Jeff Van Gundy had a good run, nearly a quarter-century, as the only head coach in league history to lead an eighth-seeded team to the NBA Finals.
Van Gundy, who accomplished that feat as the Knicks’ coach in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, finally has been joined in that exclusive club.
After downing the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Monday night in Boston, Erik Spoelstra and the No. 8 Heat are set to face the Nuggets for the NBA title, beginning with Game 1 on Thursday in Denver.
“I think if they end up winning the championship, it’ll be the most unlikely champion that I can remember,” Van Gundy said Tuesday about the Heat on an ESPN conference call. “Because they will have beaten the teams with the top two records in the NBA [in the Bucks and the Celtics]. They will then have beaten the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference in this playoff run.
“So the journey has been right through the heart of greatness, and they’ve been able to answer the bell. Everyone deserves an incredible amount of credit. I just love their team toughness, both mental and physical.”
Van Gundy’s Knicks finished the 50-game 1998-99 campaign with a record of 27-23, winning six of their final eight games to finish one game ahead of the Hornets for the final playoff berth in the East.
After upsetting the top-ranked Heat in the first round on Allan Houston’s series-winning shot, the Knicks swept the Hawks and got past the Pacers before losing to the Spurs in five games in the NBA Finals, with Patrick Ewing sidelined against San Antonio with an Achilles injury.
The Heat dealt with injuries for much of the regular season, with regulars Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo sidelined throughout playoff victories over No. 1 Milwaukee, the Knicks and Boston.
“I think the one similarity is that injuries impacted the regular-season record. So it’s the quality of the teams at the eight-seed, our year in ’99 and obviously now,” Van Gundy said, “For us it was injury and the shortened season. For Miami, it was injuries that impacted the continuity of their roster. So I think that’s the similarity. … Just like Miami got a break with Giannis Antetokounmpo being hurt, I think in the second round we got a break when some Atlanta players weren’t maybe feeling their best.
“But you don’t advance in the NBA playoffs without great players. People say it’s a player’s league, because it’s true. … You have to have a toughness; you have to have an intelligence. And I think both of our teams, our team in ’99 and Miami’s team this year shared that.”
Van Gundy added that he believes Jimmy Butler and the Heat “really should be thought of as a 7-seed,” because that’s where they finished the regular season “until they lost that first play-in game” to the Hawks before defeating the Bulls to gain entrance into the postseason field.
Miami again will be underdogs against two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets, but they have a chance to complete the run that Van Gundy and the Knicks could not 24 years ago.
“Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich, two iconic coaches, lost to lower seeds four times each in their career. The idea that you can’t get beat by a lower seed is ludicrous,” Van Gundy said. “The fine line between teams in our league is very, very small. Razor thin.
“I think anybody denigrating the talents of the Heat players is making a mistake.”