- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Jeff Van Gundy won three of the New York Knicks' four playoff series against the Miami Heat, and yet his enduring memory does not involve Allan Houston's make or Clarence Weatherspoon's miss. Van Gundy remembers failure, the kind you take to your grave.
Van Gundy remembers Alonzo Mourning's dagger in Game 6, 1997, after David Stern suspended every significant Knick but Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed, and he remembers that hopelessly empty Game 7 feeling in Miami, where Tim Hardaway shot the Knicks right out of the gym.
"And that was the best Knicks team I had," Van Gundy, now an ESPN/ABC analyst, said Friday. "Trying to scale Mount Jordan in the next round would've been a tall task, but I thought we were primed to make a run at Chicago and that we really had a legitimate chance to win it all."
Van Gundy trudged into the office of the winning coach, Pat Riley, and let his former boss know he didn't appreciate his politicking in the media. "I didn't realize I was coaching against Phil Jackson out there," Van Gundy barked. Riley was all for repairing the relationship, at least until his former protege beat him in three sudden-death games in Miami over three consecutive years.
Something good, bad and ugly always emerged from Knicks-Heat. After the P.J. Brown-Charlie Ward brawl inspired the '97 suspensions, Jeff and brother Stan, then a loyal Riley lieutenant, engaged in an argument over the phone so profane that they hung up on each other and later agreed to never again speak during a Knicks-Heat series.
Both sides felt immense pressure back then, even if Miami was forever the higher seed. But all these years later, the Knicks have very little to lose, other than a first-round series.
The Heat? They've never been so burdened by great expectations. In Year 2 of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (OK, OK, you can throw Chris Bosh in there, too), a best-of-seven loss to the Knicks would be so apocalyptic as to force the ace recruiter, Riley, to consider breaking up his blue-chip class.
Miami is heavily favored to do what it did in the first three rounds of last year's postseason -- hold its opponents to one victory -- and for good reason. It was too easy to forget how the Heat steamrolled Philly, Boston and Chicago in Year 1, if only because the Heat coughed (for laughs) and choked (for real) in the Finals loss to Dallas.
The Knicks? They haven't won a playoff series since their final victory over the Heat in 2000, when somehow, some way, the big shot ended up in Weatherspoon's hands. This time around, on truth serum, the Knicks would concede that a tough six-game series and a contract extension for Mike Woodson would amount to a good showing.
In the end, these aren't the flawed Heat of Mourning and Hardaway, and these aren't the '99 Knicks, an eighth seed in a lockout-shortened season that started an improbable dash to the Finals on Houston's endgame runner, the shot that defines the rivalry.
"I think Miami will be fully engaged," Van Gundy said, "because I don't think they necessarily enjoy the grind of the regular season. I think they're looking forward to the chance to get back to where they were last year.
"Could the Knicks win? Yeah, I think they have a shot. They're playing good, they've got Carmelo Anthony and they play good defense."
No, Van Gundy didn't say it with much conviction. All these years after committing that felony assault on Mourning's ankle, Van Gundy occasionally morphs back into the feisty, ever-protective coach of the Knicks.
Like when the Heat played at the Garden a couple of weeks back. "I love Miami's team, and I think Erik [Spoelstra] is great and that they've got a great shot," Van Gundy said. "But when I saw them on the Knicks' court, man, those old feelings came back. It was like, 'Hey, I really don't like those guys.'"
The hate first boiled over in Game 5, 1997, when the Knicks rushed off their bench in the Brown-Ward dustup. Patrick Ewing was suspended for Game 6 for wandering in the general direction of the pile, and when his 37 points and 17 rebounds weren't nearly enough to take Game 7, the big man said this of his punishment: "The NBA robbed me of a great opportunity."
Garden executives Jim Dolan and Marc Lustgarten didn't blame Stern when they lunched with Van Gundy during the following training camp -- they blamed Van Gundy and told him his Knicks should have been disciplined enough to stay on the bench.
"As the coach, I have to take the blame for that," Van Gundy said Friday. "As far as rushing into the fray, that's on me. I could've and should've done better, and that's something I still don't feel very good about. But the suspension of Patrick? That was just misguided."
That was then; this is now. The 2012 Heat and the 2012 Knicks might play an entertaining series, but it's not likely they can replicate what they shared in a different life.
"Four straight years of going to a deciding game," Van Gundy said. "I think it grew from a mutual disdain to a mutual respect because regular-season games between the Knicks and Heat were like playoff games, and playoff games between them were like nothing I've ever seen."
Soon enough, Van Gundy was talking about Riley's first game back in the Garden with the Heat, and the sight of the not-so-dearly departed Knicks coach making like a WWE villain and gesturing at the fans to boo him as loudly as they could.
"A surreal scene," Van Gundy called it. "In my time, the two loudest moments in the Garden were when we lost Game 6 to Miami in '97 and when Pat came back [in '95]."
Van Gundy will be inside AmericanAirlines Arena on Saturday to call Game 1 for ABC, and he knows some old sentiments will consume him at tipoff. But he also knows he doesn't have to worry about the outcome anymore.
In fact, the only past or present Knick who does is Riley. Miami is his team. The team that can't afford to go one and done.
This Knicks-Heat series will have a different feel than their battles of old.