“We had a championship team, we really did,” says former Knicks coach Pat Riley in the book Garden Glory. “We just had the unfortunate experience to come around at a time when Michael Jordan was around.”
“At least that year, I thought our team was better than anyone else in the league at that time.”
“The 1993 team was certainly the best team I’ve ever been a part of,” adds Jeff Van Gundy, an assistant to Riley that season.
This writer and longtime Knick fan agrees. The 1992 Knicks team that took the Bulls to seven games? The Bulls were better. The 1993 team that somehow held Michael Jordan to 40% shooting over six playoff games? The Knicks gave it away.
Some fans inherently reject the notion that “the better team lost” in any sport. To them, it is logically impossible. If the 16-0 Patriots were truly better than 10-6 Giants in Super Bowl XLII, they would have “found a way to win.” And if David Tyree’s famous improbable helmet catch never happened, sports media and most fans would pronounce those undefeated 19-0 Patriots the greatest team in NFL history (BTW, they still are). This article is not for them.
Others will reject the blasphemous idea the 1993 Knicks “stopped Jordan,” will remind you MJ dropped 54 points on those Knicks in Game 4, and any discussion is sour grapes. “You lost,” just “get over it,” and “quit crying,” they say. This article is not for them either.
This article is about appreciating one of the greatest teams and epic defenses in NBA history that never quite got its due.
For at least one singular series during his peak 1991-93 championship seasons (ages 27-29), Jordan won because his teammates bailed him out, and the better team fumbled it away. If that truth doesn’t neatly fit into The Last Dance’s Jordan-Vanquishes-All narrative, too bad.
Can we celebrate “losers”? Of course, we can. For 50 years, sports media has been waxing poetic on the 1967 “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox as if their conqueror Bob Gibson wasn’t the real underdog story. Young MJ dropping 63 points on the 1986 Celtics is the stuff of legend. He also got swept.
From 1991-1993, MJ would win his first three titles, tearing through his Finals opponents on the biggest stage. Those first three titles at ages 27-29 were peak MJ, a higher-flying, sharper-shooting version than his last three titles at age 32-34. MJ never shot below 50 percent in any Finals series.
In the Finals, the unstoppable Jordan saw no drop-off from his regular-season shooting. In 17 Finals games, MJ shot 50 percent or better in a whopping 82 percent of them (14-17 games). One big reason Michael Jordan excelled in the Finals is they weren’t the Knicks. Let’s look closer at 1993:
That’s right. That 1993 Knicks defense stopped Jordan in most games. Yes, he exploded in Game 4 for 54 points, and posted a triple-double in Game 5, but the Knicks defense forced MJ to miss 15 to 20 shots in four other separate games.
Do you know how statistically impossible it is to hold Michael under 40% shooting four times in one series during the 1991-93 playoffs?
It only happened four times in the other 52 playoff games, and one of those four was against the 1991-92 Knicks team that had Pat Riley as head coach.
“We were gonna become the hardest-working, best-conditioned, most-professional, most-unselfish, toughest, nastiest team in the league,” said Riley. “And those were the very first words out of my mouth.”.
The 1992 Knicks team would extend the Bulls to seven games, and notably had a one-year rental of Xavier McDaniel who helped hold Scottie Pippen to 40 percent during the series.
That frontline included Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason and was anchored by Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing who played the best defense of his career under Riley. In 1993 and 1994, Ewing notably had back-to-back seasons of 8.0 Defensive Win Shares. To put that in historical perspective, only one player has surpassed 8.0 Win Shares in one season since (Ben Wallace, 2003-04).
But the 1992 team couldn’t stop Michael who torched the Knicks for 36 points a game on 53% shooting.
The 1993 Knicks team was built to stop Michael. At the expense of offense, Riley traded away their biggest defensive hole in Mark Jackson for Doc Rivers, and moved John Starks — who was named to the 2nd-team All-NBA Defensive squad — into the starting lineup.
In his book 11 Rings, Phil Jackson says Starks “was giving Jordan endless grief on defense.” Starks also owns the peak moment of those 1993 Knicks after he famously and emphatically dunked over Jordan and Horace Grant to seal a 2-0 series lead.
Given the dunk, the moment in the game, and stakes, it’s hard to find a more meaningful playoff dunk.
“It was one of those moments that, had you lived through it in real time,” writes the Shadow League, “you’ll never forget how it made you feel, either as a Knicks fan or someone rooting against Jordan’s budding Chicago dynasty.”
For Knicks fans, “The Dunk” was the Knick first euphoric moment where you tasted ultimate victory over the Bulls, not as “an upset,” but as a better team.
Those 60-win Knicks had home-court advantage over the Bulls, and had just notched their 27th consecutive home win, and Starks protected that invincibility. Winning in Chicago was anything but. As he did so many times against the Pistons, Bulls coach Phil Jackson would constantly work the refs in the media, denigrating the Knicks.
“Basketball is not a wrestling match,” Phil Jackson complained. “It’s a game of movement and beauty.”
And it worked. Each time the Knicks and Bulls met in the playoffs, MJ’s foul shot attempts would magically spike at home, especially with the series on the line (look it up). After 19 FT attempts in Games 1 and 2, MJ’s spike to 31 in Games 3 and 4 was predictable.
You protect home, you win. History has scapegoated Knicks forward Charles Smith and his four famous failed shot attempts at the end of Game 5, but that’s not fair. The Knicks outplayed the Bulls in that game, but missed 15 free throws, many of those in the 4th quarter. Smith played well in both wins and shot 60 percent for the series outside of that last futile barrage.
The Knicks defense would never match that peak level of the 1992-1993 defensive juggernaut. The most notable and forgotten reason is the knee injury to Starks toward the end of the 1993-94 season. He would miss the last 23 games, and it would impact his shooting in the playoffs. More long-term, the explosiveness that produced “The Dunk” and a top defensive stopper were also impacted, as Starks reformed his game more into a jump shooter.
Turns out 1993 was the reverse of 1992. Without McDaniel, the Knicks were able to stop Jordan, but not Scottie Pippen. And it wasn’t just his defense at the end of Game 5, but his 51 percent shooting for the series, and clutch baskets to clinch Game 6, 96-88, while MJ shot 33 percent.
“It was Scottie who got us that series,” admits Bulls Trainer Chip Schaefer in the book Mind Games. “He always seemed to have a knack when Michael might have been having a tough time, to step up and do what needed to be done.”
“Michael won in 1993 because the Knicks blew it in Game 5, and Scottie saved the series,” is not exactly the most romantic media storyline, but it’s true.
Pat Riley is right. The 1993 Knicks were a championship team, and one of the greatest defensive teams in NBA history.
Between 1991-93, they were the only team to stop peak Jordan in the playoffs.
And if the media can still pay tribute to celebrate MJ’s 63 while losing in ’86, we can sure as hell celebrate those Knicks.