The Same Old Song

Knicks Heat: A Ragged Rivalry Made of Worn-Out Story Lines

As rivalries go, it's more Ali-Frazier than Sampras-Agassi. More Avalanche-Red Wings than Celtics-Lakers. Admit it, before Allan Houston's series winner dropped through the twine last spring, you couldn't remember a single swished jumper, pretty pass, or fast break from any of the 17 playoff games the Knicks and Miami Heat had played since 1997. What you could recall in vivid detail, however, were the brawling and the bravado that have always made New York vs. Miami manna for the tabloids.

Etched on the mind, for instance, is Charlie Ward trying to turn P.J. Brown's ACL into spaghetti, followed by Brown upending Ward, most of the Knicks players leaving the bench during the fracas, and the NBA coming down harder on the orange-and-blue than Marcus Camby does on a rival's floater in the lane. More vivid is the Larry Johnson-Alonzo Mourning rumble, best remembered for Mourning mopping the floor with Jeff Van Gundy—literally, as the Knicks coach clung to Zo's leg and was dragged along the hardwood.

Knicks-Heat never lacks punches, but unfortunately, it does lack punch. The main reason there has always been so much focus on the fisticuffs and trash talk is that the basketball being played is about as spine-tingling as the Weather Channel. Both teams are offensively challenged, they employ stifling defenses, and they're not shy about killing a game's pace by fouling repeatedly.

The battle to see who's the "best center in the East" . . . part 18
courtesy AFP Photo
The battle to see who's the "best center in the East" . . . part 18

During the regular season, the Heat ranked 24th in the NBA in scoring (94.4 points a game) and the Knicks 27th (92.1). New York was second in fewest points allowed per game (90.7) and Miami fourth (91.3). Match two teams with those kinds of numbers and you don't get a lot of breathtaking drives through the paint. In fact, you often feel like you're watching the paint dry.

NBC's promos are calling Knicks-Heat the NBA's best rivalry, but in reality, this is one rivalry that's vastly overrated. Truly great rivalries are forever reinventing themselves. Take the Knicks and the Pacers, for instance, a rivalry that's chock-full of story angles and subplots.

You've got perennial Knicks killer Reggie Miller suddenly disappearing down the stretch in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. Should the two teams meet again in a few weeks, which Miller will show up? The one who was outworked by Latrell Sprewell and banged around by the Knicks' defense? Or the one who has lifted his game into the stratosphere this postseason?

There's the matter of whether or not Patrick Ewing will be as effective against Pacers center Rik Smits as the younger Marcus Camby was in '99. And whether the Knicks can win in Conseco Fieldhouse, one of the rowdiest buildings in the league. Throw in the Garden crowd's hatred of Mark Jackson and the fact that the Pacers believe they consistently get screwed in New York (Johnson's controversial four-point play in Game 3 last year, Ewing's interference of L.J.'s descending three-pointer during a regular-season meeting on April 10 and the basket counting nonetheless), and you've got a story line that's constantly evolving.

Contrast that with Knicks-Heat, where all the things that are supposed to make it so compelling are simply old news. The Van Gundy-Pat Riley rivalry? That was more juicy when it truly was David the pupil vs. Goliath the mentor. But the Knicks have won the last two playoff meetings with Miami, Van Gundy did a masterful job of coaching his underdogs into the NBA Finals last year, and Riley has been accused of foolishly overemphasizing the regular season—a criticism bolstered by his failure to win a conference title despite four straight Atlantic Division crowns. If you were starting a franchise today, you could make as strong a case for hiring Van Gundy as you could for signing Riley.

The other pupil-vs.-mentor matchup, Mourning vs. Ewing, has also lost a lot of its bite. Especially since pupil Mourning, like Van Gundy, has advanced to the point where he's outperforming the teacher. (Ewing's pre-series boast that he's still the best center in the East seems even more silly considering Mourning toasted him for 26 points, including the Heat's final eight, in Miami's Game 1 win on Sunday.) Also, Mourning, who has traditionally done more trash-talking than the dispatcher at a sanitation garage, is abiding by Riley's gag order and can't even be counted on for inflammatory quotes.

Van Gundy long ago made peace with Mourning, admitting that hitching a ride on the center's leg that time was embarrassing for both of them. Johnson has proclaimed that his once bitter feud with Zo is "dead" and has talked about the "mutual respect" between the two teams. Ward said he's "good friends" with former nemesis Brown, pointing out that they're united in Christianity. Not surprisingly, although the play was rough in Game 1, that sense of real volatility was never in the air.

Great rivalries are the ones where there is much at stake, but only once in this matchup has a team captured an Eastern Conference championship after eliminating the other. Usually, a Knicks-Heat series just softens up the winner for a fall in the next round. Great rivalries pit superstar vs. superstar in the clutch, but suspensions for fighting left the Knicks undermanned in Game 6 and Game 7 losses in '97, and the Heat was without Mourning while dropping the decisive Game 5 in '98. Great rivalries also feature rabid crowds that rattle the enemy and make home-court crucial. How leery of the other guys' building are the Knicks and Heat? In their 17 playoff meetings leading into this series, the visitor won eight times.

The media's overplaying of the bloodlust angle has obscured—at least partially—some of the real stories of this series. Such as Jamal Mashburn. The Heat forward scored 21 points and held Sprewell to 11 in Game 1, but hasn't yet impacted a series in his seven-year career. Can he do it now? Are the Heat hungrier and more dangerous knowing that another playoff failure will result in the gutting of their roster? Did Game 1 indicate that the Heat have closed the biggest gap between the teams, which was the Knicks' superior execution in the final two minutes? And how key will the supporting casts prove to be?

"In my mind, the play of the benches will decide this series," says ESPN analyst Dr. Jack Ramsay. "Van Gundy only uses three guys: Camby, Thomas, and Childs. But Riley will have Anthony Carter backing up Hardaway, Clarence Weatherspoon coming in at forward, Bruce Bowen guarding Houston, and Otis Thorpe backing up Mourning. Riley may even bring in [three-point threat] Rodney Buford if the Heat struggles offensively. Those guys will be more important than anybody realizes."

The tabloids and the screamers on WFAN would love it if this one turned ugly before it was over, but here's hoping that the quality of play is the story for once. Hot rivalries don't have to feature bench-clearing brawls. Sometimes the cheap shots can be delivered more subtly.

That was the case when Larry Bird's Celtics and Magic Johnson's Lakers battled it out for the NBA crown three times in the '80s. Before one of their matchups in the dumpy, oppressively hot Boston Garden, the fed-up Lakers demanded air conditioners for their claustrophobic locker room. Sure enough, when Magic, Kareem, and Co. arrived for the next game the appliances were there—stacked on the floor and still in their cardboard boxes.

Grudge matches. They don't make 'em like they used to.

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