 all-star game, and Jordan apparently exacted his revenge by freezing out Thomas from the 1992 Olympic team.
9. Spurs vs. Mavericks: Lots of playoff meetings, lots of history. The Spurs began in Dallas, as the ABA’s old Dallas Chaparrals. The Mavericks won the West in 2006 with coach Avery Johnson, point guard of the Spurs’ 1999 NBA title team. The Spurs in 2005 had added former Mav cornerstone Michael Finley. The Spurs and Mavs met five times in the playoffs from 2001 to 2010.
10. Jazz vs. Rockets: Sometime forgotten out in the West, Houston-Utah was a great playoff rivalry in the 1990s. Four times they met. All four times, the winner went on to win the Western Conference. And the individual talent was supreme. Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone and John Stockton. The Rockets won in 1994 and 1995, the Jazz in 1997 and 1998. But Houston went on to win NBA titles those years; Utah did not.