When the NBA Finals begin every June (except this year), fans hope to see the league’s two top teams battle in a competitive and satisfying series. Some Finals are spectacular while others are overly one-sided, and unfortunately, Kevin Durant joining the Warriors damped the game’s biggest stage more than ever before. Everyone anxiously awaited him to leave so the Finals could be more evenly matched like it was in years past.
Historically, several Finals truly lived up to the billing. The greatest championships contain drama, controversy, signature performances and unlikely heroes in addition to close outcomes, all of which make a series unforgettable.
There are many iconic NBA Finals throughout the league’s history, but here are the top-10 that stand out above the rest because of the storylines leading into them, the play on the court and the legacies they left.
(2010) Los Angeles Lakers defeat Boston Celtics 4-3
(Finals MVP: Kobe Bryant)
The 57-win and reigning champion Lakers faced the 50-win Celtics in 2010, marking the second time in three seasons the two franchises met in the Finals. Boston got the best of Los Angeles in six games in 2008, but Kobe Bryant toughened his supporting cast this time around as he anxiously waited for a chance at redemption against his team’s biggest rival.
It was a back-and-forth series, with the Lakers initially taking a 2-1 lead before the Celtics roared back to narrowly win games 4 and 5. With it’s back against the wall and its remaining games on its home floor, L.A. made a statement with a dominating Game 6 victory. The Lakers held Boston to just 67 points and 33.3% shooting, exhibiting a newfound grit that they didn’t have in 2008 when they lost by 39 points in 2008 when also down 3-2.
Game 7 was an ugly affair in which the teams shot a combined 36.6% from the field, but it was also close throughout. Down four points with one period to play, L.A. shed its nerves and exploded for a 30-point fourth quarter. Bryant shot a miserable 6-of-24 in the game, and although Pau Gasol was stellar with 19 points and 18 rebounds, Metta World Peace was the team’s hero.
Up to three points with a minute to go, L.A. needed some cushion to prevent Boston from making one last push. World Peace — who at this point was 1-for-6 from behind the arc — took it upon himself to take a completely unjustified and contested triple with Bryant calling for the ball back. He drained it, blew a kiss to the crowd and Bryant won his fifth and final title in what was the most recent chapter in the Lakers-Celtics rivalry.
10. (1993) Chicago Bulls defeat Phoenix Suns 4-2
(Finals MVP: Michael Jordan)
The 1993 Finals was the most competitive of Michael Jordan’s first three-peat. His 57-win Bulls tallied their lowest win total in their early-1990s title run and appeared vulnerable after going down 2-0 to New York in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Phoenix, on the other hand, won a league-best 62 games, and although it narrowly prevailed in its three previous Western Conference playoff series, the team had a real shot to dethrone Chicago since it had the home-court advantage.
One of the big storylines going into this Finals was Charles Barkley vs. Jordan. Barkley won the 1993 MVP, ending Jordan’s streak of doing so the previous two years, and people saw this series as a chance for Barkley to assert himself as the league’s new top player. He even said in a pre-game interview that “God wants us to win the World Championship.”
But the Suns dropped the series’ first two games on their home floor, a hole they’d never recover from. They still had a great chance to even the series at 2-2 after winning Game 3 in Chicago, yet Jordan thwarted their strong efforts with a 55-point performance. It was truly Jordan’s peak.
Somehow the Suns responded with a Game 5 victory to take the series back to back to Phoenix. Game 6 was a nail-biter the entire way, and this time it wasn’t Jordan who put the finishing touches on a championship. Down two points, John Paxson found himself wide-open on a 3-point attempt with just a few seconds left. He hit it in what was a true example of Chicago’s growth as a team not solely reliant on Jordan’s heroics.
Jordan, after averaging a Finals-record 41 points per game in the series, retired for the first time later that summer.
9. (1998) Chicago Bulls defeat Utah Jazz 4-2
(Finals MVP: Michael Jordan)
The second Finals meeting between the Bulls and the Jazz was just as competitive as the previous series, if not more. The only game not decided by five points or less was Game 3, where Chicago held Utah to a Finals-low 54 points and won by 42.
Utah lost the first two games of the series the year before but won a close Game 1 at home. This made some think the battle would end differently this time around. The Bulls then won three straight afterward, looking once again like the more experienced team that always executed better at the end of games.
With Chicago up 3-1 once again, Game 5 looked like a sure-fire Bulls win on their home court. Karl Malone, somewhat known for coming up short in big spots, had another idea in mind. He exploded for 39 points in what was arguably his greatest playoff moment to that point, leading the Jazz to a two-point win that brought the series back to Utah for the remainder of its duration.
Game 6 was a top playoff game of all time. Jordan and Bulls endured plenty of hardships, controversy and injuries up to that point in 1998, and now Scottie Pippen was hindered by an injured back. He battled through it for 25 minutes in the contest and did just enough to keep Utah honest, but Chicago needed a vintage Jordan performance to keep the Jazz from capturing all momentum heading into a Game 7 at home.
Jordan did just that in a game many thoughts was his last in a Bulls uniform. He poured in 45 points and closed out the game in a way only “his Airness” could. Down one with under a minute remaining, Utah had the ball and called for a Malone post-up on the right block. He got the pass, but just as he was ready to make his move, Jordan snuck behind him from the baseline and stole the ball. He then calmly isolated Bryon Russell on the other end, hit him a debatable push-off move and swished the championship-winning shot.
Jordan had come up short on his previous few jumpers, so when he made this one, he held his follow-through an extra second longer than normal. That allowed for one of the most iconic photos in NBA history, with Jordan posing for his last great basketball moment. A true storybook ending that left audiences satisfied after a marvelous career.
8. (1997) Chicago Bulls defeat Utah Jazz 4-2
(Finals MVP: Michael Jordan)
Jordan had a chip on his shoulder going into the series. Malone was the 1997 MVP as Utah won a franchise-record 64 games despite the Bulls winning 69 games and Jordan once again leading the league in scoring. It felt like voters were tired of giving Jordan the award so often, and Jordan, per usual, took this personally. He saw this Finals as a chance to once again solidify his place as the game’s best player, as well as remain a champion.
Game 1 was neck-and-neck throughout. With 7.5 seconds left and the game tied at 82, coach Phil Jackson called an isolation for Jordan for the last play. Jordan then took Russell off the dribble and hit a pull-up buzzer-beater in what was one of the more casual and ruthless game-winners you’ll ever see.
The Bulls won their first two games at home. The Jazz won their next two at home. Game 5 was in Utah, but it was reported before the contest that Jordan was suffering from “flu-like symptoms.” No one knew what to expect. He somehow then played arguably the gutsiest game of his career, tallying 38 points in 44 minutes and making a clutch late-game 3-pointer to help his team win by two points in a hostile environment. Jordan was visibly exhausted, but his team needed his heroism to take control of the series.
Utah controlled most of Game 6 until Chicago took over the fourth quarter, winning the period by 10 and holding the Jazz to just 16 points. Jordan had 39 points on 35 shots, but the bench came through in the clutch. Steve Kerr hit the biggest shot of his career with five seconds remaining to put the Bulls up 88-86, famously conversing with Jordan during a prior timeout about being ready to shoot if they doubled the superstar.
7. (1962) Boston Celtics defeat Los Angeles Lakers 4-3
(Finals MVP didn’t exist)
The 1962 Finals is the last to have a Game 7 decided in overtime, and it featured two record-setting performances that still stand to this day. The first of which was Elgin Baylor’s 61-point outburst in Game 5 that helped his Lakers take a 3-2 lead in the series against a Celtics team playing in its sixth consecutive championship. After evening the series in Game 6, Bill Russell grabbed a staggering 40 rebounds in the deciding contest. The game was indeed very different back then and the high-paced style allowed for more inflated statistics, but both of these feats deserve their proper respect.
Baylor and Jerry West averaged a combined 71.7 points per game in this series and gave L.A. a chance to end Boston’s dynasty on the final regulation possession in Game 7. Laker forward Frank Selvy missed an open baseline jumper in the last five seconds of the fourth quarter, a shot that would have vaulted West and Baylor to the top of the NBA. Instead, Russell’s Celtics prevailed in overtime by three points and the two Lakers centerpieces would lose repeatedly to Boston for the next decade.
6. (1988) Los Angeles Lakers defeat Detroit Pistons 4-3
(Finals MVP: James Worthy)
This Finals featured two teams built completely differently. The defending champion Lakers still had their flashy “Showtime” persona, although Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was well past his prime, while the “Bad Boy” Pistons made their name through physical defense and intimidation.
These contrasting styles made for a compelling, hard-fought series in which the momentum constantly swung. Detroit won Game 1, L.A. won the next pair and Detroit won the two after that. Up 3-2 heading into Game 6, it looked like the Pistons had the momentum.
The Lakers’ bolted to a seven-point halftime lead thanks to a 33-point second quarter. Down eight early in the third frame, Isiah Thomas got hot and scored Detroit’s next 14 points before going down with an ankle injury. The injury was significant but the tough Thomas returned to the game with 3:44 left in the quarter and scored 11 more points. He was hobbling up and down the court and still scored a Finals-record 25 points in the quarter to help his team to a two-point lead.
The fourth quarter was close throughout. It came down to a questionable foul call on Bill Laimbeer that sent Abdul-Jabbar to the free-throw line, where he hit both attempts to take a one-point lead. Detroit failed to score on its final possession, losing in heartbreaking fashion after a legendary performance by Thomas.
Thomas scored 10 first-half points in Game 7 but couldn’t fight through the pain and stiffness in his ankle and played little in the game’s final two quarters. The Lakers’ lead ballooned to 10 after the third frame before the Pistons came roaring back to cut their deficit to two points multiple times.
It wasn’t enough, however, as “Big Game” James Worthy earned his nickname with a 36-points triple-double performance. He was awarded his lone Finals MVP in what marked both the first team to win back-to-back championships in 19 years and the last title of the “Showtime” era.
5. (2016) Cleveland Cavaliers defeat Golden State Warriors 4-3
(Finals MVP: LeBron James)
The 2016 Finals was a historic and compelling series between the winningest regular-season team ever, the 73-win Warriors, and a finally healthy Cavaliers team featuring LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. It’s arguably the most iconic championship series of James’ illustrious career, but people forget just how lackluster each game was leading into that top-tier Game 7.
None of the first six games of this Finals were decided by a single-digit margin. Game 4 was close for the first three quarters but Golden State pulled away in the fourth frame. Games 5 and 6 featured back-to-back 41-point performances from James but the Warriors struggled to hit shots.
It didn’t matter how lopsided the first six games were, though, because the finish was as dramatic as any Finals ever. At one point down 3-1, Cleveland battled back to even the series despite almost everyone writing them off. No team had won the Finals after going down 3-1. All of a sudden it came down to 48 minutes in Oracle Arena.
Game 7 was a dog fight. The Warriors held a seven-point lead at the half before J.R. Smith scored eight straight points to start the third quarter. Draymond Green, who was suspended for Game 5 after receiving his fourth flagrant foul of the playoffs, played arguably the best game of his career, tallying 32 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and going 6-of-8 from behind the arc.
The fourth quarter saw both teams tighten up. The potent Warriors offense scored just 13 points and the game was tied 89-89 for nearly three minutes down the stretch. Golden State looked to have broken through and earned an easy fastbreak layup before James came out of nowhere to chase-down Andre Iguodala’s attempt, arguably the signature play of his career.
About 50 seconds later Irving isolated Stephen Curry on the right-wing and nailed a stepback triple to break the tie. Curry tried to answer with a 3-pointer over Love on the other end but it went long. Cleveland hung on, won its first franchise title, became the first team ever to win after down 3-1 in the Finals and James ascended near the top of the all-time rankings.
4. (1970) New York Knicks defeat Los Angeles Lakers 4-3
(Finals MVP: Willis Reed)
This Finals featured a deep and versatile Knicks bunch against the big-three Lakers of West, Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain played just 12 games in the regular season after suffering a knee injury but returned to form in the playoffs, and because of his absence, the Lakers went just 46-36 in the regular season.
New York, on the other hand, led the league with 60 wins behind Walt Frazier and Willis Reed. Reed dominated the first four games of the series to the tune of 31.8 points, 15 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game before suffering a torn muscle in his thigh eight minutes into Game 5. He missed Game 6 — a 22-point Lakers win — and was doubtful for Game 7. He shocked everyone in Madison Square Garden, however, when he emerged from the locker room during warmups with his uniform on as the crowd met him with thunderous applause.
He’d only play in the first half, but Reed’s presence made all the difference for his team. He scored New York’s first four points with two jumpers in Chamberlain grill and then held the Lakers center to just 2-of-9 shooting in the half as the Knicks built a 69-42 halftime lead.
L.A. made a late push but the deficit proved insurmountable. Reed won the Finals MVP and was the hero for his courageous effort. Frazier, though, had one of the greatest forgotten playoff performances ever in Game 7 with 36 points, 19 assists and seven rebounds.
Games 2-5 of the series were tightly contested, and the final chapter, although not a nail-biter, was thrilling because of Reed’s determination.
3. (1984) Boston Celtics defeat Los Angeles Lakers 4-3
(Finals MVP: Larry Bird)
The long-awaited Finals matchup between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird finally came to fruition in 1984. The league’s two premier franchises hadn’t met each other in a championship series in 15 years, and the rivalry between Johnson and Bird had been building since the two met in the 1979 NCAA championship game.
The series lived up to the hype and featured only two one-sided games. Game 5 was one of them, but it is considered a classic because the teams played in the non-air-conditioned Boston Garden in about 97-degree heat. Game 7 had similar conditions but was a more competitive game.
The series featured nine Hall of Famers and plenty of both late-game clutch shots and blunders, most notably in Game 2 when Boston’s Gerald Henderson stole a James Worthy pass for the game-tying layup before Johnson inexplicably dribbled the clock out on the final play of regulation — which sparked the “Tragic Johnson” headline. Neither team scored under 100 points in any game yet played extremely physically. It would be the first of three times the two teams met in the Finals in the 1980s.
2. (1969) Boston Celtics defeat Los Angeles Lakers 4-3
(Finals MVP: Jerry West)
Russell’s 11th and final championship was perhaps his most impressive. Boston, 48-34, earned the last playoff spot in its division and was expected to disband its core after the season because of age. The Lakers, conversely, finished with a then-franchise record 55 wins after acquiring Chamberlain to play alongside superstars West and Baylor.
The Lakers were heavy favorites in the series against the withered Celtics, yet the L.A. won the first two games by a combined margin of just eight points. Boston then won the next two games by a combined seven points, and the two teams exchanged the next two wins before a pivotal Game 7.
Baylor and West lost to Russell in five previous Finals going into this one, and even though the series came down to one game, many thought the tortured tandem would finally get over the hump with a center to counter Russell. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke even ordered thousands of balloons with “World Champion Lakers” on them and had flyers placed in every seat that said, “When, not if, the Lakers win the title, balloons will be released from the rafters, the USC marching band will play “Happy Days Are Here Again” and broadcaster Chick Hearn will interview Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain in that order.”
But Russell, knowing L.A. had just two guards active and that West was dealing with a hamstring injury, told his team to focus on the fastbreak. Boston then manufactured a 15-point lead heading into the fourth quarter thanks to 12 points in the third frame from Don Nelson.
Down nine with five minutes left, Chamberlain landed awkwardly and came out of the game with a knee injury. The Lakers then cut their deficit to one point with two minutes remaining, and although Chamberlain told coach Van Breda Kolff he could return to the action, the coach infamously brushed him off.
Boston held on and L.A.’s balloons never came down and — despite losing — West became the first Finals MVP in history with 38 points per game. Russell was speechless in his post-game interview after accomplishing the impossible. You could tell how much that underdog victory to end his career meant to him.
1. (2013) Miami Heat defeat San Antonio Spurs 4-3
(Finals MVP: LeBron James)
The 2013 Finals isn’t the greatest championship series because each game was close. Only games 1, 6 and 7 were nip-and-tuck. What makes it No.1 is Ray Allen’s miraculous corner-3 in Game 6.
So much was on the line in this series. Yes, the Heat won the title the previous season, but it was a lockout-shortened year and they beat an inexperienced Thunder team, so some didn’t give 100% legitimacy to the title. In 2013, against a deep and seasoned Spurs team, James and the Heat had a chance to solidify themselves as true champions and one of the great teams of all time.
After James went 8-for-22 in a Game 5 loss, it looked like Miami was done down 3-2. Danny Green was playing out of his mind and eventually set a Finals record with 27 3-pointers in the series, and Duncan was still playing at a superstar level as well. San Antonio held a 10-point lead heading into the fourth quarter of Game 6. It was time for James to step up or succumb to the criticisms that followed him throughout his career to that point.
James’ energy in the quarter got his team back into the game, but two turnovers in the game’s closing minutes almost cost them a chance at a Game 7. Allen’s shot saved James’ legacy and gave him one more chance to prove he could take a game over at the highest stage.
James did just that, scoring 37 points while the Spurs dared him to shoot jump shots. Shane Battier was also magnificent and made 6-of-8 from downtown. Duncan, Leonard and Ginobili were spectacular as well, but the team was somewhat emotionally drained after having a championship stripped from them. Down two with less than a minute to go, Duncan missed a wide-open hook shot. James hit a pull-up jumper out of a timeout to ice the game in what felt like a coming of age moment for the heavily scrutinized superstar.
This Finals was the defining series of the “Heatles” saga and the vindication of James’ greatness. Allen’s shot is perhaps the most famous in NBA history and was one of those “you remember where you were” moments. Instant classic.