The 1990s offered NBA fans with some of the most intriguing rivalries in league history. Many of them involved the New York Knicks.
The Knicks rebranded themselves as a brash and physical team centered around big man Patrick Ewing. With characters like John Starks and Anthony Mason hounding opponents, they developed bad blood with teams like the Chicago Bulls and the Indiana Pacers.
New York also developed a rivalry with the Miami Heat, especially at the end of the decade.
Here are the five best moments from the Knicks-Heat rivalry in the 1990s, starting with the reason that the rivalry even developed in the first place.
5. Pat Riley turns heel
Legendary head coach Pat Riley is the reason that the Knicks became so successful in the 90’s.
The Knicks made the playoffs during the 1990-91 season, but they won just 39 games and were bounced in the first round. New York hired Riley prior to the 1991-92 season after he helped make the Los Angeles Lakers the team of the decade in the 1980s.
Naturally, the Knicks got better every year. They took the Chicago Bulls to seven games in the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinals. One year later, the Knicks won 60 games–the most in the East–and even won the first two games against the Bulls in the Conference Finals before they collapsed.
With Michael Jordan gone, the Knicks finally won the East in 1994, and they came within a single game of winning their first championship since 1973. The 1994-1995 season was supposed to be the year that the Knicks reached the mountaintop, but instead, they were bounced in the second round.
In a stunning move, Riley resigned as the head coach of the Knicks during the summer. By September, he was named the president and head coach of the Heat. Riley brought all of New York’s old brashness to the South Beach, establishing a new culture and leaving his old franchise in the dust.
4. Riley back at The Garden
Riley himself has always been unabashed in nature. He is one of the most ruthless competitors–from a coaching standpoint–in the history of basketball. After all, you need to have a pretty unrivaled competitive drive in order to earn a mention in Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech.
Given his attitude and understanding, Riley understood the welcome that he would get upon his return to Madison Square Garden on Dec. 20, 1995.
He never once attempted to avoid the vitriol, instead walking onto the floor to meet the crowd and mouthing “I love you” to the crowd despite an onslaught of boos.
This moment really cemented the fact that Riley was gone. In time, his Heat teams would come to haunt the Knicks in the playoffs.
3. P.J. Brown tosses Charlie Ward
The Knicks and Heat met in the second round of the 1997 playoffs, and this is where the bad blood really began to boil over.
New York took a 3-1 lead over the Heat, but Miami was far from finished. The Heat blew the Knicks out of the building in Game 5, but the game is better remembered for an infamous brawl, and the ramifications the brawl had on the rest of the series.
The Knicks led by 14 with under two minutes to go and Tim Hardaway at the line. After the second free throw, Knicks guard Charlie Ward got into the body of Heat big man P.J. Brown.
Brown did not appreciate Ward’s aggressive box-out. He picked him up and flipped him along the baseline, sparking a massive brawl that would lead to a number of suspensions:
The Knicks were the team most impacted. They lost Ward, Ewing, Starks, Larry Johnson and Allan Houston (all of whom left the bench) in Game 6, and the Heat would go on to win the next two games to advance to the Conference Finals.
2. Allan Houston buries the Heat
While the Heat controlled just about everything about the playoff narrative through the first couple years of the rivalry, the Knicks would get another leg up in stunning fashion at the end of the decade.
New York made the 1999 playoffs as an eight seed in a lockout-shortened season. They would go on to make the most improbable run in NBA history, reaching the NBA Finals — still the last team to accomplish this feat — before falling to the San Antonio Spurs.
The Knicks actually dominated the Heat in the second round, winning three of the first four games and playing Miami tight on the road in Game 5. The Heat held a one-point lead with just 4.6 seconds remaining, but Houston would have the final say:
With that friendly roll, the Knicks advanced to the Conference Finals. It was a seminal moment for one of the most overachieving playoff teams in NBA history.
1. Johnson, Mourning and Van Gundy
The defining moment of the rivalry comes a year earlier, and it practically needs no introduction.
Miami and New York met in the first round in 1998, and the Knicks would defeat the Heat despite the absence of Ewing, who missed the series with a dislocated wrist.
But even though this series went the distance, Game 4 provided the most drama. The Knicks evened the series, and two former teammates–both of whom had beef with the other–would get physical.
Johnson and Heat center Alonzo Mourning came into the league as rising stars for the Charlotte Hornets. But Johnson’s injuries and Mourning’s contract demands made for an interesting drama where the two constantly butted heads.
Things got testy at the end of the game. The Knicks essentially had it in hand, but Johnson showed no mercy, face-guarding Mourning off the ball. The two got into a shoving match, which eventually led to punches being thrown. But the fight alone is probably the least intriguing element of the brawl:
Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy attempted to separate the two stars, but instead ended up helplessly wrapped around Mourning’s legs.
Van Gundy was absolutely furious in the aftermath, mostly because it appeared as though Mourning was essentially kicking at him in order to shake the Knicks head coach.
The Knicks and Heat met in the playoffs in four consecutive seasons. And yet, the clash between Johnson and Mourning is easily the most recognizable moment in this storied rivalry.