In the early 1990s, the New York Knicks had followed the Bad Boy Pistons blueprint — build a physical, aggressive team with just enough skill to get the job done, then grind the other team into submission. It worked, except against the Chicago Bulls. That didn’t change the plan — coach Pat Riley told his Knicks to go out and knock Michael Jordan to the ground when he drove the lane (sound familiar).
“We hated each other. It was extremely physical. It wasn’t really a foul until you drew blood,” is how Patrick Ewing described it in The Last Dance on Sunday night.
It led to arguably the best rivalry of the 1990s, something the documentary got into in some detail. The Knicks and Bulls met six times in the playoffs over the course of eight seasons.
It’s hard to overstate the hatred in that Bulls-Knicks rivalry at the time — the games were must watch and you expected there would be a fight. You almost pitied the referees.
Every time the Knicks and Bulls played during that era you had to put your hard hat on because you knew you were in for a big time battle. Very challenging to referee, and you had to be focused the whole game or else things could get out of hand. – @SteveJavie #TheLastDance
— NBA Referees (@OfficialNBARefs) May 4, 2020
The Knicks, however, never got past Jordan’s Bulls (New York did beat Chicago in 1994, when Jordan was playing baseball, but lost to MJ five times).
The show spotlighted the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Knicks raced out to a 2-0 series lead, John Starks was dunking over Horace Grant and Jordan.
26 years ago today, John Starks got both Horace Grant and MJ 😤
"The Dunk" is one of the most iconic moments at the Garden. pic.twitter.com/ilTzlFJ6SF
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 25, 2019
Then New York dropped the next four games.
Game 5 is remembered as the Charles Smith game — the Bulls were up by one but the Knicks had a chance to score and take the lead. The ball ended up in the hands of 6’10” Charles Smith, a guy not known as a scorer but who averaged 10 points a game that season and he was right at the rim, but so were Jordan, Pippen, and Grant.
It was a lot of heartbreak for the Knicks, yet it is an era remembered fondly in New York (in part because there hasn’t been sustained success since). Those rough-and-tumble Knicks epitomized the physical basketball of the period.
Unfortunately for the Knicks, Jordan had the grit and skill to rise above it. And win.