Ranking the Best NBA Playoff Series Since 2000August 16, 2020
Ranking the Best NBA Playoff Series Since 2000
The past 20 years of the NBA playoffs have produced some of the most memorable series in league history.
Which ones are the greatest, though? B/R accepted that laborious task because we care about you, dear reader.
Oh, and these videos are incredible every time.
Great playoff series often involve a six- or seven-game stretch with at least one legendary moment. It could be the stakes (NBA Finals, for example), historical significance or a highlight—such as a winning shot, defensive play or iconic individual performance.
And as you'll see in the following choices, the best series typically check off multiple boxes within that group.
2006 Western Conference Semifinals: Mavericks vs. Spurs
This matchup of 60-win teams sparked a change in the NBA playoff structure. San Antonio—the defending champs—earned the West's top seed. Dallas, despite holding the conference's second-best record, was fourth because the Spurs won the division. From 2007 forward, the NBA used regular-season records for its seeding, rather than saving seeds 1, 2 and 3 for division winners.
San Antonio triumphed in Game 1 of the series, and then Dallas countered with three straight wins. The Spurs responded with two victories to force Game 7, but the Mavs won an overtime thriller and ultimately lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
2007 Western Conference First Round: Warriors vs. Mavericks
The next year, Dallas assembled one of the best regular seasons in NBA history with 67 wins. However, the "We Believe" Warriors pulled off a stunning upset and became the first No. 8 seed to win a best-of-seven first-round series in the playoffs.
2009 Eastern Conference First Round: Celtics vs. Bulls
Four games of this dramatic series headed to overtime, including a total of six extra sessions in Games 4, 5 and 6 combined. On entertainment value alone, this is easily one of the best series ever. But it was a first-round clash, and Boston fell to the Orlando Magic in the conference semifinals anyway.
2009 Eastern Conference Finals: Magic vs. Cavaliers
After the Magic bounced Boston, they met LeBron James with a trip to the NBA Finals at stake. Orlando's Rashard Lewis hit a clutch three late in Game 1, and James buried his memorable buzzer-beating triple in Game 2. The Magic won the series in six games behind Dwight Howard, who averaged 25.8 points and 13 rebounds. Orlando lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
2011 NBA Finals: Mavericks vs. Heat
Before the 2010-11 season, LeBron bolted Cleveland and headed to the Heat. They cruised through the Eastern Conference portion of the playoffs, winning each series 4-1. In this rematch of the 2006 NBA Finals, Miami took a 2-1 advantage. But the Mavericks fought back, winning three straight games to give Dirk Nowitzki the first and only championship of his Hall of Fame career.
7. 2000 Western Conference Finals: Lakers vs. Blazers
Before upending the Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals, the Lakers first survived the Portland Trail Blazers.
Los Angeles took a 3-1 series lead, but Portland stormed back and forced a winner-take-all Game 7. Early in the fourth quarter, it appeared the Blazers would complete the upset. They enjoyed a 15-point advantage with only 10:30 remaining.
Brian Shaw hit a pair of threes and sparked a wild comeback for the Lakers, who outscored Portland 31-13 in the final quarter to earn an 89-84 win. Shaquille O'Neal provided the exclamation point in the closing minute, slamming home what is now a legendary alley-oop from Kobe Bryant.
"That was the defining moment of our dominant run," Shaq said.
Kobe and Shaq then propelled the Lakers past Indiana and repeated as NBA champions in 2001 and 2002.
6. 2010 NBA Finals: Lakers vs. Celtics
After alternating wins through four games—a back-and-forth that featured Ray Allen's then-NBA Finals-record eight threes in Game 2—Boston took a 3-2 series lead with a 92-86 victory in Game 5.
But in Game 6, Kobe scored 26 points and Pau Gasol finished one assist shy of a triple-double to set up a Game 7 showdown.
As the clock neared about a minute left in regulation, the Lakers held a 76-73 edge with possession. All eyes looked to Kobe, who did the unthinkable: He passed the ball.
Ron Artest received it, jabbed right and hit a dagger of a three-pointer in front of Boston legend Paul Pierce.
"He passed me the ball. He never passes me the ball! And he passed me the ball. Kobe passed me the ball!" a joyous Artest said in a hilarious press conference after the game.
5. 2005 NBA Finals: Spurs vs. Pistons
The 2005 NBA Finals pitted the 2003 champion Spurs against the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons. And more than a decade-and-a-half later, Pistons fans still have nightmares of Robert Horry.
San Antonio picked up two wins at home, and then Detroit did the same. And with Game 5 in Auburn Hills, the Pistons had a chance to take a critical 3-2 edge back to Texas. The problem? Horry kept hitting shot after shot after shot.
Most of his 21 points—which all came in the final 17 minutes of the game—either tied the score or put the Spurs ahead, including the winning three in the closing seconds of overtime.
He's remembered as "Big Shot Bob" for a good reason.
Nevertheless, the Pistons responded to force Game 7. Tim Duncan's 25-point, 11-rebound day carried San Antonio to an 81-74 victory, and Duncan won his third Finals MVP honor.
4. 2016 Western Conference Finals: Warriors vs. Thunder
In 2015-16, the Warriors set an NBA record with 73 regular-season wins. Stephen Curry won league MVP, and teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green both earned All-NBA recognition.
But the historic season nearly ended in the Western Conference Finals. Led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder took a 3-1 series lead. OKC had three chances to eliminate the defending NBA champions.
You can probably guess it didn't happen.
Golden State won Game 5 at home, and then Thompson exploded for an NBA playoff-record 11 threes in Game 6. Curry capped the comeback with 36 points and eight assists in Game 7.
The Warriors moved on to the NBA Finals—more on that shortly—and OKC entered a new era. Durant left the Thunder in free agency, signing with the Warriors and winning the next two NBA titles.
3. 2002 Western Conference Finals: Lakers vs. Kings
In a word: Incredible. Save for a 13-point victory for the Sacramento Kings in Game 3, no other margin eclipsed six points in the 2002 Western Conference Finals.
At the buzzer in Game 4, Horry had a "Big Shot Bob" moment with a buzzer-beating three for a 100-99 Lakers win. In the next game, Kings guard Mike Bibby buried a go-ahead jumper with 8.2 seconds left for a 92-91 victory and 3-2 series lead.
Game 6 featured some of the most controversial refereeing in NBA history as the Lakers attempted 27 free throws in the fourth quarter. They walked away with a 106-102 win and forced a Game 7.
And even the final showdown need an extra period.
Shaq scored 35 points, Kobe added 30 and the Lakers outlasted the Chris Webber-led Kings 112-106.
They advanced to the NBA Finals, swept Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets and won a third straight NBA title.
2. 2016 NBA Finals: Cavaliers vs. Warriors
When the Warriors stunned OKC, it was the 10th time in NBA history a team overcame a 3-1 deficit. Never before had it happened in the NBA Finals, though.
Not until the next series, at least.
Through four games, it seemed Golden State would cruise to a second straight title. But in Game 4, Draymond Green committed his fourth flagrant foul of the playoffs. He faced a one-game suspension, and that moment changed the Finals.
LeBron and Kyrie Irving both scored 41 points in Game 5, and LeBron repeated the effort in Game 6 to even the series.
Late in Game 7, the scoreboard showed a 89-89 deadlock. Golden State had a two-on-one fast break, but LeBron chased down Andre Iguodala to make a critical block. After a couple of scoreless possessions, Irving buried a go-ahead triple in the final minute.
The Cavs secured a 93-89 victory and ended a 52-year championship drought for major professional sports in Cleveland.
1. 2013 NBA Finals: Heat vs. Spurs
Spurs guard Danny Green set a then-NBA Finals record with 27 three-pointers in the series. Kawhi Leonard officially introduced himself as a thorn in LeBron James' side. San Antonio held a 3-2 series lead and a five-point advantage with 28.2 seconds left in Game 6.
And none of it was enough.
LeBron and Ray Allen both connected on clutch threes to force overtime in that legendary Game 6. Miami escaped the extra session, posting a 103-100 win to set up Game 7.
"It was by far the best game I've ever been a part of," LeBron said after the victory, per USA Today.
Miami followed that legendary game with a 95-88 triumph that wasn't decided until the final minute. Though the teams met for a rematch the next season—this time a San Antonio win—nothing would compare to the drama of the 2013 NBA Finals.