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The five best NBA finals. Ever.

May 30, 2010, 3:35 PM EDT

wreed.jpgWe are staring at another great one. Potentially. These 2010 Lakers and Celtics match up pretty evenly, both are championship tested; both have big stars and thrilling role players. This is going to be fun.

But can it match up to the all-time greats? The best finals series ever? That is one tall mountain to climb. I mean, just look at the competition, the five best NBA finals series ever:

1970, New York Knicks beat the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games

Everyone kept expecting the Lakers to break through with a title — they had the most talent in the league, but they kept losing to a better team in the Celtics. Now the LA stars were taking on another real team, this one from New York.

This series had a couple of legendary moments. First there was Game 3, where Knicks legend Dave DeBusschere hit what looked like the game winner with three-seconds to go, only to have Jerry West hit a three-quarter court shot to tie it. Maybe the greatest shot in NBA Finals history.

Then there was Game 7, when the Knicks lone star player Willis Reed was not expected to play. But he came out of the tunnel, fired up the fans, and played a few minutes of quality basketball where he fired up his team. And the Knicks won Game 7 and the title on that emotion.

1998 Finals, Chicago Bulls beat the Utah Jazz in six games

Michael Jordan’s greatest moment. Which is saying something. But in capping off the second of the two Bulls three-peats Chicago had to beat the best team they had faced in the finals. That Jazz team had Karl Malone and John Stockton at their peaks.

The Jazz won game one, the Bulls Game 2 and then Chicago had a defensive game for the ages in Game 3, holding the Jazz to 56 points. For the game.

But it was the final 30 seconds of Game 6 that had Jordan leaving on top. The Bulls were down one point. First Jordan made a blind-side steal on Malone in the post. Then he made the one of the signature shots of his career — the cross-over (and push off) on Byron Russell, followed by the pure jumper that won the game. And the series. The perfect shot that capped of Jordan’s career.

1976 NBA finals, Boston Celtics defeat the Phoenix Suns in six games

Can one game propel an NBA finals into the best five ever? It can when you are talking about the best game ever.

Game five is legendary. It had been a dramatic game that was tied 95-95 at the end of regulation. Then at 101-101 at the end of the first overtime. In the second overtime the Celtics had a three-point lead late (remember, this was before the three-point shot) and it looked like a win. But then a Suns jumper by Dick Van Arsdale makes it a one-point game again.

Then on the inbound Paul Westphal steals the ball from John Havlicek, and the Suns have life. Curtis Perry missed a jumper but the rebound is taped back out to Perry who doesn’t miss twice. Suns 110-109.  But Havlicek is not to be outdone. He gets the ball with five seconds to go and drives down the left hand side and puts up an off-balance runner that falls as time ticks off the clock. Celtics win 111-110, fans storm the court. It’s all over…

Except it’s not. The referees know there should be one second left on the clock. They pull the Celtics out of the locker room for a final play. The Suns have to go the length of the court in one second to get a game winner. But then in a moment of veteran savvy Westphal calls a timeout, when the Suns have none. It’s a technical foul — and Boston hits the free throw to go up 112-110 — but the Suns get to take the ball out at half court.

Gar Heard hit the turn-around jumper near the elbow to tie the game again and send it to a third overtime. Just go watch the shots yourself.

The Celtics won the third overtime handily, and won the series in six. But Game 5 alone made this an all-time great.

1969 Finals, Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games

Lakers fans, you may not want to read this one or compare it to 2010.

The Lakers had the big-name stars in their prime: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. The Celtics had stars like Bill Russell — who was the player coach — and Sam Jones, but they were both injured. The Celtics were considered too old. They had finished fourth in the East, then surprised everyone in the playoffs.

Game 1 saw Jerry West just go off, to the tune of 53 points. Havlicek answered with 43 in Game 2. Game 4 had Don Nelson (yes, that Don Nelson) hit the game winner on a shot that hit the back of the rim as time expired, go straight up higher than the backboard, then fall back through. We had ourselves a shootout, a series that went seven games.

That Game 7 was in the Fabulous Forum, and no home team had ever lost a Game 7 in NBA finals history. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had balloons put in the rafters to fall when the game was over, because he was sure of victory. What he did was motivate the Celtics, who were angered by the balloons (not as much as West, however) and Boston hit 8 of their first 10 shots and went on to win the title. The balloons never came down.

It was the Celtics 11th title in 13 years. It was also the last one for that dynasty.

1984/1985 NBA Finals, combined, Boston and Los Angeles (Celtics won 1984, Lakers won 1985)

Two different years, but it’s hard not to think of them together, the same way it is hard not to think of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird separately. This was the two titles that may have been their peak.

The Celtics beat the Lakers in 1984 in a physical, hard-fought seven game series. Kevin McHale turned the emotion of this series when he clotheslined Kurt Rambis. That came in Game 4, which was an epic overtime battle that became one of the defining moments of the Bird-era Celtics. It was one of the best Finals games, ever. Boston had to go seven but won a series that validated Bird and his legend and finally gave him a win over Magic in a big game.

Then 1985 it was Magic’s turn. It didn’t look that way at the start, with Boston winning Game 1 in what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre, a 148-114 thrashing of the Lakers. It was so bad Kareem Abdul-Jabbar apologized to his teammates afterward. And while Magic was Magic in 1985 the Lakers were still Kareem’s team and he took over. He scored 29 in the deciding Game 6 and was the series MVP.

  1. Jimsjam33 - May 30, 2010 at 9:12 PM

    Kurt Helin ,
    Once agin a beat sportswriter is trying to tell the basketball public what the ” greatest ” was . I accept your opinion , but you must accept the supposition that it was your opinion and no one else’s . With that being said , let’s examine the truth for it’s full value and not a guess into a basketball fantasy .
    First of all , the greatest series is indeliable in the minds of the fans living in a city that is playing . The lakers have been there ( NBA Finals ) 31 times . Are you going to tell Laker fans that their team with Jerry West , Chamberlain , Hairston , Goodrich , and McMillan wasn’t as exciting winning the finals ? A 33 game win streak in 1972 and a victory over the New York Knicks with Willis Reed , Phil Jackson , Earl the Pearl monroe , Walt Frazier , Bill Brady , and Dave Debusshere was just as exciting as any Championship series ever for US ! The Lakers first NBA championship in L.A. !
    Every team that has ever played for a NBA city has had it’s fans ready for the ” greatest ever ” from Philadelphia to Golden State and in between . 100 million people …100 million opinions .
    Oh yes , by the way . The greatest ever was the Lakers victory over the Celtics when the Show Time Lakers dealt a dagger in the Celtics back when Magic hit that baby hook over McHale ! It was the ” greatest . ” That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it !

  2. Larry's Legend - May 30, 2010 at 10:02 PM

    The 1997 Finals was a *much* better series than the ’98 rematch. The games were more entertaining; you had a Jordan buzzer-beater in Game 1 and the “flu game.” And there was a legitimate sense after Game 2 that Utah could win the series. There was never a sense they could win in ’98.

  3. kimmer - May 31, 2010 at 11:26 AM

    Sonics over Bullets. Jack Sikma, John Johnson, Dennis Johnson, “Downtown” Freddy Brown, Gus williams, Lonnie Shelton and others. The best NBA finals EVER. For a Seattle fan, anyhows.

  4. hoffmanb - May 31, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    jazz scored 54 points in game 3, not 56

  5. mysources - May 31, 2010 at 3:17 PM

    The Bulls should not even be on this list. They never played a decent team and were always heavy favorites who won. Lets stop with this revisionist history. They were a good team when there were no great teams.

  6. Drew - May 31, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    That’s a good point about the 1997 finals with Utah. The “flu game” was pretty epic. Jordan delivered a huge game which would’ve put the Jazz up 3-2. The games were all close in that series as you mentioned.
    While Utah was a Jordan miss away from Game 7 in 1998, that blowout game in Game 3 does tarnish the series just a little.
    I think my favorite non-finals series is Indiana-Chicago 1998.

  7. Roids - May 31, 2010 at 4:29 PM

    Back when the bulls were winning championships there was a superstar and a key “role” player on more than a handful of teams. Today most teams don’t even have a superstar. I’m not a Bulls fan but I would guess they would dominate today like the did in the 90’s. That of course, if my opinion.

  8. J-Rod - May 31, 2010 at 6:47 PM

    Interesting article but the Don Nelson shot was in Game 7, not game 4 of the ’69 series.

  9. LANCE - Jun 2, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    Da Rockets! The dream and the Glide!

  10. adrian hill - Jun 4, 2010 at 10:40 AM

    the nba finals matchups i like the best were the lakers vs celtics,bulls vs lakers,pistons vs lakers,spurs vs pistons,pistons vs trailblazers,rockets vs celtics,bulls vs jazz i luv them all.

  11. peter martin - Jun 7, 2010 at 4:14 PM

    C’mon Kurt get your facts straight will ya?
    J -Rod is right – Nellie’s shot was the ultimate winner in game seven of the ’69 playoffs. The game four winner was taken by Sam Jones. Any real basketball nut over 50 knows this stuff in thgeir sleep; what’s your problem?

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