Since the NBA season resumes tomorrow (offer up your prayers to the sports gods that the bubble works), I thought it would be fun today to look back at the last shortened season in NBA history, and a team that made the finals despite really, really not belonging there. Journey with me now, friends, to my childhood, and the 1999 New York Knickerbockers.
First, some quick NBA context. Michael Jordan had just retired and Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman left Chicago, meaning that the Bulls were finally done as a dynasty. They didn’t even make the playoffs. The Utah Jazz had lost to them in two straight finals, but it became clear over the course of the season that, unlucky for them, they had passed their peak. Stockton, Malone, and company fought to the 3-seed, but they were dispatched by Portland in the second round.
With those two juggernauts gone, there was a chance for a new team to step up and grab control, to announce themselves as the next great force in the NBA. That team was the San Antonio Spurs. With second-year star Tim Duncan teaming up with David Robinson, and a supporting cast that included Some Guys like Sean Elliott, Avery Johnson, Mario Elie, and Jaren Jackson, Gregg Popovich found the winning formula and started his own dynasty—one that would win five championships in 16 years.
But who did that emerging Goliath play in the finals? Ahhh, my friends! So glad you asked. That team was the New York Knickerbockers.
That season, which was shortened to 50 games by a labor lockout, the Knicks finished with a record of 27-23. That was good for eighth place in the eastern conference, meaning they were almost a sure thing to lose immediately to their rivals, the no. 1 seed Miami Heat.
The Knicks were a weird team that year. One of their top scorers was Latrell Sprewell, who was best known for choking out Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo a year earlier, which resulted in a season-long suspension. It wasn’t his first eruption, either—he once threatened Jerome Kersey with a 2×4 plank after getting his ass kicked, and in 1993 he punched Byron Houston in the face three times despite the fact that Houston was a mountain of muscle who outweighed Sprewell by 50 pounds.
Another star was Patrick Ewing, who at 36 was not far from retirement, and injuries limited him to 38 games that season. Then there was Allan Houston, a Knicks mainstay, and Larry Johnson, who was still effective but who played at age 29 like a man ten years older, and who only had a couple years left in the NBA. Beyond that, there wasn’t much scoring prowess—just a semi-competent guard in Charlie Ward, a brute force forward in Kurt Thomas, and a young Marcus Camby, followed by a slew of role players.
Meanwhile, the top seed Miami Heat had Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, and were clearly the better team. But if you believe in the cliche that you can throw out the records in a rivalry series, that was the case here—the Knicks and Heat hated each other, and had been fighting it out in some truly ugly basketball games all decade. A year earlier, Mourning and Larry Johnson got in a fight in Game 5 of their playoff series, and Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy hilariously grabbed onto Mourning’s leg and was dragged all over the court:
The Knicks won that one in five games (opening round series were best-of-5 then), and they were the 7-seed to Miami’s 2. Which meant that even though this was a 1 vs. 8 series, the Knicks had a chance.
And they started strong, whipping Miami by 20 points in Miami in game one. They lost game two, but whipped them again in game three, and actually had a chance to win the series at home. But they were completely shut down, barely cracking 70 points, which sent the series to a deciding Game 5 in Miami. Bad news for the Knicks, you’d think, but this rivalry always had strange things in store.
To nobody’s surprise, it was an ugly, low-scoring game, but Patrick Ewing scored 22 points to keep the Knicks close. With 19 seconds left, the Knicks trailed 77-76. Watch that final possession at the 5:30 mark here:
It’s easily the least impressive game-winning possession and shot I’ve ever seen—a perfect fit for the way these teams played—and easily one of the happiest sports moments of my life. It was only the second time an 8-seed had defeated a 1-seed in NBA history, but as I said, this wasn’t your typical David vs. Goliath match.
Next up for the Knicks were the 4-seed Atlanta Hawks, and, well…they were the Atlanta Hawks. Favored or not, the Knicks were plainly the tougher team, and they won in four games. None of them were even that close.
Which set up the best possible eastern conference finals: Knicks vs. Pacers. A year earlier, as was well documented in The Last Dance, the Pacers came incredibly close to defeating Michael Jordan and the Bulls, and no doubt they saw the 1999 season as their chance to finally get that championship ring. Led by Reggie Miller and head coach Larry Bird, they had finished with the same record as the Heat, and were essentially a second no. 1 seed.
And like the Heat, the Pacers had a rich, hateful history with the Knicks. Reggie Miller was the bane of Knicks fans’ existence, and the Pacers had beaten the Knicks in the ’95 playoffs, and again a year earlier in ’98, while the Knicks had made the finals in 1994 by beating the Pacers in seven games in that year’s eastern conference finals. It was in the ’95 finals, though, that Miller had his unforgettable moment, scoring eight points in the final nine seconds to devastate the Knicks:
Back to ’99. With two minutes left in game one, at Indiana, the Pacers held a five-point lead, but the Knicks somehow pulled it out, benefitting from the fact that Miller wasn’t able to attempt the game-tying three. The Pacers took game two, though it was only by two points. Clearly, seeds aside, this would be another war. And unfortunately for the Knicks, Ewing—already hobbled from a career of wear and tear—tore his Achilles tendon in game two, and was done for the rest of the playoffs. The Pacers seemed to have an enormous edge.
The defining moment of that series came in game three. That’s when Larry Johnson, who had taken to forming an LJ symbol with his arms whenever he hit a three and who, as I mentioned, played like he was about 45 years old, left his mark on Knicks history. He had already made some incredible shots that day, including a very lucky banked-in three to keep the Knicks in the game. With his team trailing 91-88 in the waning moments, what he did next was nothing short of a miracle:
Again, one of the greatest sports moments of my life, coming about two weeks after the previous ones. And eternal credit to Chris Childs for calming him down and making sure he was psychologically prepared to hit the go-ahead free throw.
The Pacers struck back in the next game to re-take homecourt advantage, but in the critical Game 5 at Indiana, Sprewell went off for 29 points, Houston scored 19, and LJ stepped up again with 17 points, including two big threes, as the Knicks played lockdown defense at game’s end to win and give themselves a chance to clinch at home.
This time, they didn’t waste the opportunity. Reggie Miller was ice cold, going 1-for-8 from three, and Allan Houston played what might be the game of his life, scoring 32 points on 12-17 shooting. Marcus Camby stepped up in Ewing’s absence with 15 points, and Sprewell and Houston were brilliant in the endgame, turning a tie game with seven minutes remaining into a comfortable eight point win.
Amazingly, the Knicks had done it: They became the first eight-seed to reach the NBA finals. Nobody had done it before, and nobody has done it since.
It would be easy to joke about the finals against the Spurs, and to write that after emerging from the ugly morass of eastern conference hoops, they were crushed by a superior foe. But in fact, even without Ewing, the Knicks put up an incredible fight. Yes, the result was a 4-1 win for the Spurs, and yes, they outclassed them in the first two games in San Antonio. But the Knicks showed their pride by winning game three, and as you see at the 4:45 mark in the video below, Sprewell had a chance to win game five too:
There will be engaging in what-ifs here; even if that shot had gone down, the Knicks would have lost one of the last two games in San Antonio. All I’m saying is that they held their own against a superior opponent.
In short, those playoffs go down as one of the great runs in NBA history, even without a championship. Yes, I’m biased—my teenage memories are flooding back here–but I stand by it. There won’t be a team quite as strange, or quite as incredible in its strange way, as the ’99 Knicks.
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One thought on “The ’99 Knicks: History’s Greatest, Worst Almost-Champs”
I was in New York on vacation during that Pacers series, and for some inexplicable reason my parents let me walk alone down to the Garden to try to get some tickets for the game that evening. Of course, I fell victim to my first clean robbery after trusting a guy in front of the arena with $60 while he walked around the corner “to get the ticket”. In retrospect, I’m not sure what’s more amusing: that I thought I could get a playoff ticket for that price, or that the guy would actually come back…
Either way, the crowd reaction to Grandma Larry Johnson’s 4-pt play is still one my favorite sports moments.