The Knicks-Heat Rivalry’s Last Battle

The New York Knicks and the Miami Heat never won an NBA championship in the latter part of the 1990s. They never even met for a trip to the Finals. But that didn’t stop these two franchises for having perhaps the league’s hottest rivalry from 1997-2000. They met in the playoffs each year and every single series went the distance. Brawls and bad blood marked the battlefields, from South Beach to Madison Square Garden. Here we’ll look back on the last great hurrah of the Knicks-Heat rivalry, the 2000 Eastern Conference semi-finals.

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Pat Riley was where the bad blood began. The head coach who’d made his name overseeing the Showtime offense of the Los Angeles Lakers and winning four NBA titles, had gone to coach New York. He got the Knicks to within one game of the NBA title in 1994, but after the following season he stepped down and took over Miami, as both team president and coach. New York charged that Miami had tampered with Riley , and the Heat had to surrender a million dollars and a first-round draft pick. Before the two teams had even played a significant playoff series, the bad blood was in place.

In 1997 they met in the first round. The Knicks led 3-2 after five games, but a brawl in Game 5 resulted in suspensions heavily orientated against New York. It was the belief of the Knicks that the Heat goaded them into a brawl, which is a somewhat odd admission of a lack of self-control. Miami won the final two games of the conference semi-final series before falling to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls the next round.

New York took its revenge each of the next two seasons. They were now coached by current ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, and even though the Knicks were the seventh seed in 1998, they beat Miami in five games (the first round was then best-of-five). Another brawl broke out and the series’ memorable scene is Van Gundy with his arms wrapped around the legs of Miami center Alonzo Mourning, trying to stop the hostilities.

One year later, New York’s win was even sweeter. In a lockout shortened season they were the #8 seed, while Miami was the favorite to finally reach the conference finals. The Knicks again won the decisive Game 5, this time on a last-second jumper by Allan Houston that turned defeat into victory. New York continued an unlikely run to the NBA Finals before losing to San Antonio.

Now it was 2000 and the league would have its first full season of the post-Jordan era. The Eastern Conference was anyone’s to take. The Knicks had 37-year-old Patrick Ewing at center, still chasing that elusive ring. Larry Johnson, the former Charlotte start, was at power forward, though he was also now 30-years-old and his production was average (11 points/5 rebounds).

25-year-old Marcus Camby provided the youth down low, but the team was ultimately more perimeter-oriented. Houston and Latrell Sprewell were the lead scorers, combining to average 39 ppg, with Charlie Ward a skilled passer and ball-handler.

Miami had Mourning down low, who ironically had been followed in Ewing’s footsteps as a great center at Georgetown and the two had a mentor/protégé relationship in the pros. P.J. Brown was a tough rebounder, while Jamal Mashburn provided the scoring on the wings. Riley relied on 33-year-old Tim Hardaway to keep the offense running smoothly and another veteran, Dan Majerle, provided some defense and other intangibles.

The pace in the Eastern Conference was set by Indiana, who won 56 games, but Miami’s 52-30 wasn’t far behind and was good enough to win the Atlantic Division and claim the #2 seed. New York clocked in with 50 wins and the #3 seed. The Heat and Knicks both swept through their first-round series and their rivalry would get a fourth installment in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

It was a Sunday in South Beach that it got underway, and Miami defended its home floor. Mourning had 26 points, while Mashburn kicked in 21. Ewing had a good game for the Knicks, but at 17/9, it wasn’t nearly enough—especially not with Brown cleaning the glass to the tune of 16 rebounds.

The Heat grabbed an 87-81 win. But they gave homecourt advantage back two nights later. It was the kind of ugly game this series had become known for, as New York won with six players scoring between 11-13 points and winning the free-throw line battle 31-19, negating a rebounding edge for Miami. The 82-76 win by the Knicks sent us north tied at a game apiece.

Game 3 was an overtime epic, although the quality of play was not necessarily appealing to the fans. For the second straight game both teams shot under 40 percent from the floor. Miami again controlled the glass, while New York again scored more from the line. Houston and Sprewell combined for 47 points for the Knicks, while Brown banged the boards and Mourning scored 23. The ultimate difference came from rookie Anthony Carter. Trailing a by a point in overtime, the Heat guard drove the baseline faded behind the backboard, shot the ball over it and got it to go in the closing seconds. Miami won 77-76 and now had home floor back.

With their season on the line Sunday, the Knicks still couldn’t rebound, being beaten to the glass 48-37. But Mourning couldn’t take care of the ball. In spite of an outstanding 27 points/14 rebounds effort, Mourning turned it over nine times, part of a 17-turnover display by his team. New York had a rare good day shooting from three-point range, converting 8/17 and they tied the series with a 91-83 win.

The next two games saw the home teams hold serve, although there were hairy moments for both teams. Miami trailed late in Game 5, with the Knicks shooting 47 percent and Sprewell knocking down 24. But Majerle was an unlikely hero, banging home two treys in the closing minutes and Miami escaped 87-81.

New York put its fans through even more hell in Game 6—they trailed by 15 at the half, but finally got after it on the glass, and locked down on Mashburn defensively. The Miami star would score only eight points, the Knicks won rebounding and they escaped with a 72-70 win.

For the fourth straight year, these teams would play a single game to decide who advanced. It was another Sunday in South Beach, two weeks after the series opened, that the Knicks-Heat rivalry again went to the wire. Ewing was strong in the post, with his 20/10 game keying another narrow edge for his team on the boards.

The New York defense again shut down Mashburn, holding him to seven points. Mourning was brilliant, posting a 29/13, but the Knicks kept getting to the line. They got there more frequently—31-21—and more importantly they cashed in. New York hit its free throws, while Miami did not, resulting in a 17-point differential at the stripe.

The end result was a Miami role player Clarence Weatherspoon, getting the last shot in a game his team trailed 83-82. He predictably missed, and for the third straight year, New York had survived Miami. Van Gundy might not have coached the stars Riley had, and consequently never got even one ring, much less matching his rival. But there’s no question that Van Gundy owned Riley in this rivalry, as matchups with comparable talent saw New York win three of four matchups, with the only loss being tainted by suspensions.

It would be the Pacers who made the Finals out of the East and the Lakers that would start the Shaq/Kobe era of dominance with the first of three straight titles. The Knicks-Heat rivalry finally cooled the next year when they went to opposite sides of the Eastern Conference bracket and lost in the first round. One year later both missed the playoffs and this era was effectively over.

The Knicks-Heat rivalry was still as intense as it got. They didn’t meet again in the playoffs until 2011, when Miami easily won a first-round series. But who knows? Maybe it was just the start of a whole new era, this time with Melo and LeBron at the heart of the battle.