The Lives Of Riley–Just Like The 90s–Are Back In Vogue

Ask any passionate New York sports fan who they hate with a passion and two names will immediately come to mind.  Bill Belicheck and Pat Riley.  Both resigned from their teams with just a note (Riley by fax), both joined arch-rivals in their division, and both won multiple championships with their new teams, while the teams they left are still trying to win even once.

Riley committed the additional sin of leaving New York after one of the most successful stretches the Knicks had since their championship era, winning over 55 games per season and falling within one game of winning it all in the year Michael Jordan decided to play professional baseball.  Worse still, he went the way of so many New York-area people–moving to South Florida.  Usually a path that they take when they retire.  But Riley was in the prime of his life and his career, and he took the same winning formula with him.   Defense.  Tenacity.  And a Van Gundy by his side.

The Miami Heat he joined were an otherwise irrelevant expansion team, playing in an aging arena in a decrepit and dangerous part of Broward County.  They had made the playoffs only twice before his arrival, only once with a winning record, as an inglorious eighth seed. much as they were this season.  Riley changed all that.  He made them successful.  Relevant.  Sexy.  He paved the way for the eventual move to the gorgeous South Beach arena they now call home, gave the beautiful people of the region a new place to be seen, much as the fans of his Showtime Lakers were in LA, and in doing so forged a fierce rivalry with New York that will be reignited tomorrow when they square off for the sixth time in an NBA playoff series.

Between 1997 and 2000, the teams met in four consecutive seasons, with the Knicks winning the final three.  Each series went to the max.  As Tom D’Angelo of The Palm Beach Post recalled this morning, the memories those series produced were epic:

Heat-Knicks was must-see television with compelling storylines, none bigger than New Yorkers’ disdain for Heat executive (and former coach) Pat Riley, who left the Knicks for the Heat in 1995 by faxing (Google it, kids) his resignation. Hence: “Pat the Rat.”  There were the Van Gundy brothers, Knicks head coach Jeff and Heat assistant Stan. Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing, close friends tied by their Georgetown connection, yet fierce competitors. Mourning and Larry Johnson, former Charlotte teammates turned bitter foes. Tim Hardaway and Knicks counterparts John Starks and Chris Childs, all driven by emotion and bravado.

“It’s always good for the league when there’s a Heat-Knicks playoff series,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Oh, it’s better than good. It’s delicious. Here are reasons why:

’97 — The first time these two teams met in the postseason was in the 1997 conference semifinals. Miami trailed the best-of-seven series 3-1 when, late in Game 5, Charlie Ward undercut P.J. Brown on a box out. Brown flipped the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback like a rag doll and it was on.

The result was Brown and Ward being suspended, as were Houston, Ewing, Johnson and Starks for leaving the bench.

Starks gave the Heat crowd the middle finger as he left the court.

’98–Here we go again. This time the Heat were in control, leading the best-of-five series 2-1 with Ewing injured. But a disappointing effort in Game 4 in New York forced the series back to Miami for Game 5.

But that was not the story.

With 1.4 seconds remaining, Mourning and Johnson got tangled. The former teammates then became the main event and the Garden was ready to rumble. The fight, famously known for Mourning mopping the floor with Jeff Van Gundy, who tried to pull Mourning away by wrapping himself around the Heat center’s leg, once again forced the teams to play the biggest game of the season without key players.

Mourning and Johnson were suspended for Game 5 in Miami, which the No. 7 seed Knicks easily won, 98-81, behind Houston’s 30 points.

’99–The Heat, at least those around in 1998, know what the Bucks are feeling today. Top-seeded Miami fell behind New York, 2-1, in the best-of-five series before recapturing the momentum with a victory at Madison Square Garden.

The Heat held a one-point lead in the final seconds of Game 5 when Houston raised a shot from 10 feet. The ball hit the front of the rim, lightly touched the backboard and fell through.

’00– Miami and New York came down to the decisive game for the fourth straight year and for the third straight year, the Knicks won on the Heat’s home court.

This time it was the Heat with the final shot in Game 7. But unlike Houston, Clarence Weatherspoon (Clarence Weatherspoon?) was unable to finish.

The Heat and Knicks met once more in 2012, with Miami on their way to their third title and their second consecutive led by Lebron James, with this additional anecdote adding to the history:

The only memorable moment of Miami’s 4-1 domination in the first round in 2012 was Amare Stoudemire punching the fire extinguisher case in the hallway outside the Knicks’ locker room after Miami’s Game 2 home win.

Stoudemire received stitches on his left hand after it went through the glass and missed Game 3. He returned for the final two games, scoring 34 points, including 20 in the Knicks’ Game 4 win at Madison Square Garden.

But LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had an easy time disposing of the Knicks.

And now, once again, they will square off, both conquering upper-tier opponents with five-game upsets.  While Miami enters with the momentum of only the sixth-ever upset of a #1 seed by a #8 in league history, and Jimmy Butler coming off perhaps the greatest pair of back-to-back performances ever seen, as Dylan Clemons of All summised, it is the higher-seeded and home-standing Knicks that enter as favorites:

With the injury report in mind, the Heat will have an uphill battle to overcome against the Knicks. The Knicks are expected to have both Randle and Grimes, though the Heat will be missing two key contributors in Herro and Oladipo. 

They will need their bench and other starters to make up the slack if they hope to take down the Knicks. In particular, Duncan Robinson and Kyle Lowry will need to perform at or near their peak capabilities.

Further, the Heat will need to overcome a difficult matchup at center. Bam Adebayo is playing through a hamstring injury, which can limit his explosiveness. Moreover, he struggled a bit last series against Brook Lopez, largely because of the size discrepancy (Lopez stands 7’1” while Adebayo is just 6’9”). 

The Knicks feature Mitchell Robinson at center, who stands 7’ flat. If Adebayo is still slowed by his hamstring injury, he may have difficulty outrebounding the lengthy Robinson, which will set the Heat up for failure.

But if we’ve learned anything from this year’s results so far, track records are meaningless depending upon who has the hot hand.  And a lot has changed since the ’90s, even if the passion of each team’s fan bases have stayed just as ardent and their physiques holding up just as well.

The cheering will be loud, the booing even louder.  Riley will be a looming presence, perhaps a bit more wrinkled and grey than he once was.  Both Van Gundys are now broadcasters, Jeff with ABC/ESPN and Stan with TNT, and they will definitely not be shy about expressing themselves.

Get set for not only a great retro visit, but what will most likely be a damn good present as well.  It’s Heat Culture vs. GoNewYorkGoNewYorkGoNewYorkGo.

And the most beautiful people on Earth will be watching.  So should you.


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