Tuesday celebrated the first-ever NBA game ever with the New York Knicks (once called the Knickerbockers) and the Toronto Raptors, but would you call them a rivalry? I wouldn’t. The Knicks and Celtics have played the most games together, but do they have a well-documented rival history? Apparently not enough to make the top ten. So here are the Top 10 NBA Rivalries in the NBA’s 75 years of excellence.
10. Los Angeles Lakers vs. San Antonio Spurs
Before there was Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Tim Duncan, there was George Gervin better nicknamed as the IceMan, and Magic. Unbeknownst to many, the Spurs went to the conference finals in back-to-back years but were toppled by Kareem and his young smiling sidekick, Earvin Johnson. In one of those years, they went seven games with the then champion Lakers but only lost the seventh game by one point - where Magic played every minute of the game but scored just two points.
Skip past a ‘95 Nick Van Exel game-winner, a prime Shaq sweep, a prime Duncan sweep, Robert Horry’s misses and makes, and an underrated Derek Fisher moment, the Lakers and Spurs maintained a level of greatness for over a decade. That’s what sticks out. Two teams doing this at the same time has only happened once in the eighties with the Celtics and Lakers. With the way franchise players bounce from team to team and rosters get drained and renourished, this might be the last time it ever happens.
Peak Year: 2003
9. Los Angeles Lakers vs Philadelphia 76ers
Did you know the first of a few NBA Finals buzzer-beaters was with the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers - well kind of. Bob Harrison of the Syracuse Nationals (76ers) hit a game-winner against George Mikan and the Minneapolis (turned L.A) Lakers in game one of the 1950 NBA Finals. This kickstarted the field for one of the longest NBA rivalries ever.
Decades later, Julius Erving hung in the air long enough to give us the baseline reverse scoop against the Lakers in the 1980 NBA Finals. Two years later, the two teams met again in the NBA Finals, but the 76ers still had no answer for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Finally, with the acquisition of Moses Malone, the 76ers topped the Lakers in Showdown ‘83, otherwise known as the 1983 NBA Finals.
Then in the 1996 draft, the 76ers secured Allen Iverson while the Lakers stole Philadelphia's own, Kobe Bryant. The two franchise players met in the NBA Finals of 2001, leading to the manliest crossover signature moment of all time. Kobe responded by telling the media, “I'm coming to Philadelphia to cut their hearts out!", leading to him getting booed relentlessly when introduced. Can you guess how Kobe got treated when he won the All-Star game MVP in Philadelphia the next year?
Sidenote: If the ‘83 76ers didn’t lose that one game to the Bucks in the conference finals, Malone’s ‘fo, fo, fo’ proclamation would have reigned true.
Peak Year: 2001
8. New York Knicks vs Indiana Pacers
It was either Knicks vs Heat or Knicks vs Pacers, but not both. Both rivalries loathed their opponents, leading to several key memories (‘97 Heat brawl with Knicks leading to important suspensions and the ‘95 Miller takeover dismantle). Both rivals embodied the same cocky underdog persona of, ‘I’M GOING TO CRUSH THIS GUY’ attitude, especially in those late nineties. But the Knicks/ Pacers were picked for one reason. Their games just mattered more.
The Heat and Knicks battle peaked in ‘97 when Jordan still ran supreme and unbeatable. After that, despite the Knicks being the lower seed each of the next three years, they conquered the Heat each time. But never made it as far as a Conference Final. Despite Reggie’s choke impersonation to Spike Lee in ‘95, the Knicks won the series to go to a Jodan-less Finals. The Knicks again beat the Pacers in ‘99 to go to another Jordan-less Finals. This happened again the next year but in reverse. Scoreboard: Knicks V Pacers.
Sidenote: Although Pat Riley facing his old Knicks team so many consecutive times as president of the Heat is still one of the coolest video game-like storylines in NBA history.
Peak Year: 1995
7. Phoenix Suns vs San Antonio Spurs
I’m adding bonus points here for the rivalry remaining relevant over two consecutive decades. In ‘92, the two teams faced each other in the first round but David Robinson was out indefinitely with thumb surgery. So the series was a wash with the Suns sweeping the Spurs on the back of Kevin Johnson averages of 23 points and 16 assists a game. Robinson coming back healthy the next year still didn’t do enough to balance the scales. With near-peak Robinson on a tear, the Suns adding MVP Barkley was just too much to handle. Barkley hit the shot over Robinson to send the Spurs packing in game six in one of the most underrated playoff shots in history. Luckily the Spurs would get their revenge in ‘96 and ‘98 as the Suns were depleted.
To begin the next decade, a Duncan-less Spurs got hammered by the Suns in four. The Spurs returned the favor than in ‘05. But things reached their boiling point in ‘07. In what should be remembered as ‘the real Finals’, Parker and Nash started the series by bumping heads leading to Nash breaking his nose. This would force the Canadian MVP to bounce in and out of the crucial game for bleeding through his bandages.
Then in game four, with the Spurs up 2-1, Robert Horry knocked Nash into the scorers' table mid-court in what was arguably his clutchest ‘Big Shot Bob’ moment. A mini-riot ensued and while Horry was suspended for two games, more significantly, Amare Stoudamire and Boris Diaw were suspended for one. Although the Suns won that game four, they would lose the next two.
Sidenote: I’m sure thumb surgery is very serious and I know doctors warned Robinson of the potential permanent damage he could get if he continued to play at the end of the season and playoffs. But it’s still funny picturing a 7-foot 1-inch dude named ‘The Admiral’, refusing to play in the playoffs because his finger hurt.
Peak year: 2007
6. New York Knicks vs Chicago Bulls
The Bulls and Knicks picked their franchise players one year apart in the lottery, which seems to be a running theme in this list. But this rivalry had the fights, the key memories, and was pretty competitive - or at least as competitive as it gets when you're up against a prime MJ. In ‘89, the sixth-seeded Bulls upset the second-seeded Knicks with MVP Jordan having four 38 point games or higher. In ‘91, the Bulls swept the Knicks, winning their first playoff game by 41 points. Let's be real, a comet hitting the Bulls practice facility right as they were training, would not have stopped MJ from getting his first ring that year.
But with Pat Riley coaching the Knicks, they took the Bulls seven games in ‘92. Jordan played in two-game sevens ever, and this was one of them. There were some classic nineties ‘scuffles’ between Jordan and Pippen and the Knicks’ Xavier McDaniel and Greg Anthony, which is always needed to crank this tier. The only thing that made the series more MJ-like was that he was literally gambling in Atlantic City midway through the series. So of course they won the decider by 29 points. The Knicks had no answer for the Bulls the next year either, despite starting the series up 2-0.
But when Jordan retired, everything changed. When meeting again in the playoffs, Jo Jo Harper and Derek Fisher fought in the stands in front of David Stern, Pippen refused to take the floor, the Bulls blew a 19-point fourth-quarter lead, Pippen got the worst foul call of all time on Hubert Davis. But by far the best moment of that series was easily when Pippen dunked on Ewing. Simply unmatched.
The Knicks won that series and lost in the NBA Finals. They would face the Bulls seven times from 1989-1997, but nothing sticks in my mind more than that Pippen dunk.
Sidenote: The Knicks taking the Bulls seven in ‘92 was their ultimate welcoming party. They had officially replaced the Celtics and Pistons as co-powerhouses of the East.
Peak year: 1994
5. Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden State Warriors
They met four times in the Finals in four years, so no, they didn’t need a longer rivalry than that to crack the top five. LeBron vs Curry represented the old vs the new. As crazy as it sounds now, there was a time when every NBA player was not required to shoot threes. You can thank the ‘15 Warriors for that. I’m sure you don’t need to be reminded of the 3-1 comeback, Durant making the shot and on a lighter note, the J.R Smith blunder leading to a conveniently publicly stated broken hand for LeBron - right after the sweep. Mmmm.
But sorry, points need to be taken off for the KD acquisition. Adding someone like him was like you and a friend comparing who could pour the perfectly leveled beer and then some first-day bartender grabs one and overfills it until the entire glass is drenched. It ruined everything. KD ruined the competition of the league for two years, stopped us from a real LeBron vs Curry trifecta and I’m still not over it!
Peak year: 2016
4. Boston Celtics Celtics vs Detroit Pistons
It was a tough decision to put this rivalry over the Bulls/ Pistons. Both Piston rivalries were eerily similar with the Bad Boys doing what they did best, invasively interrupting the fan’s hopes. You guys wanted a final Lakers/ Celtics showdown in 1988? Too bad. You wanted to see Jordan finally break the glass ceiling? Maybe next year. But it ultimately came down to one spectacular play: ‘Bird Steals The Ball’. Not only was it a top-three non-playoff moment ever, right in front of ‘Jordan’s 63 in the Garden’ and behind ‘Havilicek stole the Ball’ and ‘Kawhi Leonard gets the bounce’, it actually put the Pistons on the map. It helped that both teams seemed to peak historically in similar eras. Isaiah’s Pistons ended the Bird era Celtics like how Pierce’s Celtics ended the Billups era Pistons.
Sidenote: The 2008 conference semi-finals between the prime time Celtics and Pistons was much closer than people remember. Four out of the six games were decided by single-digit differences and at least three separate times, my eight-year-old self dreamt of an angry Kevin Garnett eating Rasheed Wallace’s head out of a cereal bowl.
Peak Year: 1987
3. Los Angeles Lakers vs Detroit Pistons
Did you know that the Pistons and Lakers squared off in nine playoff series from 1950-1962? Exactly, because that means absolutely nothing. So let's get to Isiah Thomas kissing Magic Johnson! Because that is how the 1988 NBA Finals started so it would only seem fair. So after Isiah smooched his idol, he went on to have the greatest Finals quarter ever, and that goes for the future as well. After spraining his ankle, Zeke dropped 25 points in just the third quarter of game 6. Unfortunately, that next quarter also capped an all-time list for worst ending ever to a Finals game. For what is referred to as the ‘The Phantom Foul’, Bill Laimbeer - for all of his disgusting playoff acts - was called for the weakest foul ever with the Pistons leading by one with just 14 seconds left. Kareem sank both free throws to force a game 7, and that’s all she wrote for the Pistons’ chances at winning.
Openly furious, the Pistons locked down the best record in the league the next season in a violent fashion, going 63-19. When they came up against an 11-0 Lakers team set for a repeat, the Pistons steamrolled through them. Of course, people bring up that Byron Scott tore his hamstring right before game one and Magic the same in the third quarter of game two. But sorry Laker fans, they were losing anyway. Magic was too slow to guard Isiah and Joe Dumars and Abdul-Jabbar in his last ever series was completely done.
Then in 2004, the Lakers were again, losing to the Pistons while ending their own unique championship era. With Bryant and Shaq in a non-stop alpha showdown, Gary Payton doing post-stardom-Payton things, Malone always injured - the Piston took full advantage and won in five. But this was the exact same theme of the eighties. ‘The Pistons waited for the Lakers to get old, swooped in a tumultuous window and don’t deserve any credit for their wins’. This is again, crap. Sure they didn’t have that superstar, but taking prime all-time superstar Tim Duncan and the Spurs seven games the next year in the Finals, proved they were legit.
Side note: The ‘89 Pistons swept Larry Bird’s Celtics, the Bucks, beat MJ’s Bulls in six, and swept Magic’s Lakers - all in one postseason. But if Magic doesn’t suffer that series-ending hamstring injury in Game 2, when the Lakers were actually leading by a bucket, do the Lakers get swept? Because if they win, Magic now has 6 rings and Kareem 7? Is Jordan still the GOAT in this timeline?
Peak year: 1988
2. Detroit Pistons vs Chicago Bulls
Before Pistons’ coach, Chuck Daily was an obsessive Jordan madman, bent on his destruction, Jordan was an established MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. He had already dropped 61 on the Bad Boys in ‘87 and 59 in ‘88. Angry at this and aware of the conference’s coming fate, Daily introduced ‘The Jordan Rules. This was the equivalent of an eighth-grade basketball team going on a field trip to play streetballers with street referees and street rules all because one eighth-grader was really, really good.
With more pushes, shoves, elbows, knees, scratches, kicks, and punches in two series to last the modern NBA for the next decade, the Bulls got beat in both the ‘89 and ‘90 Conference Finals, literally. But if the Rocky movies have taught us anything, other than the lack of English chops needed to become an A+ actor, it's that true champions keep moving forward. Jordan got his revenge in ‘91, their third straight Conference Finals match-up. The Pistons didn’t even shake their hands as they were walking off the court early - dominance.
Peak Year: 1990
1. Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers
Yes, Yes, you can pick your jaws up from the ground, clearly, this was the big twist everyone was expecting. Sort of like how when you watch a romantic comedy, and the movie ends with the two main characters forming a loving relationship. The Celtics Lakers rivalry has everything and is everything. The two biggest sports towns - both polar opposites to each other - both met each other in the Finals the most of all matchups. You can really tell the entire history of the league, just by looking at their all-time players. Well, other than most of the ’90s but another team wrote that history. I forgot who?
Sidenote: Lakers fans claim they are on par with the Celtics because they have won 17 NBA championships. That’s in fact wrong. They have actually won 12 and the Minneapolis Lakers have won 5. If they were the same team, then they would have retired George Mikan’s jersey. Five championships as the best player would seem to do it, unless they're separate teams?
Peak Year: 1987