The legendary battles that have occurred in the NBA could leave us watching NBA classic games and You Tube compilations for hours. There's enough footage to keep us enthralled in front of our computers or TVs for days.
But what footage stands out among the great showdowns? Which battles are worth isolating and giving a second look?
Hakeem Olajuwon vs. David Robinson, 1995 Western Conference Finals
David Robinson won the MVP in the 1994-95 NBA season, and is was chosen as one of the best 50 players in NBA history at the 50-year anniversary of the league.
The Western Conference Finals were a special showcase of two of the greatest centers ever.
But as good as Robinson was, as quick as he was, as talented as he was—it wasn't enough to cover Hakeem Olajuwon.
"Hakeem the Dream" used an arsenal of moves unparalleled by any center in NBA history. His footwork was deft, quick and precise. Hakeem's multitude of ball fakes and pump fakes were impossible to anticipate.
Hakeem may have taken Robinson's MVP award as a slight. Olajuwon led the league in scoring that season with 33 points per game, in addition to grabbing 10.3 boards per game and blocking 2.8 shots per contest.
The Houston Rockets would go on to win the title in the 94-95 season, one of the Michael Jordan "baseball years" titles that may have never been possible if MJ hadn't decided to hang it up. But it's really impossible to diminish the greatness of Hakeem's performance, because it was an example of a great player being dominated by an even greater one.
Olajuwon scored 27, 41, 43, 20, 42 and 39 points in the six-game series against the Spurs that season. But Hakeem didn't 35 points per game against anyone; it was against The Admiral, who appeared on eight NBA All-Defensive teams and ranks No. 4 in the NBA in career blocks per game. It was by all means a dominant performance against a great defensive player.
Larry Bird vs Dominique Wilkins, May 22, 1988
The 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals was a great showdown between a legendary Boston Celtics team and an Atlanta Hawks team that was peaking, showcasing one of the best pure scorers in NBA history in Dominique Wilkins.
Wilkins would go toe-to-toe with arguably the best small forward in NBA history in one of the best Game 7s in playoff history. And he'd get the better of the 31-year-old Bird, at least individually.
Bird scored 34 points on 14-of-35 shooting, and he also dished out six assists. Wilkins scored 47 on 19-of-33 shooting, while dishing out three assists.
Both hit a number of difficult and contested jumpers, and Bird's all-around skill set was on full display against a player whose athleticism was leaps and bounds beyond his own. The Celtics would win the game 118-116, edging the Hawks by a mere basket in a very evenly contested matchup.
Wilkins was not chosen to be among the 50 greatest players ever at the NBA's 50-year anniversary, and the nine-time All-Star never seemed to receive his fair share of credit. But the footage shown in this battle against Bird definitively proves Wilkins could challenge the absolute best.
Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley, Nov. 16, 1988
Charles Barkley was one of a number of players in the '80s and '90s who could have won multiple titles—if not for the guy he squared off against in this video. Barkley was the best undersized big man in NBA history.
Standing just 6'6" (generously—I have an NBA player encyclopedia that lists Chuck as 6'4"), Barkley dominated players six to eight inches taller than him, and his 42 points game in the showdown against Michael Jordan's Bulls showed how good Chuck could be and was in his prime. Barkley hit 18-of-25 (72 percent) from the floor, grabbed 16 rebounds, came up with two steals and blocked a shot.
Barkley's Sixers would get the best of MJ and the Bulls in this game, winning 123-110, but Jordan's performance was naturally impressive. Jordan hit 24-of-29 (82.8 percent) from the field for 52 points, while also grabbing nine rebounds and coming up with four steals.
Isiah Thomas vs. L.A. Lakers, June 21, 1988
Isiah Thomas' "sprained ankle game" was a display of the ultimate grit and determination by one of the greatest point guards in NBA history. Thomas came out with his shoes laced so tightly his heavily taped ankles were rendered nearly inflexible.
Isiah's limp was noticeable, but the diminutive floor general put the Detroit Pistons on his back against Magic Johnson's Lakers in Ggame 6 of the NBA Finals. Thomas' Pistons would lose the game 103-102, but Isiah scored 43 points, 25 of which came in the third quarter. He also had eight assists and six steals. It was a potential closeout game for the Pistons, but they couldn't get over the hump that season and fell in Game 7 108-105 at the L.A. Forum.
Thomas showed that players can and should play through immense pain in games of great importance. It was one of the greatest examples of a player whose will to win exceeded his physical limitations, because most people would have been walking on crutches, but Thomas was able to dominate a tough Lakers team featuring the lockdown defense of Michael Cooper off the bench.
Thomas succeeded individually, and though his Pistons fell short, it wasn't because he nursed a gimpy ankle from the bench. In an era when players will sit with a hangnail or blister, Thomas' resilience is to be admired and appreciated.
Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell (Career Battles)
Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell are both in consideration for the most accomplished and greatest player ever discussion. Chamberlain posted astronomically absurd statistics and won two NBA championships. Russell was a defensive specialist who won 11 NBA championships.
And their battles against one another were epic. Wilt averaged 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds per game in head-to-head play against Russell. In the early years, Chamberlain scored 50-plus points seven times against Russell, including a 62-point performance in the 1961-62 season. Russell averaged 14.5 points per game and 23.7 rebounds.
Russell, however, played with more talented teammates and wasn't called upon as much offensively. Many say Russell could have averaged the same scoring numbers as "Wilt the Stilt" if that were his role for the Celtics, but as dubious as that statement and claim is, it really doesn't matter.
Basketball is a game played on both ends of the court, and a game-changing defensive player is making a more discrete impact by changing and blocking shots, and Russell was such a great shot blocker that goaltending was instituted to prevent his dominance at the rim. They also changed more rules due to Wilt than any other NBA player, including a rule to prevent foul-line takeoffs as a means of "shooting" free throws.
It's difficult to determine which player is better given their different roles and different skill sets. If it were a game that could be judged based on statistics alone, the edge would have to go to Chamberlain.
But that isn't how people dissect great players when their careers end; it's often more heavily based upon championships and individual accolades. That evens the playing field for Russell, but in the end, it's just about the first great big man rivalry in NBA history.