Ever since its inception in the year 1946, the NBA has revolutionized the game of basketball and for most people today, it symbolises the sport itself. The game has evolved from the time of Bob Cousy, and has transcended into a new dimension where dunks and throw-downs dominate the highlight reel. The visual of a towering and herculean superstar soaring into the air, and making us believe for one moment that even humans can fly, has become the signature image of the league.
However, the league isn’t all about towering centres dunking the ball, or allegro guards weaving their way through. The euphoria and the hysteria that one can identify with the NBA can be mostly derived from the storied rivalries that have left indelible marks on the minds and hearts of fans all over the globe. Be it the Larry Bird v/s Magic Johnson or the Wilt Chamberlain v/s Bill Russell rivalry, these match-ups define the very spirit of the game and have formed the league’s identity. These rivalries had encapsulated the fans in a trance, transcending regional and national boundaries. Any player who would have ever played the sport can tell you that there is no better feeling that the adrenaline rush one experiences playing on a court surrounded by over 10,000 vociferous fans. The ever enthusiastic crowd infuse an infectious energy and adrenaline to the game, electrifying the arena with their chants of “MVP”,”Defense” etc.
The rivalries lend the very important emotional and passionate aspect to the game, and every rivalry is unique in its history and coveted by the fans. So, trying to decide between two rivalries isn’t exactly a direct affair and there is no binary way of deciding the same. This article is an attempt to list the greatest 5 team rivalries and analyze the factors that made these rivalries so important and special.
The first iteration of the rivalry had the Lakers taking on the Spurs in the NBA Western Conference Finals of 1982. The series wasn’t much of a contest with the George Gervin led Spurs being routed by the indomitable Lakers, led by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
However, the rivalry reached its peak in the last decade, and witnessed some of the most intensely fought match-ups in NBA history. With galactic superstars such as Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Duncan, Tony parker and Manu Ginobli lining up for both the franchises, the fans were treated to some of the finest basketball matches of all time.
The most memorable moment in the rivalry happened during the Western Conference Semi-Finals of 2004. With the series tied at 2-2, the Lakers faced the Spurs on the road in game 5 of the series. The Lakers were trailing the Spurs 73-72, with 0.4 seconds left on the clock. Come clutch time, the entire arena was expecting Bryant to get the ball. However, the Lakers surprised everyone by handing the ball to Derek Fisher, who made an impossible turn-around 18-foot fade-away to lead the Lakers to an unlikely victory.
The Spurs v/s Lakers match-ups can be summed up as a rivalry between two basketball ideologies. On one end you have the decorated Lakers basking in the glamor and glitz of Los Angeles, while on the other hand the Spurs have built their legacy as a team that believes in playing effective team-basketball while keeping a low profile and letting their game-play do the talking.
With enigmatic players such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Patrick Ewing and John Starks being involved, the rivalry between the two franchises blossomed in the 1990’s. The rivalry received intense media attention and transcended into becoming one of the most dramatic duels of all time.
The Knicks of the 1990’s were a very physical team, and were reputed for their defensive intensity. The Bulls on the other hand were more of a transition team that believed in pushing the ball forward and playing at a high tempo. With two contrasting basketball philosophies, two of the most passionate and demanding fan-bases, and two of the most mercurial set of players vying against each other, the rivalry was destined to leave indelible footprints on the sands of time.
In their entire play-off history the Knicks faced the bulls 7 times, with the Bulls reigning supreme on six occasions. The basketball though not being much of a telegenic was marked by several controversies. The players of both teams engaged in numerous scuffles and arguments, and with the press corps giving these controversies a lot of attention, the series witnessed some of the greatest and most dramatic NBA tussles of all time.
The most memorable moment in this highly publicized rivalry happened in game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. The game famously known as the Hue Hollins game saw the referee Hollins making the most controversial foul call in NBA history. Hollins called a late foul on Pippen, and the disputable call allowed the Knicks to escape with a win and eventually get their first play-off series victory over the Bulls. This marked the last play-off encounter between the two teams in the 90’s, which ended with the most controversial refereeing call of all time; another headline in the much decorated and dramatic rivalry.
3. Chicago Bulls v/s Detroit Pistons
The Bulls v/s Pistons rivalry is arguably the most bitterly fought rivalry of all time. The rivalry witnessed the transformation of Michael Jordan from being the most talented player in the NBA, to becoming the greatest hoopster of all time.
The two teams met each other four times in the 1990’s with the Pistons winning three of the four encounters. The rivalry was marked by utter despise, animosity and hatred between the two teams. The unrelenting competitive spirit and utter desire to win and dominate the other resulted in one of the most physical and highly contested encounters of all time.
The most hyped part of the rivalry was the psychological mind-games that the Pistons played to throw the Bulls leader and the league’s leading scorer Michael Jordan off his game. The Pistons deployed a new strategy to stop Jordan from scoring, famous by the name of “Jordan Rules”. What exactly comprised the strategy is still a mystery, but whatever it was it had the desired effect and the Pistons were able to subdue the attacking threat of Jordan.
The defining moment of the rivalry came after the Bulls routed the Pistons 4-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals of 1991. Anticipating the loss, the Pistons stars like Isiah, Bill Laimbeer and Mark Aguire walked off the court with 7.9 seconds left in the final game, so that they wouldn’t have to congratulate the Bulls. Not a great show of sportsmanship, but considering the animosity and hatred shared between the two sets of players, one wasn’t exactly surprised or shocked.
2. CELTICS and the Philadelphia 76ers
This rivalry spread over a span of more than 6 decades, has seen the most number of play-off encounters between any two teams in the NBA. The two franchises have played against each other 19 times, with the Celtics winning 12 of the encounters. The rivalry is also unique in terms of the sporting history of the two cities, as it is only the NBA, in which the teams from both cities compete in the same conference. In the NFL the Eagles and the Patriots are in different conferences, while the Philles and the Red Sox play in different leagues.
Ever since their first play-off encounter in the year 1953, the rivalry witnessed some of the most intense and keenly contested battles of all time. The encounters between the two franchises in the sixties saw the indomitable Wilt Chamberlain vying against the imperious Bill Russell. The 70’s saw the Sixers drafting in the legendary Julius Erving and the Celtics drafting the transcendent superstar Larry Bird. These two players were locked up in many an intriguing contests, and changing the face of the league forever with their enterprising and mesmerizing play.
The most recent edition of the rivalry saw both teams facing up against each other in the Eastern Conference Finals of 2012. The series lived up to its famed history with the young and enterprising Sixers pushing the veteran Celtics to the maximum and forcing a game 7. The veteran Celtics reigned supreme in game 7, drawing inspiration from the play of their high-flying point guard rondo.
The Celtics though fighting their way through the conference semi-finals came up short against the Miami Heat. However, with both teams proving to be play-off contenders, the veteran Celtics and the young and exciting 76ers are primed for several more duels and the future holds much promise for this rivalry.
1. Boston Celtics v/s Los Angeles Lakers
The colourful and flamboyant city of LA takes exception to one particular colour, green. This is because the colour represents the Boston Celtics, the Lakers most- hated and oldest rivals.
This inter-divisional rivalry which spans more than 6 decades, saw the two teams pitted against each other in 12 NBA finals, with the Celtics winning 9 of the encounters. The two teams between them have won 33 NBA Championships, and with two of the most successful franchises in NBA history competing against each other, the rivalry was destined to earn its position in the history books as the greatest of all time.
The rivalry had the best of everything; tactical brilliance, media attention, an extremely passionate and vocal fan-base unrelenting in their demands and expectations, lots of rants and trash talking, both respect and despise being shared at the same time. In all it made the perfect sports story.
The 1960’s saw the Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain led Lakers matching up against the Celtics led By John Havlichek and Bill Russell. Russell and Chamberlain had featured in several duels in Chamberlain’s time with the 76ers and the warriors, but with the Celtics and Lakers the rivalry reached epic proportions. The two legends always shared a mutual respect for each other, but with the Celtics beating the Lakers in six NBA finals in the 60’s, it didn’t take long for the respect to transform into despise. This continued failure brought on a sense of deep hatred and the anguish in the minds of the Lakers faithful, and this animosity spurred the rivalry to greater heights.
The rivalry reached its peak during the 80’s. The decade will always be remembered for the duel between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, two of the greatest basketball players of all time, who with their vision and unselfish ability to pass revolutionized the sport. The two teams led by Magic and Larry Bird, faced up against each other in the 1984 NBA finals. The series witnessed the first iteration of the Bird-Magic rivalry, and the two teams were involved in a gruelling 7 match series. The Celtics edged out the Lakers in that series, but the loss didn’t go down well with the Lakers big three of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy, who vowed to avenge their loss and were desperately looking for an opportunity to give their fans a long-awaited Finals win over their arch-nemesis.
The next year saw a rejuvenated Lakers going the extra step and avenging the loss of last year with a 4-2 win over the Celtics. The most memorable moment of the series was when Magic Johnson stepped up to score the iconic baby hook over the outstretch hands of Kevin McHale, giving the Lakers a last ditch win. For the first time the duel had ended in a purple and gold coronation. The Lakers repeated the feat in the 1987 finals, beating the Celtics again in 6 games. The rivalry re-ensued in the 2010 finals which not so surprisingly stretched to 7 games. Another chapter in the glorious rivalry was settled, and one can be least assured that the future promises many such encounters.
The history and the legends set apart, the above mentioned rivalries have given us countless moments that are permanently etched into our memories. The dying seconds of the game, with the shot clock running down, when a particular Kobe Bryant steps up to deliver the final nail in the coffin. He would be hurting, bruised and battered, with his body failing to follow his mind. His lungs and muscles would act repulsive, and fail to follow his mind. It is the time when he has to muster up that extra motivation and desire, rise above the pain and stand up to the challenge. The whole crowd would be going berserk, chanting his name and egging him to shoot. This is the stage that calls for champions to show up, the stage where heroes are born, legends are scripted, when all the effort put into the game over a period of 48 mins can all be nullified with a single shot. The time when Kobe leans back to shoot his characteristic fade-away over the outreached hands of the defenders; the sight of the ball going through the basket, the crowd erupting in joy, the rival team’s shell-shocked expressions, the jubilation on the faces of his team, all trying to soak in the essence and magnificence of the moment. Moments like these happen once in a lifetime and reside forever in the memories of the people who lived it. This is what the NBA identifies itself with and in short validates the tag-line of the league:-“Where Impossible Happens”