Ranking the Best NBA Playoff Rivalries Since 2000
The NBA playoffs always have a memorable storyline, but some of the best narratives since 2000 have stemmed from repeated matchups in the postseason.
During this span, seven franchises have accounted for 19 of 20 league championships and 14 runner-up finishes. Given that relatively small number of top teams, it's only reasonable to expect they encountered each other a few times in the playoffs.
And every rematch is a chance for redemption.
The revenge factor only adds to postseason drama, creating a rivalry to remember—even if only temporary. While the list is subjective, key considerations are number of playoff series and team achievements (NBA and conference titles).
T-10. LeBron James vs. Pacers, Raptors
Your personal definition of rivalry may affect this section. After all, if only one side—and in this particular case, one player—keeps winning, is this really a rivalry? LeBron James has never lost a playoff series to the Indiana Pacers or Toronto Raptors.
Many of these matchups, though, are quite memorable.
From 2012 to 2014, LeBron and the Heat knocked out the Pacers—including Eastern Conference Finals wins in 2013 and 2014. This stretch included his buzzer-beating layup in Game 1 of the 2013 ECF and the on-court battles with Pacers guard Lance Stephenson.
After LeBron returned to Cleveland, he guided the Cavs past Indiana in both the 2017 and 2018 playoffs too.
During this later span, LeBron faced Toronto in three straight postseasons (2016-18) as well. Unfortunately for the Raptors, they fared exactly as well as Indiana: 0-3. James played so well against the franchise that he earned the nickname "LeBronto."
9-7. NBA Finals Matchups
With only two series in a 20-year window, it's almost a stretch to call these rivalries. At the same time, accounting for 10 percent of NBA Finals matchups isn't nothing, either.
9. Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Although the matchup itself is legendary as a rivalry, that's because both franchises each reached the NBA Finals in four straight years during the 1980s. The teams squared off three times that decade, and since 2000, the Celtics and Lakers had two Finals showdowns.
In 2008, the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen helped Boston end a 22-year championship drought. Two seasons later, Kobe Bryant and Co. exacted revenge and hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy after a thrilling seven-game series.
8. Miami Heat vs. Dallas Mavericks
Dwyane Wade and a veteran group of future Hall of Famers guided Miami to the 2006 championship. Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton—all 34 or older at this point—also played key roles as Wade, the Finals MVP, lifted the Heat past Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs in a six-game series.
Five years later, Dallas pulled off a stunner and won a six-game series of their own during the first year of the Wade, LeBron and Chris Bosh era in Miami.
7. Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs
Allen's clutch three in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals is both one of the most memorable shots in league history and the turning point of the series. Miami upended the Spurs in Game 7, giving LeBron his second career title and D-Wade his third.
The next season, an incredibly motivated San Antonio team posted 62 wins, returned to the NBA Finals and dispatched the Heat in five games. LeBron left for Cleveland in the offseason.
6. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns
Although they later became teammates, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash had an intriguing rivalry in the late 2000s.
Nash rejoined the Phoenix Suns as a free agent in 2004, and the future Hall of Famer won back-to-back league MVP awards. He carried the Suns past Kobe and the Lakers in the first round of the 2006 and 2007 playoffs as well.
Those eliminations sparked a fire in Kobe.
"Yes, they stopped me from getting a championship—twice," he said in 2016, per ESPN's Baxter Holmes. "Damn right I hated them. Absolutely. Raja [Bell] and Steve and all of those good guys. Hated them. No question. But at the same time, I loved them, because they brought the best out of me and my teammates."
The intensity reached its max in the 2010 Western Conference Finals, a series that turned the franchises in opposite directions. Los Angeles ended up winning the NBA title, but Phoenix lost that series and never reached the playoffs again in the 2010s.
5. San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
San Antonio eliminated the Seattle SuperSonics in the 2002 and 2005 playoffs, but we're not including those here. Still, during the 2012, 2014 and 2016 postseasons, the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder had three highly impactful six-game series.
In 2012, the Spurs entered the Western Conference Finals on an 18-game winning streak and took the first two contests. However, the Thunder—in their final season with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden—won four straight to bounce San Antonio. Oklahoma City lost to the Heat in the NBA Finals.
Two years later, the revenge-set Spurs eliminated the Thunder before the redemptive NBA Finals win over Miami.
Finally, in the second round of the 2016 playoffs, OKC's triumph preceded a 3-1 WCF collapse to Golden State—which then swiped Durant in free agency that summer.
4. Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
In two stints with Cleveland, LeBron made the playoffs nine times. He squared off against the Celtics in five of them.
Early on, Boston enjoyed the upper hand. The Celtics survived a seven-game series with Cleveland during the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals and a six-game set in the same round two years later. Boston reached the NBA Finals both years, winning in 2008.
But after LeBron returned to Cleveland from Miami, the Cavs controlled three postseason matchups.
Cleveland earned a sweep in 2015, a five-game triumph in 2017 and seven-game victory in 2018. However, although the Cavs reached the Finals each of those years, they only won the championship once, when they defeated the Warriors in 2016.
3. Dallas Mavericks vs. San Antonio Spurs
These division rivals are no strangers to postseason showdowns.
Over a 15-season span from 2000 to 2014, the Spurs and Mavericks met in six playoff series. San Antonio grabbed a 4-2 edge, winning the first and last two matchups.
The most notable clash happened in 2006. Both teams recorded 60-plus wins, but NBA rules positioned San Antonio first and Dallas fourth. Instead of meeting in the conference finals, they met in the second round. The NBA changed its protocol the ensuing summer, organizing playoff seeds by record instead of boosting division winners.
Additionally, the Spurs won the 2003 and 2014 NBA titles after eliminating their rivals, and the Mavs accomplished the same in 2006.
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. San Antonio Spurs
While the 1999 postseason isn't even considered here, the semifinals matchup between the Lakers and Spurs started a trend. San Antonio swept Los Angeles and later won the Western Conference and NBA Finals.
In 2001, the Lakers swept San Antonio to win the West before toppling the Philadelphia 76ers and winning the NBA title. In 2002, Shaq and Kobe eliminated the Spurs in the second round—then won the West and swept the New Jersey Nets to hang another banner.
And we're simply getting warmed up.
Tim Duncan and the Spurs responded in 2003 with a six-game second-round triumph and later celebrated an NBA title. The Lakers answered in 2004 with a six-game series in the second round and stood atop the West yet again—but lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Finals.
The 2008 Lakers outlasted the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals before falling to the Celtics, and the 2013 Spurs swept the Lakers in the opening round en route to an NBA Finals loss against Miami.
Prior to the Golden State Warriors dynasty emerging in 2015, the road to the NBA Finals ran through San Antonio or Los Angeles.
1. Golden State Warriors vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
There's no argument otherwise, right?
While "rematch fatigue" was understandable by 2018, the Cavs and Warriors met in four straight NBA Finals. Never before had that happened in league history.
In 2015, Golden State derailed LeBron's hopes of bringing Cleveland a title in his first season after returning to the Cavs. The next year, James' chasedown block and Kyrie Irving's three-pointer stopped the 73-win Warriors short of their ultimate goal.
Durant signed that summer, elevating Golden State to an extra-unfair level. The Warriors easily won the 2017 NBA Finals in five games and swept Cleveland in 2018.
The rivalry fizzled when LeBron bolted for the Lakers, but this matchup defined the NBA for nearly a half-decade.