On Tuesday, we looked back at some of the greatest playoff series I’ve ever seen played in the Western Conference. Today, we head East, where rival teams including the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks have helped make for some great matchups over the years.
Of course, the series which started this entire conversation – the 2009 Opening Round series between the defending champion Celtics and the Chicago Bulls – is where we begin. It didn’t take long to see this would be a matchup to remember as in Game One, Bulls rookie Derrick Rose scored 36 points while helping his young team to a victory on the road.
The road team had immediately placed the pressure onto the Celtics who were without their key inside player and floor leader, Kevin Garnett. Game Two was about play on the perimeter, however, and would belong to a pair of former UConn Huskies – Ray Allen and Ben Gordon. The two put on a shooting show for the ages and it appeared that this contest would belong to whomever had the ball in their hands last. With under a minute to go, Gordon’s two-pointer gave the Bulls a 113-112 lead. Allen’s quick release on the other end helped him to a three-pointer which recaptured the lead for his Celtics with 25 seconds to go. Gordon drew a double team on Chicago’s next possession, but that still didn’t stop him from knocking down a shot which tied things up at 115 apiece. Allen would have the last shot in the game and as expected took full advantage with a three-pointer that left just two seconds on the clock. With the Bulls out of timeouts, the team had no chance to set anything up and the series was tied 1-1.
After a lackluster Game Three – the only one of its kind in this series – the Celtics had turned placed the pressure back onto the Bulls thanks to a victory on the road. What was already shaping up to be a memorable series reached another stratosphere in Game Four. This contest is also when things began to get a bit more physical as fans were reminded of the days in which names like Ben Gordon and Paul Pierce were Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Four guys who always appreciated taking a jumper in the clutch, Game Four would provide many opportunities for the present day Bulls and Celtics players to take some big shots.
Tied with 35 seconds remaining, Gordon with two guys right on top of him, connected on a floater which gave the Bulls the lead. Who else but Allen should respond on the other end, tying the score and forcing overtime. The Celtics appeared to have the edge in the extra session, but Gordon’s off-balance three forced another overtime, the third played in the first four games. The tables were turned in this extra session as things appeared to be all Chicago until Pierce nailed a tough three-point shot making it a one-point game with under 20 seconds remaining. His next three-point attempt which could have tied the game was blocked, however, and this series was knotted up 2-2.
It didn’t appear possible the two teams could top the double-overtime thriller, but that’s exactly what happened in Game Five. You know a game is good when highlight packages recapping it don’t even bother to show anything that happened in the first half, and that’s the kind of contest this was. After a shot I can only describe as, “Ben Gordon why the heck are you – never mind, we’re good… nice shot, Ben” gave the Bulls a two-point lead with 17 seconds remaining in regulation (foreshadowing), Pierce countered Gordon’ s shot with one of his own and we were again heading to overtime.
Gordon and Pierce again exchanged late baskets in the first overtime (again, foreshadowing) and following missed free throws by Brad Miller after a controversial foul on Rajon Rondo, the Celtics had a 3-2 series lead and appeared to have taken control of the series. The series lead particularly important considering the Celtics were 32-0 all-time in playoff series that saw them with such a lead. And although I generally hate statistics like that (because, really, how relevant is a 1976 series between the Boston Celtics and Buffalo Braves today), there’s no denying that 32-0 in anything all-time is impressive.
With the Bulls facing elimination in Game Six at home, the young team responded, and in a series of amazing games, Game Six took the cake in a contest of blood, sweat and tears. The visiting Celtics were up five with just over a minute in regulation, but a Brad Miller three-pointer followed by a Brad Miller layup, quickly tied things at 101-101. Neither team would score again and Miller had made amends for his missed free throws in Game Five as the two teams were again headed to overtime.
Each team managed just eight points in the extra session which – for those of you like myself who did not major in mathematics – meant we were headed to a second overtime… again. It was Allen feeling it in this extra session as his three-point shot forced a third overtime.
The highlight of that third overtime no doubt came with the score tied and 40 seconds remaining. Joakim Noah intercepted a pass and went the length of the court for a slam which ignited the Chicago crowd and resulted in a three-point play thanks to a foolish foul by Pierce. The Bulls defense was again a factor on the Celtics’ next possession as it was Rose this time coming up with a block on Rondo that preserved a victory and forced a Game Seven.
This series was no doubt where amazing happened with three of the first five games going overtime, a Game Four that went two extra periods and then of course the Game Six which trumped them all. There was just no way Game Seven could live up to the hype but it should be mentioned that the game was very competitive and again came down to the closing moments. The Celtics survived and lived to fight another day, again showing how far a little maturity and a little experience can go in this league.
With names like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, the 1995 NBA Playoffs were filled with mature players who had heaps of maturity. The collection of games played in the Eastern Conference alone may be the best I’ve ever seen and played a key role in me becoming an NBA fanatic. The semifinals that season included a young, upstart Orlando Magic taking down Michael Jordan – who had recently come out of retirement – and his Chicago Bulls. In Game One of that series, Jordan showed for just a moment that he might be human after all, missing two crucial free throws down the stretch and committing a costly turnover while bringing the ball up the floor. While the game was certainly memorable, it wasn’t even the best played that day. Fans earlier that afternoon had been treated to a truly classic Game One between the Indiana Pacers and the rival New York Knicks.
After falling to the Knicks in the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals in seven games, the Pacers proved themselves a much more confident team heading into this year’s showdown. But despite putting up a fight in Game One, Indiana still found itself down six points with just under 18 seconds to play at Madison Square Garden. Thanks to a clutch steal and two free throws from Reggie Miller, the team captain scored eight points in that stretch helping his team to an amazing 107-105 come-from-behind victory. The Knicks bounced back big at home for Game Two, setting up another nail biter – this time in Indiana – for Game Three. Reggie Miller was again the difference, as his hot hand scored 26 points while his skinny frame somehow grabbed 11 rebounds as the Pacers squeaked by with a 97-95 win. His team then rode that momentum to another victory in Game Four and had the Knicks on the ropes.
Down 3-1 in the series, a New York Knicks team that already epitomized the blue-collar work ethic fans in the Big Apple loved, fought back and eventually managed to force a Game Seven at home. In a rivalry that always appeared to come down to the final seconds, it was fitting that the decisive game in this series would be no different. With the Pacers up 97-95, Patrick Ewing had a chance to tie the game as time expired, but missed a driving layup that was just inches from forcing overtime.
Although it only went six games, the 1999 meeting between these two ballclubs could be viewed as even more memorable than that 1995 encounter. The stakes were certainly higher as the Conference Finals meeting meant a trip to the NBA Finals was on the line. With Michael Jordan again retired and the Pacers the winners of their first eight playoff games, they certainly appeared to be the team to beat against the eighth-seeded Knicks.
As they always seemed to do against one another, the two teams kept in close in Game One with the Knicks escaping the 93-90 victors. The Pacers emerged victorious in a must-win Game Two, grabbing a win in another close contest, this one by a score of 88-86. The story following the game centered around hobbled Knicks center, Patrick Ewing, who had been battling through these playoffs with a sore Achilles tendon. Ewing would be shut down for the remainder of the series, but still the resilient Knicks managed a split in the next two contests. The injury would also force Ewing to watch Game Five from the sidelines – a contest which was by far the most memorable from this series.
Trailing by three points with time running out, Larry Johnson connected on a tough shot from beyond the arc, drawing contact in the process. “LJ” connected on the free throw, completing the four-point play and helping the Knicks to an improbable 92-91 victory at Madison Square Garden. A team which on paper should have been eliminated in the Opening Round – this before shutting down their floor leader Patrick Ewing – would go on to win that series in six games and advance to the NBA Finals.
Not all great matchups in the Eastern Conference featuring the Knicks and Pacers involved them playing one another, however. In fact, in order for the Knicks to even qualify for that season’s Eastern Conference Finals, they had to climb another hill in the form of another rival – the Miami Heat. A rivalry just as remembered for its brawls and tough plays as its competitiveness and memorable finishes, there was no doubt a lot of tension between the two ballclubs by the time they met in 1999.
What started as a rivalry due to storylines (Pat Riley leaving the Knicks to coach the Heat and former Hornets teammates Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning coming to blows among just a few of them), not even the media needed to hype up the intensity when the Knicks and Heat took the floor.
The Eastern Conference’s number one seed that year, Miami would host none other than the eighth-seeded New York Knicks in the Opening Round. With Patrick Ewing hobbling, many didn’t give the Knicks a chance to become just the second eighth seed in NBA history to oust a first seed. That changed quickly following a 20-point blowout in Game One as New York was led by Allan Houston’s 22 points matched by Latrell Sprewell who came in off the bench. The teams alternated victories in each of the first four contests of that series setting up the third winner-take-all contest played between the two in as many seasons.
A defensive battle all the way through (what else would you expect from these two, right?), the Heat led 77-76 with just seconds remaining. Patrick Ewing playing through a number of bumps and bruises had battled and contributed 22 points and 11 rebounds, but it was Houston proving to be the hero with a running right-handed which appeared to take several minutes to drop. Hitting the rim before banking off the backboard, the Knicks would ride the momentum of that shot all the way to the NBA Finals (again proof that a first round series just might mean something after all).
For the Pacers, they found other rivals in both the Magic and Bulls whom they battled with in 1995 and 1998 respectively. The prior I will most remember for Game Four played on Memorial Day in Indiana. Several lead changes in the closing moments, it wasn’t Reggie Miller but center Rik Smits who would ultimately emerge the hero. The 1998 series against the Bulls was also most remembered for its Game Four which the Pacers again needed to tie the series. At home, it was Reggie Miller who won the battle with his off-balance three-pointer as Jordan’s counter shot rolled around the rim and tickled the net before leaving the basket. But while Miller and his Pacers had won the battle, it was Jordan and his Bulls winning the war as Chicago again advanced to the NBA Finals.
And before I’m bombarded with letters from all you good people in New York and Chicago, yes, I am fully aware the two teams have a little bit of history. Unfortunately, I only caught bits and pieces of those series, and since the beginning of this process have only been discussing series I have watched. I began this process in hopes of finding that one perfect series I could determine was the greatest I have ever seen but still have yet to pick one. Hopefully on Thursday when I breakdown my selections from the NBA Finals I will find myself a step closer. Stay tuned.