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Remembering the five best NBA finals ever

May 29, 2011, 11:13 AM EDT

Larry Bird Magic Johnson

This is going to be one fascinating NBA finals. One of the most improbable and unexpected rematches.

But it’s got big shoes to fill after last season, a seven-game thriller between the two most iconic of NBA franchises. In honor of that series and to dream about what could be coming up, we decided to look even farther back.

Here is our list of the five best NBA finals ever. Something for the Heat and Mavs to aspire to (even if both of them would prefer to win in a dull sweep).

1969 finals, Boston Celtics defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games

This became the Celtics 11th title in 13 years, the last one for the Bill Russell era dynasty. It also was probably the biggest punch in the gut the Lakers ever got.

It was a series of legendary names: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor for the Lakers; Bill Russell — who was the player coach — John Havlicek and Sam Jones, but this Celtics team was considered too old and past it’s prime. They had only finished fourth in the East but had fought through to the playoffs.

Game 1 was the Jerry West show as he dropped 53 points. Havlicek answered in Game 2 with 43. The most dramatic game of the series was Game 4 when Don Nelson (yes, the future coach of Nelly ball) hit a game winner on a shot that hit the back of the rim as time expired, bounced straight up higher than the backboard, then fall back through.

It all led to a dramatic Game 7 was in Los Angeles. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke was so sure his team would win he had balloons put in the rafters to fall when the game was over, he scripted out what the band would play when the game ended. Bill Russell looked up at that and used it as motivation for his team, telling them the Lakers were already planning the party, and Boston hit 8 of their first 10 shots and went on to win the game on the road.

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

This was Michael Jordan’s final playoffs with the Bulls, the win that provided the second three-pete and one of most iconic movements of Jordan’s career.

That Jazz team had Karl Malone and John Stockton at their peaks and they won Game 1, but the Bulls started clamping down on defense and won game two then in Game 3 held the Jazz to 56 points. Yes, 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 crossover (and push off) on Byron Russell, followed by the pure jumper that won the game. And the series. The iconic end of Jordan’s career.

2010, Los Angeles Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in seven games

Yes it did just happen last season, but how many NBA finals have had a fourth quarter comeback in Game 7? This is going to go down as one of the better finals we have ever seen.

In Game 2 Ray Allen went off and hit eight straight three pointers to lead the Celtics to the win and tie the series. In Game 5 there was Kevin Garnett falling out of bounds but making the breakout pass up the court to a streaking Rajon Rondo to seal a win.

Game 7, playing without Kendrick Perkins but getting a huge lift from Rasheed Wallace, the Celtics led by 13 in the third quarter and had stunned the Staples Center crowd. But the Lakers got huge baskets from Ron Artest and Pau Gasol — he had 18 points and 19 boards —while Kobe Bryant had a poor game overall but had 10 points in the fourth quarter when it mattered. Without Perkins the Lakers dominated the paint and the boards and that combined with Boston foul trouble proved to be the difference.

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

For the second year in a row, an Eastern Conference underdog handed the Lakers a heartbreaking defeat.

This series is remembered for a couple iconic 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. But the Knicks went on to win that game.

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 Madison Square Garden and his teammates, played a handful of minutes and that was enough. The motivated Knicks won Game 7 off that wave of emotion.

1984 Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games

It’s hard to think of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird separately. This may have been the greatest of the two finals between the two icons of 1980s basketball.

The Lakers controlled this series early but the momentum changed when Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis in Game 4. That game was the turning point, an epic overtime battle that stands out in the crowded history of Celtics lore as a franchise highlights. It was one of the best Finals games, ever. Boston had to go seven but won a series that finally gave Bird a win over Magic in a big game and cemented his place as a Celtics legend.

(The Lakers bounced back and won in 1985 in Boston Garden in what was maybe the most iconic win for that franchise.)

  1. cup0pizza - May 29, 2011 at 12:50 PM

    Uummmmm…….you forgot Phoenix/Boston in ’75.

    • 1historian - May 30, 2011 at 8:28 AM

      Thumbs down for two reasons – It was 1976, and, besides the triple overtime 5th game in Boston Garden – it wasn’t that good a series. (Celtics in 6)

      Perhaps you meant Milwaukee-Boston in 1974. Great series and I was in a crowd that went to Logan Airport to welcome them home. I talked to Johny Most for a few minutes and he was hilarious.
      Perhaps the fact that at the time he was drunker than three buckets of s..t had something to do with it.

  2. vanhenge1234 - May 29, 2011 at 12:50 PM

    Heh, Byron Russell…you could at least have added quotes.

  3. Justin - May 29, 2011 at 12:58 PM

    “The iconic end of Jordan’s career.”

    Who was that guy that came back for the Wizards?

    • anythingbutyanks - May 31, 2011 at 11:16 AM

      That was the anemic end of Jordan’s career.

  4. lakerfan32 - May 29, 2011 at 1:22 PM

    Magic and Bird played in three Finals against each other. Why do so many want to forget that Magic’s teams won two of three? Convenient amnesia.

  5. randysavage4ever - May 29, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    The Jordan shot against the Jazz is basketball’s “shot heard round the world”…

    Everyone knows where they were & what they were doing when he did the push-off crossover J – while leaving the follow thru up in the air…

    that shot represents the pinnacle of the greatest player of all time

  6. Fred - May 29, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    So, Walt Frazier was an all-star who finished 4th in the mvp voting that year and Dave Debusschere was a 4 time all-star and was 2nd team all-nba the previous year. I would not say that Willis was the “lone star” on that Knick team. Quit lying and denying, Kurt!

  7. redbear18 - May 29, 2011 at 4:32 PM

    Anyone else notice all of them except bulls-jazz had the lakers or the celtics? And the media tries to say they aren’t biased to any teams…

    • blueintown - May 29, 2011 at 4:56 PM

      It probably makes it tough when either the Lakers or Celtics are in almost every NBA Final..

  8. bittersonicsfan - May 29, 2011 at 5:00 PM



  9. icu84bs - May 29, 2011 at 7:48 PM

    Obviously Kurt has not actually watched too many NBA finals. I doubt many on his list would even make it into top 20 series.

    I actually watched all those series (and every NBA Finals since 1970, I also recorded most of them and have watched them many times) and none of those series was that epic. I am a Laker’s fan but the 2010 championship run was messy and ugly it might be on the five worst championship series of all time. Everyone knew the Bull were going to win the title in 1998 and they did it fairly easily. The Lakers – Boston series in 1984 was no better and actually less exciting than some of the other battles between the Lakers and Celtics in the 1980’s.

    • detlefschrempfriedrice - May 30, 2011 at 3:22 AM

      So you bash their list (wasn’t Kurts, obviously says “ours”), brag about how you watch all the finals multiple times and then don’t even drop your own list?? wow

    • blueintown - May 30, 2011 at 7:37 AM

      The Bulls were decided underdogs against the Jazz in ’98, and it was without question their most difficult championship run of the six. You may be correct in stating that the 2010 series as a whole was overrated, but I’ve never seen such pure competition manifested so intensely as I did in that game 7. It was truly awesome.

      • 1historian - May 30, 2011 at 8:35 AM

        To call any team with Michael Jordan on it ‘decided underdogs’ is wrong. Once they won their 1st title forever after that the Bulls were always either favorites or toss-ups in a championship series. One of the reasons for Jordan’s awesome rep was the simple fact that he was one of the best closers ever, and he remains so today.

        Bird, Magic and Jordan remain the ‘gold standard’ for closers today. Kobe was good in his heyday, which I think has passed, but he was not as good as those three.

  10. diablito0402 - May 30, 2011 at 2:03 AM

    Since lebron james is the greatest ever according to pipen my favorite finals was cleveland against the spurs. When le bron dominated the serier and swept the spurs. Ohhh wait it was the other way around. The greatest player alive team got slapped and swept right out of the finals. Jordan wouln’t allow that to happen to you pippen, right.

    • detlefschrempfriedrice - May 30, 2011 at 3:19 AM

      Thats not even what Pippen said, christ, you’re an idiot

    • ollitsacled01 - May 30, 2011 at 4:52 AM

      that was when lebron was just 22 years old. kinda like how drose is today. in a few days you’ll see a prime lebron play the biggest stage in the nba.

      • 1historian - May 30, 2011 at 8:40 AM

        Agreed – that’s what scares me and a lot of others.

        Go Mavs.

  11. fouldwimmerlaik - May 31, 2011 at 5:08 PM

    This list is silly. It only has one Kobe Championship on it. Whoever came up with it is wacky! They should ALL be Kobe Championships!!!!

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