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Counting Down the 20 Greatest NBA Finals of All-Time

Posted on May 31, 2011 by A.J. Foss

Willis Reed scored only four points in the seventh game of the 1970 NBA Finals, but his mere presence on the court helped lift the Knicks to a championship.

The NBA Finals begin tonight, as the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks battle it out for the Larry O’Brien trophy.

With that in mind, it’s time to take a look back at the 20 greatest NBA Finals of all time.

These are the 20 best series, not best moments, so moments like Magic Johnson’s “junior, junior” sky-hook are not on this list.

To get on this list, the series had to feature multiple close games or more than one classic moment or performance.

So, here are the 20 greatest NBA Finals of all time:

20. 2010 Lakers-Celtics
The latest edition of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry was another seven-game series as the Lakers avenged their loss to Boston in the 2008 Finals, with a win over the Celtics in 2010.

Five of the seven games were decided by single digits and featured Ray Allen’s record-breaking performance in Game 2 with eight three pointers.

Game 7 was low-scoring but memorable as the Lakers overcame a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter, to pull out an 83-79 win.

19. 1974 Celtics-Bucks

The home court advantage was worthless in this series as the road team won five of the seven games in these Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks.

The series also featured a pair of overtime games, including the famous Game 6 double overtime win by the Bucks on Kareem Abdul-Jabaar’s 17-foot sky hook in the second overtime for a 102-101 win in Boston Garden.

Game 7 went to the road team, which was the Celtics, as they defeated Milwaukee 102-87 win, for the franchise’s 12th NBA championship and first without Bill Russell.

18. 1958 Hawks-Celtics
The St. Louis Hawks got revenge for their loss in the 1957 Finals, as they defeated the Celtics in six games, with all four of the Hawks’ wins by a combined eight points.

The most memorable moment from this series came in the clinching sixth game, as Hawks forward Bob Pettit poured in 50 points, including 18 of the last 21 points in St. Louis 108-107 win.

17. 1951 Royals-Knicks
No team in NBA history has ever won a best-of-seven series after falling behind 0-3, but the 1951 New York Knicks came very close.

After losing the first three games of the series, the Knicks won Games 4 through 6 to force a Game 7 against the Rochester Royals (now Sacramento Kings).

Game 7 was tied at 75-75 with almost a minute to play until Royals guard Bob Davies sank two free throws to break the tie as Rochester went on to win the game 79-75 and their only NBA title.

16. 1976 Celtics-Suns
The 1976 Finals is remembered most for the Game 5 triple overtime win by the Celtics over the Suns in perhaps the greatest NBA Finals game of all time.

But the series itself was pretty exciting as the heavy underdog Suns came back from a 0-2 deficit to win Games 3 and 4 in Phoenix to force the memorable fifth game.

Much like they did in Game 5, the pesky Suns did not go away as they held a 67-66 lead in the fourth quarter of Game 6, before Boston outscored Phoenix 21-13 over the last 7:25 of the game to pull out an 87-80 victory and clinch their 13th NBA championship.

15. 1978 Bullets-Sonics
Perhaps because it did not feature any of the premier franchises, the 1978 Finals is overlooked by most NBA fans as a classic series.

The Washington Bullets and Seattle Supersonics played to a seven-game series, with six games decided in single digits, four games decided by four points or less, and one game going into overtime.

The Bullets won the series with a 105-99 victory in Game 7 in Seattle to win the NBA title, but the Sonics would get some revenge the following year when they defeated the Bullets in a rematch to win their only NBA championship.

14. 1977 Blazers-76ers

Bill Walton and the Portland Trailblazers rallied to win the final four games of the 1977 NBA Finals.

The Portland Trail Blazers pulled off a memorable comeback and upset of the Philadelphia 76ers to win the franchise’s first and only NBA championship.

The Sixers won the first two games of the series easily, but the series turned late in the fourth quarter of Game 2 when Blazers forward Maurice Lucas punched Sixers center Daryl Dawkins falling a fight for a rebound with Portland’s Bob Gross.

The Blazers won Games 3 and 4 in Portland by a combined 54 points, before winning Game 5 in Philadelphia to take a 3-2 series lead.

Led by Bill Walton’s 20 points, 23 rebounds, and eight blocks, the Blazers won Game 6 109-107 to become the second team to win a NBA Finals after falling behind 0-2.

13. 2006 Heat-Mavericks
It appeared that this series was going to be a sweep as the Dallas Mavericks won the first two games of the series in Dallas and held a 13-point lead midway through the third quarter of Game 3.

But that is when Heat guard Dwayne Wade put Miami on his back and carried them to a championship.

Wade scored 12 of Miami’s last 22 points to lead the Heat to a 98-96 victory in Game 3, then scored 36 points in a blowout victory in Game 4, and pouring in 43 points, including the game-winning free throws for a 101-100 overtime victory in Game 5 to give the Heat a 3-2 series lead.

Wade finished up the series with a 36-point effort in the Heat’s 95-92 win in Game 6 to finish the series with a 34.7 points per game average, 39.3 in the last four games, to lead Miami back from a 0-2 deficit and to the NBA title.

12. 1998 Bulls-Jazz
In a rematch of the previous year’s NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz engaged in another highly competitive series that ended with the Bulls winning the title in with a game-winning jumper in Game 6.

Five of the six games were decided by a total of 15 points, with the only game in double digits being Chicago’s 96-54 win in Game 3, the most lopsided game in NBA Finals history.

The enduring image from this series is Michael Jordan with his hand in the air after his 20-footer jump shot went into the basket with 5.2 seconds left in Game 6 which gave the Bulls an 87-86 victory and clinched the team’s sixth title in eight years.

11. 1994 Rockets-Knicks

Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets overcame Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks to claim the 1994 NBA title.

While it was not pretty, these Finals between the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks were extremely competitive and tight throughout all seven games.

All seven games were decided by single digits, with the largest margin of victory being only nine points.

The Rockets won the last two games of the series, as Hakeem Olajuwon blocked John Starks’ potential game-winning and championship-clinching three pointer in the final seconds of Game 6 to force a Game 7, which Houston won 90-84 thanks to Olajuwon’s near triple double (25 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists) and Starks’ dreadful 2-for-18 from the field.

But the most memorable moment from this series did not happen on the court, as the famous O.J. Simpson white Bronco car chase occurred at the same time Game 5 was being played.

10. 1988 Lakers-Pistons
These Finals did not became a classic until the final two games of the series when the Lakers won Games 6 and 7 at home to become the first team in 19 years to win back-to-back championships.

The first five games of the series were all blowouts as the average margin of victory was 14.4 points, and the Pistons winning three of those, to take a 3-2 series lead.

Game 6 featured Isaiah Thomas’ classic performance in which he scored 43 points, including 25 in the third quarter despite severely spraining his ankle, to put the Pistons on the cusp of their first NBA title as they took a 102-99 lead with a minute to go, but the Lakers scored four points in the final minute to pull out a 103-102 victory.

Game 7 was another classic as Los Angeles won the game 108-105 thanks to James Worthy’s 36 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists to give the Lakers their fifth NBA title in nine years.

9. 1993 Bulls-Suns
The Bulls completed their quest for a “three-peat” in an extremely tough series with the Phoenix Suns.

All six games were decided by 10 points or less, with the road team winning five of the six games.

The series featured the Game 3 triple overtime win by the Suns, only the second triple overtime game in NBA Finals history, followed by Michael Jordan’s 55-point performance in Game 4, and ending with John Paxson’s game winning three-pointer with 3.9 seconds left in Game 6 which gave the Bulls a 99-98 win and  their third straight

8. 1980 Lakers-76ers
The famous game from this series, Magic Johnson’s performance while filling in for Kareem Abdul-Jabaar at center in Game 6, was actually the most lopsided game of the series.

Magic’s legendary performance occurred in a 123-107 victory, the only game that was decided by more than 10 points, as Johnson scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, and dished out seven assists to lead the Lakers to the NBA championship.

This performance was the exclamation point on a great series in which the average margin of victory was 7.3 points, and two games decided by three points or less.

The series also featured Julius Erving’s famous “Baseline Move” in Philly’s 105-102 win in Game 4 and Kareem scoring 14 fourth quarter points after spraining his ankle to lead the Lakers to a 108-103 win in Game 5, setting up Magic’s heroics in Game 6.

7. 1997 Bulls-Jazz

Michael Jordan and Karl Malone battled throughout the 1997 NBA Finals.

While the 1998 Finals had Michael Jordan’s famous last game-winning shot as a Chicago Bull, the first meeting between the Bulls and the Jazz had more memorable moments.

Four of the six games were decided by five points or less as the Bulls would go on to win the series for their fifth NBA championship in seven years.

The series started off with a bang as Jordan made a 20-footer at the buzzer to give the Bulls a Game 1 win.

Chicago built a 2-0 series lead, but the Jazz came back and won the next two games, including a 12-2 run in the fourth quarter of Game 4 that was climaxed by John Stockton’s full-court pass to Karl Malone for the go-ahead basket.

But Jordan led the Bulls to a 90-88 win in Game 5 with 38 points, despite ailing from a stomach virus, and then passed it to Steve Kerr who made the game-winning basket with five seconds left in Chicago’s clinching 90-86 win in Game 6.

6. 1955 Nationals-Pistons
All seven games of this series were decided by seven digits, with the largest margin of victory only being seven points.

The Syracuse Nationals (now Philadelphia 76ers) won the last two games of the series, including a 92-91 victory in Game 7, thanks to George King’s game-winning free throw with 12 seconds left and steal of the ball from the Pistons’ Andy Phillip, to give the Nationals the NBA championship.

5. 1969 Celtics-Lakers
The final championship of the Bill Russell era was perhaps the most satisfying for the Celtics as they overcome a 0-2 deficit and knocked off the favorite Lakers in seven games, winning Game 7 in Los Angeles.

Six of the seven games were decided by single digits and three by two points or less, which included the Lakers’ 120-118 win in Game 1 thanks to Jerry West’s 53 points, and the Celtics’ 89-88 win on Sam Jones’ buzzer beater.

Game 7 went down to the wire as the Lakers cut a 15-point deficit to two points with 20 seconds to go, but Don Nelson made a driving shot that proved to be the back-breaking basket in Boston’s 108-106 victory, to clinch the 11th title in 13 years, and the last title for Russell.

4. 1984 Celtics-Lakers

The Lakers and Celtics renewed their classic rivalry with three matchups between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s first meeting in the NBA Finals was the most competitive of the three meetings between the two icons, with Bird and the Celtics coming out on top in seven games over Magic and the Lakers.

The series featured classic moments included Gerald Henderson’s late steal and lay-up which sent Game 2 into overtime where the Celtics won 124-121 and Kevin McHale’s clothesline tackle of Kurt Rambis in Game 4 which turned the series into Boston’s favor.

The Celtics went on to win that game in overtime, and would go on to win two of the last three games, including the famous “Heat Game” in Game 5 played in 97 degrees at the non-air conditioned Boston Garden, followed by a 111-102 Game 7 victory where Boston held off a furious fourth quarter rally by the Lakers.

3. 1962 Celtics-Lakers
The most memorable of all the Celtics-Lakers duels in the NBA Finals during the 1960s occurred in 1962 when Boston outlasted the Lakers in seven games.

The series had four games decided by single digits and featured Jerry West’s game-winning lay-up at the buzzer of Game 3 and Elgin Baylor’s record-breaking 61-point and 22-rebound performance in Los Angeles’ Game 5 win.

In Game 7, the Celtics survived Frank Selvy’s potential game-winning shot at the end of regulation, as he missed from 12 feet out, sending the game into overtime, where the Celtics prevailed for a 110-107 victory and their fourth straight NBA title.

The seventh game also included Bill Russell setting the Finals record for rebounds in a game as he grabbed 40 rebounds to go along with 30 points.

2. 1957 Celtics-Hawks
The Celtics’ first appearance in the NBA Finals was a fiercely fought battle with the St. Louis Hawks as the Celtics prevailed in seven games for their first NBA title.

Four of the seven games were decided by two points, with the first and seventh games both going into double overtime and finishing with the final score of 125-123.

Game 7 is perhaps the greatest Game 7 in NBA history as the Celtics came away with a 125-123 double overtime win, as rookie Tom Heinsohn scored 37 points and grabbed 23 rebounds to go along with fellow rookie Bill Russell’s 32 rebounds, but did not have the title secured until Hawks forward Bob Pettit’s last second shot at the end of the second overtime bounced off the rim, ending the game and beginning the Celtics’ dynasty.

1. 1970 Knicks-Lakers

While Willis Reed received all the glory, Walt Frazier quietly scored 36 points and dished out 19 assists to lead the Knicks to victory in the seventh game of the 1970 NBA Finals.

Willis Reed’s dramatic entrance and gutsy performance in Game 7 was the icing on the cake in the greatest NBA Finals of all time.

The series that featured five games decided by single digits, two of them going into overtime, and two decided by three points or less.

Game 2 was decided by two points as Jerry West made the game-winning free throws with 46 seconds to go which gave the Lakers a 105-103 win, which was followed by West’s dramatic 60-footer at the end of regulation of Game 3 that sent the game into overtime, only to have the Knicks prevail 111-108.

Game 4 went into overtime as well, but this time the Lakers won, evening up the series, and appeared to be on the threshold of a 3-2 series lead when they held a 13-point at halftime and Reed out of the game with a torn muscle in his leg.

But the Knicks came back to win that game 107-100 to take a 3-2 series lead, only to lose Game 6 to the Lakers in the biggest rout of the series, a 135-113 win by Los Angeles, forcing a Game 7 in New York.

Having missed Game 6, Reed started Game 7 and made the first two baskets of the game, inspiring his team to a 113-99 rout of the Lakers, to clinch the Knicks’ first NBA championship.

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