NBA Playoffs: The 10 Greatest Conference Finals Moments
The NBA Playoffs provide some of the greatest theater in all of sports. Sure, players and teams may take a play (or 10) off during an 82-game slog, but when the calendar flips to May, the intensity gets ratcheted up to 11—bodies bang just a little harder, points are just a little harder to come by, and legends are formed in the crucible of a month-long marathon.
The conference finals have had more than their share of drama over the years, helping shape the landscape of the sport—Isiah against the Celtics, Ewing against the Bulls, Reggie against the Knicks. As the 2013 edition begins again, let's take a look back at the 10 greatest moments in conference finals history.
Rik Smits Plays the Hero
Everyone thought the ball would go to Reggie.
After Penny Hardaway drilled an absolute dagger to put the Magic up one with under two seconds remaining in Game 4 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Finals, the stage appeared to be set. Reggie Miller, one of the greatest clutch shooters of all time and fresh off exorcising his Madison Square Garden demons, had one chance to pull out a win. But then a funny thing happened—Larry Brown used his star as a decoy. The ball instead went to Rik Smits at the high post, and the Dunking Dutchman pumped, pivoted, and got off a shot just before the buzzer sounded to pull Indiana even in the series.
Mario Elie's "Kiss of Death"
It remains to this day one of my favorite celebrations of all time. The favored Suns had sprinted out to a commanding 3-1 series lead in the 1995 Western Conference Finals, poised to return to the NBA Finals behind the dominance of Charles Barkley. But sixth-seeded Houston refused to die, staving off elimination in overtime on the road in Game 5 and forcing a deciding Game 7 at the old America West Arena.
The game was an absolute classic, going back and forth until swingman Mario Elie found himself open in the corner in the final seconds. Elie calmly buried a three, strutted back up the sideline and blew a defiant kiss to the stunned Phoenix crowd, as the Rockets continued their march to another championship.
10. 1999, Spurs vs. Blazers: Shawn Elliott Walks the Tightrope
In 1999, the Spurs weren't the dynasty they'd become over the next decade and a half. For years they had struggled to break through in the Western Conference, David Robinson's prime wasting away in the shadow of Hakeem Olajuwon. But with the rapid ascension of Tim Duncan and a changing of the guard in out west, San Antonio looked to finally get over the hump. There was a sense of urgency on that Spurs team, Robinson and a slew of battle-tested veterans knowing that their window was closing. They would run into a defiant Blazers team in the 1999 Western Conference Finals, desperate to win a championship for the Admiral.
After a hard-fought win in Game 1, San Antonio got all they could handle from Portland as the Blazers looked to steal a game on the road and even the series. Down two with 12 seconds remaining, all eyes turned to the Spurs' twin towers, but it would be a role player who came up huge.
Shawn Elliott had been raining threes all game, knocking down six overall, but he saved his best for last. The inbounds pass went to Elliott in the right corner, almost leading him out of bounds. Somehow, some way he managed to walk the tightrope, dribbling once and avoiding the sideline. He regrouped, and then did the unthinkable—he immediately turned and launched a contested three with plenty of time still left on the clock. Everybody in the building began to groan until the ball rattled its way home, giving the Spurs a commanding 2-0 lead on their road to a title.
9. 2000, Lakers vs. Blazers: Kobe to Shaq Caps off Comeback
The Blazers would be back the very next year, this time facing down the budding dynasty in Southern California. Portland was a ridiculously deep and talented team, led by All-Star Rasheed Wallace (forget all of the histrionics, people forget just how skilled Wallace was in his prime.) The series was an instant classic between two teams who really, really didn't like each other—there were suspensions, near-brawls, and Scottie Pippen staring absolute daggers at Rick Fox whenever the two matched up.
The series went back and forth, Kobe and Shaq trying to impose their will while the Blazers refused to back down. Portland forced a Game 7 at Staples Center, and it was arguably the most memorable playoff game of the entire decade. Portland came out with a purpose, punching L.A. in the mouth and opening up a 15-point fourth quarter lead. This is where things get interesting.
The Lakers stormed back, ripping off a 29-9 run to close the game capped off by an emphatic alley-oop from Kobe to Shaq. To this day, Portland fans still claim conspiracy, the refs getting generous with the calls for the big market Lakers down the stretch (trust me, more on that later). But what fans remember most is the Big Diesel gleefully running downcourt, arms stretched toward the rafters, as the Lakers went on to win a title.
8. 1999, Knicks vs. Pacers: LJ's Four-Point Play
Full disclosure: as a Knicks fan, this was one of the formative moments of my childhood. After a brief hiatus, the Knicks and Pacers were back at it again, with another trip to the Finals on the line. The series had it all: Patrick Ewing making one last run at a ring, Reggie Miller returning to the Garden, Spike Lee doing, well, what Spike Lee does.
After the Knicks stole Game 1 in Indianapolis, the Pacers looked to return the favor in the Garden in Game 3. It was a classic Knicks-Pacers slugfest, Indiana making just enough plays to keep New York at arm's length. The Knicks found themselves down three with one last chance to tie it up, and a fan favorite would come up with a miracle.
The play really almost never happened—the Knicks struggled simply to get the ball inbounds, and the pass to Larry Johnson was tipped and almost stolen. Once LJ gathered, he dribbled, pumped, drew a foul and put up a desperation three that found bottom as the Garden absolutely exploded (I could watch the overhead shot when the ball goes in for hours on end). After Chris Childs reminded Johnson that, hey, he still had to knock down the free throw, he stepped up and coolly sank it to give New York the win and the series lead.
Pacer fans were livid, convinced that Antonio Davis had fouled Johnson before he went up for the shot—and, if I'm being honest, they have a point, but they should take all the calls Reggie Miller got in his career and consider themselves lucky.
7. 2007, Cavaliers vs. Pistons: LeBron Earns His Nickname
This was a performance that words can't really do justice—if you were lucky enough to watch it live, you remember exactly where you were when LeBron James truly became the King.
The Eastern Conference had gone through Detroit for years, clutch scoring from Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton combined with stifling defense leading the Pistons to the conference finals seemingly every year. And while LeBron was certainly great, in 2007 he had yet to take the next step, finally putting a team on his back and getting over the hump. The 2007 Eastern Conference Finals were shaping up to be the same old story, veteran Detroit making one last run, not ready to pass the mantle yet—until LeBron decided that he was tired of waiting, even if he had to make it happen single-handedly.
LeBron had drawn the ire of fans and analysts for his "passive" play down the stretch in Games 1 and 2 in Detroit, choosing to make the extra pass rather than force the issue. After the teams split the first four games, the scene shifted back to the Palace for Game 5, and James would make sure his critics wouldn't have anything to say. The Pistons played from the lead for most of the game, suffocating James and daring his supporting cast to beat him (when your supporting cast prominently features Donyell Marshall, that's probably a good bet.)
But LeBron simply refused to let his team lose, going on a game-ending tear the likes of which no one had seen before. He got to the rim at will, penetrating Detroit's vaunted interior defense, and when that got boring he stepped outside and drilled jumpers. In all, James poured in 48 points, but it was his late-game heroics that made it so memorable: he scored the Cavs final 25 points (29 of their last 30) including a thunderous dunk to force overtime and a lay-up in the final seconds of double OT to seal the win. All hail the king.
6. 1993, Knicks vs. Bulls: John Starks Sends It in
This isn't really related, but man do I love this photo.
For one magical moment, the Knicks thought they were finally going to slay the dragon.
The Knicks and Bulls met three times in four years from 1989 to 1992, with the Bulls winning all four. Michael Jordan was Patrick Ewing's kryptonite, the grind-it-out Knicks always seeming to fall just a play or two short. In 1993, as the two rivals met one more time, it seemed as though that script might finally change. The Knicks were the East's top seed, dominating the regular season to earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Sure enough, the second-seeded Bulls stood in their way in the conference finals, and New York came out swinging.
The Knicks took Game 1 in the Garden with an emphatic 98-90 win, setting the stage for a crucial Game 2. A loss would give the Bulls home court advantage, a win would put New York in the driver's seat. It was a tight affair the whole way, two heavyweights going back and forth in front of an absolutely electric crowd. After Bill Cartwright missed a pair of free throws, the Knicks were clinging to a three point lead with a minute to go, setting the stage for John Starks to deliver one of the greatest exclamation points in NBA history.
Starks took the ball up court and dribbled to the right wing. He got a screen from Ewing but drove the other way, and B.J. Armstrong straight up gave him the baseline, expecting help from Horace Grant. Grant wasn't on the same page, and Starks had a clear path to the rim. As Grant and MJ converged on him, Starks's elevator simply went to a higher floor, throwing down a beast of a left-handed slam to cap off a dramatic victory. It was a defining moment for a great Knick, and even though New York lost the series, we'll always remember the time our scrappy guard put the greatest player in history on a poster.
5. 1994, Knicks vs. Pacers: Reggie Miller Goes Bananas
I'm not sure how happy Spike is to be a part of this photo.
I flipped back and forth between 1994 and 1995, Reggie's monster fourth quarter and 8 points in 9 seconds. But in the end I went with the former simply because it was a more impressive feat—his heroics in Game 1 in 1995 were a blur, a couple of big shots sandwiched in between an absurdly stupid inbounds pass. But his fourth quarter in Game 5 of the 1994 conference finals, when his team absolutely needed him? That was a cold-blooded performance, 12 minutes of brilliance from a guy who still found the time to have a conversation with Spike Lee in the front row.
The Pacers had been bounced by the Knicks in the first round in 1993, and were looking for revenge when they met their arch nemesis in the conference finals the next year. The teams split the first four games, setting up a crucial Game 5 at MSG. New York seemed to have things under control, until Reggie did what Reggie does at the Garden.
Miller, held relatively in check for most of the night, poured in 25 points in the fourth quarter (39 for the game) as the Pacers ran away with a 93-86 win. The guy simply couldn't miss, seemingly redefining his range with every successive shot (in my head, I swear he drilled one from just about half court.) Knicks fans love to hate Reggie, but after that performance, all we could do was shake our heads. It was the type of performance that leaves the entire crowd in awe no matter who they're rooting for, and even though the Knicks stormed back to take the series, it deserves mention here.
4. 1997, Jazz vs. Rockets: Stockton Puts Utah over the Hump
They were one of the greatest duos in the history of basketball, but until 1997 John Stockton and Karl Malone had never even gotten a shot at a title. They had never led the Jazz to the NBA Finals, a glaring hole on an otherwise spotless resume. But the pair finally got their chance in '97, matching up with the Houston Rockets in the conference finals with a chance to finally get over that hump.
Utah put themselves on the verge of clinching the West after a big victory at home in Game 5, setting the stage for an unforgettable Game 6 at the Summit in Houston. Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were both absolutely brilliant for the Rockets, but Stockton was one better. He went off for 25 points (on just 15 shots) and 13 assists to just three turnovers, matching Houston shot for shot down the stretch on an off night for Karl Malone.
The Jazz got the ball back one last time, the game tied at 100 with just a couple of seconds standing between them and that elusive shot at a ring. You just knew that Stockton had to be the guy to lift Utah to the next step, and the Hall of Famer didn't disappoint—he took the inbounds pass near midcourt, took a couple of dribbles and stepped into an absolutely pure three-pointer. The ball didn't even touch rim, and the Jazz were moving on.
3. 2002, Lakers vs. Kings: Big Shot Bob Strikes Again
All up all in, this was the most memorable playoff series I've been fortunate enough to watch. It had everything, really—star-studded rosters, teams and fan bases that absolutely despised each other, and loads upon loads of controversy.
The Kings had been waiting all year for a shot at their showtime rivals from down south after the Lakers swept them in the conference semifinals in 2001. They would get their chance in the '02 conference finals, and it would not disappoint. After laying an egg at home in Game 1, Sacramento responded by taking the next two to snatch home court advantage back and set up a pivotal Game 4 at Staples Center. The Kings used a 40-point first quarter to build a commanding 24-point first half lead, but it wouldn't last—L.A. had cut it to 14 at halftime, seven by the start of the fourth quarter.
That set up an absolutely frantic final 12 minutes, with Mike Bibby and Chris Webber trying to will Sacramento to a victory. The Kings looked ready to escape L.A. with a commanding 3-1 lead, but they forgot one simple fact: the Lakers had Robert Horry.
Down two with seconds to go, Kobe Bryant drove to the rim and missed a floater. Shaq got the rebound but blew the put-back, and as the ball tipped around it looked as though time would expire and the Kings would escape. But Vlade Divac tipped the ball out in an attempt to get it away from O'Neal, and it just so happened to fall directly to Horry behind the three-point line (why a 6'9 guy is standing 25 feet from the basket with his team down two is beyond me, but I digress.) Big Shot Bob did what Big Shot Bob does, burying a dagger over Webber as time expired, and Sacramento had to return home with the series tied at two.
2. 1965, Celtics vs. 76ers: "Havlicek Stole the Ball"
It's arguably the greatest call in basketball history, the NBA's equivalent of "The Giants win the pennant!" The Celtics were looking for their ninth straight trip to the Finals (no, that really isn't a typo) while the Sixers looked to local legend Wilt Chamberlain to put them over the top.
The series was an absolute barn burner, each team taking care of home court (including a dramatic 134-131 Philadelphia victory in overtime in Game 4 to tie the series). Game 7 was no different, as Wilt tried to single-handedly deny the Cousy-Russell-Havlicek Celtics yet another championship. It went back and forth the whole way, until with just seconds left Philly inbounded underneath the Celtics' basket down by a point. Hal Greer lofted a pass toward the middle of the court, but it was snatched out of the air by Hondo, who passed to Sam Jones to start the celebration at the Boston Garden.
1. 1987, Pistons vs. Celtics: Larry Bird Saves the C's
This was a seminal moment in the history of the NBA, a game that would reverberate for years. Isiah's Pistons were banging on the door, trying to wrest away the Eastern Conference crown from a Celtics dynasty that had begun to get a little long in the tooth. But the old dog still had a few tricks, and Detroit would learn that the greatest champions never go quietly.
Four consecutive blowouts, two by each team on their home court, set up a pivotal Game 5 at the Boston Garden. Boston started hot on their home floor, but the Pistons never wavered, chipping into the Celtics' early lead. It was just a one-point game heading into the fourth, and what happened next is the stuff of a legend. The Pistons refused to fade, finding themselves up a point with 10 seconds to go. Larry Bird drove to the basket but was denied at the rim, a seemingly symbolic rejection by the up and coming Pistons. The ball went out of bounds, and all Detroit had to do was get the ball in safely and get out with a victory.
But Larry Legend had other ideas. Isiah Thomas thought he had an easy inbound to Bill Laimbeer, but Bird came streaking from behind, stealing the ball and flipping it to Dennis Johnson as he fell out of bounds. DJ laid it in with a second left, and Boston had pulled off one of the most stunning victories in league history. The Pistons would have to wait another year to make a run at the conference title, while the Celtics refused to let their dynasty die. A lot of things change if not for that magical steal by Bird.