The NBA’s history is rich in rivalries. We’ve seen teams face each other in grueling playoff battles and we’ve seen them battle in the playoffs more than just one time.
These rivalries have enriched the NBA’s history. They have made the competition better and the game more exciting. Some of these rivalries date back from the 60s and some of these were born in recent years.
Let’s take a look at the best team rivalries in the history of the NBA:
Golden State Warriors vs Cleveland Cavaliers
The Golden State Warriors started their NBA reign in 2015 when they won their first NBA title. The Warriors did so at the expense of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. James was in his first season back after playing in Miami but he was no match for the Splash Brothers in the Finals.
The following season, these teams would meet again in the 2016 NBA Finals. This one was tough as it went the full seven games. LeBron James’ chase-down block on Draymond Green Kyrie Irving’s key three-point basket over Steph Curry proved to be the key plays as the Cavs won their first NBA title, fulfilling James’ promise to his hometown. The Warriors would rebound in 2017 and 2018 with Kevin Durant joining the team. The Cavs won just one game in 2017 and were swept in 2018 in the last of four meetings between these two 2010s rivals.
Chicago Bulls vs New York Knicks
Michael Jordan didn’t have a rival during his time but he played against several Eastern Conference powerhouses on his way to winning six NBA titles. While the Detroit Pistons were the Bulls’ main roadblock to advancing out of the Eastern Conference, their rivalry with the New York Knicks from 1989-1996 featured some of the most intense playoff series we’ve ever seen.
Jordan faced the Knicks seven times during that period and although they won all but one of those, MJ and Pippen faced stiff competition from the likes of Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, and John Starks. The Knicks were a rough-playing team that tried to bully their way against Chicago. New York’s lone series win was in 1994 when they made it to the Finals where they lost to the Rockets in seven games. The Bulls meanwhile won a total of six NBA titles during the 90s.
New York Knicks vs Indiana Pacers
The New York Knicks also had a rivalry with the Indiana Pacers during the 90s. And when you talk about this rivalry, the first name that comes to mind is Reggie Miller. Of course, we remember when Miller scored 8 points in nine seconds to beat the Knicks in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals. Since Miller made that infamous choke gesture to Spike Lee, the rivalry was lit.
During Game 5 of that series, Miller scored 25 fourth-quarter points while trash-talking with Lee at courtside. The Knicks and Pacers would go on to play in a total of six playoff series from 1993-2000 and the Pacers would beat the Knicks in 2000 to reach the NBA Finals. This rivalry faded when Miller retired but these teams will always be remembered for playing some of the most physical confrontations in NBA playoff history.
Los Angeles Lakers vs Sacramento Kings
During the Lakers’ three-peat title run in the 2000s, the team that they kept on running into in the Western Conference playoffs was the Sacramento Kings. The Kings had Chris Webber, Mike Biggy, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, and Doug Christie among others. The Lakers had Kobe, Shaq, Rick Fox, Derek Fisher, and Robert Horry. These teams met in the playoffs for three straight seasons from 2000-02 with the Lakers eliminating the Kings in all three instances on their way to the NBA title.
The most memorable game between these two teams was Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals with the Kings leading the Lakers 2-1. Sacramento was up 99-97 and the Lakers were down to their final play. After Kobe Bryant missed a runner, Vlade Divac tapped the ball outside the three-point line. Robert Horry caught the ball and fired a straight-away three-pointer that would give the Lakers a miraculous win. They would go on to win the series and their third straight championship.
Chicago Bulls vs Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons were labeled as the Bad Boys during the 90s because of their physical brand of play that often bordered with being dirty. Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars were their key players and the two were aided by Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn and Vinnie Johnson. Detroit won back to back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990 and along the way, the Pistons beat Michael Jordan and his Bulls.
The Pistons and Bulls met each other in the playoffs from 1988-1991 and the Pistons were the team that eliminated Michael Jordan from the playoffs until 1991. The Bulls finally got better with Scottie Pippen emerging as a superstar in ‘91. They were finally able to go over the Pistons hump and win three straight NBA titles and a total of six during the 1990s. The Pistons’ best rebounder Dennis Rodman would later Jordan in Chicago and help the Bulls win three straight titles from 1996-1998
San Antonio Spurs vs Phoenix Suns
This interdivisional rivalry started in the early 90s when David Robinson led the Spurs against the Phoenix Suns team led by Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, and Dan Majerle. These rivals met four times in the playoffs between 1992 and 1998 with both teams winning two series apiece.
The rivalry overlapped to the next generation and they met each other six times from 2000-2010. The Spurs dominated this era as the Suns won only one series during this period. However, it produced some of the most heated playoff games during that time. In 2007, the rivalry peaked when they met in the second round of the playoffs. They were two of the best teams in the NBA but in Game 4, a fight broke out and the benches cleared after a hard foul by Robert Horry on Steve Nash.
Los Angeles Lakers vs San Antonio Spurs
During the first decade of this millennium, the Western Conference was dominated by stars such as Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Tony Parker. With these superstars on board, the Lakers and Spurs met seven times in the playoffs from 1999-2013. The Lakers won four times and the Spurs won thrice and the winner of this series always ended up representing the West in the NBA Finals.
This rivalry also produced some of the most heart-stopping games. It was in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Finals when Derek Fisher sank the Spurs with a game-winner with 0.4 seconds left in the game. The Lakers went on to win the series 4-2 but would lose in the championship to the Detroit Pistons.
New York Knicks vs Miami Heat
The Knicks and Heat were already starting a rivalry when Pat Riley left his head coaching job in New York to become an executive/coach for the Heat. But when Riley arrived in South Beach, this one turned to a full-fledged rivalry with the Knicks and Heat meeting each other in the playoffs during four straight seasons from 1997-2000. Each of those playoff series went seven games and the hate between these two teams only grew during that period.
The most notorious matchups between these teams happened in the 1997 playoffs when they met in the second round. A brawl happened after a hard four committed by P.J. Brown on Charlie Ward. This melee led to the suspension of key players like Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, and Larry Johnson. The following season Alonzo Mourning and former teammate Larry Johnson got into a fight.
Los Angeles Lakers vs Detroit Pistons
Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas are very close friends but were also very fierce basketball rivals. These two iconic stars of the 80s met in back to back NBA Finals in 1988 and 1989 with Magic beating out Zeke in their first meeting and the Pistons winning in 1989. But that did not end there. These teams would meet again in the 2004 NBA Finals
The 2004 Lakers featured one of the most stars studded teams in the history of the NBA with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton. The Pistons were led by two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner Ben Wallace and the likes of Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups. The Pistons beat the Lakers in one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.
Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers
This is the most storied of all-NBA rivalries. The Boston Celtics are the winningest team in the league with a total of 17 NBA titles won. The Los Angeles Lakers are second with a total of 16. Together, they would combine for 33 out of the 72 Larry O’Brien trophies handed out by the NBA. The Celtics won the first eight championship meetings between these two teams. The Lakers won two straight in 1985 and 1987. These teams met again in 2008 where the Celtics won in six games. In their last championship series, the Lakers defeated the Celtics 4-3 in 2010.
Aside from their championship rivalries, the Lakers and Celtics have hosted some of the best player rivalries in the sport. The Celtics had their dominant big man in Bill Russell while the Lakers had Wilt Chamberlain. These two legendary centers played a total of 94 times against each other. Two decades later, we witnessed the Magic vs Bird rivalry of the 80s.