5 greatest NBA Finals in history

·14 min read
Jun 12, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) is defended by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during the third quarter in game five of the 2017 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) is defended by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30). (Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

The 2020/21 NBA season has reached its climax as the best-of-seven Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns is well underway. Without a doubt, another storied chapter is set to be added in the league's long history of epic final battles.

But while waiting for this year's Finals to shape up, let's take a look back at some of the greatest NBA Finals of all time.

The Los Angeles Lakers versus the Boston Celtics. (Photo: NBA)
The Los Angeles Lakers versus the Boston Celtics. (Photo: NBA)

1968/69 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers

Series result: The Boston Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, 4-3.

Long before LeBron James caused a debate on whether a player from the losing team deserves to win the Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 2015, when he single-handedly tried to will the injury-riddled Cleveland Cavaliers over the Golden State Warriors, an all-time NBA great already pulled off the improbable feat back in 1969.

The 1968/69 NBA Finals was a thrilling, hard-fought affair, as the Celtics somehow edged out the Lakers in a tight, seven-game series. And Lakers shooting guard Jerry West - whose silhouette became the logo of the league - emerged as the first and only losing Finals MVP in history.

West averaged 37.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists throughout the series, delivered one classic performance after another while battling through a leg injury. His best game came in the heartbreaking 106-108 Game 7 defeat, where he dropped a 42-point, 13-rebound and 12-assist triple-double effort.

His historical achievement alone would have made this series a shoo-in among any greatest NBA Finals list, but what made this matchup even more special was the sheer star power present in both teams.

Boston, which built a sporting dynasty in the 1950s and 1960s with 11 NBA titles, paraded a veteran-laden core centred around a quartet of Hall of Famers in Sam Jones, Bailey Howell, John Havlicek and Bill Russell. On the other hand, Los Angeles also boasted a formidable offensive trio in West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain.

In fact, the Lakers were the heavy favourites to capture all the 1969 title, after securing the services of Chamberlain, who was coming off an MVP season with the Philadelphia 76ers in the previous year. Locker room tensions, however, prevented them from reaching its full potential; it even led to head coach Butch Van Breda Kolff's controversial late-game benching of Chamberlain in the Game 7 loss.

In the end, the ageing Celtics weathered West's offensive storm and wielded the upset axe at the expense of their arch-rivals. In the process, they gave Russell - who steered Boston to all 11 titles amid their dynasty - a fitting send-off as he hung his sneakers up for good.

This series may have been the oldest one on this list, but it truly made its mark as one of the most memorable title clashes ever.

UNITED STATES - MAY 08:  Willis Reed of the Knicks (foreground) and Wiilt Chamberlain of the Lakers as time runs out in game at Madison Square Garden.  (Photo by Dan Farrell/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Willis Reed of the Knicks (foreground) and Wiilt Chamberlain of the Lakers. (Photo by Dan Farrell/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

1969/70 NBA Finals: New York Knicks vs Los Angeles Lakers

Series result: The New York Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, 4-3.

Nothing defines the intense competitiveness of the NBA Finals better than a Game 7. It is where careers are often defined, giving birth to some of the most iconic moments in sports history. For this reason, Finals series that went the full length are often the hottest topics in the conversation of the greatest NBA Finals in history.

According to ESPN pundits in 2010, the best Game 7 of an NBA Finals series is the 1970 classic between New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. It served as a dramatic finish to the spirited run of the Knicks, who were dead set on making a championship breakthrough in the face of perennial title contenders in Jerry West and the Lakers.

To best appreciate the sequence of events leading up to the championship-clinching game, one has to take a step back and run through the buildup to the finale.

The Lakers, who lost to arch-rivals Boston Celtics a season ago, were primed to conquer the throne following the retirement of the Celtics' leader Bill Russell. After all, the formidable trio they had built to beat the Celtics - West, Baylor and Chamberlain - were still intact, and the loss only fuelled them to get their acts together for another shot at the title.

The Knicks, on the other hand, have yet to win an NBA title but, having faced off against the mighty Celtics in the Eastern Conference in the past seasons, they proved to be as battle-tested as they come in the Finals.

To no one's surprise, the series turned into a slugfest. Two of the seven games - Games 3 and 4 - went into overtime as both teams refused to back down. As the battle prolonged, the competition started to take its toll on the players, and Knicks captain Willis Reed was the biggest casualty.

Reed tore his thigh muscle in Game 5 and sat out Game 6, where Chamberlain exploded for a monster double-double performance of 45 points and 27 rebounds to tie the series at 3-3, setting up the winner-takes-all Game 7.

A cloud of uncertainty loomed over Reed's status heading into the all-important game, but the Madison Square Garden faithful roared as he emerged from the tunnel limping towards the court. He suited up in the opening minutes of the game, scoring a pair of baskets over Chamberlain and hauling down three rebounds before leaving the game for good.

Reed's performance may seem trivial, but his burning will to compete ignited the fire for his team and the raucous crowd, as the Knicks dispatched the Lakers, 113-99 to clinch their first NBA title. Walt Frazier also drew inspiration from his captain's presence, putting up 36 points and 19 assists in the contest.

As the dust settled, Reed was named the Finals MVP in a championship series for the ages.

Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan is helped off the court by team mate Scottie Pippen after the Chicago Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz 90-88 in game 5 of the NBA finals in Salt Lake City, June 11. Jordan suffered from flu-like symptoms during the game. In background is Luc Longley.

Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan is helped off the court by team mate Scottie Pippen after the Chicago Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz 90-88 in game 5 of the NBA finals in Salt Lake City, June 11. Jordan suffered from flu-like symptoms during the game. (Credit: Reuters)

1996/97 NBA Finals: Chicago Bulls vs Utah Jazz

Series result: The Chicago Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz, 4-2.

While some may argue that every great NBA Finals series must have a Game 7, that is not always the case. Just take a look at the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. The Michael Jordan-led team, which won six NBA title during that decade, never figured in a seven-game championship battle, wrapping up each of their title wins in either five or six matches.

Make no mistake though, the opponents the Bulls had to deal with in their conquest for titles were no pushovers. Pundits even dubbed one of them as the greatest team to never win a championship, and the one they were talking about was the 1996/97 Utah Jazz.

Behind the brilliance of John Stockton and Karl Malone, the Jazz orchestrated a humming offensive and defensive machine in the late 90s. While they were not as stacked as the star-studded Bulls, their well-oiled system and deep rotation posed a huge threat to the Bulls' title defence in the 96/97 Season.

When both teams locked horns in the Finals, a classic showdown ensued. The first two games went Chicago's way as Jordan took charge with 31 points, eight assists and a last-second game-winner in Game 1 before flirting with a triple-double of 38 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists in Game Two.

Jolted to their senses, the Malone-Stockton duo willed the Jazz back into the series in the next two encounters, knotting the series at 2-2.

By all accounts, Game 5 was the turning point. Game 5s are crucial in a best-of-seven series, as a win can push a team closer to the championship, while a loss can send them down spiralling to the point of no return. There was plenty on the line, and no team desired to let the scales go against their favour.

In a dramatic turn of events, Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, suffered from "flu-like symptoms" the night before the all-important clash, and was advised not to suit up. Still, he mustered all his strength to see action on the court.

Despite playing in ailing health, Jordan delivered in the clutch as he dropped 38 points in a narrow 90-88 win over the Jazz, pushing the Bulls a win away from the title. His performance was iconic in its own right, but the moment that will forever be etched in the minds of the public was the sight of him collapsing into sidekick Scottie Pippen's arms, as he was assisted to the sidelines after his monumental effort.

That Game 5 will forever be known as "The Flu Game", due to Jordan's heroics.

The title-clinching Game 6 was a match to remember too, as the Bulls and the Jazz engaged in another seesaw battle, leading up to a tied game at 86-all with 28 seconds left in regulation. Everyone believed that the ball would go to Jordan for the go-ahead basket, but it was Steve Kerr who sank a 17-foot jumper off Jordan's pass to secure the championship.

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 18:  Ray Allen #34 of the Miami Heat makes a game-tying three-pointer over Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter during Game Six of the 2013 NBA Finals at AmericanAirlines Arena on June 18, 2013 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Ray Allen #34 of the Miami Heat makes a game-tying three-pointer over Tony Parker #9 of the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter during Game Six of the 2013 NBA Finals. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

2012/13 NBA Finals: Miami Heat vs San Antonio Spurs

Series result: The Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 4-3.

The 2012/13 NBA Finals has arguably the greatest shot in Finals history. Yes, you read it right - Ray Allen's three-point heave in Game 6 edges out the likes of Michael Jordan's silencer in Utah in 1998 and Kyrie Irving's stunner in Golden State in 2016.

For context, the Spurs, who drew strength from their pass-happy, democratic system, held a 3-2 series lead and a commanding five-point cushion with less than 30 seconds left in regulation. At that point, the championship was well within reach, and security had begun to position the yellow tape around the court in preparation for their impending title celebrations.

However, the star-studded Heat - featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh - had other plans.

James drained a much-needed three-pointer to trim the deficit down to two. The Heat would then commit an intentional foul on Kawhi Leonard, who made one of two attempts from the free-throw line, pushing San Antonio's lead back to three.

Crucially, Spurs star Tim Duncan, an elite rebounder, would be taken out by seasoned head coach Greg Popovich, who went for a smaller line-up to contain Miami's outside shooting. This move proved all-important: while James missed a three-pointer from the left wing, the Spurs lacked size down low to contest the ever-reliable Bosh from getting the rebound.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In the words of legendary commentator Mike Breen, "James catches. Puts up a three, won't go. Rebound, Bosh. Back out to Allen. His three pointer. Bang! Tie game with five seconds remaining!”

Allen, one of the greatest shooters of all-time, hit the series-altering shot that rained down on San Antonio's imminent championship moment. Game 6 went into overtime, where the Heat survived, 103-100, extending the series to a Game 7.

As the championship hung in the balance, the series finale remained as intense as the previous game, with seven lead changes and 11 deadlocks. Miami only had a chance to pull away in the last 60 seconds of the game when it unfurled a title-clinching 5-0 spree to win Game 7, 95-88.

James, who posted a double-double of 37 points and 12 rebounds in Game 7, emerged as the Finals MVP. He averaged 25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 2.3 steals in the seven-game stretch.

There were several more iconic moments scattered in the games leading up to the last two epics. Who could ever forget how Tony Parker manoeuvred his way through the Heat defence to put up the game-winner in the series opener? There's also that emphatic defensive stop from James in Game 2 where he smothered Tiago Splitter's one-handed dunk attempt. Not to mention Mike Miller's key triple while one of his shoes slipped out.

Without a doubt, this Miami-San Antonio series will forever be remembered by every basketball fan as one of the greatest NBA Finals ever.

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) blocks a shot against Golden State Warriors' Andre Iguodala (9) in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, June 19, 2016. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) (Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) blocks a shot against Golden State Warriors' Andre Iguodala (9) in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. (Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)

2015-16 NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden Stare Warriors

Series result: The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors, 4-3.

Who doesn't love a good comeback story? The 2015-16 NBA Finals featured the greatest comeback ever, period.

Stuck in what seemed to be an unescapable 1-3 series mire, Cleveland dug deep and pulled off the impossible, becoming the first team in history to ever claw back from a 1-3 deficit to win the NBA title.

In the process, they also prevented the 73-9 Golden State Warriors from concluding their record-breaking season in celebratory fashion.

It took the Cavs a herculean effort to make it happen. In the do-or-die Game 5, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving combined for 82 points, each piling up 41 points in a historical performance that gave Cleveland a flickering hope.

The two superstars became the first teammates to score at least 40 points each in an NBA Finals. James also poured in 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocks to extending the series to Game 6.

He then sustained his lethal form in Game 6, going berserk in the second half with 18 straight points. He eventually scored another 41 points, to go along with 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals and three blocks — and just one turnover. In the process, he became the second player to have consecutive 40-point Finals outings behind Shaquille O'neal.

The Warriors' famed Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson tried to weather the storm with a combined 55 points for the Warriors, but James had help behind Irving's 23 points and Tristan Thompson's 16 rebounds as the Cavs forced another Game 7 decider.

Game 7 turned into a battle of attrition, with 20 lead changes and 11 ties, and the turning point of the match came at the critical juncture of the final period. With the game tied at 89-all with 4:39 left in regulation, both teams stagnated in offence. No one could score for over three minutes, but Warriors had a clear scoring chance at the basket at the two-minute mark after Irving missed a contested floater.

As soon as Andre Iguodala secured the rebound, he sprinted down the other end and weaved a 2-on-1 fast break with Curry. With one man to beat in J R Smith, Golden State looked primed for a go-ahead basket with Iguodala soaring for a lay-up. However, James came from out of nowhere to deliver a superhuman block, a defensive stop that would soon resonate across the world simply as "The Block".

The offensive dry spell continued, up until Irving called for an isolation against Curry and hoisted a side-step, three-point shot from the right wing with 1:09 left on the clock. Splash. Cavs seized the lead, 92-89.

Kevin Love would then clamp Curry in the ensuing possession, allowing James to seal the deal in the free-throw line soon after which gave Cleveland its first NBA title in its long history.

From the narrative surrounding the series, the suspense, and down to the iconic moments in game, this NBA Finals is a classic in its own right and will go down as one of the best in history.

Ohmer Bautista is a sports journalist who has covered local and international sporting events in the Philippines. The views expressed are his own.

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