10 greatest NBA Conference Finals series of all time, ranked
The 2020 NBA Conference Finals were scheduled to start on May 19 (with a possible move up to May 17) had the league not suspended the 2019-20 campaign due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The NBA has seen plenty of amazing conference finals series over the years. The stakes are even higher when it goes the full seven games, as teams figure in a win-or-go-home decider.
Let’s rank some of the most iconic conference finals of all time.
10. Spurs vs. Thunder (2012)
This 2012 series featured a classic matchup between a perennial powerhouse (Spurs) against the new breed (Thunder). The proven and tested Spurs schooled the inexperienced Thunder squad in the early going, racing to a 2-0 start. It appeared that the OKC trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden was bound to learn a bitter lesson, as they were outplayed by the Spurs’ legendary trifecta of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili.
But once the series shifted back to Oklahoma City, the Thunder managed to even the playing field with resounding wins in Games 3 and 4. The pivotal Game 5 showed just how much the young Thunder had grown, overcoming 34 points from Ginobili to seal the important road win.
Not wanting to go to a winner-take-all Game 7 against the battle-tested Spurs, OKC gave its all in Game 6 and put the final nail in the coffin. Durant continued his scoring rampage and set up a date with the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals:
9. Pacers vs. Knicks (1994)
This may not have been the prettiest series to watch, as the Pacers and Knicks had to grind out wins through grueling, slow-paced matches. However, the resilience of the Knicks was indeed a marvel to behold, considering they dropped three straight games after winning the first two.
Game 5 of this series, of course, gave birth to Reggie Miller’s legendary “choke gesture” moment to Knicks superfan Spike Lee. But on the brink of defeat, the Knicks went to war and managed to emerge victorious in the next two games to earn an NBA Finals slot.
This series also arguably cemented Patrick Ewing’s stature as the best Knicks player to ever do it. Ewing recorded 24 points, 22 rebounds, seven assists, and five blocks in the decider:
8. Celtics vs. Pistons (1987)
Speaking of wars, the Celtics-Pistons series featured a level of physicality (and sometimes violence) that would never be seen in today’s game. It had its share of ugly moments, including a Larry Bird-Bill Laimbeer brawl in Game 3 and a Robert Parish three-punch combo in Game 5.
That same game, however, also featured the now-legendary Bird steal and pass to Dennis Johnson to secure the victory:
The Pistons fought back in Game 6 and set up the stage for one game to go to the NBA Finals. Game 7 was one heated affair (literally), as the temperature inside the Boston Garden was recorded at 88 degrees. The Celtics eventually earned a 117-114 win.
7. 76ers vs. Celtics (1981)
This series pitted two of the brightest stars in the NBA at the time, with the Julius Erving-led Sixers matching up against Larry Bird and the Celtics.
Dr. J and company had the upper hand early, putting Boston on the ropes by winning three of the first four games. With their backs against the wall, the C’s rallied in Game 5 for a razor-close 111-109 win to extend their season.
The same trend continued in the next two games. Boston erased a 17-point Sixers advantage in Game 6 to win by two points and clawed back from 11 points down to win the pivotal Game 7 by a single point:
6. Warriors vs. Rockets (2018)
This series proved that one single injury can be a game-changer. To this day, some pundits believe the Rockets would have ended the Warriors’ reign had Chris Paul been available in Games 6 and 7.
The Mike D’Antoni-coached squad had all the tools to match up against the Dubs’ firepower. James Harden traded triples with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and Houston also had several capable defenders trying to slow down Kevin Durant. Meanwhile, Paul’s steady hand played a key role in the Rockets grabbing a 3-2 series lead.
Unfortunately for Houston, a hamstring injury sustained by Paul at the end of Game 5 put a dent in their plans. CP3 sat out Game 6, which resulted in an easy 29-point rout for the Dubs.
Paul was still unable to go in Game 7, and Durant helped the Dubs overcome a 15-point deficit and put the finishing touches on the series. The Rockets didn’t help themselves by missing 27 consecutive 3-pointers in the game:
5. Heat vs. Celtics (2012)
The proverbial passing of the torch is one of the best storylines in basketball. This heavyweight battle was indeed a great example of the act, with the Boston Celtics (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo) officially surrendering their claim of the East to the Miami Heat’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
After getting humiliated by the same Heat team in the semis the prior year, Boston was itching for vengeance in 2012. The two squads won on their home floors in their first four encounters. The C’s, however, went on to capture the important Game 5 thanks to Garnett and Pierce’s timely heroics.
The Heat, however, dug deep in Games 6 and 7, with LeBron’s greatness officially putting an end to this Celtics era. LeBron’s 45-point, 15-rebound performance in Game 6 is an all-time playoff performance:
4. Bulls vs. Pacers (1998)
Michael Jordan and the Bulls ultimately bested the Utah Jazz for their third consecutive NBA title in 1998, but their biggest test came in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers.
Led by the shooting exploits of Reggie Miller and the brilliant tactics of head coach Larry Bird, Indiana pushed Chicago to the brink. After dropping the first two games on the road, the Pacers stormed back in Game 3 thanks to Miller’s 13 points in the final four minutes of regulation. His heroics continued in Game 4 when he drilled a game-winning 3 to even the series:
The two squads split the next two games to set up a thrilling Game 7 finish in Chicago. With Jordan guaranteeing victory, the Bulls narrowly escaped with an 88-83 win thanks to clutch shots from Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
3. Lakers vs. Blazers (2000)
We might have not seen a Lakers dynasty in the early 2000s had the Blazers completed the job in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals.
In the beginning, it was the Lakers that asserted their might with decisive victories en route to a 3-1 series lead. Facing elimination didn’t seem to faze Portland that much, as the brilliance of Rasheed Wallace and the championship pedigree of Scottie Pippen helped get them back in the series to force a Game 7. It seemed Portland was destined to complete the comeback, blitzing L.A. and taking a 75-60 lead early in the fourth quarter of the deciding game.
However, the greatest one-two punch of the 2000s (perhaps in history) in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal went to work. After taking command of the game and securing a four-point advantage with under a minute to go, the pair of Hall of Famers connected on one of the most amazing alley-oops of all time:
The Lakers completed the comeback and started their dominance by edging the Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals.
2. Kings vs. Lakers (2002)
The Kings vs. Lakers clash in the 2002 Western Conference Finals was a classic, even though there was some controversy due to the officiating. The Sacramento ensemble was truly the most talented squad the Lakers had to face at the height of their dynasty. The Kings had the phenomenal frontcourt of Chris Webber and Vlade Divac paired with the offensive prowess of Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic.
The Kings were legitimate contenders and had a prime opportunity to dethrone the Purple and Gold. Robert Horry saved the Lakers from a 3-1 deficit in Game 4, drilling a dagger 3-pointer from the top of the key after a broken play:
The Kings responded by winning Game 5 and had a chance to win Game 6, but they suffered a close loss as the Lakers got up a whopping 40 free-throw attempts. The California-based squads figured in an epic Game 7 in Sacramento, with the Kings taking control early. After overcoming a nine-point deficit in the second half, the Lakers forced overtime. They dominated the extra minutes and scored the last eight points for a 112-106 victory.
1. Thunder vs. Warriors (2016)
Overcoming a 3-1 deficit is never easy, especially if you have to do it against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the prime of their careers. The Warriors achieved that feat in 2016, right at the time pundits were already writing them off.
The Thunder, after all, had some NBA Finals experience of their own and were as gifted offensively as the defending champions at the time. It was an extremely testy series, as Draymond Green figured in numerous physical altercations against OKC players. But Durant and Westbrook were simply too good and torched the Warriors’ defense in the first four games.
Displaying the true heart of a champion, the Dubs roared back in Games 5 and 6 and gave themselves a fighting chance. Klay Thompson poured in a remarkable 11 3-pointers in Game 6:
The Thunder ran out to a 13-point lead in the first half of Game 7, but the Warriors’ defense buckled down and they pulled out a 96-88 victory. While the Dubs blew a 3-1 lead of their own in the NBA Finals, they ultimately wound up signing Durant in the summer and won two more championships.
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