Boston vs. New York: the NBA’s Oldest Playoff Rivalry

By Cort Reynolds

Boston vs. New York. The Hub and the Big Apple. Two old-time northeastern intellectual, blue collar and blueblood mega-cities with their own strong accents and sports teams who push one another to greater heights while despising (and secretly respecting) each other.

Much of the tradition-rich rivalry of the giant cities, on and off the field of play, is embodied in their professional sports teams. No matter the game, the combatants (and fans) maintain animosity for one another that adds to the palpable disdain, be it the venomous Red Sox/Yankee hate-fest, the brutal Bruin/Ranger series, the relatively new Patriot/Jet AFC battles or the long-standing Celtic/Knick enmity.

Ironically, even though New York considers itself the mecca of basketball it has just two NBA titles to its credit. Meanwhile, Boston has amassed a record 17 basketball banners, all but one under the guidance of Brooklyn native Arnold “Red”Auerbach. Yet for much of that dynasty until the Bird-era 1980s, the Celtics played second or third fiddle to the Bruins and Red Sox in their hometown.

And even though Boston boasts perhaps the fiercest fan base in major league baseball, they went 86 years without a World Series championship after selling Babe Ruth to the previously downtrodden and hated New York Yankees.

All the pinstripers have done since that fateful trade is win a record 27 World Series titles, the first four on the powerful back of the Bambino – compared to just two in that span by the Red Sox in 2004, when the curse was finally broken, and in 2007.

Not to be outdone, the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks also have a particularly storied hoop history dating back over 60 years, and are the only two original NBA franchises still in existence to have never moved from their home base city.

The rivalry has featured colorful coaches for both teams named Red along with key Brown’s (Knick coach Hubie and Celtic owner Walter), as well as the Dutch orange and blue of New York against the Irish green of Boston. Great players like Russell, Bird, Cousy, Havlicek, Reed, Frazier, DeBusschere, McHale, King, Parish, Jones, Cowens, McGuire, Zaslofsky, Pierce, Ewing, Anthony and Bradley, to name just a few, have dotted each roster and raised the level of play greatly.

Ray Williams played for the Knicks in 1984, then Boston the next year, while Rick Pitino coached both teams. And former long-time, long-armed Knick forward Phil Jackson went on to win 11 titles as a coach, equaling the combined number of crowns won by his mentor Red Holzman (2) and his nemesis Red Auerbach (9).

Prior to this year, the fierce foes had met 13 times in the playoffs, with Boston holding a narrow 7-6 edge in series victories and a 32-27 lead in games won. New York dominated the series early on in the 1950s, then didn’t post a series win over the Celtics for 19 years.

With the two rivals facing off again this spring, let’s take more than a snapshot look at their great, ancient post-season rivalry over the years.

1951: New York 2, Boston 0 East Division Semifinals.
In their first playoff meeting in just the fifth season of league play, the Knicks swept the best of three mini-series by 14 points each game. Accurate-shooting New York guard Max Zaslofsky led the victors with 23 points per outing.
The Knicks advanced to the NBA championship series but lost 4-3 to the in-state rival Rochester Royals, which boasted a reserve guard named William Holzman, who two decades later would later coach the Knicks to their only two league crowns.

1952: New York 2, Boston 1 East Division Semis.
The Celtics took game one but dropped the last two by a combined total of five points to fall to the Knicks again. In the third and decisive contest at Boston, NY won a double overtime classic 88-87 before advancing to the Finals, where they lost to the Minneapolis Lakers and George Mikan, 4-3.
Young Celtic guard Bob Cousy led all scorers in the finale with 34 points. Zaslofsky’s 21 topped five New Yorkers in double figures. Ernie Vandeweghe, father of future Knick forward Kiki, added 14 points.

1953: New York 3, Boston 1 East Division Finals.
New York made it playoff wins over the Celtics in three consecutive years, yet once again fell short to Mikan’s Lakers in the championship round, this time 4-1.

Beloved Knick coach Joe Lapchick, an Original “New York” Celtic Hall of Fame center in the sport’s early barnstorming years, guided New York to the Finals each time and then went on to a great career as coach at St. John’s.

Carl Braun topped the Knicks with 18 points as NY clinched the series with a comeback 82-75 fourth game win at Boston. Gang Green led by 14 at the half of the final contest, but New York outscored them 51-30 after intermission to register the victory.

Former Globetrotter Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton contributed 16 points while Vandeweghe and legendary playmaker “Tricky” Dick McGuire (older brother of backup Knick guard and future Marquette coach Al) each added 14 in the series finale.

Celtic big man Ed Macauley led all scorers with 25 points and Cousy added 16.

1955: Boston 2, New York 1 East Division Semis.
The Celtics finally broke through against the rival Knicks, winning the decisive third contest 116-99. Cousy led the way with 26 points while backcourt mate sharpshooter Bill Sharman tallied 21. Macauley scored 23. Clifton and Braun each netted 21 for the Knicks and Harry “the Horse” Gallatin contributed 20.

The teams then went a dozen years without meeting again as the Knicks fell into decline. Boston won nine NBA titles in the interim before the rivals would face off once more.

1967: Boston 3, New York 1 East Division Semis.
Boston bombed NY 140-110 in the lidlifter as Sam Jones scored 38 points while John Havlicek tallied 32 and Bailey Howell added 23. Sam added 26 in a game two 115-108 victory. NY earned its lone win in the third game at home 123-112 as Willis Reed fired in 38 points.
The Celtics closed out the series in four at the old Madison Square Garden 118-109 as sharpshooting guard Jones poured in a team playoff-record 51 points. Freddie Crawford paced the losers with 26 points, while Walt Bellamy tallied 23.

1969: Boston 4, New York 2 East Division Finals.
In probably the second-best series between the two rivals ever, the aging Celtics were able to hold off the up-and-coming Knicks. New York had made a huge trade to pick up Dave DeBusschere for Bellamy, opening up the center spot for Reed while Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley moved into starting roles for NY. The trade gave New York, now coached by the defense-minded Holzman, five starters who could all shoot very well outside, pass well, drive and defend.

“Hit the open man” became their mantra as the new Knicks came to embody a selfless style that captivated hoop fans everywhere, as well as Madison Avenue. But the over-the-hill Celtics, perhaps the original purveyors of that unselfish style, still had one last trick up their sleeve.

Boston was led by Havlicek, its only full-time starter under 30, as Bill Russell and Jones, each 35, struggled through their final season. The Celts clinched the last playoff spot in the East with a 48-34 record, their worst since the mid 1950s. But Boston had the experience and playoff know-how to win the close ones.

The Celtics stole the homecourt advantage by winning at New York in games one and three as Howell averaged 24 ppg in the wins. In game four, the Celtics escaped at home 97-96 to take a 3-1 lead behind 21 points from Russell, who averaged just 9.9 ppg in his final year.

New York staved off elimination in game five 112-104 as Reed, Frazier and DeBusschere combined for 67 points to negate 29 by Hondo and 25 from Russell.
In game six, the Celtics edged NY 106-105 in a close battle all the way as Jones scored 29 and Havlicek netted 28 to offset 32 by Reed to win the series.

In the locker room afterward, a Celtic told Frazier to be patient, that next year would be theirs. Jones and Russell also predicted the Knicks would win it all in 1970. They were right as NY beat LA in seven to claim the first crown in franchise history.

1972: New York 4, Boston 1 Eastern Conference Finals.
While the Celtics rebuilt behind Hondo and youngsters Dave Cowens and JoJo White, the Knicks had become the league’s biggest power in the rare post-season absence of the C’s. In Boston’s first playoffs since 1969, when they won their 11th crown in 13 years with Russell, the savvy New Yorkers beat Boston in five even without the injured Reed as Jerry Lucas picked up the slack with his long-distance sniping.

The Knicks took control right away in game one with a 116-94 at the Boston Garden as Frazier poured in 36 points and Cowens was held to six in his playoff debut. They pulled ahead 2-0 with a one-point victory in game two as DeBusschere fired in 24 and Lucas 22 to negate 29 by Havlicek.

DeBusschere then led NY to a game five 111-103 clincher with 24 points again to pace the balanced Knicks. Lucas netted 23 and Frazier 21 to offset 32 from Havlicek and 27 by Don Nelson. White scored 19 and Cowens 12 as the playoff rookies learned a lot from the heady Knicks.
Ironically, in the Stanley Cup finals, Boston beat the New York 4-2 behind Bobby Orr and future Ranger Phil Esposito.

1973: New York 4, Boston 3 Eastern Conference Finals.
This titanic showdown is definitely the best series in the history of the rivalry, and one of the greatest in league annals. Boston posted the best record in franchise history at 68-14 as Cowens won league MVP honors in just his third campaign, and Havlicek cemented his status as best all-around player in the league.

New York, with Lucas and Reed sharing the center duties in a duo called “Willie Lucas” while Frazier and Monroe finally meshed in the backcourt, laid in the weeds and finished 11 games back at 57-25.

After Boston won game one by 26, NY returned the favor with a 33-point bombing at the new MSG. Then the series turned in game three when Havlicek separated his right shooting shoulder when he ran into a DeBusschere screen. Without their leader, the short-handed Celtics fell 98-91.

Game four is probably the best playoff battle in the 59-game Knick/Celtic rivalry. Played on Easter Sunday before a national TV audience on ABC in NY, the game went double overtime. Havlicek sat out hurt but was given a respectful ovation by the Knick crowd in pre-game introductions.

Boston ran out to a big lead and was on top 72-56 heading into the final period, but the deeper Knicks rallied. NY tied it 89-89 at the end of regulation and the clubs battled through a 12-12 first OT as White missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer.

In the second OT the Celtics ran out of gas and players. Phil Jackson made the play of the game when he picked a tired White clean as JoJo dribbled across the top of the key, and Action Jackson converted a breakaway layup. With Reed fouled out, young backup John Gianelli played an unlikely role in the rally.

The lanky 6-11 center blocked a weary baseline spin move by Cowens and grabbed the rebound, then drew Dave’s sixth foul when he tried to poke the ball away from him.

Gianelli made one free throw, then beat Boston backup Hank Finkel on a nice cut and layup. Celtic rookie guard Paul Westphal missed a shot and was called for a controversial charge into Jackson, drawing the ire of Celtic head coach Tom Heinsohn.

DeBusschere put the final nail in the coffin with a running hook as NY celebrated an improbable 117-110 comeback win. White scored 34 points before fouling out late and Cowens netted 33. Nelson added 16 but no other Celtics scored more than six as they desperately missed their leader, Hondo.
Frazier tossed in a game-high 37 points and DeBusschere added 22 as the balanced Knicks had seven players score at least eight points. Heinsohn chased referee Jack Madden off the court in anger after the game as the Knicks shot 15 more free throws and three Celts fouled out.

Fans threw rolls of toilet paper on the floor and Frazier displayed rare emotion at the end by slamming the ball down on the MSG court.

In game five at Boston three days later, Havlicek heroically returned and scored 18 points. Yet the Celtics were staring a 4-1 elimination in the face for the second year in a row in the final seconds as the Knicks rallied again in the fourth period to take a 97-96 lead.

However, hustling Paul Silas grabbed a Celtic airball under the hoop and was fouled by DeBusschere. Silas, the team’s worst free throw shooter, was only 1-3 in the game to that point and a career 67 percenter at the line, but he calmly hit both shots to give Boston a classic 98-97 victory.

Cowens topped the Celtics with 32 points. Frazier led six Knicks in double figures with 21 markers and DeBusschere added 19.

In game six at New York two nights later, Boston broke open an 82-82 tie by outscoring the Knicks 28-18 in the final period to pull out a clutch 110-100 victory that tied the series, 3-3.

Cowens paced Boston with 26 points and White netted 25 while Silas scored 18. In an ominous note, Hondo was held to just nine. Frazier led all scorers with 29 and Earl Monroe added 22. Both sharpshooting teams combined to make 44 of 48 foul shots in the contest.

So it all came down to a Sunday afternoon ABC telecast in game seven at the Boston Garden, where the Celtics had never lost a seventh game. In a tight battle, the teams struggled to a low-scoring 45-40 halftime score with New York on top.

In a key and unexpected move, Knick backup guard and defensive ace Dean Meminger replaced Monroe at the end of the first period and played so well that he stayed in the rest of the game over the flashy Hall of Famer.

Normally a poor shooter, Meminger scored 13 points and handcuffed White for much of the game. The Knicks seized control with a 27-17 third period and then braced for a patented Celtic run. But it never came.

With Havlicek hurting, the Knicks throttled the Celtic halfcourt offense and kept them from running. Hondo scored just four points and the Boston day was symbolized by him airballing a patented pull-up jumper from the foul line due to his badly weakened shoulder.

Long-time New York GM Ned Irish had given his squad a vicious tongue-lashing after they lost game six at home, and whether or not his diatribe was intended to fire his team up or castigate them for blowing the series, it motivated the club greatly to beat Boston on the road.

The Knicks limited Gang Green to just 52 points over the final three periods and stymied them at every turn to post a gutsy 94-78 victory. Frazier led NY with 25 points and raised his index finger toward the rafters as the Knicks trooped to the victorious locker room. Meanwhile, Bradley and Reed each added 15 points. Cowens topped the Celts with 24 markers and White added 22 in the bitter defeat.

New York went on to win its second and last title by beating Los Angeles in the Finals, 4-1. Boston had swept the Lakers 4-0 that season and with a healthy Havlicek would have been heavy favorites over LA.

And in a parallel playoff story in 1973, the Rangers turned the tables on the Bruins in their first round series to win 4-1 as Orr, like Hondo, was slowed by injury.

1974: Boston 4, New York 1 Eastern Conference Finals.
Meeting for the third year in a row in another ECF marquee matchup, the determined Celtics exacted a measure of revenge for the previous two losses by convincingly taking out the aging Knicks, 4-1.

Boston took game one easily 113-88 as Hondo netted 25 points. At NY in game two, the Celtics put together a 33-14 third period to post a 111-99 win as Havlicek scored 27 and Nelson 23.

New York took an 84-lead into the fourth period of game three at Boston, but had to stave off a furious rally to hold on for a 103-100 win that kept them alive. Frazier tossed in a series-best 38 points and Monroe added 23 to offset a combined 55 points by Cowens and Hondo.

In game four at New York, Boston seized command of the series with a close 98-91 win. Havlicek, determined to not relive 1972 and ’73, poured in 36 points to give the C’s a commanding 3-1 lead.

Back in Boston for game five, the Celtics and Heinsohn finally exorcised their Knick ghosts. Leading just 80-79 going into the fourth period, Havlicek wouldn’t let the team lose as he scored 33 points to spearhead a sweet 105-94 victory.

Heinsohn clapped his hands together after a late White jumper, only his second basket of the game, clinched it. Cowens and Don Chaney each scored 19 while NY was led by Jackson’s 27 points.

It was the last game for injured and aging Knick Hall of Famers Reed, DeBusschere and Lucas, who combined for just two points. Reed did not even get off the bench in his final contest.

Knowing their six-year run as perhaps the league’s pre-eminent team was now over, Frazier noted, “At least we lost to a great team.”

Boston went on to beat Milwaukee 4-3 in an epic NBA Finals as Havlicek was named series MVP while earning his seventh pro ring. As he told his college coach Fred Taylor afterward, “I finally won one myself” – meaning without Lucas in college at Ohio State and without Russell in Boston. Taylor told him, “No John, you’ve always been a winner.”

The rivals then went 10 years without meeting in the playoffs, and when they did face off a decade later in 1984 a new cast of intriguing characters named Bird, King, McHale, Cartwright, DJ and Brown played starring roles.

1984: Boston 4, New York 3 Eastern Conference Semis.
Larry Bird and Bernard King, the MVP and runner-up respectively, dueled in a strangely lopsided seven-game series that ranks as the third-best meeting between the rival clubs. Boston’s four wins were by an average of 17.8 points a game, while the three Knick wins were by a combined total of 15 points. Yet the undermanned Knicks battled Boston tooth and nail.

The home team won each game, with the sixth contest being the best at New York. Knick coach Hubie Brown instituted a no-layup, hard foul rule for the series after the Celtics blew out his club in the first two games. Ernie Grunfeld took down Kevin McHale and the rough-house tactics worked well in NY, inciting the crowd and inspiring the Knick defense.

NY led the sixth game by 13 midway through the fourth period when Bird stole the ball in the backcourt and sped in full steam for a left-handed layup. NY guards Ray Williams and Rory Sparrow chased Larry down as he reached the basket and laid a brutal flagrant foul on Bird while the Knick crowd roared its approval.

The trailing Williams tried to grab number 33 from behind around the shoulders while Sparrow threw a viciously intentional forearm and elbow from the other direction into Bird’s head as he sprawled into the basket support.

Sparrow was ejected and Bird did not even complain as he got up and simply made both foul shots. The angered Celtics rallied within 106-104 in the final seconds. Bird, who scored 35 while King fired in 44, drove through traffic on the last possession and narrowly missed a right side banker. Boston missed two tip tries at the buzzer to force a seventh game.

Back in Boston, the Celtics destroyed the Knicks 121-104 in a contest that wasn’t as close as the final score indicates. League MVP Bird showed everyone who the best all-around player in the league was as he bombed in 39 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and dealt 10 assists to whip the one-dimensional King, who scored 24.

As in 1974, the Celtics then went on to win a classic seven-game Finals with Bird earning MVP honors.

1988: Boston 3, New York 1 Eastern Conference 1st Round.
The Celtics easily won the first two games at home by 20 and 26 points as Bird tossed in 65 points. NY pulled out a 109-100 game three victory as journeyman Johnny Newman scored 34 and Patrick Ewing added 31.

However, Boston ended any thoughts of a comeback at MSG in game four, 102-94. Bird led five starters in double figures with 34 points in game four as the Celtics edged away from a 71-70 lead to close out the New Yorkers.

1990: New York 3, Boston 2 Eastern Conference 1st Round.
In probably the most bitter Boston defeat of the rivalry other than 1973, the Knicks rallied from 0-2 down to ruin Bird’s fine comeback season from double Achilles surgery.

The Celtics looked well on their way to a sweep after blowing out the Knicks by 11 in game one and then lambasting them 157-128 in game two as McHale poured in 31.

Game three was close all the way and Bird, who tallied 31 points, had a trey try at the buzzer to tie it but missed to keep the Knicks alive, 102-99. Ewing scored 33 to pace the winners. It turned out that letting NY off the hook would come back to haunt the Celtics.

In game four a newly-confident NY returned the favor with a 135-108 blowout as the much-younger Ewing poured in 44 points while 36-year old Robert Parish scored just 10.

Boston returned home for the decisive fifth game where they had beaten the Knicks nine straight in the playoffs since the game seven debacle of 1973. The Celtics led 54-50 at the half, then began to tire. Ewing threw in 31 points and Charles Oakley scored 26 while yanking down 17 caroms and bullying the older Celtics inside.

But it was former 76er nemesis Maurice Cheeks, a trade deadline pickup who took over the starting job from Mark Jackson and played all 48 minutes, who hit several late clutch shots en route to 21 markers (8-10 shooting) who broke the back of Boston.

Bird missed a crucial reverse dunk in the fourth period and Ewing applied the dagger when he tossed in a desperation turnaround trifecta from the deep corner in front of the Knick bench as the shot clock expired. The Knicks pulled off a massive 121-114 upset despite 31 points from Larry Legend.
Clutch veteran guard Dennis Johnson scored 21 points in his final game before retiring, his second-highest total of the season. The rivals then went 21 years before meeting again in the post-season.

2011: Boston 4, New York 0 Eastern Conference 1st Round.
The long-awaited renewal of the rivalry was buoyed by the recent Knick acquisitions of Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Amare Stoudemire. Boston rallied late to lead 87-85 in game one when Ray Allen buried a left wing triple with 11 seconds left, and Anthony’s attempt to answer with a contested three of his own just before the buzzer came up short.

Playing without the injured Billups in the second game, the Knicks again appeared poised to win as Anthony atoned for his poor shooting in game one (5-18) with 42 points. His tough trey put NY up 91-88 but then Kevin Garnett came up huge with two baskets to give the C’s a one-point lead. He then came up with a great steal under the Knick basket to thwart an easy layup and preserve a 96-93 victory.
In game three at MSG, Pierce bombed the New Yorkers with 38 points and Allen added 32 while Anthony (4-16) scored just 15 and Stoudemire tallied a mere seven in a 113-96 Boston triumph.

The Celtics completed the only four-game sweep in the history of the rivalry by spanking the Knicks on the road, 101-89. Garnett topped the C’s with 26 points while Rondo added 21 and a dozen assists.

The Knicks may be slight favorites to win the 2013 edition of their long rivalry, but if Boston can win one of the first two in New York, they have a chance and it could well go all seven games.