Ranking the Best Conference Finals of the Last Decade

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterSeptember 17, 2020

Ranking the Best Conference Finals of the Last Decade

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    With the Eastern Conference Finals between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics now underway and the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets about to start, 2020 promises to provide yet another round of amazing Final Four basketball.

    Some of the NBA's most iconic moments of the decade have come during conference finals as superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Curry have regularly advanced to the third round (or further) over the past 10 years.

    While there's been the occasional sweep or quick five-game series, these were the 10 best conference finals of the past 10 years.

No. 10: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics, 2018

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Final Result: Cavs in 7

    From the outside, neither the Boston Celtics nor the Cleveland Cavaliers were expected to make the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.

    The Cavs finished just fourth in the East during the regular season and nearly didn't make it out of the first round while being pushed to seven games by the Indiana Pacers. Kyrie Irving was traded the summer before, and the Isaiah Thomas experiment was a disaster that lasted just 15 games in Cleveland.

    Boston, Irving's new team, was playing without its star point guard following April knee surgery. Gordon Hayward fractured his ankle five minutes into the 2017-18 season, and the Celtics were relying on a rookie in Jayson Tatum and a second-year wing in Jaylen Brown to carry them.

    Despite neither team truly belonging, it turned out to be a great seven-game series.

    LeBron James was dominant, carrying a Cavs team that also lost Kevin Love to a concussion for a pivotal Game 7. The 33-year-old averaged 33.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks and shot 52.4 percent from the field, even while facing double- and triple-teams. Love was second on the team in scoring with just 12.5 points per game in his six appearances.

    While the Celtics ultimately came up short, it was some amazing playoff experience for players like Tatum (17.9 points) and Brown (19.7 points), who are now in their third and fourth playoff runs, respectively.

No. 9: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors, 2019

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Final Result: Raptors in 6

    With LeBron James in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs for the first time since 2005, the East was finally wide open for a new team to rise up and make the Finals.

    Giannis Antetokoumpo and Kawhi Leonard were arguably the two best players in the league during the 2018-19 season, with the former taking home his first MVP title. In the end, however, Leonard's Raptors got the last laugh.

    The Bucks entered the series with the No. 1 seed in the East, winning an NBA-best 60 games during the regular season. Leonard was in his first and only season with the Raptors, leading them to the No. 2 seed and 58 wins.

    With Milwaukee getting off to a 2-0 start to the series, it seemed Antetokounmpo was destined to make his first Finals appearance. Unfortunately for the Bucks, the win in Game 2 would be their last.

    Leonard, already a Finals MVP with the San Antonio Spurs, poured in 36 points in Game 3 to give Toronto its first of four wins in a row. He would outplay Antetokounmpo for the remainder of the series, giving the franchise its first-ever appearance in the NBA Finals.

    Antetokounmpo was neutralized in the four losses, averaging 20.5 points on 43.5 percent shooting. Leonard finished with series averages of 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.2 steals.

No. 8: Toronto Raptors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Final Result: Cavs in 6

    While the term "LeBronto" didn't originate during the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, that was where LeBron James first started dominating the Raptors in the playoffs.

    James' Cavaliers were the No. 1 overall seed in the East, winning 57 games and finishing above the 56-win Raptors. While Cleveland was the favorite, the combination of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan made Toronto an extremely dangerous team, as well.

    The Cavs cruised to wins in the first two games at home before the series got interesting after crossing the border.

    Kevin Love looked lost in Games 3 and 4, helping pave the way for the Raptors to tie the series at two games apiece. Love led all scorers with 25 points in a return to Cleveland in Game 5, where the Cavs destroyed the Raptors by 38 points to take a 3-2 series lead.

    Game 6 was back in Toronto, where the Raptors were undefeated in the series up to that point. Despite 35 points from Lowry, the Cavs got 63 from James and Kyrie Irving to end Toronto's season and advance to the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year.

    James and Irving combined for 50.2 points per game in the series, providing firepower the Raptors simply couldn't match.

No. 7: San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, 2014

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Final Result: Spurs in 6

    After meeting in the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Spurs and Thunder once again fought for the right to play the Miami Heat for an NBA championship.

    While the young Thunder were growing up, led by 25-year-old Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the team no longer had James Harden following a 2012 trade to the Houston Rockets.

    The Spurs' Big Three of Tim Duncan (37), Manu Ginobili (36) and Tony Parker (31) were all past their primes, but a 22-year-old named Kawhi Leonard was turning into a defensive nightmare for opponents.

    San Antonio took the first two games at home before the Thunder evened the series up on their own court. When the Spurs won Game 5, it set up an intense Game 6 in OKC.

    Backup power forward Boris Diaw turned out to be the hero, scoring a team-high 26 points while Duncan put up 19 points and pulled down 16 rebounds to lead the Spurs to the series win, exacting revenge on the Thunder for the reverse result in 2012.

    San Antonio had six scorers average double digits in the series, a balanced attack that ultimately won out against the league's MVP in Durant and future MVP in Westbrook.

No. 6: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns, 2010

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Final Result: Lakers in 6

    The 2010 Western Conference Finals featured two MVPs in Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, the pinnacle of the Suns' "seven seconds or less" teams and the last of eight conference finals appearances for Bryant.

    The Lakers had just won the 2008-09 NBA title, tying Bryant and former teammate Shaquille O'Neal at four championships apiece. The 31-year-old would make sure it wouldn't be his last.

    The Suns were perhaps the most enjoyable team to watch in the league with Nash zipping passes all around the court, Amar'e Stoudemire dunking over people and vets like Jason Richardson and Grant Hill playing at a high level. Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, Goran Dragic and Robin Lopez rounded out the rest of the Suns' rotation.

    While O'Neal was long gone from L.A., the rest of the Lakers roster was constructed nicely around Bryant.

    Pau Gasol was the perfect second option, Lamar Odom was one of the NBA's best sixth men, and Andrew Bynum looked like the next great L.A. center. Derek Fisher was back at point guard, and Metta World Peace was a former Defensive Player of the Year.

    The Lakers went up 2-0 at home in the series before the Suns tied it at 2-2 back in Phoenix. Bryant would go on to score 67 total points in Games 6 and 7, pushing L.A. into the Finals and eventually winning his fifth championship.

No. 5: San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, 2012

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    Ronald Martinez/Associated Press

    Final Result: Thunder in 6

    The 2012 meeting between the Spurs and Thunder represented the past and future of the NBA.

    San Antonio had already won four titles over the past 13 years while the Thunder were being led by a trio of players 23 or younger.

    The Spurs were tied for the best record in the NBA, going 50-16 during a strike-shortened season. The Thunder were just three games behind with 23-year-old Kevin Durant leading the NBA in scoring at 28.0 points per game.

    While San Antonio got big series from Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, a 20-year-old Kawhi Leonard wasn't yet a major part of the offense. He averaged just 8.8 points per game in the series, primarily used as a defensive stopper on Durant and James Harden.

    Leonard, a rookie, could only do so much, of course.

    Durant dominated the six-game series with 29.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.5 blocks, while Harden (18.5 points), Russell Westbrook (18.2 points) and Serge Ibaka (12.0 points, 2.7 blocks) came up big, as well.

    It was a huge steppingstone for the Thunder to take down a team like San Antonio, setting up their first and only Finals appearance. A loss to the Miami Heat and the October 2012 trade of Harden would put an end to what could have become a potential dynasty in Oklahoma City.

No. 4: Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat, 2013

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Final Result: Heat in 7

    While the Heat would meet the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals in both 2013 and 2014, only one series took the full seven games to decide a victor.

    While Miami was riding high following a 2011-12 title, the Pacers were putting together a terrific roster of their own that was led by a young Paul GeorgeRoy Hibbert was an elite rim protector at 7'2", David West was a veteran leader at power forward, and Lance Stephenson became the perfect irritant for LeBron James.

    This series was so special because no team won back-to-back games. Miami came away victorious in Games 1, 3, 5 and 7, and the Pacers won Games 2, 4 and 6.

    Miami had no answer at center to stop Hibbert (22.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 55.7 percent shooting), and George dropped 19.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game while shooting 44.1 percent from three.

    Still, the Heat had James.

    The league MVP in 2012-13 for the fourth time in his career, James averaged a series-high 29.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks to help make up for sluggish performances by Dwyane Wade (15.4 points) and Chris Bosh (11.0 points).

    The Pacers were one game away from interrupting what would turn out to be four consecutive Finals trips for Miami, a run that included back-to-back championships.

No. 3: Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors, 2018

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    David J.Phillip/Associated Press

    Final Result: Warriors in 7

    The Rockets have reached the postseason in all eight years since trading for James Harden, and at no point were they closer to an NBA title than in 2018.

    While the loaded Golden State Warriors, boasting four All-Stars and a pair of MVPs, were forcing teams to hesitate before going all-in for a championship, the Rockets refused to be afraid.

    Chris Paul was brought in to complement Harden in the backcourt, and the pair worked beautifully during their initial season together. Houston actually finished with the best regular-season record, riding a top-ranked offense to 65 total wins.

    After the first five games of the series, the Rockets led 3-2, pushing the defending champions to the brink of elimination and potentially setting up a Finals meeting between Harden and LeBron James.

    However, Paul suffered a right hamstring strain in Game 5, forcing him to miss the final two games of the series. The Warriors won Game 6 to tie the series before Houston took a 54-43 lead into halftime of Game 7.

    Then, the drought hit.

    The Rockets missed 27 consecutive three-pointers in Game 7, finishing 7-of-44 from deep in a 101-92 loss.

    It's the closest Harden has ever been to the Finals with Houston, and the what-ifs following Paul's injury put a dark cloud over what was otherwise an amazing season.

No. 2: Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat, 2012

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Final Result: Heat in 7

    The Boston Celtics ruled the Eastern Conference for the latter half of the 2000s and weren't about to give up their crown to the Miami Heat in the early 2010s without a fight.

    Although Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were in their mid-30s, the core had already won a championship together and was supported by a young Rajon Rondo. The 25-year-old point guard had led the NBA in assists during the regular season and paced the Celtics in scoring (20.9 points) during the Eastern Conference Finals.

    LeBron James and the Heat were coming off a tough Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks the season before and were hungry to win a title after the leading superstar had predicted the team would go on to capture many championships.

    While James was often criticized for being too passive during the 2011 postseason, he turned into a different player against the Celtics, the franchise that had eliminated him from the playoffs twice before.

    The league's MVP that season, James averaged 33.6 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks in seven games while playing 45.8 minutes per night.

    Miami went up 2-0 in the series before the Celtics took the next three, putting the Heat one game away from elimination.

    James responded with one of the best performances of his career in Game 6, shredding the Celtics for 45 points on 19-of-26 shooting. His 31 points in Game 7 sealed the series for Miami, pushing the Heat into the Finals and leading to his first championship.

No. 1: Golden State Warriors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, 2016

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Final Result: Warriors in 7

    The 2016 Western Conference Finals will be remembered not just for the incredible basketball, but also for the ripple effects that followed in free agency that summer.

    The Warriors were the greatest regular-season team in history during the 2015-16 campaign, going 73-9 to break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record of 72 wins. Stephen Curry became the first unanimous MVP in league history, and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green joined him on the All-Star team.

    Their opponent? The 55-win Thunder, who had just disposed of a 67-15 San Antonio Spurs team in six games the series before.

    Kevin Durant was already an MVP and had led the league in scoring four times. Russell Westbrook was also a scoring champ who was second in the league in assists in 2015-16. They had already been to the Finals together in 2012 and were finally both hitting their primes at age 27.

    With Durant and Westbrook combining for 56.7 points per game in the series, the Thunder quickly went up 3-1 over the heavily favored Warriors.

    What happened next changed the NBA.

    The Warriors rallied for three straight wins, forcing the Thunder into another disappointing playoff exit despite featuring two of the league's best players.

    It was the last series Durant would ever play in OKC as he agreed to sign with the Warriors just weeks later. While he later said he would have joined Golden State even if the Thunder had won the series, potentially winning a title that season would have made it far tougher to walk away.

    After falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Warriors went on to win the next two titles and became one of the best teams the league has ever seen. OKC has lost in the first round all four years since and traded Westbrook to the Houston Rockets in 2019.