Every NBA Team's Most Legendary Playoff Series Since 2000
The NBA's collection of instant-classic playoff series keeps growing.
The first two rounds of the 2020 postseason simply expanded the conversation. Four different series went seven games, and considering the caliber of clubs still standing, the basketball gods might gave us another seven-gamer or two before the next champion is crowned.
So, that got us thinking: What's the most memorable series each team has played since 2000?
To be clear, it's a subjective distinction, as we didn't apply a specific formula for an answer. Some were wins, but others were losses. Many were nail-biters, but a few became legendary despite lopsided results.
Sounds simple enough, right? Let's start traveling down memory lane, then.
Atlanta Hawks: 2015 Conference Semifinals vs. Washington Wizards
The 2014-15 Hawks aligned all the puzzle pieces to complete the Spurs East model that came into focus with the 2013 hiring of Mike Budenholzer. Like the best Silver and Black squads, this Atlanta group juiced its roster for all it could, and the end result was a franchise-best 60-win season and a four-player representation at the All-Star Game (Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver).
But the Spurs don't measure their success by regular-season dominance, and neither could these Hawks. They needed some second-season validation after three consecutive first-round exits, and this tussle nearly derailed it.
The Wizards drew first blood with a six-point win in the opener and then grabbed a 2-1 lead when Paul Pierce "called game" on a game-winning bank shot with one second remaining. The Hawks were wobbling, but they rode 40 combined points from Teague and Dennis Schroder to a five-point victory in Game 4 and squeezed out a nail-biting one-point win in Game 5 on Horford's putback layup in the final seconds.
Atlanta then used 65 combined points from Teague, Millsap and DeMarre Carroll to squeeze out a series-clinching 94-91 triumph in Game 6, which Pierce nearly spoiled with a game-tying triple, but the bucket was waved off on video replay. With the victory, the Hawks secured their first trip to the conference finals since 1969-70.
Boston Celtics: 2008 NBA Finals vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The Celtics went seven games in two different series during the 2008 playoffs, and this wasn't one of them. So, why does it get the nod? Well, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that ring, right?
This team was the counterargument to the folks who claim—as Paul George most recently did—that superteams need more than one season to mesh. The Shamrocks lost 58 games in 2006-07 and then performed a double cannonball for their offseason splash by trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Just like that, Boston had the backbone of a champion.
After surviving seven-game battles with the Hawks and Cavaliers (the latter series featured an all-time duel between Paul Pierce and LeBron James), the Celtics dispatched the Pistons in the conference finals and advanced to face Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. If hoops history has taught us anything, it's that you better be glued to your seats when the Celtics and Lakers lock horns in the championship round.
The Celtics took Games 1 and 2, but the Lakers rallied for a Game 3 win behind 36 points from Bryant. L.A. looked destined to even the score when it stormed to a 35-14 lead through the first quarter of Game 4 and carried a 58-40 advantage into intermission. But Boston kept chipping away and finally tied it two minutes into the fourth quarter. The Celtics scratched out a 97-91 win even though the Lakers led for more than 40 minutes.
Boston then went full-throttle in Game 6 and rolled to a championship banner-raising 131-92 triumph. The real treat might have come after the contest, though, when Garnett delivered a walk-off interview for the ages.
Brooklyn Nets: 2014 First Round vs. Toronto Raptors
The Nets made a pair of NBA Finals trips in 2002 and 2003, but they struggled to have a pulse in either series. While the significance of this win over the third-seeded Raptors certainly lagged behind those two, at least it allowed the fanbase to momentarily forget all the assets sacrificed in the ill-fated 2013 trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Brooklyn was never whatever it was supposed to be, and in fact, this is the only series win that high-priced roster ever secured. But at least it was an entertaining one.
The matchup went the full seven games, and all but one game was decided by eight points or fewer. Brooklyn had to rally back from a 3-2 deficit and delivered consecutive defense-driven victories. The first was a 14-point victory in which the Nets held the Raptors to just 83 points on 38.5 percent shooting. The last was a 104-103 thriller in which Brooklyn failed to record a field goal in the final two minutes, but Pierce saved the day by swatting Kyle Lowry's layup attempt with just one second remaining.
Charlotte Hornets: 2016 First Round vs. Miami Heat
The Hornets haven't won a playoff series since restarting as the Bobcats in 2004, so the pickings were slim. The franchise produced a pair of series victories in 2001 and 2002, but neither was especially exciting. One was a sweep, and the other was a 3-1 triumph in which the Hornets won the last two tilts by double digits.
So, instead, we'll spotlight when Charlotte gave Miami everything it could handle in 2016.
This was probably Kemba Walker's finest moment with the franchise, which likely explains why he's no longer a part of it. The Hornets gave him just enough support pieces to compete (Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin were the second and third options in the playoffs), and Walker ran with it. His workload was astronomic (21.9 shots in 37.1 minutes per game), and it sabotaged his efficiency (36.6 percent shooting), but he helped the Hornets recover from two double-digit losses to win Games 3, 4 and 5.
Charlotte was within striking distance in Game 6 before the infamous Purple Shirt Guy decided it was time to heckle Dwyane Wade. Turns out you don't actually want to provoke an all-time great, and the Hornets were left paying for the loud-mouth fan's gaffe. Wade scored eight of his team's final 10 points to secure that win, and his teammates did the rest in a series-closing 106-73 rout in Miami.
Chicago Bulls: 2009 First Round vs. Boston Celtics
The Bulls played (and won) more meaningful series than this, but hoop heads still remember the feeling of seeing a rookie Derrick Rose, a sophomore Joakim Noah and a better-than-ever Ben Gordon pushing the defending champs to the brink of elimination.
No, Chicago couldn't complete the upset, but when a 41-win No. 7 seed takes a 62-win No. 2 seed to seven games, the entire basketball world takes note.
Four different games went to overtime. One had two extra sessions, and another had three. Rose hinted loudly at his future stardom by becoming just the second rookie to post playoff averages of 19 points, six rebounds and six assists. Noah dazzled as a defensive anchor with 13.1 boards and 2.1 blocks.
But many of Chicago's most magical moments came from Gordon, even while he shot just 38.8 percent for the series. He popped for 20-plus points in five of the seven contests, delivering 42 in Game 2 and 33 in Game 7. His heroics netted him a five-year, $58 million pact with the Pistons the following offseason.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 2016 NBA Finals vs. Golden State Warriors
Did you really expect to see anything different here?
The Cavaliers simultaneously snapped their city's 52-year championship drought and became the first club to ever claw back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. LeBron James had "The Block." Kyrie Irving had "The Shot." Kevin Love had "The Stop."
Cleveland finally had its first NBA crown, and James had fulfilled his promise to Northeast Ohio.
"I've had the goal for two years since I came back to bring a championship to the city," James told reporters. "I gave it everything that I had. I poured my heart, my blood, my sweat and my tears into this game."
This marked James' third championship and his third Finals MVP. Four-plus years later, his series stat line still boggles the mind: 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks, plus a 49.4/37.1/72.1 shooting slash line.
Dallas Mavericks: 2011 NBA Finals vs. Miami Heat
The Heat entered the 2011 Finals with one of the most talented trios in NBA history. They not only had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but all three players were also on the right side of 30 and still within their primes.
The Mavs didn't seem like they were in the same weight class. They countered the Heat's three stars with their one, Dirk Nowitzki, who had failed to steer Dallas out of the opening round in three of the previous four years. The Mavs had decent depth around the Diggler, but their roster lacked the name recognition, explosive athleticism and showmanship of their opponents'.
Dallas looked very much the part of underdogs after sandwiching Games 1 and 3 losses around a Game 2 win that required the club to wiggle out of a nine-point deficit in the final four minutes. But for all the star power Miami possessed, the Mavs had the series' best player in the sweet-shooting 7-footer.
Nowitzki claimed Finals MVP honors with averages of 26.0 points and 9.7 rebounds. Jason Terry shined as a second option while pairing his 18.0 points per game with a tidy 49.4/39.3/75.0 shooting slash line. Tyson Chandler manned the middle, Jason Kidd controlled the offense, and Shawn Marion molded his way into any cracks that needed filling.
The Mavs may not have been the more talented team, but they had chemistry on their side. That mattered once their resolve was tested with that 2-1 series deficit. Dallas avoided the panic button, and once it proved capable of hitting back, this team went about showing it belonged. The Mavericks closed the series with three consecutive wins, as Nowitzki proved a nightmare cover for whomever was unlucky enough to draw that assignment.
Denver Nuggets: 2020 Conference Semifinals vs. Los Angeles Clippers
Teams aren't supposed to do what Denver just did.
Climbing out of a 3-1 hole is hard enough on its own. But to do it in consecutive rounds? It hadn't been done before in the same postseason. The Nuggets, though, proved to be elite escape artists, as they erased double-digit deficits in each of three consecutive elimination games—against a team rostering both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, no less.
"All the guys never got down, believed in each other. Believed in themselves," Nuggets coach Mike Malone told reporters. "In light of all the noise outside this series that we had no chance—we had people guaranteeing it—we found a way to beat a really good team three times. I've run out of things to say."
Nikola Jokic was the best player in the series (24.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists). Jamal Murray was its most ignitable scorer, as he helped seal Game 7 with a 40-point, six-triple performance. Together, they outscored Leonard and George, and it's possible no one outside the Nuggets' locker room thought that was possible.
Detroit Pistons: 2004 NBA Finals vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The Pistons were supposed to be sacrificial lambs for the superteam Lakers. That L.A. team was only one year removed from a three-peat, and it looked ready for another dynastic run after signing Gary Payton and Karl Malone to complement Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. But Detroit had other ideas.
"We're ready to shock the world," Chauncey Billups declared before the series.
The Pistons punched the Lakers in the mouth with a dominant defensive showing during their 87-75 victory in Game 1. The L.A. offense was never the same. After averaging the third-most points in the regular season, the Lakers never cracked triple digits and cleared 90 points only once.
Detroit didn't have a singularly spectacular star on the roster, but its starting five went together like a jigsaw puzzle. Billups and Richard Hamilton kept the offensive going, Ben Wallace locked down the paint, Tayshaun Prince did a little of everything, and Rasheed Wallace put the team on his back with a 26-point, 13-rebound double-double in Game 4.
The Pistons ousted the Purple and Gold in just five games, and all but one of their wins were decided by at least a dozen points.
Golden State Warriors: 2015 NBA Finals vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
The "We Believe" Warriors scored an all-time upset of the top-seeded Mavericks in 2007. The 2015-16 Dubs followed a sensational conference finals collision with the Thunder with an all-time collapse against the Cavs in the Finals. The 2016-17 version, turbo-charged by Kevin Durant's arrival in free agency, ran the table through the West and needed just five games to close out Cleveland.
All these teams had an argument for being recognized, but this series is when the Warriors got their start as a historic powerhouse.
In Steve Kerr's first season, Golden State splashed and switched its way to a blistering 67 wins and one of only 12 double-digit average margins of victory (plus-10.1). Still, there was skepticism over whether a jump-shooting team could capture the crown.
That was silenced during the Warriors' first Finals since 1975. Stephen Curry averaged 26.0 points and 6.3 assists in the series, which was flipped on its head when Kerr fully embraced small ball by sitting Andrew Bogut and starting Andre Iguodala in Game 4. Golden State, which trailed 2-1, then raced to three straight victories by an average of 14 points.
Houston Rockets: 2018 Conference Finals vs. Golden State Warriors
Houston's acknowledged obsession with toppling Golden State almost allowed Space City's finest to derail the dynasty in 2018.
The Rockets had done everything they could to defeat the Dubs. James Harden had upped his scoring levels to Kevin Durant's territory. Chris Paul was brought on board to duel with Stephen Curry. Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker gave Houston enviable switchability on defense, and Clint Capela could clean up any mistakes at the back end.
Houston had an objectively better regular season with more wins (65 to 58) and a higher net rating (plus-8.4 to plus-5.9). The Rockets appeared poised to carry that success into the second season, as they won their first two series by 4-1 counts and built a 3-2 lead in this one.
But disaster struck Mike D'Antoni's squad twice. First, Paul hurt his hamstring in Game 5 and didn't return to the series. Then, Houston had a frigid spell in Game 7 that was almost mathematically impossible. The Rockets, who broke their own record for the most three-pointers ever that season, somehow missed 27 consecutive triples in Game 7, and FiveThirtyEight calculated there was just a 1-in-72,000 chance of that happening.
Houston couldn't solve Golden State, and it hasn't sniffed 60 wins or the conference finals since.
Indiana Pacers: 2013 Conference Finals vs. Miami Heat
The Pacers' rise as a defensive powerhouse nearly gained them access into the elite ranks, but they never could clear the hurdle of the Heatles.
Indy's 2012, 2013 and 2014 playoff trips all ended at the hands of Miami, but this was as close as the Circle City came to solving South Beach's supersquad.
Between Roy Hibbert mastering the art of verticality, and Paul George and Lance Stephenson pestering perimeter players, the Pacers nearly squeezed the life out of the Heat offense. After averaging 102.9 points on 49.6 percent shooting in the regular season, Miami managed a mere 95.4 points on 44.9 percent shooting in the series. Indy didn't have an answer for LeBron James (does anyone?), but it bottled up Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The Pacers just needed more of an offensive lift than the then-22-year-old George could provide. Hibbert actually led them in scoring with 22.1 points per game, which more than doubled his career output of 10.0. Indiana held Miami to double digits in each of the final four games, but it lost when it couldn't score even 80 points in two of them.
Los Angeles Clippers: 2014 First Round vs. Golden State Warriors
Because of injuries and ill-timed off nights, the Lob City Clippers were more sizzle than substance. For all the talk they generated, they never advanced beyond the second round, and they weren't guaranteed to get that far.
But they get the claim-to-fame distinction of being the last Western Conference club to eliminate the Warriors before their run of five consecutive Finals. Back then, these two Pacific Division siblings had a rather heated rivalry, and the more established Clippers could actually play the role of big brother.
Like any respectable little brother, though, the Dubs wouldn't leave the Clips alone. Golden State trailed 2-1 and 3-2, but it still forced a Game 7 with a 100-99 win in Game 6.
The Clippers trailed by 10 after the first quarter in the do-or-die duel, but they leaned on their stars to find an escape route. And they delivered. Chris Paul put up 22 points and 14 assists. Blake Griffin, Jamal Crawford and JJ Redick all went for 20-plus, and DeAndre Jordan devoured 18 rebounds as L.A. clawed out a 126-121 win.
Los Angeles Lakers: 2010 NBA Finals vs. Boston Celtics
By 2010, Kobe Bryant had seen and done just about everything there is to see and do in the NBA. He had been a spotlit star and a sidekick, become a champion in both roles and earned just about every accolade there is to collect on either end of the court.
One of the few unmarked items on his to-do list, though, was adding a chapter to the storied Lakers-Celtics rivalry. He got that opportunity with this series and didn't waste it. He left nothing in reserve while the teams split the first six games and then pushed the throttle down even further. It didn't create the most efficient Game 7 ever (23 points on 6-of-24 shooting), but the all-out effort netted him 15 rebounds and 15 free-throw attempts.
His teammates made that work—Pau Gasol went for 19 points and 18 rebounds—and the Lakers wiggled out of a 13-point deficit to record an 83-79 win.
"This one is by far the sweetest, because it's them," the five-time champion Bryant told reporters. "This was the hardest one by far. I wanted it so bad, and sometimes when you want it so bad, it slips away from you. My guys picked me up."
Memphis Grizzlies: 2011 First Round vs. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs and Grizzlies could not have taken more different paths to their first-round encounter in 2011.
San Antonio had a Western Conference-best 61 wins and a plus-6.1 net efficiency rating. Memphis went 46-36 with a plus-2.5 net rating. From a broader view, the Spurs were in the playoffs for the 14th consecutive time and had collected four rings over that stretch. The Grizzlies were making their first playoff appearance in five seasons and still awaiting the franchise's first postseason victory.
Memphis didn't wait long to scratch that itch, though, as Zach Randolph's 25 points and 14 rebounds powered the No. 8 seed Grizzlies past the No. 1 seed Spurs in the opener. San Antonio recovered to win Game 2, but Memphis countered with wins in Games 3 and 4 to take control. The Spurs won on their home floor in Game 5, but that just delayed the inevitable.
The Grizzlies nearly went wire-to-wire in front of their home fans in Game 6, leading for more than 45 minutes of their 99-91 victory. Randolph again was more than San Antonio could handle and posted 31 points and 11 rebounds while helping Memphis become just the second No. 8 seed to eliminate a No. 1 seed since the NBA made the first round best-of-seven series.
"From a pick-me-up perspective, we just got on his back, and we rode him like he was an English warhorse," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. "He was really carrying us. We were just hanging on."
Miami Heat: 2013 NBA Finals vs. San Antonio Spurs
You know a series was an instant classic when so many different images transplant you right back to it. Ray Allen's game-tying triple in the closing seconds of Game 6 was the most memorable moment, but your mind can still retrace the incredible steps to that improbable ending.
Remember when Heat fans left early and tried to re-enter AmericanAirlines Arena to no avail? Of course you do. Or how about when the yellow ropes and trophy were wheeled out in anticipation of a Spurs' coronation that never happened? Allen will never forget them.
The memories might start getting hazier from there, but there's plenty more to paint the full picture. Like Manu Ginobili's and Kawhi Leonard's leaving the door cracked by each splitting a pair of free throws in the final 30 seconds of regulation. Or Chris Bosh's collecting the offensive rebound that precipitated Allen's miracle make while a benched Tim Duncan could only watch from the sideline.
"It was by far the best game I've ever been a part of," LeBron James said, per Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today. "The ups and downs, the roller coaster, the emotions, good and bad throughout the whole game. ... I'm blessed to be a part of something like this."
Game 7 gets glossed over, but the Heat rode 60 combined points from James and Dwyane Wade, plus 32 from Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier, to collect their second consecutive title.
Milwaukee Bucks: 2001 Conference Semifinals vs. Charlotte Hornets
It seems a little strange to talk Bucks and not land on something involving Giannis Antetokounmpo, but they haven't played many memorable series with him. And those that might qualify—say, the 2019 conference finals—are probably ones Milwaukee fans would just as soon forget.
So, let's go back to when the Bucks followed the leads of Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell and George Karl. Their offense had plenty of knockout power (second in efficiency), which made for a fun matchup with the Hornets and their sixth-ranked defense.
Charlotte had some thump of its own with Jamal Mashburn and a young Baron Davis, but it relied on the other end to have success in this series. When the No. 6 seed Hornets held the No. 3 seed Bucks to double digits, they went 3-1.
But the Milwaukee offense wasn't going to stay down forever, and it scored 104 points in three of its four victories. That included a 104-95 win in Game 7 that featured 57 combined points from Allen and Robinson (on just 35 field-goal attempts) and 13 assists against just two turnovers from Cassell.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 2004 Conference Semifinals vs. Sacramento Kings
The Timberwolves have only booked six playoff trips since 2000, and all but one of them ended in the opening round. That made my job pretty easy here.
The only question was whether to spotlight the Wolves' seven-game win over the Kings in the second round or their six-game loss to the Lakers in the conference finals. But considering the former featured a Wolves series win and the latter included a haunting what-if question regarding Sam Cassell's hip injury, celebrating the success seemed the prudent move.
It didn't hurt that the series with Sacramento was phenomenal, as probably should have been expected since it pitted Kevin Garnett against Chris Webber. Garnett controlled that matchup—along with just about everything in this series—and posted absurd averages of 23.9 points, 15.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 3.4 blocks and 1.7 steals. But the more experienced Kings had better balance, and they used it to reach Game 7 despite series deficits of 2-1 and 3-2.
Garnett was ready for that moment, though. He finally had a strong supporting cast around him—the Wolves had acquired Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell the previous offseason—and Garnett wasn't going to waste his chance. He played 46 minutes of Minnesota's 83-80 victory and recorded 32 points, 21 rebounds, five blocks, four steals and two assists.
"To do it in Game 7 the way KG did in the moment, that's as big as it gets in the moment," Wally Szczerbiak told Michael Rand of the Star Tribune in April. "It's one game and it's for everything. I would have to say it's the best performance I've seen."
New Orleans Pelicans: 2018 First Round vs. Portland Trail Blazers
This series doesn't stand out for typical reasons.
It took place in the opening round, so it's not like it was overloaded with importance. It featured an upset—the No. 6 seed Pelicans knocked out the No. 3 seed Trail Blazers—but Portland recorded just one more regular-season win (49) than New Orleans. The games weren't even that great. After the Pels pulled off a two-point win in the opener, they completed their sweep with three straight wins by an average of 11.3 points.
So, why did it land in the spotlight? For one, there weren't many options. New Orleans has two series wins in its franchise history, and in the first the club advanced as a No. 2 seed over the No. 7 seed Mavericks by a 4-1 count.
More importantly, though, this was one of the rare glimpses the Crescent City faithful received of Anthony Davis in full playoff mode. And he did not disappoint. He averaged 33.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.8 steals while shooting 57.6 percent from the field and 81.6 percent from the line. Even if Portland played its best series—Damian Lillard never got on track—it may not have overcome AD.
New York Knicks: 2000 Conference Semifinals vs. Miami Heat
Patrick Ewing vs. Allonzo Mourning? Yes, please. For the fourth time in as many seasons, the Heat and Knicks followed their dominant big men to a postseason matchup. All four series went the distance.
This was bully ball at its best. No team ever approached 100 points. The Knicks were the only ones to crack 90, and they did it once—with a 91-point "eruption" in Game 4.
The big-man battle was the main dish, even if a 37-year-old Ewing wasn't quite what he once was. He still found enough in the tank to average a double-double (14.6 points and 10.9 rebounds). Mourning had superior stats (23.1 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks), but Miami couldn't match up with New York's wings.
To no one's surprise, the series went seven games. To no one's surprise, that seventh game went down to the wire. The Knicks escaped with an 83-82 win thanks to Ewing's go-ahead dunk with just over a minute remaining. Every game was decided by single digits, and three were decided by one or two points.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 2012 Conference Finals vs. San Antonio Spurs
As the sage orator Andy Bernard once put it, "I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days before you've actually left them."
The 2011-12 Thunder are basketball's embodiment of that quote. They were fresh-faced, unfairly long and athletic and would seemingly contend for crowns in perpetuity. Even if the hoops world hadn't yet caught on to just how talented this young nucleus was, the fact it ousted the top-seeded Spurs with four straight wins after falling into a 2-0 hole indicated the possibilities for OKC were endless.
The Spurs are seldom, if ever, rattled, but they appeared close to it as they tried and failed to handle the Thunder's size, speed and explosive athleticism. Once the switch flipped, there was no going back. OKC's core four averaged more than 78 combined points per game in the series, and all but Westbrook shot better than 49 percent from the field.
Orlando Magic: 2009 Conference Semifinals vs. Boston Celtics
Team development isn't always linear, but how's this for a trajectory: The Magic missed the playoffs in 2006, were swept out of the opening round in 2007, won a playoff series in 2008 and ousted the defending champs during a 2009 postseason run in which they reached the Finals.
Coach Stan Van Gundy had found Orlando's secret sauce by spreading the floor with shooters and creating maximum interior room for Dwight Howard. The formula was an instant hit. The Magic won 52 games in Van Gundy's first season and 59 in his second.
But the Celtics, who had lost Kevin Garnett to a strained knee, nearly solved the puzzle. After stomaching a 95-90 loss in Game 1, Boston won three of the next four games—one in which Eddie House led all scorers, another wherein Glen Davis was the high man.
Howard helped stabilize Orlando in Game 6 with a double-double of 23 points and 22 rebounds. He handled more of a defensive role in Game 7 (16 boards and five blocks), while Hedo Turkoglu steered the offense with 25 points and 12 assists in the Magic's 101-82 victory.
Philadelphia 76ers: 2001 Conference Semifinals vs. Toronto Raptors
Four players averaged more points than Vince Carter's 27.6 in 2000-01. One was Allen Iverson, the 6'0" walking bucket who won his second of four scoring titles that season.
When the basketball gods decided these two should share the floor for a seven-game series, the NBA won.
Iverson went for 36 in the series opener, but it wasn't enough to top Toronto, which got 35 points and seven assists out of Carter. So, Iverson went deeper in his bag and unleashed a 54-point barrage to steer the Sixers to a Game 2 win. Carter responded with a 50-piece in Game 3, while Iverson came back with 30 in Game 4 and 52 (plus seven assists against one turnover) in Game 5.
Carter popped for 39 points in Game 6, while the Game 7 scoring lead went to—wait for it—Antonio Davis and his 23 points. But Iverson worked his way around an 8-of-27 showing to drop 16 dimes and help his club collect an 88-87 win.
Phoenix Suns: 2007 Conference Semifinals vs. San Antonio Spurs
If the Suns were ever going to break through and win a title in their Seven Seconds or Less days with coach Mike D'Antoni, then 2006-07 might've been the season.
Four different Suns averaged better than 17 points, including All-Stars Steve Nash (18.6 on 53.2/45.5/89.9 shooting), Amar'e Stoudemire (20.4 with 9.6 rebounds) and Shawn Marion (17.5 with 2.0 steals and 1.5 blocks). Simple rating system, which accounts for scoring differential and schedule strength, graded this as the best Suns team in their history (7.3).
Phoenix went head-to-head with San Antonio in the conference semis and stood even after four games. But the Suns weren't celebrating. Late in their Game 4 win, Robert Horry hip-checked Nash into the scorer's table, setting off an altercation in which Stoudemire and Boris Diaw left the bench. Both bigs were suspended for Game 5, which the Suns lost by three points. They were eliminated in Game 6.
"It still haunts me, there's no doubt about it," D'Antoni said in May, per ArizonaSports.com's Kevin Zimmerman. "Looking back, we could have tackled them before they got off the bench.
"It was so instantaneous of the joy of winning the game [to tie the series 2-2] ... to just heartbreak."
Portland Trail Blazers: 2000 Conference Finals vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant combo was cheat-code dominant. Whenever the Lakers went into a series with those two, it felt like they had a free pass to the next round.
But that wasn't the case against the Trail Blazers. Portland had pieced together one of the deepest rosters in basketball, and it had several players who could be stars for the night when needed. L.A. surely knew it was in for a battle, too, since the clubs had split their four-game season series.
The Lakers took Game 1, but the Blazers answered with a resounding 106-77 win. That woke up L.A. enough to win two straight, but Portland answered with two victories of its own. That set the stage for Game 7, which the Blazers controlled with a 15-point advantage into the fourth quarter.
But they caught a bitter cold spell in the final frame and went more than seven minutes without a point. That's all the Lakers needed to seize control. They closed the contest on a 29-9 run, which featured Bryant's iconic lob pass to O'Neal.
Sacramento Kings: 2002 Conference Finals vs. Los Angeles Lakers
After getting bounced from the playoffs by the Lakers in each of the previous two years, the Kings seemed ready to reverse their fortunes.
Sacramento was the higher seed and, statistically speaking, the superior squad (plus-8.1 points per 100 possessions, best in basketball). The Kings had a pair of All-Stars in Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic, and the remaining puzzle pieces were snug fits around them. Coach Rick Adelman had Sacramento playing with beautiful ball and body movement.
The stars seemed to be aligning for the Kings, who responded to the Lakers' Game 1 win with victories in Games 2 and 3. Sacramento was on the doorstep of a 3-1 lead with a 24-point lead in the first half of Game 4 and a two-point advantage in the closing seconds.
But that's when the Kings found out they weren't allowed to have nice things. After Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal each missed close-range shots in the final five seconds, a scramble for the rebound sent the ball perfectly to an awaiting Robert Horry, who readied, fired and buried a series-saving buzzer-beater.
Sacramento recovered to snag a one-point win in Game 5, but L.A. took Game 6 in controversial fashion and closed the series with a 112-106 overtime win in Game 7.
San Antonio Spurs: 2014 NBA Finals vs. Miami Heat
Gregg Popovich obsessed over Ray Allen's miracle make in the 2013 Finals. It became Pop's fuel to rewrite history and reclaim the championship that had been all but placed into the Spurs' hands. His mind couldn't shake the shot even if he wanted it to.
"I've thought about that play every day, without exception, four, five, six, 10 times a day," Popovich told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan in June 2015. "I always will."
That shot could've broken the Spurs, fracturing the franchise beyond repair. It became their rallying point instead and propelled them to a take-no-prisoners 62-win season and a trip back to the championship round.
San Antonio went into a series with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen on the other side and left no doubt about which club was better. Outside of a stumble in Game 2, the Spurs were nearly flawless. They not only ended the series in five games, but they also secured all four victories by at least 15 points.
Toronto Raptors: 2019 Conference Semifinals vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Should we have gone with Toronto topping Golden State to claim its first NBA title? From a significance standpoint, sure, but that series will be remembered more for the injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson than anything else.
Maybe the conference finals win over the Bucks deserved the nod, then? That series encapsulated Nick Nurse's creativity and Kawhi Leonard's dominance, but once the Raptors solved the puzzle in Game 3, they had a relatively comfortable walk to the finish line.
But their second-round tussle with the 76ers? That had the unpredictability and star power of an all-time classic, plus Leonard's walk-off jumper in Game 7 put a perfect, four-bounce bow on the series.
Each team recorded multiple double-digit victories, yet three contests were decided by five points or fewer. Leonard's effort won't soon be forgotten. The eventual Finals MVP averaged 34.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists while shooting 53.0 percent from the field and 85.7 percent at the stripe.
Utah Jazz: 2007 First Round vs. Houston Rockets
This marked the revival of the potent point guard-power forward combo in Salt Lake City.
Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer put their own spin on a John Stockton-Karl Malone reboot, and it was enough to steer the Jazz clear of a team that actually had healthy versions of both Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.
The Rockets had the two brightest stars in the series. McGrady was good for 25.3 points, 7.3 assists and 5.9 rebounds per night. Yao averaged 25.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. Tack on double-digit scoring averages for Rafer Alston and Shane Battier, and Houston almost had enough to escape the first round.
But Utah wouldn't have it. Not after falling into a 2-0 hole. Not after trailing 3-2 after Game 5. The Jazz held serve on their home floor in Game 6 and then secured the series' only road victory in Game 7. Boozer went for 35 points and 14 boards in the clincher, while Williams added 20 points and 14 assists.
Washington Wizards: 2005 First Round vs. Chicago Bulls
It's fair to question the significance of a lot of first-round series. That's not the case here.
This win, in which the No. 5 seed Wizards climbed out of a 2-0 hole by winning four straight over the No. 4 seed Bulls, brought Washington its first ticket past the first round since 1982.
"For a while, we were known as losers in this league," Brendan Haywood told reporters. "I think our coaching staff and general manager brought the right players in here where we've turned that tag around."
The Wizards, of course, hadn't stumbled onto the formula for sustained success, but their scoring trio of Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison could erupt at a moment's notice. They were beaten in their next four playoff series by Dwyane Wade or LeBron James, and it was almost a decade before Washington collected its next series win (2014).
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.