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Rivalries in the NBA: Historic Matchups and Controversial Incidents

Publish Date: 20.05.2024
Fact checked by: Emily Carter

Professional sports are nothing without their fans. Though the games themselves are fun and exciting, what makes them so big is the loyal, passionate fan bases willing to root, cheer, and spend money for their favorite team.

There are many elements to a team’s fanbase, but one of the most important is rivalries. Having teams or players to root against and play the villain is almost as important as having teams to love. That’s why every pro sport, including the NBA, has so many throughout its history.

Lakers vs. Celtics: The Quintessential Rivalry

There are quite a few rivalries in the NBA, but almost all of them pale in comparison to the Lakers and Celtics. That’s because great rivalries get more intense the more history they have, and nobody has a longer history than those two franchises.

Both teams go all the way back to the 1950’s, when the Celtics and Lakers (then in Minneapolis) dominated the league. The Lakers won three championships during that time, while the Celtics won two.

That competition then spilled over to the 1960’s. While the Celtics, behind legend Bill Russell, dominated the decade and won nine titles, the Lakers were right there with them. Los Angeles faced them in six of those Finals, putting both teams at the forefront of the league.

Though the rivalry cooled off a bit during the 1970’s, it reignited in the 80’s thanks to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird creating one of the greatest rivalries in NBA history. During the 80’s, the two (and their teams) played each other three times in the Finals and sparked a rivalry that even entered popular culture.

While the Lakers and Celtics both dipped down over time, their dislike continues to this day. Fans root against each other whenever they can.

Bulls vs Pistons: The Bad Boys Clash

Where some classic NBA rivalries lasted a long time, there have been a few shorter ones that were still very intense. One such case is the late 80’s/early 90’s Bulls, led by a young Michael Jordan, and the Bad Boy Pistons.

True to their name, the Pistons were a physical team that did everything they could to get under their opponent’s skin. Not only that, but they implemented special “Jordan Rules” where they would double team Jordan and be extremely physical whenever he got the ball.

That naturally escalated negative feelings between both teams and made it a fierce contest every time they played. The two fan bases grew to dislike each other, and the players from both sides had a mutual dislike as well.

The Pistons also won back-to-back championships, and were a big reason that Jordan didn’t get his first ring until later on in his career. Though the fan bases are no longer rivals, they were enemies for a brief-but-important window in NBA history.

Warriors vs Cavaliers: Modern Dynasty Wars

A lot of rivalries stem from fan bases or players not liking each other, but some form out of circumstance. That’s the case with one of the more modern rivalries in the Warriors vs Cavaliers.

Similar to the early Lakers and Celtics, both teams were extremely dominant during their peak runs in the 2010’s. That then led them to playing each other several times in the Finals, which naturally created a rivalry between the franchises.

They played each other in four straight finals between 2015 and 2018, with the Warriors winning three and the Cavaliers winning one. Those matchups marked a shift in the league by revealing the power of the three point shot, giving more control to free agents, and leading to a rise in super teams.

Knicks vs Heat: The Physical Chess Match

Another intense-but-short-lived rivalry occurred between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat. During the 90’s, the two teams had a series of intense matchups, but what pushed them over the edge was when Pat Riley left as the Knicks head coach and took over at Miami.

Many, including some in the Knicks organization, thought the Heat tampered with Riley and enticed him to move. It set both franchises against each other and led to a split between the fan bases. That was then furthered by both teams facing off in the playoff for four straight seasons.

While Riley’s move is now largely forgotten, it created friction between the organizations for nearly a decade and led to an intense rivalry that lasted more than ten years.

Spurs vs Lakers: The Battle of Philosophies

Many rivalries occur between teams that have similar play patterns or mantras. That was not the case with the Spurs and Lakers in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. As with so many other enemies, the two teams often clashed because of their greatness.

Both franchises, one led by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and one led by Tim Duncan, faced off in the playoffs numerous times throughout that time. The Lakers would win three straight rings, while the Spurs would win four over the next decade.

Not only did the rivalry grow due to the frequent postseason matches and quest for rings, but because they were so different. The Spurs were a physical, defense-oriented team while the Lakers were big, broad, and flashy.

Both strategies worked for each organization, and created a lot of discussion about the different ways teams can win in the NBA.

Pacers vs. Knicks: The Reggie Miller Effect

Most of the time, the greatest rivalries in NBA history are born out of a quest for rings. In the case of the Knicks and Pacers during the 90’s, it was just a general dislike. Neither team would ever hoist a championship trophy, but they often faced in the playoffs and games got heated.

Part of that heat came from Pacers hall of famer Reggie Miller, who often got into arguments, fights, and disputes with Knicks players and fans alike. Another element came from the New York media, who often went after the Pacers.

The teams played in six playoff series between 1993 and 2000, and they only got more and more strained with each one. Though the franchises and their fan bases have long reconciled, there was no love lost between the two for that entire decade.

Individual Rivalries: Bird vs Magic

As shown above, sports rivalries don’t always have to center around teams. They can be about players too. There have been quite a few eras where two athletes went at it, but none were bigger than Magic Johson and Larry Bird.

Not only were the two superstars at the center of the Lakers/Celtics rivalry, they also faced off in college with Johson’s Michigan State team edging out Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores in the 1979 Championship.

That rivalry spilled over into the NBA when the Celtics and Lakers clashed during the 80’s. The two players were friends off the court, but their fierce competitiveness in games showed how impactful individual rivalries could be.

Conclusion

Rivalries in the NBA aren’t just a side part of basketball, they are baked into the fabric of the game itself. They help make fans more passionate about their teams, fuel great stories, and help create narratives that everyone loves to follow.

Many players came about due to their rivalry, and many great franchises were born out of them as well. They add an extra element to the NBA and create something that’s personal for both players and fans alike.

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