Ranking the 15 Greatest Series in NBA Finals History
The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs are all set to square off in an NBA Finals matchup that, somehow, already feels historically significant.
We're dealing with two teams here, but there's also a sense that two eras are about to go to war. LeBron James is a transcendent superstar at the peak of his powers, and a third straight ring would immediately put him on the short list of the game's greatest players—with plenty of career still to go, by the way.
Tim Duncan is already among the NBA's best, and he's looking to put a capstone on one of the most remarkable runs of sustained success in professional sports history.
Considering everything at stake, the 2014 Finals have a great chance to rank as one of the most compelling series ever.
For context, let's check out the 15 best Finals series we've seen to this point.
First of all, 15 may seem like a lot, especially since we've only seen 66 Finals since the championship round was created in 1947. But more than half of the NBA gets into the playoffs, so there's something of a precedent for inclusiveness in the league's belief system.
In ranking these series, a Game 7 certainly helps because, obviously, it adds to the drama. And though we're not focusing on individual performances so much as the overall quality of the series itself, it certainly won't hurt if a particular one-on-one clash, breakout effort or signature moment lends significance to the bigger picture.
Ultimately, we're out to find the best NBA Finals there have ever been.
And it's a good thing we're getting our ducks in a row now, because there's a strong possibility the 2014 edition will reshuffle things considerably.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
15. Boston Celtics vs. St. Louis Hawks, 1957
We're going way, way back to kick things off.
The 1957 Finals between the Boston Celtics and St. Louis Hawks would have warranted mention on the strength of Tom Heinsohn's performance alone. Then a rookie, the current Celtics icon and beloved, curmudgeonly broadcaster, erupted for 37 points and 23 rebounds in a 125-123 double-overtime win.
In Game 7.
Again, as a rookie.
It's official: Any time Heinsohn mentions the word "clutch" in the future, we have to accept whatever point he's making as gospel.
Game 1 of that series was also a double-OT affair, and the Hawks narrowly avoided elimination in Game 6 with a desperate 96-94 win.
Oh, and this was the first ever championship for the Celtics. They managed to do pretty well for themselves over the next couple of decades.
14. Dallas Mavericks vs. Miami Heat, 2011
At the risk of causing temporal whiplash, we vault forward to 2011 to recount the Dallas Mavericks' six-game triumph over the Heat.
This series was significant for a handful of reasons, not the least of which was Dirk Nowitzki's redemption following a 2006 Finals collapse against a previous incarnation of the same Heat team.
Up 2-0, Dallas gave the Finals away in '06—with an assist, of course, from a boatload of Dwyane Wade foul shots.
In 2011, Nowitzki and the Mavs exacted revenge, and they did so in a fashion that dealt a devastating blow to the Heat and James, who were in their maiden voyage as a newly formed Big Three.
The narratives that followed—James wasn't clutch, championships can't be bought, etc.—plagued James and the Heat until they broke through the following season.
And in a snippet of strange history, the Mavs became the first team to win a series in the old 2-3-2 format after dropping two of the first three games. Interesting.
Obscure, but interesting.
13. San Antonio Spurs vs. Detroit Pistons, 2005
Believe it or not, the 2005 Finals was the only championship series to go seven games in the first decade of the 2000s. In fact, it was the first time the final round had gone the distance since 1994.
That helps the ranking, but probably not as much as Duncan winning his third Finals MVP award, the remarkably underrated Pistons ending their run in typically stubborn fashion and Larry Brown's last successful stint in the NBA.
This was an absolute slugfest, as both teams traded blowouts with nobody cracking the 100-point barrier until the Pistons notched 102 points in their Game 4 win. That was also the last time either team made it to 100.
Think about that for a second: The Spurs won a ring without scoring 100 points in any contest. That's incredible, and a testament to both the quality of the defense in this series and the lack of offensive innovation that earlier version of the Spurs possessed.
They sorted out the offensive end in seasons to come.
Bonus points awarded for Manu Ginobili's flowing locks, Eva Longoria accompanying Tony Parker to games and Brent Barry shooting set shots.
12. Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz, 1998
The Chicago Bulls make their first entry with a six-game victory over the Utah Jazz that featured a couple of iconic moments and offered us the last we'd ever see of Michael Jordan at a superstar level.
After dropping Game 1 in overtime, Chicago rallied to win three straight, including a 96-54 throttling in Game 3 that still stands as the biggest blowout in Finals history. Somehow, the Jazz bounced back from that shellacking to take Game 5 by a final score of 83-81.
As time ticked away in the fourth quarter of Game 6, Jordan took over.
He took Karl Malone's candy (that's playground talk for stole the ball, you square) with 21 seconds left, then casually dribbled up the court, sized up Bryon Russell, drove right, shoved him off and buried a jumper to put the Bulls ahead by one with 5.2 ticks remaining.
Utah failed to score and MJ had his sixth ring.
Somewhere, in an alternate universe where things end how they're supposed to, that would have been the last shot of his career.
11. Portland Trail Blazers vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 1977
Bill Walton's Portland Trail Blazers found themselves in a 0-2 hole against Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals, a series that was already significant because it was the first played after the NBA and ABA merged into the league we know today.
Game 1 started ominously, with Dr. J throwing down a windmill jam immediately after the opening tip, and the Sixers forced a whopping 34 Portland turnovers.
In a remarkable comeback that drew its fuel from an ugly brawl in Game 2, the Blazers played inspired ball to sweep the next four contests.
Walton averaged 18.5 points, 19.0 rebounds and 3.7 blocks in what would be his only championship as a starter. Though he'd go on to win another ring with the Celtics in 1986, Big Red was never better than he was in '77.
10. Golden State Warriors vs. Washington Bullets, 1975
"It has to be the greatest upset in the history of the NBA Finals," Rick Barry said, per NBA.com. "It was like a fairy-tale season. Everything just fell into place. It's something I'll treasure for the rest of my life."
We all know Barry can get a little windy from time to time (or, you know, whenever he opens his mouth), but his hyperbolic characterization of the 1975 Finals has some statistical support.
ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton gave the Washington Bullets a 95.3 percent chance of winning the series at the outset and corroborated Barry's account:
The 12-win gap between the two teams was the largest of any Finals upset, and while Golden State stepped up its game en route to the Finals, Washington had still been better during the playoffs, outlasting the Boston Celtics in an Eastern Conference finals showdown of 60-win teams.
Golden State incomprehensibly, inexplicably swept the Bullets.
It would be the only highlight for the Dubs until they upset the Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs over 30 years later.
9. Chicago Bulls vs. Phoenix Suns, 1993
Charles Barkley was riding high after an MVP season and a forceful run through the West, but his Phoenix Suns lost Games 1 and 2 at home to Jordan and the Bulls, which gave rise to one of the greatest anecdotes in NBA history.
This, from Barkley's appearance on Bill Simmons' podcast (via Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo! Sports):
So, we actually got nervous before Game 1. We struggled. The pressure got to the guys on the team. I played decent, but then I think the other guys were nervous. So Game 2, I'm talking to my daughter.
She said, 'Dad? Are y'all gonna win tonight?'
I said, 'Baby, your dad is the best basketball player in the world. I'm going to dominate the game tonight.' And I remember... I think I had like 46, 47. I played great. And Michael had 52.
And I got home that night, and my daughter was crying, and she said, 'Dad, y'all lost again.'
I said, 'Baby, I think Michael Jordan's better than me.'
She said, 'Dad, you've never said that before.'
I said, 'Baby, I've never felt like that before.'
The Suns actually took Game 3 in overtime at the United Center, but then Jordan exploded for 55 points in Game 4.
For the series, MJ averaged 41 points. And this Finals also featured John Paxson hitting that iconic jumper to clinch things in Game 6.
This win gave Jordan his first three-peat and made sure everyone—including Barkley—knew who the real MVP was.
8. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 1980
The first five games of the 1980 NBA Finals were all about vets—particularly Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his 33.4 points per game to that point.
But youth was served in Game 6, when Magic Johnson, then a rookie, filled in for an injured Abdul-Jabbar to take the Lakers home.
Johnson played all five positions and totaled 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a 123-107 victory. It was an arrival of sorts, as Magic proved at a very early juncture that he was something special—and more than that, he was a guy who'd capably guide the Lakers into one of the most successful decades in NBA history.
Oh, and that incredible baseline reverse layup by Dr. J that we've seen a hundred times on old highlight clips? That happened in Game 4.
Not a bad series, all things considered.
7. Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz, 1997
In terms of iconic moments, it's hard to top Jordan's "Flu Game," which happened in Game 5 of the Bulls' six-game conquest of the Jazz in 1997. If you were alive and a basketball fan at the time, you remember where you were when Scottie Pippen practically carried a spent Jordan off the floor in that contest.
Jordan scored 38 points in that contest, despite looking half-dead on the sidelines. Somehow, he even buried a tie-breaking triple with 25 seconds left in the game. Where he found the legs to hoist that shot, we may never know.
What that amazing effort obscured, though, was a full series that was altogether excellent.
Jordan drilled a game-winner in the series-opening game, and Steve Kerr buried the clincher (on a Jordan assist) in Game 6, a feat that earned Kerr some serious respect, per NBA.com:
"When Phil drew up the play at the end," said Jordan, who had 39 points and 11 rebounds and was named Finals Most Valuable Player for the fifth time. "everybody in the gym, everybody on TV knew was coming to me. I looked at Steve and said, 'This is your chance,' because I knew Stockton is going to come over and help and I'm going to come to you. Tonight Steve Kerr earned his wings from my perspective."
We'll always remember Game 5, but this series had just about everything you could ask for in a Finals—unless you're a Jazz fan.
6. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics, 1984
Though it's strange to think of now because the two '80's icons are so inextricably linked, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird didn't actually see one another in the Finals for the first four years of their careers. It took a while, but they finally met in a championship series in 1984.
They didn't disappoint.
This one went the full seven games and featured Kevin McHale administering what was, probably, the best clothesline in NBA history in Game 4.
It was certainly the best one involving Kurt Rambis.
Bird was absolutely ridiculous, averaging 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists. He took home Finals MVP honors as the Celtics prevailed in Game 7, and a rivalry that had started in the 1979 NCAA championship game had officially made its way to the professional ranks.
Johnson was nearly as good, with averages of 18.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 13.6 assists in the series.
In terms of big-picture import, it's hard to top this series. The league would explode in popularity because of the rivalry between Bird and Johnson in years to come, making this matchup the jumping-off point for a golden age of NBA basketball.
5. New York Knicks vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 1970
Let's see what we're working with here.
Games 3 and 4 between the Lakers and New York Knicks went into overtime.
Wilt Chamberlain was involved, going off for 45 points in a Game 6 blowout.
Walt Frazier tossed up 36 points and handed out 19 assists in the Knicks' Game 7 victory.
Oh, and Willis Reed made perhaps the most memorable (somewhat mystical) return in Game 7, limping out of the tunnel with a torn muscle in his thigh. He hobbled to center court for the opening tip, scored a pair of baskets against Chamberlain and returned to the bench.
His statistical contributions were minimal, but Reed's inspirational appearance—when nobody expected him to play—changed things for the Knicks. They won 113-99 in Game 7.
As you can tell, we've moved past the "pretty cool" section of these rankings. It's iconic, unforgettable stuff from here on out.
4. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics, 1969
Anytime you're dealing with something that has only happened once in NBA Finals history (and will almost certainly never happen again), you know you're entering rarefied air.
Jerry West won the 1969 Finals MVP, despite playing for a Lakers team that fell to the Celtics in seven gut-wrenchingly close contests.
Six of the series' games were decided by single digits, and West did absolutely everything he could to drag his Lakers to victory in Game 7, notching a triple-double that included 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.
His best effort was for naught; The Celtics won 108-106. West had lost his sixth NBA Finals.
Maybe I'm a sucker for sentiment, but the utter anguish of West playing so well and coming so close (only to fall short) makes this Finals particularly engrossing.
Plus, this was the first year of Chamberlain's tenure in Los Angeles and the final year of Bill Russell's career. Boston closed its run of 11 titles in 13 years with this victory.
That's a lot of history in one series.
3. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons, 1988
It's hard to know where to start with this one.
The Lakers were nearing the end of their run, but they were still formidable champions when they squared off against Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons in the 1988 Finals.
The series went back and forth through the first five games, with Showtime's pace and flair creating a striking contrast with the Bad Boys' physical, gritty style.
Game 6 was particularly memorable, as Thomas fought through a badly sprained ankle to score a Finals-record 25 points in the third quarter. Essentially playing on one leg, he took the inspirational portion of Willis Reed's act and tossed in remarkable production.
He finished with 43 in the game, but the Lakers eked out a one-point win to extend the series.
The exertion of Game 6 proved too much for Thomas, and his ankle stiffened up during halftime of Game 7, rendering him useless for the decisive second half.
James Worthy, though, was exceptionally useful, tallying 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 7 to give the Lakers a 108-105 win and the final championship of their dynasty.
Detroit would break through the following year, beating L.A. in the 1989 Finals.
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics, 1962
There was some hesitation to putting a Finals series from so many years ago (52 to be exact) all the way up at No. 2 on the list.
In watching highlights from those days, the game itself looks different. It's slower, less precisely executed and played by athletes who'd get run off the court in no time against today's monstrous specimens. But the (probably) inferior quality of the play itself does nothing to detract from the drama or theater of what took place in 1962 between the Celtics and Lakers.
The entire matchup was riddled with great, close contests and a huge number of big names.
But things got especially interesting in Game 5, when Elgin Baylor scored a Finals-record 61 points to go along with 22 rebounds in a 126-121 Lakers win.
Game 7 featured another incredible stat line, as Russell scored 30 points and hauled in 40 rebounds in an overtime win that added yet another title to Boston's growing collection. Russell grabbed an unfathomable 189 rebounds during the seven-game series.
If Frank Selvy could have knocked down an open baseline jumper, the Lakers would have finished the job in regulation, avoiding a Celtics surge in overtime that led to the memorable sequence in which Bob Cousy dribbled out the clock near midcourt.
1. Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs, 2013
Yeah, I did it. I put last year's NBA Finals between the Heat and Spurs in the top spot.
And you know what? I feel great about it.
Lest you assume this is a case of recency bias run wild, consider the following:
- Tony Parker hit an incredible game-winner to open the series.
- James rudely sent away both Tiago Splitter and Duncan at the rim with vicious blocks.
- Danny Green went into some kind of fugue state and buried 25 threes in the first five games of the series.
- James averaged 25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists over seven games.
- The Spurs should have won the whole thing in Game 6, but fell victim to an insane closing run that was fueled by a bad bounce, a little luck and Ray Allen's icy dagger from the right corner.
- Miami cruised home in Game 7, giving James his second title and second Finals MVP award.
It's impossible to know if the 2013 NBA Finals was the best ever but it was certainly the best of this generation. Seven games, seven signature moments for the series. A new story unfolding every time they rolled the ball out there and laced them up. Legacies were furthered and crushing defeat came with the counterpart of legendary victory.
In terms of the quality of stars, it's hard to top Duncan, Ginobili, Parker, James, Wade and Bosh. Toss in the odd intersection of two superpowers at different points in their trajectories toward greatness and some old vs. new school contrast and you've got a phenomenal series.
This was basketball played at the highest level on the biggest stage. And if you're of the mind that the game has never been better, more competitive and more beautifully executed than it is today (which you should be, by the way), this series stands out above all those that came before it.
Go ahead, boys; see if you can top it in this year's rematch.
We'll all be watching.