Ranking the Best NBA Playoff Series of the Last Decade

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistMay 23, 2021

Ranking the Best NBA Playoff Series of the Last Decade

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Although the NBA playoffs bring the most exciting time of the season, many series are forgotten quickly. It takes a special matchup to become a memorable part of history.

    During the last 10 seasonssince 2011 and excluding the 2020 play-in gamesthe playoffs have featured 150 series. The most notable have included competitive seven-game showdowns with buzzer-beating finishes or epic duels in the conference or NBA Finals.

    As the league opens the 2021 postseason, we're reminiscing about the best of that 150-series group.

    The list is subjective but considers series length, stakes (which round of the playoffs), key moments and historical value.

10. 2014 EC 1st Round: Nets vs. Raptors

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    When thinking of the 2014 playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs' redemptive run to a championship is likely the memorable takeaway.

    During the first round, however, the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors had a hugely competitive seven-game series.

    The teams alternated wins through Game 5, after which Toronto held a 3-2 series edge. Brooklyn responded with a 14-point victory in Game 6the only contest of the series that didn't have a winning margin of eight points or fewer.

    And then, Brooklyn used a last-second stand to win Game 7. Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry's shot at the buzzer, giving the Nets a 104-103 victory and a place in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

9. 2015 WC 1st Round: Clippers vs. Spurs

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    One year later, the Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers put on another show in the opening round.

    Despite the Clippers holding the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, they won 56 regular-season games to San Antonio's 55. The defending-champion Spurs would not be an easy out, and they proved as much by taking series leads of 2-1 and 3-2.

    Los Angeles, however, stole a 102-96 win at San Antonio in Game 6 and forced a winner-take-all contest.

    In an agonizingly competitive clash, Game 7 boasted 31 lead changes and 16 ties. It was the definition of a back-and-forth affair, and Clippers guard Chris Paul tossed in the game-winning shot with a second remaining for a 111-109 victory.

    "It's only Round 1, but that team over there, I mean, it's crazy that this was the first round of the playoffs," Paul said.

8. 2019 EC Semis: Raptors vs. 76ers

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    After forcing a trade from San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard validated his demand with an NBA title on the Raptors in 2019. And that playoff run included a legendary Game 7 buzzer-beater.

    The beginning of the Eastern Conference Semifinals had a little bit of drama and some blowouts. During the first four matchups, both the Philadelphia 76ers and Raptors had a close win and blowout win. Toronto smashed the Sixers in Game 5, but Philly bounced back with an 11-point victory to force a Game 7.

    Through 47 minutes and 55.8 seconds, neither team had an edge in a 90-90 deadlock. But the Raptors had the ball.

    Leonard dribbled into the right corner past Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, firing an off-balanced shot at the buzzer. Four times the ball bounced around the rim before it fell, sealing the victory and propelling Toronto toward its first-ever championship.

7. 2018 WC Finals: Warriors vs. Rockets

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    The Houston Rockets had no secrets about their desire to dethrone the Golden State Warriors. And in the 2018 Western Conference Finals, they almost made it happen.

    After the Warriors took a 2-1 series lead, Houston snatched three- and four-point victories in Games 4 and 5.

    However, a hamstring injury late in Game 5 sidelined Rockets guard Chris Paul for the rest of the series. Houston burst out to a 17-point lead in Game 6 behind league MVP James Harden, but Golden State trimmed the deficit to 10 at halftime and outscored the Rockets by 39 in the second half.

    Once again in Game 7, Houston took an early advantage and held a 54-43 lead at halftime. But the Rockets endured a catastrophic second half and ultimately missed 27 straight three-pointers.

    Golden State advanced to the NBA Finals, where it defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third time in four seasons.

6. 2012 WC Finals: Thunder vs. Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    What the 2012 Western Conference Finals between the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder lacks in iconic moments, it undoubtedly atones for in overall competitiveness.

    This six-game series kept basketball fans glued to the screen.

    San Antonio won Games 1 and 2, improving to 10-0 in the playoffs with 20 consecutive wins overall. OKC's 20-point win in Game 3 sparked a remarkable surge; the Thunder won four straight, including the final three by eight points or fewer.

    Most notably, OKC overcame an 18-point deficit in Game 6, avoided a trip back to San Antoniowhere the Spurs had six losses all season (including playoffs)and advanced to the NBA Finals.

    In hindsight, this is remembered as OKC's final opportunity at a title with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden.

5. 2012 EC Finals: Heat vs. Celtics

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    On the opposite side of the bracket in 2012, the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics had a similarly gripping series.

    Miami jumped ahead 2-0 with a blowout Game 1 victory and overtime escape in Game 2. But then Boston ripped off three straight winsincluding an overtime triumph in Game 4 and four-point Game 5 winand put the Heat on the brink of elimination.

    LeBron James assembled one of his greatest individual games, racking up 45 points and 15 rebounds to force a Game 7.

    Neither team dominated, but Boston held a lead throughout most of the opening half. But the last 24 minutesand especially the final eightbelonged to the Heat. Miami outscored the Celtics by 13 points in the fourth quarter for a 101-88 win.

    Miami then defeated OKC in the Finals, earning the first of two titles for the trio of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

4. 2016 WC Finals: Warriors vs. Thunder

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    As the 2012 Western Conference Finals are remembered for Harden's last moment alongside Durant and Westbrook, the 2016 WCF mark the end of Durant and Westbrook as a pair in OKC.

    Considering how the series began, it was a stunning finish.

    Oklahoma City bolted to a 3-1 lead, highlighted by two absolute demolitions of the 73-win Warriors. The Thunder earned 28- and 24-point victories in Games 3 and 4, respectively.

    Golden State recovered with a nine-point win in Game 5 before Klay Thompson's playoff-record 11 threes propelled the Dubs in Game 6. And in the winner-take-all clash, Golden State erased a 13-point deficit and finished off the 3-1 series comeback.

    The painful loss for OKC resulted in one of the greatest what-if questions in NBA history. That offseason, Durant signed with the Warriors and proceeded to win a pair of NBA titles. Had the Thunder beaten Golden State, would Durant have stayed?

3. 2011 NBA Finals: Mavericks vs. Heat

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    LeBron and Bosh joined Wade in the summer of 2010, but the Big Three fell short of the ultimate goal in their first season.

    After the Heat won the opener, Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki hit a game-winning layup in Game 2. Bosh drilled a last-minute jumper to hand Miami a Game 3 win and 2-1 series lead.

    From there, however, it was all Dallas.

    The Mavs overcame a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit in Game 4, finished Game 5 on a 15-3 run for a nine-point win and controlled the second half of Game 6 to wrap up the series. It marked the first championship in team history.

    Nowitzki earned Finals MVP honors in what would be the future Hall of Famer's first and only title.

2. 2016 NBA Finals: Cavaliers vs. Warriors

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    Context plays a substantial part in the 2016 NBA Finals ranking second. During this seven-game series, the winning team had a double-digit margin in each of the first six contests.

    Nevertheless, the Cleveland Cavaliers made it unforgettable.

    After falling behind 3-1 in the series, Cleveland took advantage of Draymond Green's suspension in Game 5 to stay alive. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving both scored 41 points in the victory, and then LeBron matched that total in Game 6.

    Golden State hosted Game 7, but LeBron's chasedown block on Andre Iguodala and Irving's last-minute triple propelled the Cavaliers to a thrilling 93-89 triumph. They becameand remainthe only team in NBA Finals history to recover from a 3-1 deficit.

    For good measure, Cleveland earned the city's first major sports championship in 52 years.

1. 2013 NBA Finals: Heat vs. Spurs

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    The 2013 Finals began in gripping fashion as Tony Parker's bucket with 5.2 seconds remaining sealed Game 1 for San Antonio.

    And it was merely the start of an incredible series.

    Despite a couple of lopsided scores, both the Heat and Spurs put together some remarkable games. Miami had a 33-5 run in Game 2, and San Antonio answered with a Finals-record 16 threes in Game 3. They alternated wins in Games 4 and 5 too.   

    Holding a 3-2 series lead, the Spurs owned a five-point advantage with 28 seconds remaining in Game 6. As security lined the court for a celebration, though, the Heat battled back thanks to three-pointers from both LeBron and Ray Allenthe latter now remembered as one of the most important shots in Finals history.

    Miami won Game 6 in overtime before holding off the Spurs with a last-minute victory in Game 7. San Antonio had a chance to tie, but two missed shots and a dagger from LeBron sealed the title for Miami.