The 10 greatest rivalries in NBA history

Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing

Over the years, we've seen many intense rivalries in the NBA and in many ways, it is these match-ups that have defined the sport that we love so much. While today's match-ups may not have the fire of the ones which came before, due to the camaraderie among the players nowadays, there's been no shortage of drama and excitement. Many of the rivalries on this list have gone off the boil somewhat off late, but in their heyday, they were as competitive and personal as it gets. So, here are the top 10:

#10 Knicks-Heat

This was as ugly as it gets. Off the court drama? Check. Fights in-game? Check. Epic Playoff encounters? Check!. Up to 1995, the Knicks and the Heat had never met in the playoffs and there was nothing much to note in regular season match-ups, but all that changed in the off-season.

Pat Riley, stepped down as the Knicks Coach for reasons unknown in 1995. Some speculated he felt the team was no longer a contender and others thought he wanted more power. All the questions were answered, when Riley took over as Team President and Coach of the Miami Heat. The Knicks accused Miami of tampering and eventually got a draft pick and $1m as compensation. Riley quickly transformed the Heat into a contender and that's when the rivalry took off.

The teams faced off against each other 4 years in a row in the playoffs in a defensive struggle and games which were marred by violence. Whether it was P.J.Brown body slamming Charlie Ward or Alonzo Mourning & Larry Johnson going at each other the next year, etc. All 4 series were as competitive as it gets and ended up going the distance.

The rivalry didn't last too long, however, with the Knicks being the dumpster fire that they have been for almost 2 decades now. Despite its short tenure, this might well be the most intense rivalry of the lot at the time.

#9 Pistons-Celtics

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Larry Bird and Dennis Rodman (Image Courtesy:

The Celtics had dominated the East for much of the early 1980s and with the Sixers in decline, the road to the Finals had seemingly cleared up, but a new and completely different challenge popped up, the Pistons.

They'd brushed aside the Pistons in 85, but were pushed all the way in 87. As in every other series involving Detroit, punches were thrown, players ejected, and much more. Game 5, however, produced one of the greatest moments in playoff history when Bird stole Isiah's inbound pass with 5 seconds remaining and passed it off to Dennis Johnson to win the game for the Celtics. It was a vital win as neither team won any game on the road as the Celtics escaped with a series win. After the series, Dennis Rodman claimed that the only reason Bird was rated was because he was white (Yikes!).

The next season, however, the Pistons gained control of the match-up, beating the Celtics in 6 and then sweeping them the following season. Like most of the Pistons rivalries, it didn't last too long but was as tense as it gets. The 1987 series especially is regarded as one of the physically and mentally toughest series ever.

#8 Suns-Spurs

San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns, Game 5
Steve Nash (L) and Tim Duncan (R)

A rivalry in every sense of the word. The Spurs and the Suns were absolute opposites of each other. The Spurs with their boring methodical defensive style of play against the run and gun 7 seconds or less Suns.

The two teams met 6 times in the playoffs in 11 seasons from 1999-00 to 2009-10, but it only really became a rivalry in 2004 when Steve Nash returned to Phoenix. Engineering some of the highest scoring offenses in league history, the Suns managed to blow past everyone, but the Spurs. They lost to the Spurs in 05, 07 and 08 but 2007 really sticks out. In the 2007 playoff series, four games involved either an ejection, a fight or lacerations.

In what has since been described by many as the real NBA Finals of that year, they faced off in the Conference Semi-Finals. With the Suns in position to level the series at 2-2, Robert Horry hip-checked Nash to the scorers' table, which led to Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw leaving the bench, only to get suspended for Game 5. The undermanned Suns lost Game 5 and eventually 6 to bow out in controversial fashion.

The Suns finally got some revenge by sweeping the Spurs in the 2010 playoffs, which marked the only time Nash ever managed to get past the Spurs. The bad blood from 2007 has somewhat died down since helped by the fact that the Suns haven't made it to the playoffs since 2010.

#7 Warriors-Cavaliers

2017 NBA Finals - Game Four

Ah, the Warriors and the Cavs. The modern-day version of Lakers-Celtics (to a certain extent) met for the 3rd straight time in the NBA Finals last year, something which had never happened before.

Injuries and suspensions have robbed us of finding out which really was the better team in the first 2 games. Whether it was Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving getting injured in 2015 or Steph Curry and Andre Iguodala dealing with injuries during the 2016 Finals along with Draymond Green's suspension. Now there's little to no doubt with Kevin Durant joining the Warriors. The Cavs just like the rest of the league have no hope of beating this juggernaut. Even if LeBron goes back to the form which helped them overcome the 3-1 deficit in 2016, it seems like a tall order.

The Rivalry does seem to be running on fumes and the end seems in sight. The Cavs are the oldest team in the league and with LeBron likely leaving town after this season, we are looking at this year's Finals being the last hurrah. Expect Golden State to bulldoze Cleveland again unless they make some incredible trade for Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins, which seems unlikely.

#6 Spurs-Lakers

San Antonio Spurs v Los Angeles Lakers, Game 2

The Spurs have been a part of some terrific battles over the years during this dynastic run which has stretched over 2 decades now. There's only one team, however, which can claim to have given them a run for their money, that'd be the Lakers of the early 2000s.

In the height of the Spurs dynasty from 1999-2008, the two faced off 6 times with the Lakers coming out on top on 4 occasions and it wasn't even close. After splitting the first 4 series, the 2004 encounter produced an unforgettable sequence of late-game plays. First, Duncan hit a ridiculous fade away with Shaq all over him to give the Spurs a 1 point lead with 0.4 seconds on the clock. Then, as he has done throughout his career, Derek Fisher hit the buzzer-beating game winner to give the Lakers a vital road win en route to knocking the Spurs out of the playoffs again.

The Rivalry became dormant once Shaq was traded, but was back in play once the Lakers managed to get Pau Gasol. They met in the playoffs in 2008 and the Lakers once again knocked off the defending champs in 5 games

All in all, from 1999-2010 the Spurs or Lakers made it the NBA Finals every year except once in 2006. While the Spurs remain title contenders to this day, the Lakers have slumped and it's going to be a while before we see this one renewed.

#5 Pacers-Knicks

Reggie Miller #31...
Allan Houston and Reggie Miller

While the Knicks are a joke now, they were a part of some of some great rivalries in the 90s and their encounters with the Pacers produced many memorable moments especially involving Reggie Miller and Spike Lee

The two teams met in the playoffs for the 1st time in 1993 when the Knicks easily dispatched the Pacers in the first round, but this is where it all began. In Game 3, Miller's trash talk led to John Starks headbutting him and it was officially on.

In 1994, Miller torched the Knicks by scoring 25 points in the 4th quarter to give the Pacers a 3-2 lead but the Knicks stormed back to win the series in 7. The following year Miller earned the nickname "Knick-Killer" as he scored 8 points in 8.9 seconds to steal Game 1, as this time the Pacers won it in 7. After another Pacers win in 1998, the momentum seemed to have shifted to the Pacers but 1999 was a magical year for New York.

The Knicks became the first 8 seed to make it all the way to the Finals and they beat the Pacers on the way. Game 3 was the turning point, as with the Pacers up 3 with 11 seconds remaining, Larry Johnson converted on a 4 point play to win the game for the Knicks. They eventually won it in 6 and reached the Finals. The Pacers returned the favor the following year by beating the Knicks in 6 in the East Finals.

As is the case with every Knicks rivalry in the 90s, it's cooled down now thanks to their incompetence.

#4 Bulls-Knicks

John Starks and Michael Jordan (Image Courtesy: The Triangle Offense)

No one suffered more at the hands of the Bulls and Michael Jordan than the Knicks. From 1989 to 1996 the two teams faced off 6 times in the playoffs, and the Knicks won just one series.

To be fair to the Knicks, no one managed to push the Bulls to their absolute limits like the Knicks did during the first 3 peat. After getting tossed around in the playoffs by the Bulls in 89 and 91, the Knicks hired Pat Riley in 1991 and that's when the rivalry went to a whole other level. The rough, physical, defensive-minded Knicks took the Bulls to 7 games, one of only 2 occasions when the Bulls were taken to a 7th game in those Championship seasons. They lost to the Bulls again the following year, but there was a ray of hope as MJ retired after this season.

With Jordan out of the way, the Knicks finally got past the Bulls in a brawl-filled slugfest. Game 3 saw a fight break out between Jo Jo English and Derek Harper in which teammates got involved and the whole mess went all the way to the stands. With MJ returning the following year though, the Knicks reign was short-lived. They faced off one last time in 1996 but it wasn't really competitive.

With new contenders rising in the East, the Knicks fell out of the picture for a while and by 1998, the Bulls dynasty was finished and so was the rivalry.

#3 76ers- Celtics

Image Courtesy: Pinterest

The 76ers-Celtics rivalry almost seems to have been forgotten by people nowadays. One which goes back to the 60s, the Celtics and the Sixers have faced off in the playoffs more often than any other duo.

Whether it was Wilt Chamberlain against Bill Russell or Larry Bird vs Julius Erving, Boston and Philadelphia have faced off in some of the most epic encounters in league history. After years of losing to the Celtics (just like everyone else back then), the Sixers in 1967 finally broke through, demolishing the 8-time defending champs in 5 games. It would be the only time Wilt beat Russell in the playoffs as the Celtics won the next 2 encounters en route to 11 titles in 13 years.

The rivalry died down for a while after that but was ignited once Erving and Bird came into the mix and boy did it get feisty. Whether it was an all-out brawl in a meaningless exhibition or Erving punching Bird in 1984, it was never short on drama. They competed for supremacy in the East once again and faced off 4 times in the East Finals from 1980-85. Both teams faded away in the following years but there is hope of a revival with the current versions of the teams having very bright futures.

#2 Bulls-Pistons

Image Courtesy: Slamonline

This was as personal as it gets. There was no love lost here and no respect or anything like that towards each other. The seeds of the rivalry were sown back in 1985 when Isiah Thomas apparently led a Freeze out of MJ during the All-Star game. Thomas, a Chicago native was allegedly jealous of the attention and fame that Jordan was gaining in his city. The rivalry really began taking shape in 1988, when Jordan scored 59 points on the Pistons, which led to Coach Chuck Daly vowing to never let it happen again.

The Pistons then enforced the "Jordan Rules" when the teams faced off in the playoffs, playing an extremely physical brand of basketball to slow down MJ. They succeeded in 1988 and 89, but in 90, with a capable supporting cast and Phil Jackson as the coach, the Bulls took the Pistons to the distance but lost the 7th game.

The following year though the tables had finally turned and the Bulls swept the Pistons en route to winning their 1st NBA title. In Game 4, except for Joe Dumars and John Salley, the rest of the Pistons players walked off the court with a few seconds remaining in the game. While they never played each other again in the playoffs, the bad blood clearly hadn't washed away. In revenge for 1985, MJ ensured that Thomas wouldn't be picked for the 1992 Olympic Dream Team.

#1 Lakers-Celtics

Image Courtesy:

You had to know this one was number 1, there really isn't a competition for top spot. One of the most storied match-ups in sports, the Lakers and Celtics have been going at each other since the 50s.

The first match-up in the Finals between the teams came in 1959 when the Minneapolis Lakers were swept by the Celtics, a sign of things to come. After the move to Los Angeles, the Lakers lost 6 times to the Celtics in the 60s, often in heartbreaking fashion. Even the addition of Wilt Chamberlain was not enough for the Lakers to overcome the Celtics in the 1969 Finals, which was the last time the teams faced off in the Finals for another 15 years.

The next chapter of the rivalry began when Magic Johnson and Bird entered the mix and we got the long-awaited rematch in 1984. Another classic series ended with a Celtics win in 7 games but the Lakers finally got their revenge the following season. Another Lakers victory followed in 1987, after which the Celtics started declining.

While the Lakers continued to win titles, the Celtics were mired in mediocrity until they managed to assemble the Big 3 in 2007. They went on to beat the Lakers in the Finals but lost the next match-up in 2010, in 7 games.

In total, these two teams have met 12 times in the Finals and account for 33 of the 70 championships won in NBA history. With the young talent on both teams, there is some hope that the current versions might face off in the Finals at some point in the coming years.

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Edited by Michael Dsouza
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