NBA Playoffs: 10 Best Conference Finals Matchups of All Time

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJune 4, 2012

NBA Playoffs: 10 Best Conference Finals Matchups of All Time

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    As the NBA season progresses further and further into the playoffs, the games should get better and better. However, that isn't always the case. 

    These 10 cases are the premier examples of series in which that did hold true, making them the 10 best conference final matchups in basketball history. 

    So, what makes a "best matchup"? 

    Best matchups aren't necessarily the most entertaining or greatest series of all time. They're series in which two of the best teams in the NBA face off against each other in an even, hard-fought battle. 

    Great individual matchups ensue as do memorable moments and memorable games. They're the battles that you hope for when the regular season ends. 

    Read on for the 10 best of all time, sorted in chronological order. 

Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 1968 Eastern Division Finals

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    Result: 4-3 Celtics

    Notable Stars Involved: John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker

    Top-100 Individual Performances: None


    The Philadelphia 76ers' fans may have chanted, "Boston's dead. Boston's dead. The dynasty is over," but you wouldn't know it from either the regular season or the final margin of victory achieved by the Boston Celtics. 

    During the first 82-game season in NBA history, Wilt Chamberlain won the MVP award as the Sixers put together the best record in the league at 62-20. Only two other squads won more than 50 games, including the 54-28 Boston Celtics.

    After each team advanced through the first round of the playoffs, they met in the Eastern Division final and played an epic seven-game series. It was a rematch of the previous year's series in which the Sixers handed the C's their first playoff series loss in nine seasons. 

    The stakes were high and Philly stormed out to a 3-1 lead before player-coach Bill Russell led his team back to a 4-3 series victory. 

Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 1981 Eastern Conference Finals

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    Result: 4-3 Celtics

    Notable Stars Involved: Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Larry Bird, Tiny Archibald, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale

    Top-100 Individual Performances: None


    Now we come to the second of the 10 best conference final matchups of all time. Even though we've moved 13 years into the future, the teams haven't changed at all. 

    Although the players on the roster changed, the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers didn't. Both teams managed to win a league-high 62 games during the 1980-1981 season, so it was only right that they matched up against each other in the Eastern Conference final. 

    League MVP Julius Erving and Larry Bird were two of the greatest players in The Association back in the early 1980s but they were by no means the only great players on the two teams. 

    The Sixers began the series with a 3-1 lead, but the Celtics came back to win the series in seven games in just one of only eight times that's happened in NBA history. Boston was down at least 10 points in each of the last three games and each of the final four games was decided by two points or less. 

    Clearly the teams were evenly matched. 

Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 1986 Western Conference Finals

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    Result: 4-1 Rockets

    Notable Stars Involved: Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, James Worthy, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

    Top-100 Individual Performances: None


    This was one of just two times in the 1980s that a team other than the Los Angeles Lakers represented the West in the NBA Finals. Interestingly enough, the Houston Rockets were the team that did so in 1981 as well. 

    Los Angeles had just won the title in the previous season and was the overwhelming favorite against the Twin Towers of Houston, despite the fact that Houston had posted the second-best record in the Western Conference. 

    Then again, L.A.'s 62-20 record was indeed much more impressive than Houston's 51-31. 

    When Ralph Sampson knocked down a jumper to beat the buzzer at the end of Game 5, the Rockets advanced to the NBA Finals for the second time in the decade. 

Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks, 1993 Eastern Conference Finals

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    Result: 4-2 Bulls

    Notable Stars Involved: Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant

    Top-100 Individual Performances: Michael Jordan in Game 4 (No. 61)


    This series was filled with both drama and great moments. Here are the top three (although they are in no particular order): 

    1. John Starks' legendary dunk over Michael Jordan and Horace Grant.

    2. Michael Jordan's frustration and desire for greatness leading him to skip a media session after a 3-of-18 shooting performance, despite the fact that his team won Game 3 by 20 points. 

    3. Jordan's bounce-back 54-point outburst in Game 4. 

    The Phoenix Suns had won more games than any other team during the 1992-1993 season, but the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls weren't far behind at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively. 

Houston Rockets vs. San Antonio Spurs, 1995 Western Conference Finals

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    Result: 4-2 Rockets

    Notable Stars Involved: Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kenny Smith, Sean Elliot, David Robinson

    Top-100 Individual Performances: None


    Some matchups are in this article because of a combination of great teams and the great moments they produced when facing off against each other. This one is here because of those factors, plus one of the greatest individual matchups of all time. 

    David Robinson had been named the MVP of the league thanks to his incredible regular season, but it became quite evident that Hakeem Olajuwon didn't agree with the selection process. 

    Here are The Dream's performances during the series:

    Game 1: 27 points, eight rebounds, six assists, one steal, five blocks

    Game 2: 41 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, three steals, two blocks

    Game 3: 43 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, zero steals, five blocks

    Game 4: 20 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, one steal, three blocks

    Game 5: 42 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, one steal, five blocks

    Game 6: 39 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, two steals, five blocks

    Series Averages: 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.25 steals, 4.2 blocks per game

    It's not often that a player has such an opportunity to prove himself against the supposed best in the league and dominates to that extent. 

Chicago Bulls vs. Indiana Pacers, 1998 Eastern Conference Finals

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    Result: 4-3 Bulls

    Notable Stars Involved: Reggie Miller, Mark Jackson, Rik Smits, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman

    Top-100 Individual Performances: None


    The Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz had tied for the most wins during the regular season with 62 apiece. It was only fitting that they'd match up in the NBA Finals right before Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen all went their separate ways. 

    However, to get to the final, Chicago had to go through Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. 

    The series against the 58-win Pacers went the distance, one of only two such stretches during all six of the Bulls' title runs. 

    Indiana had to come back multiple times, highlighted by Miller's game-winner in Game 4 and Travis Best's last-second free throws in Game 6. However, when Miller failed to score in the final 15 minutes of Game 7, it was all over for the Pacers. 

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Portland Trail Blazers, 2000 Western Conference Finals

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    Result: 4-3 Lakers

    Notable Stars Involved: Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal

    Top-100 Individual Performances: Kobe Bryant in Game 7 (No. 82)


    These two teams were so evenly matched during the 2000 Western Conference finals that Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers had to overcome a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit in Game 7 in order to advance to the NBA Finals, where they'd tear apart the Indiana Pacers. 

    Few of the games were close, with only Games 3, 5 and 7 decided by single figures. Neither the Lakers nor the Portland Trail Blazers were able to win three straight games at any point during the series. 

    Los Angeles was unbelievably dominant during the regular season as Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe went 67-15 while turning the league into their own personal plaything. Portland was eight games back of L.A. and still had the second-best record in all of the NBA. 

    It's amazing how differently we might remember the legacies of Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe had Portland been able to make even one of its 13 shots while the Lakers made their Game 7 comeback. 

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Sacramento Kings, 2002 Western Conference Finals

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    Result: 4-3 Lakers

    Notable Stars Involved: Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Vlade Divac, Hedo Turkoglu

    Top-100 Individual Performances: None


    If you thought the last series came down to the wire, then prepare yourselves for this one. The Los Angeles Lakers became the first team to win on the road in Game 7 of the final two rounds of the playoffs when they toppled the Sacramento Kings in overtime. 

    The largest margin of victory in the series was 13, and the stretch from Game 4 through Game 6 was decided by a combined six points. 

    No game was more dramatic than the Lakers' 100-99 victory. Robert Horry's shocking buzzer-beating three capped off a 24-point comeback victory after Vlade Divac had tapped away what should have been L.A.'s final shot. 

    This series between the Kings, who had won a league-best 61 games, and the Lakers, who tied with the Spurs for the second-best record in the league, will always be remembered as a classic. 

    Note: For all those who remember the poor officiating in this series, remember that we're looking at the greatest matchups here and not necessarily the greatest results. 

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Detroit Pistons, 2007 Eastern Conference Finals

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    Result: 4-2 Cavaliers

    Notable Stars Involved: LeBron James, Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace

    Top-100 Individual Performances: LeBron James in Game 5 (No. 3)


    We all remember LeBron James' 48 Special during Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. Don't let that overshadow just how great a matchup this was between powers in the East. 

    The East was filled with parity during the 2006-2007 season, to the extent that the Detroit Pistons earned the No. 1 seed with a 53-29 record. LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers weren't far behind, coming in at No. 2 with a 50-32 record. 

    Cleveland started the series out in a 2-0 hole before winning the last four games of the series as James rebounded from a playoff career-low 10 points in Game 1. Each of the first five games could have been swung by just two more downtown shots from the losing team. 

Oklahoma City Thunder vs. San Antonio Spurs, 2012 Western Conference Finals

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    Result: Yet to be decided

    Notable Stars Included: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili

    Top-100 Individual Performances: None


    It's too soon to see how this one is going to end, but it's already shaping up to be a classic. 

    The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder were clearly the two best teams in the Western Conference this season, earning the top two seeds with 50 and 47 wins, respectively. Only the Chicago Bulls were able to match either team in terms of wins. 

    Led by a rejuvenated Tim Duncan, a rusty Manu Ginobili and an out-of-his-mind, incredibly underrated Tony Parker, the Spurs won the first two games of the series to extend their winning streak to a sensational 20 games. It was the longest streak kept alive in the postseason until the Thunder won Games 3 and 4 to even the series. 

    We've already witnessed some incredible performances and there's no telling what's going to happen next.