Can Cavs-Warriors III Join List of the Best NBA Finals Matchups Ever Seen?

As LeBron and Steph prepare to face off yet again for the title, B/R's NBA writers discuss the best NBA finals they've ever witnessed
May 31, 2017

Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs, 2013

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    (Getty Images)

    A crew with yellow tape waits to cordon off the court in anticipation of an NBA championship for the San Antonio Spurs. Disappointed Miami Heat fans begin filing toward the exits, while Spurs fans are poised to celebrate a title and a playoff performance for the ages by Tim Duncan.

    But in the blink of an eye, a fortuitous kick-out pass from Chris Bosh finds Ray Allen in the right corner, and his three-pointer ties Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals with 5.2 seconds left. "Get those motherfuckin' ropes out of here," Allen screams at the crew at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami.

    The Heat go on to capture Game 6 in overtime, 103-100, and prevail in Game 7 in Miami to win their second consecutive championship.

    Rarely in the history of the NBA Finals has a team stood so close to a title only to have it viciously and irrevocably snatched away. This memorable series featured something for everyone.

    For the Spurs, these were the last days before Gregg Popovich passed the baton from Duncan to Kawhi Leonard. Tony Parker banked home the game-clinching shot in the first game. Danny Green and Gary Neal, relative unknowns at the time, were transformed into Finals savants. For the Heat, LeBron James nearly posted a triple-double (25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists) throughout the series. And Mike Miller memorably sank a three-pointer while wearing just one shoe.

    The matchup featured five former or future Finals MVPS in Duncan, Parker, James, Leonard and Dwyane Wade.

    "Last year when I was sitting up here, with my first championship, I said it was the toughest thing I had ever done," James said after his Game 7 win. "This year, I'll tell last year he's absolutely wrong. … We were scratching for our lives in Game 6 down five with 28 seconds to go. To be able to win that game and force a Game 7 is a true testament of our, I guess, perseverance. And us being able to handle adversity throughout everything. It meant a lot for us to be able to do that and force a Game 7 and being able to close out at home."

    In hindsight, the series was also important because of the impact it had on today's NBA. San Antonio returned utterly determined the following season. "It goes through my mind every day," Popovich said of that Game 6 defeat. "And I'll be happy when it only goes through my mind once a week."

    In the rematch in the 2014 NBA Finals, the Spurs knocked out the Heat in five games, outscoring Miami by an average of 14 points per game and essentially breaking the Heat superteam apart. James may have stayed in Miami had the Heat claimed three championships in a row, and who knows how the NBA landscape would have evolved had he not returned to Cleveland?

    — Jonathan Abrams

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Indiana Pacers, 2000

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    You're already sneering, cocking your head sideways, making dismissive grunting noises. "Lakers-Pacers? Dude, seriously?" Yeah, seriously.

    The 2000 Finals will not make many Greatest Ever lists. (It might not even make the top five Lakers Finals.) It did not feature a storied rivalry, a grudge match or a record number of Hall of Famers. It did not go seven games. But when I think of the Finals I covered, this is the one that resonates most deeply.

    The Lakers of Shaq and Kobe dominated the early years of the post-Jordan era. And this was their breakthrough moment—the first of three straight championships. For that reason alone, the series stands out. The basketball was pretty great, too.

    O'Neal was an absolute beast, averaging 38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks while alternately crushing Rik Smits, Dale Davis and Sam Perkins. Bryant mostly played the supporting role (15.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists), but he flat-out saved the Lakers with a Jordan-esque performance in Game 4.

    O'Neal fouled out in overtime that night. Bryant was playing on a badly sprained ankle that kept him out of Game 3. The Pacers were within minutes of tying the series at 2-2, and would have Game 5 at home. Yes, it was all that precarious.

    But Bryant took command in overtime, making four of his five field goals—capped by a two-handed, reverse putback with 5.9 seconds left that effectively sealed what would become a 120-118 victory. It was, to that point, the defining game of Bryant's young career—indisputable certification of his stardom. The MJ comparisons took hold that night.

    When the Lakers clinched the title, five days later in Los Angeles, Bryant leaped into O'Neal's mammoth arms, a joyous snapshot that belied the tension between them.

    The Pacers might have lacked the Lakers' firepower and stardom, but they were not exactly harmless foils. Reggie Miller, a future Hall of Famer, averaged 24.3 points in the six-game series, and the Pacers were stocked with savvy vets—Jalen Rose, Mark Jackson, Derrick McKey, Smits, Davis, Perkins. (Chris Mullin was along for the ride, but mostly as a spectator from the bench.) They crushed the Lakers by 33 points in Game 5.

    The truth is, few predicted a Lakers title run that season. They'd been swept by San Antonio in the 1999 playoffs, and the Spurs were widely favored to repeat. The Shaq-Kobe partnership was fraught and fragile. It was Phil Jackson's first season in L.A., and everyone insisted it would take at least a year for the team to acclimate to the triangle offense.

    And those Lakers were always flirting with disaster—going to a decisive fifth game in a best-of-five first round against the Sacramento Kings, wrestling with Portland for seven tense games in the Western Conference Finals and, famously, rallying from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of that series.

    Those Lakers were fascinating, maddening, unfailingly entertaining. As the Lakers beat writer for the L.A. Daily News, I knew that team better than most. As reporters, we have no emotional investment in the teams we cover. But you do get to know a team on a much deeper level when you're there for every triumph and failure. It makes the experience richer, more memorable. The Lakers' first title also happened to be my first NBA Finals.

    So, yes, I've witnessed more dramatic Finals (hello, Ray Allen), a few Game 7s and a whole lot of LeBron. But that 2000 series occupies its own special place for me. You always remember your first.

    — Howard Beck

San Antonio Spurs vs. Detroit Pistons, 2005

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    Only true hoopheads tuned in for this one thanks to the relatively small markets involved, lack of mainstream star power and defenses that made scoring a basket as challenging as scoring tickets to Hamilton. (Despite going seven games, it is the second-least viewed Finals in the last 13 years. Only the Spurs' sweep of the Cavs in 2007 drew fewer eyeballs.)

    What some call grind-it-out basketball, I choose to call a demand for perfect execution. Credit or blame that on the teams' being nearly mirror images of each other—Tim Duncan and Rasheed Wallace as supremely versatile power forwards; Robert Horry and Antonio McDyess as scoring bigs off the bench; Ben Wallace and Nazr Mohammed as defensive centers; Bruce Bowen and Tayshaun Prince as stopper small forwards; and, talent-wise, evenly matched backcourts in Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton vs. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

    Only one time did either team break 100 in the series.

    It's not that every game was close—although they were more bitterly fought than the final scores might suggest—but that the momentum between the teams swung so dramatically through the first four games. The Spurs looked to be the better team through the first two games, and Ginobili the series' best player with scoring performances of 26 and 27 points. Ginobili then caught a Prince knee in the thigh in the first minute of Game 3, and the Pistons soon evened the series, setting up a Game 5 showdown at the Palace.

    The teams found themselves tied at the end of regulation, setting up an overtime that was decided by a 'Sheed brain cramp. Horry inbounded a bounce pass to Ginobili in the corner. 'Sheed left Horry and ran to trap Ginobili with Prince. Ginobili then swung the ball back to Horry, who buried a three, wiping out a two-point Pistons lead with 5.8 seconds left and adding to the Horry legacy of clutch postseason game-winning shots.

    In most cases, that would have ended the suspense, what with the Spurs' needing only one more win and Games 6 and 7 in San Antonio. But this was the same Pistons team that had shocked the world a year earlier, knocking off the heavily favored Kobe/Shaq/Gary Payton/Karl Malone Lakers in five games, and reached the '05 Finals by beating the Shaq-Dwyane Wade Heat in a Game 7 in Miami. The Pistons, indeed, forced another Game 7 thanks to 'Sheed atoning for his Game 5 blip with a late, timely three-pointer of his own.

    Detroit appeared to be on its way to another gargantuan road upset in Game 7, building a crowd-silencing nine-point lead in the third quarter. But San Antonio, thanks largely to suffocating defense, pulled even by the end of the period. Enter Ginobili, finally back to his elusive Eurostepping self, rising above the fray to make one momentous play after another, just as he had the previous summer to win Olympic gold for Argentina.

    Eleven of his 23 points, three of his five rebounds and two of his four assists came in the fourth quarter. He was a perfect 4-of-4 from the free-throw line. His deep three-pointer to give the Spurs a seven-point lead with less than three minutes left served as the proverbial dagger, and San Antonio went on to win, 81-74.

    Of the many award oversights that have occurred in the NBA, few are bigger than Duncan, not Ginobili, being named the 2005 Finals MVP. In a series in which everyone struggled to get good looks at the basket, Ginobili, charley-horsed thigh and all, shot nearly 50 percent from the field, 39 percent from three and 85 percent from the free-throw line. In the end, Manu proved to have a little bit more left than anyone. Seems fitting for the unassuming Argentine that perhaps his greatest performance went unrecognized in a series so few watched—but I did and enjoyed every molar-rattling bit of it.

    — Ric Bucher

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics, 2010

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    Kobe Bryant's mom, Pam, sat courtside with both hands pressed over her mouth, her eyes wide with disbelief. Whether because of defense, fatigue, nerves or that fractured right index finger, her son wasn't making shots in the sort of moment she knows he cherishes.

    It was Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, and the fact that a customer as cool as Bryant was so frazzled exemplified just how pressure-packed and meaningful the series had been. It could've gone either way between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, all the way to the end…and what Bryant calls the most treasured of his five championships came despite his shooting 6-of-24 from the field in Game 7.

    That made for an appropriate final title for Bryant, who evolved during his career from a cold-blooded scorer into a multifaceted leader who aspired to get the best from his teammates—and truly needed the best from Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum to win this one.

    "I wanted it so bad," Bryant said afterward about not playing his individual best in Game 7. "I wanted it so, so bad."

    Of course, Bryant still had the ego to boast afterward that he'd passed Shaquille O'Neal with his fifth NBA title—and rib LeBron James that summer that it didn't matter whether James left Cleveland in free agency because the Lakers would just win again in 2011—but Bryant wore this crown differently than the others.

    This was the green and gold of the NBA's richest rivalry: Celtics and Lakers. Legends on Boston's side with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen trying to take back the title they won in 2008 against Bryant's Lakers, who broke through to win it in 2009 over Orlando.

    Bryant never met James in an NBA Finals, so the Celtics served as Bryant's main title foil.

    With their chemistry and defense, the Celtics showed him in '08 how winning definitely wasn't just about scoring, and Bryant and the Lakers showed them what they learned in '10.

    Unlike Bryant's three titles with O'Neal in 2000-02, this one required a higher level of teamwork. The Celtics arguably knew even better than the Lakers how to play winning basketball, so each team just kept taking away what the other wanted to do. It was playoff basketball at its best: One team steadfastly refused to let the other have its way, requiring the winner to search for new answers. Some of it was about mutual respect, but more of it was about brutal competition.

    The Lakers held the Celtics to 67 and 79 points, respectively, in winning the final two games—so this was a bit of a last hurrah for suffocating defense in the NBA before spacing and teamwork moved to the forefront as Dirk Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 title.

    Some would say good riddance to ugly slugfest basketball.

    But you'll never see a championship series where guys competed harder.

    — Kevin Ding

Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, 2017

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    Is there any doubt that Warriors-Cavaliers III—the Finals three-match that has come to save basketball fans the world over—will be anything less than a titanic showdown between superpowers at the height of their respective talents? Both teams are healthy, rested and motivated to take the rubber match. From a Warriors sweep to the Cavs' conjuring up yet another Game 7 miracle and anything in between, there is guaranteed to be a moment from this series—a shot, a block, an injury, something—that we'll talk about for years to come.

    On a personal level, there are myriad rewards to be reaped. LeBron James again reigns supreme, and his GOAT case could be bolstered beyond debate if he takes down a Warriors squad that has lost one game since March 11. Of course, there's also an opportunity for Kevin Durant to cement his legacy with a long-desired championship. And if you don't think Steph Curry has both eyes fixed on finally snagging that Finals MVP trophy in addition to raising another banner inside Oracle Arena, you don't know him.

    The matchup we've dreamed of for three years? It's finally here. Enjoy every second.

    — Erik Malinowski

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics, 1987

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    Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had locked horns in two memorable NBA Finals in 1984 and 1985—Bird's Celtics won the first matchup, Johnson's Lakers the second. So when the NBA's flagship franchises hooked up in the 1987 NBA Finals, the basketball-loving world was abuzz with anticipation.

    The series did not disappoint, producing high drama in a pivotal Game 4 on June 9, 1987, at Boston Garden. Ahead in the series, 2-1, the Lakers had recovered from a 16-point third quarter deficit to take a 104-103 lead with 29 seconds remaining (on a lob from Johnson to 40-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to set up a climactic finish that featured the two players who defined the decade.

    First, Bird nailed a corner three-pointer that gave the Celtics a 106-104 lead with 12 seconds left. Then, after Abdul-Jabbar missed the second of two free throws, the ball went out of bounds off Boston's Kevin McHale. Seven seconds remained. On the ensuing play, Johnson took the inbounds pass and drove to the lane for a junior sky hook that settled into the net with two seconds left.

    Boston coach K.C. Jones called his final timeout and got what the Celtics wanted: a wide-open corner three for Bird.

    This time, Bird's shot was a couple of inches long, bouncing high off the rim at the buzzer.

    Boston rallied for a Game 5 win that sent the series back to L.A. But after a title-clinching Game 6 Lakers win, Bird declared that Johnson was "the best I've ever seen."

    — Mike Monroe

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