The 15 greatest Playoffs series in NBA history
Leaving the Finals to one side, the NBA Playoffs have witnessed some unforgettable series. Comebacks, fracas, buzzer-beating baskets...
1981: Celtics-Sixers (Eastern Conference Finals)
The Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics were tied for the best regular-season record in 1981. Larry Bird and Julius Erving were, together with Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson, the players who generated the most excitement among basketball fans, and as the pair sought their first NBA championship ring in this new era, a long-standing rivalry had been revitalised. The way the series turned out was simply jaw-dropping. With the Sixers 3-1 up, the Celtics not only fought back to turn the series around, but did so with double-digit comebacks in each of the last three games, winning them by an aggregate margin of five points.
1987: Celtics-Pistons (Eastern Conference Finals)
They’re maybe not as glamorous as Boston’s duels with the Los Angeles Lakers, but the matchups between the Celtics and the Detroit Pistons also had a major impact on the NBA at that time. The men from Detroit felt that their time had come, but returned home empty-handed from the first two games. However, the series was far from over. Game 3 would change everything. It could be argued that this was the moment when the two franchises became true rivals. In the second half, Bill Laimbeer went straight for Larry Bird’s head in an alleged attempt to block the forward. In the fracas that ensued, Bird ended up throwing the ball at Laimbeer. The ‘Bad Boys’ had arrived. Bird was ejected and the Pistons won Games 3 and 4 by 18 and 26 points, respectively. But in one of the most unexpected plot twists in the history of the Playoffs, Bird then produced the play of the series; one of the most unforgettable ever seen. In Game 5, with just seconds to go and the Celtics one down, he stole Isaiah Thomas’ inbound pass to assist Dennis Johnson, who scored a game-winning layup to give Boston a 3-2 series lead. Game 6 in Detroit was won by the Pistons, but the Celtics finished the job at home in Game 7, as an incredible sequence of six baskets in 1:05 minutes was crowned by a three-pointer by Danny Ainge.
1993: Bulls-Knicks (Eastern Conference Finals)
With Michael Jordan at the peak of his powers, and the Bulls out to become the third franchise to do the ‘threepeat’ after sweeping aside the Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the question in Chicago was: can anyone compete with this team? The New York Knicks accepted the challenge. The New Yorkers had been eliminated by the Bulls in 1989, 1991 and 1992, the latter an epic, seven-game series. But in ‘93, the Knicks were a 60-win team capable of going toe-to-toe with the fearsome Bulls. And they proved it. They won the first two games, the first time in the previous three years that Jordan’s Bulls had gone 2-0 down in a series. The men from Chicago responded with a 20-point victory in Game 3 and Jordan, angry with reports that he had been gambling in Atlantic City between the first two games, stepped up with a monster display in Game 4, scoring 54 points. The fifth would be the matchup that decided the series, even if the Bulls won it in the next one. In Game 5, Charles Smith had as many as four chances to sink the winning basket, but Horace Grant, Jordan and Scottie Pippen combined to block on each occasion.
1995: Knicks-Pacers (Eastern Conference Semi-Finals)
There was real drama in a series in which three clashes were decided on the last possession. This included the Indiana Pacers’ win in Game 1, which saw Reggie Miller score eight points in nine seconds. The series seemed to be over after a Game 5 in which the Pacers moved into a 3-1 lead, but Patrick Ewing kept the New York Knicks alive with a basket one second from the end in the sixth. However, the center then went from hero to villain in Game 7, missing the winning shot at Madison Square Garden.
1995: Rockets-Suns (Western Conference Semi-Finals)
The Houston Rockets, who had won the championship ring the previous season, quickly found themselves 3-1 down in this series. They avoided elimination with an overtime win in Phoenix in Game 5, then came through on their home court in the sixth, to set up a tense decider in Phoenix. The Suns were up by around 10 points for much of the clash, but Kevin Johnson’s 46 points and 10 rebounds were not enough to counteract the 29 points each scored by Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. Houston’s hero, though, was Mario Elie, who produced one of the most memorable baskets in Playoffs history, a three-pointer that set the Rockets up to go on and defend their title.
1995: Magic-Pacers (Eastern Conference Finals)
The Orlando Magic had just eliminated a Chicago Bulls team that had recently welcome Jordan back into the fold. And, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, they had the title in their crosshairs. Up against them were an Indiana Pacers side with Reggie Miller and Rik Smit, players who were now veterans. The first three games were won by a margin of five points, as Orlando established a 2-1 advantage. In one of the finest finales to a game in Playoffs history, the lead changed hands four times in the last 15 seconds of Game 4: a Brian Shaw three-pointer for the Magic, threes by Miller for Indiana, a Hardaway basket with 1.2 seconds to go for the Magic and a decisive buzzer-beater by Smits to level the series. Orlando ended up winning in Game 7, to reach their first ever NBA Finals.
1998: Bulls-Pacers (Eastern Conference Finals)
Despite the personal rivalry between Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller, the pair never actually faced off in the Playoffs until 1998. It was an unforgettable first meeting. The Bulls were on the way to their second ‘threepeat’, but the series was certainly the toughest obstacle they came up against that season. Chicago raced into a 2-0 lead on their home court, suggesting the series would not take long to resolve. But nothing could have been further from the truth. The Pacers responded in Indiana with two wins of their own, the second thanks to a controversial winning basket by Miller. Games 5 and 6 were each won by the home team, so it all came down to Game 7 in Chicago. Despite the Pacers’ resistance, the Bulls proved too strong.
2000: Lakers-Blazers (Western Conference Finals)
A key series for two projects that had success in their sights. The Portland Trail Blazers had a deep, talented roster, led by Scottie Pippen and Rasheed Wallace. The Los Angeles Lakers boasted two of the league’s biggest talents, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, but had not yet translated that into glory. And for a moment it seemed like the Lakers would fail again, when, having been 3-1 up, they lost Games 5 and 6 and found themselves 15 points down in the fourth quarter of Game 7. But in one of the greatest capitulations in Playoffs memory, Portland missed 13 straight shots, paving the way for a Los Angeles comeback that culminated in an iconic alley-oop from Bryant to O’Neal. It was an image that represented the beginning of a dynasty.
2002: Lakers-Kings (Western Conference Finals)
In this classic series, the Los Angeles Lakers were looking for their third NBA title in a row, but, after completing the best regular season in their history, the Sacramento Kings were determined to eliminate their great division rivals. The teams claimed one win apiece in the first two games, before the Kings clicked into gear in the third and, in the fourth, seemed about to put daylight between themselves and the Lakers when they moved into a 24-point lead. However, the defending champions fought back to tie the game, setting Robert Horry up for one of the crowning moments of his career: an awesome three-pointer on the buzzer. In Game 5, Mike Bibby gave the Kings the win on the final play, and Game 6 brought the famous 27 free throws for the Lakers in the final quarter. Something which, to this day, is difficult to explain. The Kings had the chance to win the series at home in Game 7, and didn’t take it. Los Angeles, with 35 points by Shaq and 30 by Kobe, became the first team in two decades to win the decider on the road in an NBA or Conference Finals.
2006: Mavericks-Spurs (Western Conference Semi-Finals)
Somehow, two teams that had reached the 60-win mark in the regular season met in the second round of the Playoffs. The Dallas Mavericks established a 3-1 lead, but Bruce Bwoen’s defending of Dirk Nowitzki in the fifth and 30 points by Manu Ginobili in the sixth kept the Spurs alive, setting up a deciding round in San Antonio. In Game 7, the Mavericks again threw away a significant advantage (20 points) until a 2+1 for Nowitzki forced overtime. In OT, Dallas were finally able to kill off the reigning NBA champions.
2009: Celtics-Bulls (Eastern Conference first round)
This may well be the best ever first-round Playoff series. Defending champions the Boston Celtics had been hit by a knee injury to Kevin Garnett midway through the season, but weren’t to be beaten by a young, hungry Chicago Bulls team. It was a close-run thing, though. Neither team won two games in a row, and five of the seven duels were decided by a single basket. Game 1 went to overtime, as did Game 3. The fourth had two OTs, the fifth was also decided in an extra period, and to top things off, Game 6 required three OTs, before the Bulls forced Game 7. Uncharacteristically for this unforgettable series, the decider was easily won by the Celtics.
2012: Celtics-Heat (Eastern Conference Finals)
The Miami Heat came into the series having suffered disappointment in the previous year’s NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, and with LeBron James at pains to show his importance after coming unstuck against Nowitzki and co. After a comprehensive win for the Heat in the opener, the teams served up the first classic of the series in Game 2. Despite Rajon Rondo’s 44 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds, Ray Allen’s three-pointer 30 seconds from the end to tie the game, and LeBron’s miss on the final possession, the Heat finally came out on top in OT. In Boston, the Celtics levelled the series with two wins on the trot, and in Game 5 put the cat amongst the pigeons with Paul Pierce’s basket 52 seconds from the end. That left the Celtics 3-2 up with the next game in Boston, and LeBron’s legacy was in serious danger. However, he then produced the kind of response that typifies the greats of the game, racking up 45 points and 15 rebounds to ensure Miami forced a Game 7 in which he again starred: he registered 31 points and 12 rebounds as the Heat put the Celtics to the sword.
2015: Clippers-Suns (Western Conference first round)
Another series that’s a contender for the best first-round clash ever. For the Los Angeles Clippers, this looked like the best opportunity yet to challenge for the championship ring, and for the San Antonio Spurs, it was one of the final chances for the team led by the now 38-year-old Tim Duncan to challenge the juggernauts of the West. Nothing turned out as expected. After a convincing victory for the Clippers in Game 1, Los Angeles let the second slip and lost Game 3 by 27. But just when it seemed the Clippers were going to go out with a whimper, they managed to tie the series in Game 4 in San Antonio. The Spurs again won in LA in the fifth, but the Clippers, who were staring down the barrel of elimination, claimed another win on the road in Game 6. And so we came to Game 7, where the series went from good to great. With one minute to go and the scores tied at 107-107, all eyes were on the two stand-out players. Chris Paul put the Clippers ahead with 13 seconds left. Duncan levelled things up with two free throws. Finally, in what can be considered the most important basket of his career, Paul eliminated the Spurs with an incredible buzzer-beater.
2016: Warriors-Thunder (Eastern Conference Finals)
The Golden State Warriors had just registered the greatest ever regular season (73-9), Stephen Curry had won the MVP and both Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were in the All-NBA Teams of the year. However, the Warriors’ historic campaign almost came to an end in the Conference Finals. Led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder went 3-1 up and had three opportunities to knock out the reigning champions. They didn’t manage it. The Warriors won Game 5 at home, before Game 6 in Oklahoma witnessed one of the greatest explosions of individual brilliance seen in a Playoffs game. Thompson sank 11 three-pointers to revive a team that at times seemed on its way out. Curry was the difference in the seventh, with 36 points and eight assists. The win for Golden State represented the end of an era in Oklahoma. That summer, Durant left to join the Warriors.
2018: Rockets-Warriors (Western Conference Finals)
A legendary battle. What is probably the best team in the world was taken right to the limit: the Warriors of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, a terrifying quintet, were pushed all the way by a supreme Houston Rockets team. The Rockets had put together a project aimed at dethroning the warriors, and had won 65 games in the regular season, led by James Harden and Chris Paul. The Warriors won in Houston in Game 1 and, with the series tied at 1-1, swept to victory in the third (126-85). But the Rockets responded with two straight wins to go 3-2 up, one step away from an NBA Finals in which an unimpressive Cleveland Cavaliers awaited. In the final moments of Game 5, Paul suffered an injury, and the Rockets spurned their two match points, the second on their home court, where they missed 27 straight three pointers. The Warriors came back from 16 points behind in Game 6 and 15 in the seventh. Having somehow survived one of the most incredible battles in recent NBA history, the Warriors secured their second successive title in the Finals, sweeping the Cavaliers 4-0.