“It’s a rivalry?” Pierce said to reporters that night. “I didn’t know we had a rivalry going.”
In fact, the last time the Knicks and the met in the playoffs, back in the spring of 1990, Pierce was 12 years old and rooting for the .
The Knicks won that playoff series with Boston 21 years ago after rallying from a 2-0 deficit in the best-of-five series and by breaking a 26-game losing streak over six years at Boston Garden.
That Knicks roster included three players who are now assistants in the (, Maurice Cheeks and ), a former N.B.A. general manager (Kiki Vandeweghe), a player with a son currently in the N.B.A. (Gerald Wilkins), a television analyst () and a player with a rule named after him (Trent Tucker).
In other words, a lot has happened since the last time these two teams met with everything on the line. But now they finally meet again, beginning this weekend, when Boston plays host to the Knicks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs with new faces like Amar’e Stoudemire, and Rajon Rondo woven into a narrative that started with Max Zaslofsky and Bob Cousy 60 years ago and went on to include , Bill Russell, Kevin McHale, , Willis Reed, and Patrick Ewing.
And don’t forget the two Reds, Auerbach and Holzman.
For much of the past two decades, the Knicks and the Celtics have flip-flopped in relevance. Both were conceived with the N.B.A.’s birth in the 1940s and outlasted teams like the Toronto Huskies and the Providence Steamrollers.
The Knicks beat the Celtics, 2-0, in their first playoff series, in 1951. Zaslofsky, a guard from Brooklyn and St. John’s, averaged a team-high 17.9 points a game. Over the next 49 years, they had 12 more matchups in the postseason, with the Celtics winning seven. It may not quite be Yankees-Red Sox, but Knicks-Celtics is a rivalry that resonates.
Frazier likened this year’s matchup to the Eastern Division finals between the two teams in 1969. The Knicks were up-and-comers then, with Frazier in his second season, and Reed, Bradley and all on board, too.
Boston had long been the pillars of the East, and the Celtics’ experience got them past the Knicks in a six-game series and then past the Lakers in the finals. Russell, Boston’s player-coach, proceeded to retire. Meanwhile, the Knicks built off that playoff failure and a year later, with many of the same players, won their first N.B.A. championship
“We felt we were on par with them,” Frazier said of the Celtics team that beat them in 1969. “We felt we were ready to be the champions. I remember that like yesterday.”
The 1968-69 Boston team had older players like Russell and Sam Jones. The current Celtics club is also dealing with age: Pierce is 33, is 34 and Ray Allen is 35. This group won a championship together in 2008, but cracks are showing.
“It’s so similar to when they had Russell and I came into the league,” said Frazier, looking back over 40 years. “They’re an older team, so their future, I think, is behind them. The Knicks’ future is, I think, ahead of them.”
Frazier guided the Knicks to a Game 7 win over the Celtics at Boston Garden in the 1973 Eastern Conference finals after Boston rallied to win Games 5 and 6. The Knicks then went on to win their second, and most recent, championship over the Lakers.
A decade later, in 1984, Bernard King averaged 29.1 points for the Knicks as they pushed the Celtics to seven games. But in Boston, 121-104.
“We won it at the Garden,” said McHale, who chased King much of that series. “Not Madison Square Garden. The real garden is Boston Garden, the old Boston Garden.”
But it was at Boston Garden, six years later, that the Knicks stunned everyone, including themselves, when they beat the Celtics in a deciding first-round Game 5. Boston had scored 156 points in routing the Knicks by 29 points to take a commanding 2-0 series lead. Boston, with Bird and McHale in the lineup, clearly seemed superior to the Knicks.
“It wasn’t a good feeling,” said Stu Jackson, then the Knicks’ coach.
McHale recalled asking Celtics Coach Jimmy Rodgers if they could double-team Ewing in Game 3. Usually, McHale said, Rodgers agreed to player requests. But Rodgers said no, because Boston had won without giving Ewing special attention.
Ewing scored a combined 77 points in the next two games, and the Knicks won both.
“We decided not to double-team,” said McHale, now an analyst for TNT and NBA TV. “I always thought if we had gone ahead and done that, we would have been able to close that out.”
In Game 5, the 33-year-old Cheeks, who had joined the Knicks just months before, played all 48 minutes and went 8 for 10 from the field and notched 7 assists. Final score: Knicks 121, Celtics 114. The long, painful losing streak at McHale’s favorite arena was over.
Jackson said the plan had not been to play Cheeks the entire game — how could it have been? — but that it unfolded that way because of Cheeks’s impressive playoff résumé.
“To this day, I’ve never lived it down with Mark Jackson, because he was unfortunately the backup,” Stu Jackson said.
Now, finally, comes another series. Frazier, an analyst on Knicks games for the MSG network, is pumped, ready to take on Celtic green the way he did as a player.
“The only green I like is money,” he said with a chuckle. “I never liked green. That’s the way we felt. We didn’t even eat New England clam chowder.”