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BOSTON -- Don't get me wrong. I'm looking forward to the Celtics-Knicks series as much as the next person. There appears to be some underlying enmity (if the last game at Madison Square Garden is any guide) and it will give us one more chance to shake our heads and wonder why (and how) Shelden Williams is still in the NBA.
But a rivalry? Please. This is only a rivalry in the eyes of the promoters shilling this series, and those who have the word "rivalry" as their default setting when anything pops up between Boston and New York.
|Celtics-Knicks had some fire in the days of John Havlicek and Bill Bradley, but that was a long time ago.|
I can remember Rick Pitino being asked about a rivalry shortly after he had taken over a bad Boston Celtics team -- and what he said then made perfect sense. For a rivalry to really exist, the two teams must be equally proficient. It can't be a rivalry when one team is great and the other one isn't. (Hence, the great line by ESPN's Chris Connelly talking about the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry as it relates to championships: "It's like a rivalry between a hammer and a nail.")
That's why the best Celtics rival of all is the Los Angeles Lakers; if those teams meet in the playoffs, it is going to be in the NBA Finals. Both teams will have survived three playoff series and emerged as conference champions. So, yeah, that constitutes a rivalry, especially since the teams have met 12 times in the NBA Finals -- and seemingly every year in the early 1960s.
The Celtics' next closest rival would have to be the Philadelphia 76ers. But it has been decades since both teams were legitimate title contenders (you have to go back to the early 1980s) and the bloom is sort of off the rose. Philly has made it to the NBA Finals once since 1983. The Celtics have made it twice since 1987. They haven't met in the playoffs since a first-round, best-of-fiver in 2002.
The Celtics and New York Knicks haven't met in a playoff series in 21 years. That is a rivalry? The last time these teams met, the Knicks were emerging as a conference power, soon to be taken over by Pat Riley and then Jeff Van Gundy. The Celtics were on the decline; Jimmy Rodgers' last game as Celtics coach came after the Knicks won in Boston, rallying from a 2-0 series hole to win in five games. They were good for another three seasons, but never played the Knicks when it mattered.
That's not to say there wasn't a time when these two were heated rivals. It's just that it happened in such a short stretch (four years) so long ago (the early 1970s). Back then, they were the two best teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks saw themselves as the logical extension of the great Celtics dynasty of the 1960s, with a cerebral coach (Red Holzman) and a lineup of Hall of Famers who played unselfishly. (You wonder why Phil Jackson hates Boston? He was on those Knicks teams.) The Celtics had just recovered from the hole they were in following the 1969 retirement of Bill Russell, which resulted in two dry playoff years. They resented the upstarts from Manhattan.
The Celtics and Knicks met three times in the playoffs in four seasons and there was the passion, intensity and, yes, fan hatred that characterizes any rivalry. The old Boston Garden was stocked with New York kids attending college in Boston, who were boisterous and boorish. (Sort of like Red Sox fans on the road these days.)
The Knicks won two of those series, in 1972 and 1973, but as then-coach Tommy Heinsohn recalled Wednesday, "We only lost in 1973 because Havlicek got hurt and we got screwed by the refs in Madison Square Garden." That 1972-73 Celtics team won 68 games, still a franchise record.
Heinsohn is referring to the infamous Game 4 of that series. The Celtics, without John Havlicek (shoulder), led by 16 points going into the fourth quarter, but a series of highly questionable calls by referees Jack Madden and Jake O'Donnell allowed New York back into the game. The Knicks won in double overtime and the game remains one of the most bitter losses in Celtics history.
The Knicks went on to win the series, becoming the first visiting team to win a Game 7 in Boston Garden. Havlicek came back to play in the final three games, but had no use of his right arm and was ineffective. O'Donnell and Madden eventually would bolt to the ABA, but returned to the NBA in the 1980s.
The Celtics were determined the following season and dismissed the Knicks in five games, winning both games in Madison Square Garden. They then went on to win the NBA title, defeating the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games.
That's pretty much it, sports fans. The Celtics and Knicks have met in the playoffs thrice since then (1984, 1988 and the aforementioned 1990) but they have not met as equals or even near-equals since 1974. Although the 1984 series was terrific, it wasn't close. The Celtics won the four games in Boston by margins of 18, 14, 22 and 17 points.
This year's matchup, Spike Lee and Woody Allen notwithstanding, does not appear to be clash of two titans. The Knicks are barely above .500. The Celtics have legitimate (or so they feel) designs on the franchise's 18th championship.
It could be a fun series. There could even be an upset. But let's refrain from talking about any renewed rivalry between these two franchises. A lot more needs to happen before it can get to that point.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.