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Here is an amazing fact:
Since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976 — a period that now encompasses 45 basketball seasons — the Knicks and the Nets have both qualified for the playoffs in exactly eight of those years.
Think about that.
Eight times. In 45 years. In a league in which, every year, better than half the teams make the playoffs.
But there’s more:
In those eight years, the Nets and Knicks have both won a playoff series and advanced to the second round exactly … once.
That was 37 years ago, and it was a glorious time to be a pro basketball fan in Greater New York — probably the best time to be a basketball fan in Greater New York.
Across 11 splendid days and nights in April 1984, the Knicks and Nets alternated making a serious run for the hearts and minds of New York’s basketball fans. Neither team was favored in the bookend best-of-fives in the first round, and neither had home-court advantage. Both shook that off to win Game 5 away from home. It was a sublime time.
The Nets had the more ominous assignment, drawing the defending-champion 76ers. Philadelphia had won 13 fewer games than the 65-win dynamo that had nearly pulled off Moses Malone’s “Fo, fo, fo” prophecy in 1983, but they still had the bones of that champion intact. They still had Moses and Julius Erving, Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks.
But the Nets also had a budding superstar in Michael Ray Richardson, who was never better than he was across these five games, averaging 20.6 points and 8.6 assists, and they had Buck Williams, who averaged 18.4 points and 15.2 rebounds. They blitzed the 76ers in Philly, at the Spectrum, winning Game 1 by 15 and Game 2 by 14.
The Sixers made a stand back at the Meadowlands, winning both games. The teams were tied at 76 heading into the fourth quarter of Game 5 on April 26, 1984, and the Sixers took an imposing 90-83 lead with just over seven minutes left in the game. But the Sixers wilted under the Nets’ defense — “I looked into Doc’s eyes, and he was so tired,” Richardson said — and the Nets sent 17,921 fans home desperate and depressed, winning 101-98.
But that was only the appetizer. Their rivals across the Hudson, the Knicks, were in a see-saw fight with the Pistons. After stealing Game 1 at Detroit thanks to an amazing defensive flurry from Darrell Walker (two steals and a deflection in the game’s final 78 seconds to turn a six-point deficit into a one-point win) the Knicks suffered a dispiriting Game 4 loss in the Garden, requiring a trip back to Detroit for Game 5.
The Pistons’ usual home, the Pontiac Silverdome, wasn’t available, so the game was played downtown, in Joe Louis Arena, when there was no air conditioning that day and the teams looked like they were playing in a steam room. Isiah Thomas had a legendary burst, scoring 16 points in the final 90 seconds of regulation, but it was Bernard King who carried the day — 44 points for the game, 42.6 for the series, on 60.4 percent shooting.
“Isiah was amazing,” King said afterward.
“Bernard was better,” Thomas retorted.
It ended for both teams a round later. The Bucks dispatched the Nets in six games. The Nets stole Game 1 in Milwaukee, then lost a protest at the end of a 98-87 loss in Game 5. The officials blew a shot-clock violation against the Bucks late, but commissioner David Stern refused to honor the Nets’ protest.
The Knicks, meanwhile, lost in seven epic games to the eventual-champ Celtics, each team holding serve throughout, right to Boston’s clinching 121-104 Game 7 win on Mother’s Day.
That was it, that was the zenith, and it really hasn’t been close any other time except for 2013, when the Knicks beat the Celtics in Round 1 and the Nets had a Game 7 at Barclays Center against Tom Thibodeau’s depleted Bulls — but couldn’t beat them back.
This year, both teams have home-court, and perhaps a chance to channel the Spirit of ’84, when basketball has never been better in the Basketball City.
Mark me down as someone who would like to see the NBA incorporate the play-in games forever. It was like the perfect appetizer to an awesome meal.
Warm thoughts and positive vibes to Bob Valvano, brother of Jim, son of New York, formerly the coach at St. Francis Brooklyn and one of the truly good guys in broadcasting and basketball, who’s wrestling with some health issues now.
I covered Dino Gaudio when he was the basketball coach at West Point, and he was a gracious and honorable guy who wouldn’t even let his Cadets receive extra cookies in the mess hall for fear of that being interpreted as an extra athletic benefit (that’s a true story). I hope this awful story in Louisville in which he’s entangled rectifies itself and he can be remembered as he should be, as one of the sport’s true gentlemen.
I’m happy for Joe Harris, who made a ton of 3s when nobody was paying much attention to the Nets, and across the next few weeks and months will take his share of big-time 3s with the world watching his team’s every move.
Whack Back at Vac
George Corchia: In a 48-hour span, the Yankees had a no-hitter and a game-saving, ninth inning triple play. Man, I still love baseball.
Vac: The game itself is a constant reminder that it is so much better than the stewards who supervise it sometimes.
Scott Wolinetz: I’m fairly certain that if Nolan Ryan were still active, he could throw a no-hitter while pitching left-handed.
Vac: There is one person I am 100 percent certain agrees with you on that: Nolan Ryan.
@KirFlem: I haven’t appreciated the greater Philly area this much since the bartender at Chickie’s and Pete’s gave me a free order of crab fries a few years back:
@MikeVacc: Such is the unifying power of “Mare of Easttown.”
Michael Keneski: In mentioning the greatest Knicks seasons ever, I think Amar’e Stoudemire’s 2010 (25.3 points, 8.2 boards, 50.2 FG%) deserves respect given he was the only big name to give the Knicks a look that year and at least in the short term brought credibility to the team.
Vac: It is easy to forget (as I did) just how impactful Stoudemire was that first year. And so much fun to watch, too.
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