Even now, all these years — all these decades — later, Clyde Frazier smiles at the memory. When the Boston Celtics walked onto the court at Boston Garden on the afternoon of April 29, 1973, they had never — as in not ever — lost a seventh and deciding game, not on their fabled parquet floor nor anywhere else.
Ten Game 7s. Ten wins. You didn’t beat the Celtics in a money game. Didn’t happen.
Then, it happened.
Then the Knicks seized control early of that deciding Eastern Conference finals game, taking advantage of an injured and clearly diminished John Havlicek. Dean Meminger had a big game. They all did. The final was 94-78. The Celtics were 10-1 in Game 7s. The Knicks had slain the beast, and did it in their den.
“We’d already won a championship by that point,” Frazier said, his face beaming in 2013, a few days shy of the 40th anniversary of that triumph. “So it really shouldn’t have meant as much. Still … beating Boston. We’d done it the year before [4-1 in the Eastern finals], but then we lost to the Lakers in the Finals, so maybe it didn’t seem quite as real.”
“But man, oh man. Beating the Celtics — the Celtics! — in a Game 7? A Game 7! At Boston Garden!”
He shook his head and then his voice started to catch.
“It feels like anytime you want to make a statement in this league, it has to come against the Celtics.”
The present-day Knicks are hoping to make a statement Wednesday night, when they welcome the present-day Celtics to Madison Square Garden for the regular-season lid-lifter. These Celtics aren’t held in such awe, such reverence, as the Celtics of yesteryear but they are still a fine barometer for the Knicks.
It wasn’t that long ago when it felt like this core of Celtics — anchored by Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart — were inevitably going to hang an 18th banner at TD Garden. When such talk began, the Knicks were a mess, and some wondered if they might win 18 games in a season.
It’s different now. It’s better now. The Knicks had a superb season last year while the Celtics scuffled. The Knicks were 41-31, the C’s 36-36. The Knicks finished a stunning fourth in the East; the Celtics had to survive the play-in — dubbed in some preseason circles the “Knicks Invitational” — by finishing seventh.
The Celtics have a new GM now (who is the old coach, Brad Stevens) and a new coach (Ime Udoka), and though there are still prominent members of the NBA cognoscenti who figure it will only be logical for the Celtics to take a big leap forward this year — surely leapfrogging the Knicks — it feels like both teams are starting out on the same starting block.
“I see a lot of similarities between us,” said Kemba Walker, who played for the Celtics the past two years and is still close with several of his old teammates. “We both play the same way, play the right way, we both have a lot of guys who are just serious about basketball. It’ll be fun competing against them.”
It’ll be fun for the rest of us, too. Though the New York-Boston rivalry has exploded in just about every other sport the past few years — the Islanders took their turn last spring, beating the Bruins in a playoff series that, by the end, involved an awful lot of bad feelings. Sox-Yankees is forever. Pick the Patriots’ primary New York foe, because either one will do.
They met in the 2013 playoffs. They met previously in 1990. The only time they’ve ever really been on similar planes with each other were those two years in the early ’70s — 1972 and ’73, the Celtics rebuilding themselves into a power while the Knicks were trying to hold on as one. Then the Celtics won in five games in 1974 and that, for all practical purposes, was that.
Neither team seems to be near the level of the Bucks, Nets or 76ers, still the presumptive tripartite favorites in the East. But they are near each other’s level. They figure to jostle much of the year. It’s right that the jostling should start right from the start, right from Day 1. Let the jostling begin.