The 10 Most Intense NBA Team Rivalries of All Time

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The NBA features some of the most intense rivalries in all of sports.

Whether they’re divisional rivals, conference rivals, championship rivals, or two teams that simply hate each other, these matchups have given fans some of the most entertaining battles in basketball history.

Superstar players like Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird have been front and center for some of the most notorious moments—including fights, epic Game 7 battles, and championship wins.

Here are the most intense team rivalries in NBA history.

Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers  

Playing in back-to-back NBA finals is a great way to get a rivalry going. Having the two biggest superstars in the league on those opposing teams doesn’t hurt either. Even the teams’ styles makes for a stark contrast: Golden State, the new pride of the Bay Area, with its fast-shooting, ball-moving, fast break-running offense. Then there’s Rust Belt Believeland, with strategy of “make sure LeBron gets the ball.”

The differences don’t end there, and that makes the rivalry perfect for the modern era. The Warriors next-generation superstar, Stephen Curry, is a relatively undersized wizard of the three-point shot, while James has an NFL linebacker’s body, a towering figure on the court who looks like a goliath next to players that are taller than he is. The two teams first battled for the championship in 2015, with the Warriors winning their first title in decades over an injury-ravaged Cavs team. (Kevin Love missed nearly all of the playoffs, while point guard Kyrie Irving was knocked out of the finals during the first game of the series).

James did all he could to win that title on his own, but his herculean efforts weren’t able to get it done—yet. The Cavaliers and Warriors met again in 2016, this time with the full and healthy lineup of James, Love, and Irving. Golden State had set the single-season record for wins during the regular season, making it even sweeter for the Cavaliers when they rallied back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series—the first title for Cleveland in over 50 years. Defeating the Warriors after setting that mark ushered in a new era for the rivalry—superstar Kevin Durant joined the fold, signing with Golden State before the 2016-17 season. Now, it’s up to the Cavs once again to challenge the Dubs for NBA supremacy.

Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers

This basketball rivalry has it all: Championship matchups. Hall-of-Fame players. Marquee franchises. NBA superstars.

Between 1959 and 2010, the Lakers and Celtics met in the NBA Finals 12 times, with the Celtics winning nine championships and the Lakers taking home three titles. This rivalry is nearly as old as the NBA itself.

Legendary players like Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish all wore the Celtic green while going up against names like Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy with the Lakers. Those legends gave way to players like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Pau Gasol in Los Angeles, while Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo took the mantle in the late 2000s for Boston.

The Celtics dominated the rivalry in the early years, defeating the Lakers in each of the first eight times they matched up in the finals, but the Lakers bounced back, winning three of the next four. The rivalry reached its apex in the 1980s with Bird-Magic matchup, as battle between titans elevated the NBA into the national spotlight.

But at its core, the rivalry was one of clashing personalities: the flashy, energetic Johnson and his “Showtime” Lakers against the no-frills, Midwestern Bird (a.k.a. “The Hick From French Lick”) and his (relatively) workmanlkie Celtic teammates. The rivalry was renewed in 2008 when the Celtics won the championship over the Lakers behind Garnett, Pierce, and Allen, but Los Angeles got their revenge in 2010, winning a seven-game series powered by Bryant and Gasol.

Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks  

The Big Apple vs. the Windy City. The rivalry between these teams was at its hottest when Michael Jordan was leading the Chicago Bulls to NBA championships in the early ‘90s. From 1989 to 1996, the Knicks and Bulls battled seven times in the postseason, with Chicago winning six of them. Yeah, if you were a Knicks fan, you really hated the Bulls—and, likewise, no fool would be dumb enough to walk through Chi-town wearing Knickerbocker blue and orange.

With stars like Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, and John Starks on the roster, Knicks fans rightfully felt good about the chance of snapping their decades-long championship drought. The Knicks always played aggressive and physical against the Bulls, and even beat them in the 1994 playoffs on their way to the finals (where they lost to the Rockets).

But Jordan had other plans. Number 23 was a thorn in the side of a lot of teams during his NBA dominance, but he really brought it against the Knicks—in 1995 he scored 55 points at Madison Square Garden after coming back from retirement. The rivalry was renewed a bit during the 2016 offseason when the Knicks acquired former Bulls stars Joakim Noah (free agency) and Derrick Rose (trade), but it hasn’t hit the heights of the MJ era.

New York Knicks vs. Indiana Pacers

When the New York Knicks played the Indiana Pacers in the ’90s, one name came to mind: Reggie Miller. Over the years, the Pacers star earned the nickname “The Knick Killer” for his clutch performances against the Knicks in the playoffs and the regular season—earning the ire of New York super-fan Spike Lee. Miller and Lee often talked trash along the sidelines. But it only seemed to fuel Miller’s shooting, including the legendary performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when Miller scored 39 points—including 25 in the fourth quarter—hitting shots from way beyond the three-point line, all while battling with Lee’s courtside jabs.

The Knicks and Pacers faced off in the playoffs six times from 1993 to 2000, including in the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals when Indiana won and advanced to the finals against the Lakers. This rivalry was so heated that The New York Times compared it to the notorious Hatfield–McCoy feud, although it’s died down since Miller was in the NBA. The two teams faced off in the 2013 NBA playoffs, which saw the Pacers win in six games.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Sacramento Kings

This divisional rivalry revved up during the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant era of the Lakers in the early 2000s, with the teams facing off in some intense, hard-fought playoff series. The Lakers had targets on their backs as two-time champions, but their games against the Kings seemed especially venomous because of the proximity of the franchises and the personal rivalries between players: O’Neal and Vlade Divac would often go at it, and Rick Fox and Doug Christie actually threw down on the court, as Christie decked Fox with an uppercut during a brawl.

The Lakers defeated the Kings in the playoffs three years in a row from 2000 to 2002, including in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, which had one of the most controversial games in postseason history. The Kings had the Lakers on the ropes, up 3-2 in the series in Game 6 and a lead in the fourth quarter, but a number of questionable calls went against Sacramento towards the end of the game, resulting in 27 free throws for the Lakers.

Chicago Bulls vs. Detroit Pistons

This divisional rivalry kicked off in earnest in the ’80s and became one of the most intense in NBA history after the teams met in the playoffs in four straight seasons from 1988 to 1991. The high-tension series were always physical, especially as the Pistons earned a reputation as an aggressive (some might say dirty) team.

Nicknamed “The Bad Boys,” the group of Pistons led by Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer defeated Jordan and the Bulls in three straight playoff matchups before losing in 1991—an embarrassing sweep by the Bulls that saw Detroit walk off the court before shaking hands with their opponents. It was peak late-80s, early-90s NBA basketball: bloody noses, swinging elbows, and plenty of trash talk between the teams, making it one of the most exciting rivalries of its era.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns

This interdivisional rivalry started up in the early 1990s when “The Admiral” David Robinson led the Spurs against some star-studded Phoenix teams (including the likes of trash-talking Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, and Kevin Johnson). The teams met in the playoffs four times between 1992 and 1998, with each team winning two of the series.

The rivalry moved into the next generation with the teams facing off in the postseason six more times from 2000 to 2010. Even though this run was dominated by the Spurs—they only lost one of the series, a 4-0 sweep by Phoenix in 2010—they produced some of the most intense playoff games of the modern NBA, helped along by the high-flying Suns offense led by MVP point guard Steve Nash and forward Amar’e Stoudemire.

Then, in 2007, the rivalry reached a boiling point. When the Suns and Spurs met in the second round of the playoffs, NBA watchers felt this series could have been a conference finals matchup, since the Spurs and Suns were two of the best teams in the league that season. The turning point came in Game 4 when a fight broke out between the teams following a hard foul by Robert Horry on Nash. The benches cleared, Raja Bell and Stoudemire were both suspended, and the Spurs went on to win the series.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. San Antonio Spurs

This Western Conference rivalry was spurred on—no pun intended—by the success of both teams in the early-to-mid 2000s, with stars like Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and David Robinson battling for championships. The teams met in the playoffs seven times from 1999 to 2013, with the Lakers winning four times and the Spurs winning three times. There was always plenty at stake when these teams faced off—during the ‘99 to ‘13 matchups, whoever won the playoffs series ended up advancing to the NBA Finals. 

New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat

The players—and the front office—helped make this rivalry one of the most intense in the modern NBA. The animosity between the Knicks and Heat was already, um, heated in the late ’90s, and that was before Pat Riley left his head coaching position with the Knicks to become a coach/executive with the Heat. The teams met four years in a row in the playoffs from 1997 to 2000, and each of those series went the full seven games, meaning the hatred between the teams only grew and grew each time they matched up.

One of the fiercest—and most notorious—moments of the rivalry came in the 1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals when the two teams broke into an all-out melee following a hard foul from P.J. Brown on Knicks guard Charlie Ward—a ridiculously athletic former multi-sport star from Florida State. Brown flipped Ward over and slammed him to the court, causing players luke Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, Patrick Ewing, and John Starks to join in, eventually getting suspensions for parts of the series.

And it didn’t end there. When the teams battled again in the playoffs the next season, Alonzo Mourning and Johnson got into a brawl on the court. The most memorable moment from this fight between the former Charlotte Hornets teammates: Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy grabbing on to Mourning’s leg and holding on for dear life as he tried to break up the fight.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons

This rivalry was fueled by the success of both teams—the Lakers and Pistons met in the NBA Finals three different times in 1988, 1989, and 2004—and for the contrasting styles in play by the franchises. During both eras of the rivalry, the Lakers were a high-scoring, entertaining offense led by league superstars like Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, while the Pistons were a grind-it-out, team-focused, defensive-minded squad that took pride in winning ugly and with physicality.

Even though this rivalry dates back to the 1950s, the most intense moments came in the NBA Finals matchups. With Johnson battling against fellow superstar Isaiah Thomas, the Lakers and Pistons split their championship matchups in the ’80s, with the Lakers winning a hard-fought, seven-game series in 1988 before Thomas and the Pistons got revenge with a series sweep in 1989. The 2004 NBA Finals saw the defensively powerful Pistons take down Hall of Fame-caliber stars Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton, and Karl Malone in five games.

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