Can you imagine a play-in team like the Boston Celtics or Memphis Grizzlies making the NBA Finals in 2021? The idea is quite the stretch and almost unfathomable. No way an eighth seed in the Eastern or Western Conference can advance past the first round, much less get all the way to the Finals. However, this is exactly what the New York Knicks did, making it all the way to the 1999 NBA Finals.
Yes, the Knicks. The same Knicks who depressed their fans more than arguably any franchise in sports for decades and now are back in the postseason in 2021 led by Tom Thibodeau and Julius Randle.
Granted, it was a much different situation. The 1998-99 season was shortened to only 50 games, which meant teams didn’t get a full season to truly weed out both the bottom and top teams out in the league. The Knicks were only 27-23 in those games, meaning they weren’t exactly a team that was clicking.
The team’s run is still one of the most impressive feats in NBA history, and no eight seed has made it to the Finals since them.
So how did this ragtag group of players accomplish the feat? Here’s exactly how they did it.
The Knicks roster was in the midst of a changing of the guard. John Starks was now in Golden State, and Charles Oakley had moved to Toronto by 1999.
The team was led by an aging Patrick Ewing, who was playing in his thirteenth season. Surrounding Ewing were Latrell Sprewell, a talented player with countless off-court problems, Allan Houston, a sharp shooting guard, and Larry Johnson, the highflying two–time All-Star who was nearing the end of his career.
The team wasn’t exactly oozing with talent, but they were the best in the league at playing hard-nosed basketball. The Knicks weren’t a pretty ball club, but when they buckled down, their defense won them games. In fact, it’s eerily similar to how the 2021 Knicks have got things done to this point.
The grit and grind style of basketball barely got the Knicks into the playoffs. They needed a 6-2 run to even get the No. 8 seed, and they drew a matchup with the Miami Heat in the first round.
Mind you, at the time, both the Heat and Knicks played some of the ugliest brands of basketball in the entire world. Each would rather gnaw at your ankle for 48 minutes than run earnest offense.
The Knicks and Heat already had a history. Pat Riley had recently left the Knicks to coach the Heat, and there was still bad blood after the awkward departure. They had already matched up in the last two playoffs, and both series’ included bench-clearing brawls.
This series started on a high note for the Knicks, and they took Game 1 in dominant fashion, blowing Miami out by 20 on their own home floor.
The Heat struck back in Game 2, but the pendulum swung back in the Knicks favor in Game 3, then back to the Heat in Game 4, setting up a winner take-all game in Miami.
Game 5 was, predictably, a physical slugfest that fit the Knicks style perfectly. However, they found themselves down one point with 4.5 seconds left. The score was 77-76, a score that we see by the third quarter in the 21st century of the NBA.
After a botched inbounds play, Allan Houston received the ball with the Knicks’ season on the line. He got his jumper to crawl over the rim, and the Knicks shocked Miami and advanced to the next round.
The Atlanta Hawks were next in the crosshairs. They didn’t put up nearly as much of a fight as the Heat. The Knicks swept the Hawks behind a dominant series from Sprewell, who averaged 22 points a game. Dikembe Mutumbo and Atlanta were rudely awakened to the fact that the Knicks were now locked in and ready to make a serious run.
The victory set up a classic matchup for the Conference Finals. The Indiana Pacers and the most hated man in New York, Reggie Miller, had another chance at dashing the Knicks’ dreams.
The Knicks came out of the gates firing. They took Game 1 in a hotly contested physical battle, winning 93-90.
Then disaster struck in Game 2. The Knick lost the game, but suffered an even bigger loss when Ewing went down with an Achilles injury. He would be ruled out for the rest of the series.
New York badly needed someone to step up, and Grandma-ma answered the call.
In perhaps the biggest Cinderella moment of the season, Larry Johnson would complete a four-point play, taking the Knicks from down three to up one in Game 3 of the series. Coach Jeff Van Gundy still claims that when the shot dropped, the reaction from the crowd was the loudest he has ever heard at the Garden. Mark Jackson, a former Knick and all-around New York legend, would miss at the buzzer for the Pacers to give the Knicks a 2-1 series advantage.
The teams traded wins after that, continuing the Knicks up and down, hot and cold postseason. Then Game 6 happened, and Allan Houston had other ideas. He out-shot Reggie Miller, dropping 32 points to complete the improbable run to the Finals, where San Antonio waited.
But at times in life we know that all good things come to an end sooner or later. Without Ewing and a hobbled Larry Johnson, who injured his knee in Game 6 of the Conference Finals, the Spurs manhandled the Knicks in the 1999 NBA Finals.
Tim Duncan and company won the first championship that would start a Spurs dynasty, while ending the New York Cinderella run and cursing Knicks fans for decades.
We’ll never know what would’ve happened in the 1999 NBA Finals if Ewing and Johnson avoided injury. Perhaps Big Pat would’ve captured his only championship.
The Knicks are back as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference and 2021 features a new play-in format for the postseason. It may be a long time before we see another No. 8 seed reach the NBA Finals.