Ranking the Greatest Races Down the Stretch in NBA History

Paul KnepperContributor IIIMarch 23, 2013

Ranking the Greatest Races Down the Stretch in NBA History

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    Eighty-two games makes for a long season, and by late March, fans are anxious for the playoffs to begin. It is the neck-and-neck finishes between teams and individuals down the stretch that keep the games interesting.

    For teams fighting to make the playoffs, every game feels like a must-win. Those that are already assured of a spot in the postseason are scratching and clawing for a higher seed, home-court advantage or a division title, which will improve their chances of advancing.

    In general, divisional and conference playoff races have grown more intense over the past few decades. As the league expanded in the 1960s and 70s, the percentage of teams that make the playoffs decreased, creating greater competition for the limited spots.

    The most intriguing individual races are typically for the scoring title and Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. Some seasons as many as three or four players are in the hunt, and on several occasions, the scoring race has come down to the final game.

10. Michael Jordan vs. Shaquille O'Neal For the 1997-98 Scoring Title

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    Michael Jordan held off the inevitable changing of the guard by edging out a young Shaquille "The Big Aristotle" O'Neal for the 1997-98 scoring title. It was Jordan's 10th and final such honor, as he and the Chicago Bulls would go on to win their sixth championship before disbanding in the offseason.

    MJ sealed the victory with a 44-point effort in the Bulls' final game, giving him an average of 28.74 for the season. Shaq would have needed 59 points in the Lakers' finale to surpass Jordan. He scored 33 and ended up with an average of 28.32.

    The Lakers center came up just short of the scoring title the following season as well, losing out to Allen Iverson on the final day of the season. The Big Aristotle did lead the league in scoring in 1995 (29.3) and 2000 (29.7).

9. The Eastern Division Title Was Up For Grabs in 1969

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    The Boston Celtics had won 10 of the previous 12 NBA championships, but the aging team appeared vulnerable during the 1968-69 season. Bill Russell's squad failed to win 50 games for the first time since 1957-58, when the season consisted of 72 games.

    The Eastern Division title and a trip to the NBA Finals was there for the taking, and the Baltimore Bullets, New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers were all in the hunt. First place and home-court advantage were crucial for a shot at a championship.

    The three teams were bunched together heading into the final week of the season. The Bullets, led by Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld, came out ahead with a record of 57-25. Billy Cunningham and Hal Greer's 76ers went 55-27, and the Knicks—which included Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and Bill Bradley—won 54 games.

    However, the Celtics proved to have one last run in them. After finishing the season 48-34, they defeated the Sixers and Knicks in the playoffs before disposing of the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals for their 11th championship. Russell announced his retirement after the season.

8. David Robinson's 71-Point Performance Locked Up the 1994 Scoring Title

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    Shaquille O'Neal lost the scoring title on the last day of the season three times during his illustrious career. His first second-place finish came at the hands of David "The Admiral" Robinson during 1994.

    Shaq led Robinson by percentage points heading into the final day of the season. Each player had one game remaining.

    The Admiral stole the scoring title with a career-high 71 points on 26-of-41 shooting against the Los Angeles Clippers. O'Neal managed just 32 points later that day against the New Jersey Nets.

    The difference was .44 points per game, as Robinson finished with an average of 29.79 compared to Shaq's 29.35.

7. Three-Way Battle for the 2008 MVP

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    Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Kevin Garnett all had a legitimate claim to the 2007-08 MVP award.

    KG transformed the culture of a Boston Celtics team that had won just 24 games the season before his arrival. He spearheaded the team's stifling defense, which carried the Celtics to a league-best 66-16 record.

    CP3 elevated his game to superstar status in his third season. The diminutive point guard averaged 21.1 points per game and led the league with 11.6 assists and 2.7 steals per game. His New Orleans Hornets took the league by surprise, winning 56 games and the Southwest Division title.

    But voters were more impressed by the Black Mamba. Bryant wrapped up the MVP race when his Los Angeles Lakers secured the No. 1 seed in the cut-throat Western Conference. He averaged 28.3 points and was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First Team.

    Paul finished second in the voting and Garnett third.

6. Dominique Wilkins vs. Adrian Dantley and Alex English for 1986 Scoring Title

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    The mid-80s were the glory days for NBA small forwards, with stars like Larry Bird, Dominique Wilkins, James Worthy, Adrian Dantley, Bernard King, Alex English and Mark Aguirre regularly ranking among the league leaders in scoring.

    Three of those high-scoring forwards, Wilkins, English and Dantley, took the race for the scoring title down to the final few games of the 1985-86 season.

    Wilkins pulled into the lead with a season-high 57 points in his next-to-last game and wrapped up his lone scoring title with 34 points in the Atlanta Hawks' finale. Dantley, then playing for the Utah Jazz, and English of the Denver Nuggets, sat out the last game of the season between their two teams with injuries.

    Wilkins averaged 30.33 points per game, Dantley 29.83 and English 29.80. English led the league in scoring in 1982-83 with 28.4 points per game, while Dantley won two scoring titles of his own, in 1980-81 (30.7) and 1983-84 (30.6). 

5. Three Legends Fought For the 1989-90 MVP Award

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    Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan all had a spectacular 1989-1990 campaign. As the season wound down, there was plenty of debate as to which superstar was the MVP.

    Sir Charles led an undermanned Philadelphia 76ers team to a 53-29 record, good enough for first place in the Atlantic Division. He averaged 25.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.9 steals while shooting a remarkable 60 percent from the field.

    MJ's Chicago Bulls won 55 games, finishing second in the Central Division to the eventual champion Detroit Pistons. His Airness scored 33.6 points per game on 53 percent shooting and averaged 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and a league-high 2.8 steals.

    Magic's Los Angeles Lakers had the best record at 63-19. The point guard scored 22.3 points per game, grabbing 6.6 rebounds and dishing out 11.5 assists.

    Barkley garnered the most first-place votes with 38, but the award went to Magic, who received 27 first-place votes and 636 overall points. Charles came in second with 614 points, and Jordan was a close third with 21 first place votes and 571 total.

4. Playoff Spots Were Hard to Come By In the 2008 Western Conference

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    The Western Conference was stacked with great teams in 2007-08. Several franchises suited up multiple future Hall of Famers, and each playoff team won at least 50 games.

    The playoff race was riveting, as teams jockeyed for position until the final games of the season. In the end, two games separated the No. 1 seed, the Los Angeles Lakers, from the No. 6 seed, the Phoenix Suns (57-25 to 55-27.)

    The top three teams in the Southwest Division—the New Orleans Hornets (56-26), San Antonio Spurs (56-26) and Houston Rockets (55-27)—finished within one game of each.

    The regular season was a prelude to a fantastic postseason. The Lakers beat the Spurs in the conference finals before losing to the Boston Celtics in the finals.

3. The 1995-96 Bulls Were Chasing History

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    The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls were a team on a mission. Michael Jordan's competitive juices were overflowing after the Bulls lost in the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals to the Orlando Magic following his midseason comeback.

    Chicago had added Dennis Rodman in the offseason, whose rebounding ability and defensive intensity fit perfectly with Jordan and Scottie Pippen's strengths. Veterans Ron Harper and Luc Longley filled out the starting five.

    It was evident early on that the Bulls could make a run at the record of 69 wins held by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers. The anticipation built as they approached the magical number of 70.

    Jordan and company finished the season with a 72-10 record—a winning percentage of 87.8. They followed it up with 69 games the following season. No team has won more than 67 since.  

2. The 1978 Scoring Title Came Down to an Incredible Final Day

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    In 1978, George Gervin edged out David Thompson in the closest scoring race in league history. Gervin held a slight lead heading into the final game, and the two great scorers put on stellar performances in an attempt to win the crown.

    Thompson's Denver Nuggets played first. The high-flyer delivered 32 points in the first quarter against the Detroit Pistons, had 53 at halftime and finished with 73 points, then the second-most ever scored in an NBA game.

    But Gervin was up to the challenge. The Iceman responded with 63 points against the Utah Jazz later that day and walked away with the first of his four scoring titles by a margin of 27.22 to 27.15.

1. "The Big O" and Wilt's Historic Seasons Were Not Enough for the MVP

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    The 1961-62 season is remembered for the spectacular individual accomplishments of Oscar "The Big O" Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain. Yet, it was the greatest team player, Bill Russell, who was named the MVP.

    The Big O became the first and only player to average a triple-double for a season with 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and a league-high 11.4 assists per game.

    Chamberlain's numbers were even more staggering. The Big Dipper averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds, while playing an incomprehensible 48.5 minutes per game.

    However, Robertson's Cincinnati Royals finished 43-37. Wilt's Philadelphia Warriors won 49 games, while Russell's Boston Celtics won 60.

    Russell's numbers were not too shabby either. The Celtics center turned in 18.9 points and 23.6 rebounds per game. His legendary defense is difficult to measure because blocked shots were not an official statistic until the 1973-74 season.