LeBron James charged through the lane like an express train and Knick defenders stepped back like commuters on a station platform. With his arm cocked back, James leaped to the rim and hammered home a dunk that pummeled any remaining hope in the Knicks late comeback.
A 27-point deficit had been cut to five, but LeBron never once looked concerned. He made a dynamic mid-air pass to Kevin Love for a dagger three to turn the five-point game to eight.
“They made a run,” he said, “but we were still handling the game; still in control of the game.”
It’s always seemed that way in 13-plus seasons against LeBron, hasn’t it?
Since he entered the league as The Chosen One in 2003, LeBron picked up where Michael Jordan left off. And Jordan took over what Larry Bird had started.
The Knicks, like most of the league, have been chasing these superstars for almost four decades.
You can trace it all the way back to a decision on June 9, 1978, at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Sonny Werblin, who was running the franchise then, influenced the decision to pass on taking Larry Bird with the fourth pick in the NBA Draft. The concern was that Bird was telling teams he planned to stay at Indiana State for his senior year.
The Knicks didn’t want to wait or risk losing a high draft pick.
So rather than own Bird’s rights with a year to negotiate and convince him to come to New York, the Knicks passed and took Micheal Ray Richardson, who was a serious talent but had a star-crossed career. Two picks later, Red Auerbach took Bird with the confidence he could get him to sign with the Celtics before he re-entered the draft in ’79.
It was a move that revitalized a franchise, while another spent the next 38 years in constant pursuit.
Yes, there was Patrick Ewing from 1985-2000 and he became this franchise’s greatest player. Through his years, the Knicks were an elite team but still often dominated by the best player in the game. And that player, who resided in the East, won championships.
So you think it’s been maddening to deal with LeBron in the East? It started with Bird, who won three MVPs and three NBA titles and from 1979-92 scored more points against the Knicks (1,483) than any other player in the league. He held a .766 winning percentage against the Knicks.
Then came Michael Jordan in 1984.
Hey, at least the Knicks didn’t even own a first round pick in ’84, so, unlike the Portland Trail Blazers, they didn’t pass on him.
In fact, the Knicks looked like an up-and-coming team at that point with MVP candidate Bernard King. They came off a 47-win season in which they reached the second round of the playoffs and took the eventual champions — you know, Bird and the Celtics — to the limit in an epic seven-game series.
Unfortunately a year later, King’s dynamic run as one of the best players in the East was cut short by a knee injury.
And while Bird still ruled the East for most of the rest of the 80s, Jordan quickly established himself as yet another foe the Knicks were going to have to deal with for a very long time. During his career from 1984-2003, Jordan scored more points against the Knicks than any NBA player: 1,894 points in 60 games. He held a .716 winning percentage against the Knicks in the regular season.
Jordan won six titles and five MVPs. The Knicks had their most successful eras since the championship years as they went to two NBA Finals during that time — both years Jordan was not in the league: 1994 & ’99 — and Ewing was an MVP candidate one season.
Oh and yes, there was a time Jordan could have been a Knick, too. This was in the summer of 1996, when the Knicks had $12 million in salary cap space and contacted Jordan’s agent, David Falk (who also represented Ewing), and said Jordan “could have all of our cap room.” There were also reports of side deals, which the NBA knew about, that included paying Jordan up to $15 million more to be a spokesman for corporate sponsors of the franchise.
So, as legend has it, Falk went to the Bulls and gave them an hour to beat the $27 million package the Knicks had on the table or Jordan was going to sign with the Bulls. They came back with a $30 million deal and Jordan stayed in Chicago. The belief was he’d never leave the Bulls, but if Jerry Reinsdorf didn’t pony up, he might have joined his pal Ewing in New York for a shot at a championship.
Literally the year after Jordan finally left the NBA for good, the next bully arrived. LeBron James went No. 1 in the 2003 draft. The Knicks had the 9th overall pick that year.
So it goes.
Thirteen years later, LeBron has scored more points against the Knicks (1,282) than any other player in the NBA in that time. After last night’s victory at the Garden, LeBron holds a .723 winning percentage against the Knicks.
LeBron has been to seven NBA Finals, including the last six, and won three titles and four MVPs. But unlike the Bird and Jordan years, the Knicks haven’t been able to sustain some success to create even a hint of a rivalry.
They have made the playoffs four times during LeBron’s years in the league and won one playoff series. Carmelo Anthony was an MVP candidate in one season.
And, yes, we all remember the Summer of 2010, which culminated two years of clearing salary to be in play for LeBron when he became a free agent. It was a two-season courtship in which The Garden cheered for LeBron, fans begged him to consider coming to New York and, in the end, he chose to take his talents to South Beach to join, of all people, Pat Riley.
Right now in the NBA, the next generation of stars (Steph Curry, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis) seem to be in the West.
What the Knicks need to do is make sure they get the next one in the East to emerge as LeBron is trending down.
So here’s the question: is that player Kristaps Porzingis? Or is there someone else out there the Knicks need to make sure doesn’t escape them or become the next nemesis in the future?