Most Notable Rivalries in Professional Basketball
Professional basketball is home to some of the most intense rivalries around. With rivalries, a game is so much more than a game, and there is more at stake than just another win or loss. And while championships are exciting because a title is the end result, a rivalry is exciting because it is personal. Fans don’t just root for their team, they’re rooting against the opposing team and the city the team represents. The implications stretch beyond the court and the players. Rivalries are rooted deeper than athletic competition—they're lines drawn in the sand motivated as much by the competition as they are by honor. The following is a list of the top basketball rivalries of today. These rivalries may not span decades, but their lack of history hasn’t kept them from establishing a fiercely competitive relationship. Every rivalry is different, but they’re all united by one common theme: truly exciting basketball.
Dallas Mavericks vs. Houston Rockets
Texas isn’t big enough for the budding rivalry between Dallas and Houston. Tension naturally occurred when The Dallas Mavericks were created in 1980, making them the newest Texan professional basketball team. This rivalry is founded on territory as much as it is in sport. While the Rockets had the advantages that come with being an established team, the Mavericks developed their skills to become a worthy rival by the mid- to late- 1980s. The early years of this rivalry saw the Rockets conquer the Mavericks at every meeting. But the tide changed with the 1988 playoffs, when the Mavericks were finally a competitive match for the Rockets, whom they beat 3-1 to win the Western Conference First Round.
The 1990s, which included the Rockets’ championship years, saw a continuation of clashing between the two teams. But the rivalry really ramped up with during the 2005 playoffs, which pitted the rivals against each other amid allegations and rumors of game fixing. The Dallas Mavericks won the Western Conference First Round 4-3. It wasn’t until ten years later, in the 2015 playoffs, that the Rockets were able to conquer the Mavericks to claim the First Round. They dominated the series 4-1.
The rivalry has not only endured, but intensified in recent years. When Houston’s popular small forward, Chandler Parsons, defected and became a Maverick, the rivalry was renewed. The move was reason enough for increase in animosity, but Parsons added fire to flame when he disparaged his former team’s city. When asked about his new home, he claimed that Dallas was nicer and cleaner, before saying that he thought Houston was “dirty.. The comment angered his former fans and teammates alike. But this rivalry extends beyond players and fans. Even the owners of the two teams are also public figures in the heated rivalry. Dallas’ Mark Cuban and Houston’s Daryl Morey have thrown barbed comments at each other over social media.
In December of last season, a game that resulted in a 123-107 victory for Houston, trash talk took a personal turn and spilled off the court. A tiff between Houston’s forward Trevor Ariza and Dallas’s center Salah Mejri just before the fourth quarter led to Ariza’s second technical foul and ejection from the game. Ariza claims that the exchange with Mejri included an insulting comment regarding Ariza’s wife and children. Ariza waited outside the Mavericks’ locker room to confront Mejri, but to no avail; Maverick guard Deron Williams had to come out and talk Ariza down. Mejri denies that he made any comment about Ariza’s family, but the matter spiraled on social media leaving both teams to feel they had been disrespected. The incident only further entrenched the two Texan teams in their rivalry. This rivalry shows no signs of slowing and is likely to continue escalating in the 2017-18 season.
Boston Celtics vs. Washington Wizards
What this rivalry lacks in history, it more than makes up for in intensity and drama. The Celtics vs. Wizards feud begins in January of 2016 with Celtics small forward Jae Crowder and a technical foul in the final minute of a game Boston would win 119-117. Crowder yelled at Wizards’ coach Randy Wittman, who he later claimed yelled at him first. Wittman admitted yelling at Crowder, but denied allegations of profanity. The event is believed to be related to the termination of Wittman at the end of the season. It wasn’t until July of that year the rivalry was given further opportunity to develop. The two teams were primary contenders for signing Al Horford. When Boston won the courtship and signed Horford, Crowder saw an opportunity to rub salt in the Wizards’ wound. He indicated that the Wizards weren’t as viable an option for Horford because the Celtics had beaten them four times the previous season. Of course, the insult did not go unnoticed.
The next meeting of the Celtics and the Wizards brought new heat to the rivalry. As the game drew to a close with only minutes left, the Wizards were winning by 20 points. But that wasn’t enough to keep Washington’s John Wall from earning a flagrant foul for smashing into Marcus Smart. The skirmish and verbal threats that followed resulted in Wall being ejected from the game and Smart earning a technical foul.
Smart was involved in another skirmish when the teams next came together in January. Smart and Bradley Beal were in a verbal match during the third quarter, leading to a technical foul for Beal. But the brewing tension wasn’t relieved by the incident, it only gained momentum as the game moved into the final minutes as the Celtics secured a 117-108 victory. The buzzer sounded, but the rivalry-fueled spectacle was not over. Verbal spats and a small physical altercation ensued. The two were quickly separated by team members and coaches. The teams continued trash talking as they retreated to their locker rooms. The events only served as fuel to the rivalry.
Time apart didn’t help the Wizards and Celtics cool down. When they met again in late January 2016, the Wizards were all dressed completely in black meant to evoke funeral attire. Beal, who organized the gesture, reported that the funeral attire was meant to inspire the Wizards. The effort seemingly paid off when the Wizards won 123-108. The Wizards’ effort to get under the Celtics’ skin combined with a fierce athletic performance clinched a win over their rivals.
While this rivalry is only a few years old, it boasts plenty of intensity, emotion, and theatrics. This rivalry often hinges on petty gestures, but the feuding teams nonetheless seem to hold respect for their rivalry, perhaps even the opposing teams themselves. The tension and energy emanating from this rivalry clearly results in some entertaining basketball.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors
The rivalry between the Cavs and the Warriors is quite possibly the most well-known in professional basketball. Three championships in a row have witnessed the dramatic clashing of these two teams. The two are each at the top of their respective conference, boast some the highest rated players in the league, and are near matched in athleticism albeit very different in style. The tension began in the 2014-2015 season. It was the first season LeBron James had returned to Cleveland, his home team after his time with the Miami Heat thus forming the power trifecta of James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving. Cleveland, a city that has three professional sports teams but has not won a championship in over 50 years, buzzed with excitement. The Golden State Warriors also had a star player at the helm of a top-rated trio: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. The teams were both coached by rookie coaches: Cleveland’s David Blatt and Golden State’s Steve Kerr. The two seemed evenly matched in their chances for the Championship until a plague of injuries hit Cleveland. Despite James’s effort to make up for the loss of Love and Irving, it wasn’t enough to defeat the full power of the Warriors. The 2015 Championship culminated in a victory for the Warriors. The rivalry was cemented.
In the following season, the Championship once again pitted the Golden State Warriors against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors had an impressive start of the season, achieving the most wins to start a season without a loss and the second longest winning streak in professional basketball history. Their stellar season led them into the finals with high expectations. The Cavs, however, experienced a season defined by recovering players and inconsistent performances. When they were crushed by the Warriors in January, the head coach was fired and replaced with Tyronn Lue. Their tumultuous season and coaching staff turnover did not stand up well compared to the Warriors.
The finals led to more than a few surprises for the rivals. Though favored to win, the rivalry was nonetheless expected to result in exciting basketball. It was game four that turned out to be a pivotal game that demonstrated how heated the rivalry actually was. The Warriors won 108-97 with Curry scoring 38 points, which was more than twice his average of the previous three games. The victory, the 88th for the Warriors, pushed them over the edge for the most wins in a professional basketball season. In the final minutes of the game, James and Draymond Green had to be separated after an altercation. Green believed he had been slighted after he fell down and James stepped over him. In retaliation, Green swung his hand at James’s groin. Green’s reaction earned him a flagrant foul, his fourth in the playoffs, which led to him being suspended from the fifth game. James was given a technical foul for taunting. The sixth game was a continuation of the intense clashing between the two teams. The Cavs won the game 115-101, bringing the series to an even 3-3 and forcing a seventh game. But the game lasted longer than Curry’s self-control; a blocked shot and an exchange that was likely trash talk led Curry to hurl his mouth guard into the stand. His act of frustration earned him his sixth foul, which led to him being ejected from the game, a rarity amongst MVPs.
The 7th game was so evenly matched that both the Cavs and the Warriors had accumulated exactly 610 points. The fierce competition ultimately resulted in a 93-89 victory for the Cavaliers. They won the series 4-3 after coming back from a 3-1 deficit, the first time in professional basketball history. The close game intensified by the rivalry to its peak. After a heart wrenching and emotional Finals, the Cavs brought Cleveland their first victory in more than half a century and James was announced Finals MVP.
The 2016-17 season saw the rivalry with renewed interest, though the competition didn’t return with the same energy as the season prior. For the first time in professional basketball history, the same two teams were pitted against in the finals for three years in a row. The Warriors, the favorites to win, won the first three game of the finals. And although the Cavs managed to win the fourth game, the Warriors ultimately won the finals in the fifth game 5-1. Warrior Kevin Durant was awarded Finals MVP. While 2017 didn’t recapture the excitement of the 2016 when the rivals were so evenly matched, the rivalry continues and has fans looking forward to next season.