This is the thirtieth 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 have now clinched a playoff berth. Also, with a 38-38 record before last night’s win, they could close out this stretch run nicely and finish the season over .500 (which would be the first time they finished a season over .500 since the 1999-2000 season!) and depending on how tonight’s match-up against the Philadelphia 76ers goes (plus the next four games, of course), the Knicks can finish with the #6 seed and second place in the Atlantic Division (something they also haven’t achieved since 2000). Interestingly enough, if we go back 31 years, the Knicks finished the season with a match-up where they were playing the Philadelphia 76ers and the stakes were similar – if the Knicks won, they would be the #6 seed. The problem was, during the 1979-80 season, only six seeds made the playoffs.
The Knicks did not make the playoffs in the 1979-80 season. To find out why, let me tell you about the worst stretch run in Knicks History.
The 1979-80 New York Knicks were a very interesting mixture of players. After a very disappointing 1978-79 season, where legendary coach Red Holzman was actually brought in out of retirement to help the team, the Knicks decided to part ways with future Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, who just did not seem to fit in with New York. McAdoo was still a strong enough player that the Boston Celtics gave the Knicks three first round draft picks in the 1979 NBA Draft for him, including the #3 pick. That pick turned into center Bill Cartwright, who although he was a very high pick, still managed to surprise people with just how good he was, averaging 21.7 points and 8.9 rebounds in his first season and making the All-Star Game as a rookie! Man, imagine trying to convince a Knick fan in 1980 that Cartwright would never make another All-Star Game (which he never did, although he did win three NBA championships). Another of the picks was for forward Sly Williams, who became an important part of the Knick rotation during the Bernard King era.
This Knicks team, though, was dominated by Bill Cartwright and the electric back court of shooting guard Ray Williams and point guard Michael Ray Richardson, who combined were the Knicks’ first round picks from 1977 (Williams, with the #10 pick), 1978 (Richardson, with the #4 pick) and 1979 (Cartwright, with the aforementioned #3 pick). Richardson, in particular, was the face of this Knicks team, as he lead the NBA in assists per game and steals per game, the only Knick player to ever lead the league in either category, let alone both in the same season (he was also the first NBA player to lead the league in both categories)! So at the All-Star break, the Knicks actually had two representatives in the All-Star Game, with Cartwright and Richardson (the Hawks, who finished with 50 wins that year, had three – can you name them? This is a really tough question)! Despite this honor, the Knicks were just 27-28 at the break. That was good for fifth place in the Eastern Conference, though, with the sixth place Indiana Pacers at 26-28, the seventh place Houston Rockets at 25-28 and the eighth place Washington Bullets at 23-29.
Going into the stretch run of the season, the New York Knicks were at 38-38 on March 18th, while the seventh place Washington Bullets were at 34-40. When the two teams played each other four days later, on March 22, 1980, the Knicks were at 38-39 and the Bullets were at 35-41. That game ended up in favor of the Bullets, 122-113, and it continued a stretch where the Knicks lost four of their next five games!
With just one more game left on their schedule, the Knicks had to face the powerful Philadelphia 76ers, who were locked in a race of their own for first place in the Atlantic Division (and first seed overall) with the Boston Celtics. The Bullets had two games left after this one. The Knicks were at 39-42 and the Bullets were at 37-43. Due to their March 22nd victory, the Bullets would win the tie-breaker if the Knicks lost their last game and the Bullets won out. Still, the Knicks’ “magic number” was one. One Knick win or one Bullets loss would clinch the playoff berth for the Knicks. However, as I just mentioned, the 76ers had something at stake here, too. Back then, the top two seeds in the conference would get first round byes, and the Sixers were trying to catch the Celtics for first place and that bye, otherwise, the Sixers would be playing whichever team got the #6 seed. If they lost to the Knicks, they would lose the division and would assure themselves of facing the Knicks in the first round. All things being equal, the Sixers would probably rather have played the Bullets (the Knicks margin of victory was better than the Bullets, and they had more dynamic young players), but more importantly, they wanted to avoid playing in the first round period!
So the last game of the season, the Knicks were home for the Sixers with the season on the line.
In a scene quite familiar to Knick fans of today, the Knicks turned back-up guard Henry Bibby into a star, as the former Knicks torched his old comrades with 9 second half points. Ray Williams really had an off-night defensively, as Maurice Cheeks also lit him up in the second half, and his 7-18 shooting night didn’t help matters, either!
Bill Cartwright started the game strong, as Richardson repeatedly found him for open looks (at the half, Richardson was credited with 15 assists to Cheeks’ zero – the Sixers were not pleased at all by what they felt to be hometown scoring), but he had tired by the end of the game.
With 2 minutes left in the game, the Knicks had taken a 100-96 advantage, the result of a loooooong 11-2 run that took over four minutes to finish (it was not the prettiest run, as you might imagine). However, the last two scores of the run were at least interesting, as Richardson found Toby Knight on two straight fast breaks for the four point lead. The last two minutes did not see a lot of scoring, either. The Knicks held a one-point advantage, 100-99, with 28 seconds left when Richardson was fouled and sent to the line. He made only one of two free throws, making it a 2-point game.
On the following possession, Cartwright temporarily saved the game by blocking a Bobby Jones drive to the basket. However, the ball went out of bounds and the Sixers retained possession. Jones again drove to the hoop and was fouled. He made both shots and the game was tied with 5 seconds to go. After a timeout advanced the ball to mid-court, the Knicks had one timeout remaining. However, the Sixers’ defensive pressure on Richardson caused him to panic. Rather than calling a timeout, Richardson tried to beat the five-second count by throwing the ball wildly near the Knicks’ free throw line. In, however, stepped one Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who was playing on a bad knee but, well, you know, he was still Dr. J! Erving picked off the pass and drove towards the Sixers basket where he laid in the go-ahead bucket with one second left to go! While Richardson likely should have used the Knicks’ last timeout beforehand, at least they still had that timeout, so they were once again able to advance the ball to midcourt. However, once again Richardson had a hard time getting the ball inbounds, and he ended up throwing the ball away out of bounds to clinch the victory for the Sixers, 103-101.
The despondent Knicks (who had now officially closed the season by losing five of their last six games) then had to watch the Bullets’ last two games and hope for a loss. The Bullets beat the Hawks (who had already clinched their playoff bye) in their penultimate game, so the season came down to the Bullets versus the New Jersey Nets. The Nets had upset the Sixers a game earlier, ruining the Sixers’ chance at the Atlantic Division. And now they could eliminate their near-by rivals. There was a lot of talk about the fact that the Nets held the Knicks’ fate in their hand. Some Nets players even joked if they should even try to win th game. Ultimately, though, it appears as though the Nets gave it their best, although they lost the game 93-87, thereby eliminating the Knicks from the playoffs.
The Bullets were swept in the first round by the Sixers, who ended up going all the way to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Lakers and their rookie superstar, Magic Johnson.
While he had about as bad of an ending as you can have to a game, Richardson at least had some form of revenge four years later, when the star, now playing for the Nets, led the Nets to an upset victory over the Sixers in the first round of the 1984 NBA Playoffs. Since the Sixers were the #3 seed and the defending NBA Champions, that was quite an achievement for the Nets!
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!
ANSWER TO THE TRIVIA QUESTION: The Hawks’ three representatives in the 1980 NBA All-Star Game were All-Star starters Eddie Johnson and John Drew (two starters!) and All-Star reserve Dan Roundfield. Did anyone guess that correctly?