This is the thirty-first in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
The 2010-11 New York Knicks now know what seed they will be in the 2011 NBA Playoffs and who their opponents will be, the reigning Eastern Conference Champion Boston Celtics. If the Knicks have any thoughts about an extended playoff run, they’ll first have to get past the Celtics. Therefore, I figured it would be worth taking a look back at the last time the New York Knicks won an NBA Championship, and the remarkable upset they accomplished on the way to the NBA Finals – an upset over these very same Boston Celtics. This upset included one of the more amazing comebacks in NBA Playoff history, the so-called “Easter Resurrection.”
So before the Knicks take on the Boston Celtics tonight (in anticipation of their playoff meeting this Sunday), let’s all first revel in both one of the great playoff series in Knick history (a series that gets overshadowed by the series that followed it) and one of the great Knick playoff victories.
The Knicks had gotten to the NBA Finals in 1972, but had been stymied by the Los Angeles Lakers (who the Knicks had defeated in 1970), who, at the time, had won the most games in NBA history with a whopping 69 wins in the 1971-72 season. At the end of the 1972-73 season, the Knicks had a 57-25 record, but found themselves remarkably 11 games back of the first place Boston Celtics in the NBA Atlantic Division. Yes, six seasons after the Sixers had set the NBA record for the most wins with 68 and a year after the Lakers won 69, the Celtics also won 68 games. Only five teams have ever won 68 games or more. Four of them won the NBA Championship. The fifth? Well…let’s find out…
The Knicks opened the 1973 playoffs against a familiar foe, the Baltimore Bullets. The Bullets were the team that the Knicks star shooting guard, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe used to play for before being dealt to the Knicks. The Knicks had faced them in the playoffs every year since 1969, and the Bullets only won one of those match-ups, back in 1971 (when the Bullets made it all the way to the NBA Finals, where the Milwaukee Bucks destroyed them). The Bullets would actually play the Knicks again in 1974 (also a Bullets loss). The NBA had adopted a new playoff format in 1973, where regular season record would determine home court in the playoffs, not seed, so although the Bullets were the #2 seed (by virtue of winning the Central Division), the Knicks had the home court (by virture of having a better record than the Bullets). The Knicks won the series in five games.
In Game 1 against the Celtics, the Knicks were routed. The Celtics had a dominant six-man rotation of Jo Jo White (at the 1), Don Chaney (at the 2 – Chaney would be draped all over Walt Frazier all the time), John Havlicek (at the 3), Don Nelson (the nominal starter at the 4), Paul Silas (the sixth man, but the guy who would close out games at the 4) and Dave Cowens, the reigning NBA MVP (at the 5).
The Knicks returned the favor in Game 2, with a 33-point victory that I think might still be the largest loss the Celtics have ever suffered in the playoffs.
The Knicks won Game 3 and the series took a major shift when John Havlicek had to leave the game after suffering a shoulder injury after running into a Dave DeBusschere pick.
The Celtics were still clearly a formidable team (as obviously, the still had the NBA MVP playing) and the Knicks had injury woes of their own, as defensive specialist Dean Meminger was playing for Monroe at the 2, as Monroe was slowed by an ankle injury. Meminger was a strong defender but he killed the Knicks by passing on open jumper after open jumper. So it was not like, “Oh, Havlicek is out, this should be easy.”
Game 4, played on Easter Sunday, April 22, 1973, would later be known as the Knicks’ “Easter Resurrection.” The 1972-73 season, of course, is best known for one of the greatest comebacks in Knick history period, where the Knicks came back from 17 down in the fourth quarter (with five and a half minutes to play!) to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks (courtesy of a game-closing 18-0 run!). The 1972-73 team is really not as well known as the 1969-70 team, but that game has left an indelible image on the face of Knick history. Well, in Game 4, against the Celtics, the Knicks nearly duplicated that feat!
Now remember, comebacks in the early 1970s were a lot different than they are now because of the lack of three-point shooting back then. Therefore, a 16 point fourth quarter deficit would be nearly insurmountable, and yet that’s exactly what the Knicks, well, surmounted! The Knicks’ furious comeback was sealed when Frazier hit a fallaway jumper with 17 seconds left in the fourth.
At the end of the first overtime period, back-up forward Phil Jackson tied the game with two clutch free throws to send the game to a second overtime!!!
Due to injuries and players fouling out, the entire second overtime was played by Frazier, DeBusschere, rookie guard Henry Bibby, rookie center John Gianelli and the aforementioned Jackson. At the start of the second overtime, Jackson stole the ball from White and took it all the way down the other end of the court for a big lay-up to open the period. Gianelli played outstanding defense on Cowens, including drawing Cowens’ sixth foul! Ending the game on an 11-4 run, the Knicks won the game by seven! Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn berated the referees for what he felt was a plethora of unfair calls against his team (even to this day, I presume Heinsohn feels that the Celtics were robbed that day).
With a seemingly secure 3-1 lead, the Knicks went to Boston where the Celtics won with a last second shot (and a great block by Paul Silas on Willis Reed’s prayer at the buzzer). After a ten-point loss back home in New York, the Knicks unbelievably were headed back to Boston for a Game 7 in the Boston Garden. At this point in history, the Celtics had never lost a Game 7, so things looked pretty desperate. This Knicks team was definitely on the old side, with pretty much every single Knick big man (that were any good) on the wrong end of 30. Jerry Lucas and DeBusschere were 32 and Reed was 30 (with knees of an 80 year old), so there was definitely the sense that this might be the last chance for these Knicks.
After trailing 22-19 after one, Knicks coach Red Holzman once again benched Monroe for Meminger, only this time, Meminger took the jumpers that were given to him and poured in nine points in the second quarter to help the Knicks to a 45-40 lead at the break. Holzman had used De Busschere on Cowens in the first half, but after 15 points from Cowens, Holzman switched to his slower (but bigger) guys, Lucas and Reed, and they held Cowens in check in the second half. The Knicks’ defense held the Celtics to just 35 points in the second and third and led 68-53 entering the fourth quarter. The Knicks held on for the win (Frazier led the way with 25 points and 10 rebounds in 47 minutes of play), a win that Holzman later recalled as “the most satisfying of my career.”
After defeating the Celtics, the Lakers, who had “only” won 60 games, must have seemed like a cinch! And the Knicks did go on to defeat the Lakers to win the NBA title, becoming the first team to ever defeat two 60 win teams in the same playoffs (a feat that stood alone for 20 years until Jordan’s Bulls did it a remarkable three times between 1993 and 1996).
So take that great upset to heart as the Knicks begin their attempt this Sunday for possibly another amazing upset against the Boston Celtics. Do note that if I’m right about the playoff schedule, the Knicks and the Celtics could very well have a game scheduled for April 24th….Easter Sunday. Hey, a fella can dream, can’t he?
If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!