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Top 10 Greatest rivalries in NBA history

Just like any other sport, the NBA also thrives on rivalries. NBA rivalries have proved to be thrilling matchups for the sport. Here we look at the top 10 most greatest NBA rivalries in history.

Last updated: 09.05.2022
Top 10 Greatest rivalries in NBA history

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Just like any other sport, the NBA also thrives on rivalries. Rivalries are built on historical significance, sometimes the location, intense playoffs, and mutual disparities between fan bases. NBA rivalries have proved to be thrilling matchups for the sport.


10. Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers



The teams faced each other for the highest number of times, 76ers are ahead of the Celtics by winning 13 times out of 20 battles between these two teams. This rivalry was made by the intense battle for the win between some of the greatest players who played the game.

In the early ‘60s, Wilt Chamberlain’s 76ers pulled down the Celtics from the throne of the NBA to win the NBA final after eight long years. Later, they met again next year in the final where Bill Russell’s Celtics came out on top to beat the 76ers.

This rivalry again appeared in the decade 1980 when Larry Bird & Julius Erving battled hard to win glory for their respective teams. Though 76ers won two of the three playoffs, the Celtics clinched the victory in 1981 in an epic playoff match. According to many, that is the greatest playoff series of all time.



9. Chicago Bulls vs Detroit Pistons


The next rivalry took place in the late ’80s, From 1988 to 1991, they met each time in the playoffs. Known as the “Bad boys,” Isiah Thomas & Bill Laimbeer made the Pistons a powerful fort with their gang. On the other side, the Bulls agreed to accept their domination by no means.

Prevailing on Michael Jordan, the finest among the best NBA scorers, the Bulls also made a strong resurgence in the NBA. However, the Pistons overpowered the Bulls the first three times while meeting in the playoffs. By dint of their physical nature of play, Pistons executed their aggression perfectly to suppress Jordan & co.

Finally, in 1991, Bulls demolished the dominance of the Pistons by a clean sweep of four games. Pistons felt so insulted that they left the court without even shaking hands & congratulating the Bulls.


8. Golden State Warriors vs Cleveland Cavalier


Having consecutive finals and the squad having great players starts a great rivalry. Even the teams’ styles make 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 Cleveland, with the 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 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.

James did all he could to win that title on his own, but his 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.



7. Indiana Pacers vs New York Knicks


It is not common to meet 6 times in 7 years. Indiana Pacers & New York Knocks made it happen from 1993 to 2000. Reggie Miller was the talk of the town then for his impressive performance against the Knicks. Nicknamed “The Knick Killer,” he was one of the unfortunate NBA players without a ring.

But who cares when the Pacers fought hard to beat the Knicks after two consecutive losses? The trash-talking of Knick’s Spike Lee turned it into one of the best NBA rivalries. Being added fuel to the rivalry, Reggie showed an amazing display of basketball to take revenge.

Scoring 39 points including 25 from the four-quarter line in 1994, Reggie amazed everyone with his capacity to score from so far. Next year, he returned with more supremacy in a 7-game semi to beat the Knicks. By knocking out the Knicks in the 2013 semi, the Pacers are now ahead of them by 4-3.


6. Los Angeles Lakers vs San Antonio Spurs


This Western Conference rivalry was sparked 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.



5. Los Angeles Lakers vs Sacramento Kings


Meanwhile, in the 2002 playoff, the Lakers were on the rope trailing 2-3 against Kings. What happened later was just unacceptable to the Kings. With 27 free throws giving away to the Lakers, many official calls went against the Kings. That resulted in an undeserving loss to the Kings making them hate the Lakers forever.


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.


4. Chicago Bulls vs New York Knicks


The rivalry between these teams was at its highest peak 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. Players like Patrick Ewing and John Starks might feel unlucky for being in the Michael Jordan era. Still, their franchise New York Knicks competed hard with Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. In the early ‘90s, these two teams met seven times in the playoffs making it one of the top NBA team rivalries.



3. Boston Celtics vs Detroit Pistons


A great rivalry that dated back to the 1980’s was formed on the base of players who made it to the hall of fame. During that time, Detroit Pistons & Boston Celtics produced four thrilling contests, where both sides won equally two times.

By no means, the Celtics managed their first two wins conveniently. The 1985 one took six games for the Celtics to hunt the glory, while the 1987 one was more breathtaking. Leading 107-106 in game five with 5 seconds in hand, the Pistons were heading towards victory. Larry Bird, one of the greatest players had another idea though.

After stealing an inbound pass from Isiah Thomas, Bird passed it to Dennis Johnson who didn’t make a mistake to put it into the net. Anyway, Celtics rivals took revenge by beating them in consecutive encounters in 1988 & 1989.


2. New York Knicks vs Miami Heat


These two teams met in four constant playoffs which led to form a great rivalry. A physical battle involving fights made them more intense to the viewers.

Both team players involved in a heavy clash in the 1997 playoff from an attempt to secure the ball. Eventually, that led to extreme chaos handing four players of Knicks suspensions.

The hatred went beyond imagination next season in 1998 when Alonzo Mourning brawled with Larry Johnson. Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy tried to conclude the fight by grabbing Mourning’s leg resulting in a peculiar scenario.

Regarding the match results, Knicks earned the pleasure of winning three times after being beaten in 1997 semifinal.


1. 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 the Bird-Magic matchup, as battle between titans elevated the NBA into the national spotlight.


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