The 1980s: Waves of excellence in a sea of obscurity
After selling away their franchise player in order to afford the fees associated with joining the NBA, the Nets could have been left for dead at the turn of the 1980s, but they surprisingly turned their fortunes around quickly during the 1982-83 season led by a future Hall of Fame coach in Larry Brown. But as was always the case with the Nets, just as the team was appearing to evolve as a worthy rival to the New York Knicks, a stroke of hideously bad luck would hit.
In the last month of the 82-83 season, Brown would have the first of what would go on to be a comedic number of “changes of heart,” and left the Nets organization to become the head coach at the University of Kansas. The Nets had a 47-29 record at the time, but would finish the season under Bill Blair with a 2-4 record and a first round playoff match-up looming with the New York Knicks. And wouldn’t you know, the team that was in organizational disarray did not emerge victorious against the more well-polished machine across the river (more on that later).
The following season, the Nets featured perhaps their best team of the 1980s, boasting a team of beloved, if not flawed players like Darryl Dawkins, Buck Williams, Otis Birdsong and the oft-troubled Michael Ray Richardson. The Nets split the six game season series with the Knicks in 83-84, who actually finished two games ahead of New Jersey in the standings. This series included a must-win 107-94 victory for the Nets on March 25 at the (then) Brendan Byrne Arena (aka, the Meadowlands, Continental Airlines Arena and the Izod Center). The entire Nets starting lineup finished that game in double digits. The Nets and Knicks would both go on to lose in the Eastern Conference Semifinals that season, though the Nets clearly made the most noise, taking out the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers in the first round.
From there, the Nets and Knicks would both fall into obscurity, though New York’s team would ultimately fare better and more quickly. The Nets would go seven straight seasons without making the playoffs, while the struggling Knicks wound up with who was believed to be one of the best centers of his generation with Patrick Ewing. For their first meet-up of the Patrick Ewing era during the 1985-86 season, the Nets dominated the Knicks 108-85. Buck Williams was the better front court player finishing with 22 points and 10 rebounds, while Ewing struggled to get 15 points on 4-13 shooting, though he did control the glass with 20 total rebounds.
1983: The first playoff battle ends in defeat
Fortunately, Larry Brown would go on to torture the Knicks years later, but during the 1982-83 season, New Jersey Nets fans would rue his name first as they were left wondering how things could have been different if he decided to finish the season out as Nets coach, rather than chase greener pastures at the collegiate level at the University of Kansas.
Despite finishing the season 2-4 under coach Bill Blair, the Nets had the better record than the Knicks when the two met in a best two of three showdown in the first round of the playoffs – marking the first postseason match-up for these two budding rivals. Of course, the regular season proved irrelevant as the Nets were still clearly strung by Brown’s departure and ended up being an easy out for the lower-seeded Knicks.
The Knicks rode 35 first quarter points to take game one in New Jersey 118-107. Former Net Bernard King played like a superstar, scoring 40 points on 16-21 shooting. As a whole, the Knicks shot 55 percent from the floor. The Nets were more offensively balanced, with six players finishing in double figures, but could not overcome poor shooting nights from Buck Williams (4-12) and Michael Ray Richardson (5-14).
The very next night at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks opened up a 23 point halftime lead, and despite some second half noise from the Nets, held on to sweep New jersey 105-99. The Nets were able to contain Bernard King (18 points on 8-17 shooting) and had some great nights from their own Albert King (25 points on 11-20 shooting) and Buck Williams (22 points, 10 rebounds) but noticeably absent from the offensive was Richardson, who finished with just 8 points and would later be labeled a “goat” in the series in a New York Times article. Richardson would of course go on to live in NBA infamy as the first player to be banned for violating the league’s drug policy.