There are so many great games throughout NBA history, but which were the most watched? The league has seen its audience grow exponentially since David Stern became commissioner in 1984, yet inaccurate pre-2000s data and the recent streaming revolution make it difficult to truly track the most live-viewed games ever.
There were several games, though, simply too captivating for the average sports fan to ignore. The NBA Finals is the pinnacle of basketball around the world, so naturally, those games draw the most attention.
Here are the top-10 most-watched games in NBA history, taking into account that Nielsen data before 1998 didn’t always provide accurate or detailed statistics.
(Note: the first number next to each game is its Nielsen rating, which represents the percentage of total T.V. households that watched the program. The approximate viewership was calculated based on the series’ average rating and viewership in comparison to that particular game’s Nielsen rating.)
10. 2010 Finals Game 7
(15.6, 28.2 million viewers)
The NBA’s two most storied franchises, the Lakers and Celtics, last played each other in the Finals in 2010. The series went back-and-forth and culminated in a Game 7 after Los Angeles held Boston to just 67 points the previous outing. Both teams were exhausted and pushed to their breaking points that resulted in a slog of a game in which both teams shot a combined 36% from the field, according to basketball-reference.
This game was a true battle. L.A., down nine points after the opening period and four points heading the fourth quarter, battled its way back to take a three-point lead with just over a minute remaining. Kobe Bryant shot just 6-for-24 in the game, so with his team needing one last bucket to secure the victory, Metta World Peace rose to the occasion. Bryant swung him the ball on the right-wing and called for it back, but World Peace took matters into his own hands. He gave Paul Pierce a quick jab step and let a 3-pointer fly in what was a true “No, no, yes!” moment as it swished through the net.
World Peace was the unsung hero of the game with 20 points, helping the Lakers win 83-79. The game contained all the drama one could ask for in a Game 7 and was Byrant’s fifth and final championship.
9. 1987 Finals Games 4 and 5
(each 18.9, approximately 28.67 million viewers)
The 1987 Finals was the last of three Finals meetings between Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics. They split the first two series, so fans understandably gathered around their televisions to see how the rubber match unfolded.
Game 4 was the better of these two games as the Lakers held on 107-106 to take a 3-1 series lead. Bird made a corner-triple to take a two-point Boston lead with 12 seconds remaining. After Kareem Abdul-Jabbar missed a free throw that went out of bounds off Kevin McHale, Johnson converted perhaps most famous of his career, swishing a baby skyhook in the final seconds to take a one-point lead in the Boston Garden.
What’s lost to history is this game’s last shot. Bird sprung open in the corner with two seconds left and let go a jumper that looked ready to fall through the hoop. It was straight but a bit too long, and the Lakers escaped with an insurmountable 3-1 series lead.
8. 1998 NBA Finals Game 4
(19.1, 18.7 million households, approximately 29.66 million viewers)
Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” predictably garnered unparalleled interest from even the most casual basketball fans. No one wanted to miss the greatest player of his generation’s last Finals series, especially with the immense drama surrounding the team leading up to Chicago’s battle against Utah.
The Bulls held the Jazz to just 54 points the previous outing to take a 2-1 lead in the series, so with Game 4 in Chicago, everyone wanted to see if Karl Malone and John Stockton could bounce back. They did, and the game was neck-and-neck throughout. Jordan and Scottie Pippen, however, were too great to overcome.
The two Bulls icons combined for 62 points, with Pippen shooting 5-of-10 from behind the arc to win 86-82. The series was then essentially over with Chicago leading 3-1.
7. 1988 NBA Finals Game 7
(21.2, approximately 30 million viewers)
The 1988 Finals was the “Showtime” Lakers’ fifth and final title, as well as James Worthy’s career-defining series. With the 40-year-old Abdul-Jabbar no longer to shoulder the bulk of the team’s scoring load, Worthy filled his shoes and led the Lakers with 22 points per game in this series.
Isiah Thomas played one of the all-time gutsy games in NBA history in Game 6, dropping 43 points after spraining his ankle — including 25 points in the third quarter. L.A. somehow won the game by one point to force a Game 7, and with the pressure at its highest, Worthy earned the nickname “Big Game James” for his 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists to win 108-105. He’d win Finals MVP, but Detroit swept them in the Finals the following year.
6. 1993 NBA Finals Game 4
(19.8, 18.4 million households, approximately 30.3 million viewers)
The 1993 Finals came down to MVP Charles Barkley vs. reigning back-to-back champion Jordan. The 62-win Suns were the top team that season and Barkley guaranteed a championship heading into the series, but they dropped both games at home to start the Finals. Phoenix returned to form to win in Game 3, so fans were anxious to see if they could even things up in Game 4.
Barkley’s 32-point triple-double wasn’t enough. Jordan dropped a Finals-record 55 points, including a game-clinching and-1 in the last 30 seconds. This was arguably the best performance of Jordan’s illustrious career.
5. 1998 NBA Finals Game 5
(19.8, 30.6 million viewers)
With the Bulls holding a 3-1 lead and Game 5 in Chicago, over 30 million viewers tuned-in to watch what they thought would be Jordan’s final NBA game. Hoping he would give one last stellar performance, fans instead watched Malone have arguably his best playoff game up to that point.
The Jazz forward tallied 39 points on 63% shooting, helping extend the series with an 83-81 Utah victory. Jordan, conversely, shot just 9-for-26 from the field. Pippen was even worse and shot an abysmal 2-for-16, but he did have 11 rebounds and 11 assists. Toni Kukoc was the only reason the Bulls made it a close, dropping a playoff career-high 30 points on 11-of-13 shooting.
This game set up what would be one of the most legendary games in NBA history two nights later.
4. 1997 NBA Finals Game 5
(20.1, 19.5 million households, approximately 31 million viewers)
Utah evened the series at 2-2 after dropping the first two games, so Game 5 of the 1997 Finals was a must-win for the Jazz. They’d have to go back to Chicago for Game 6, and there was little chance any team could win back-to-back games late in a playoff series in that hostile environment. As if the drama wasn’t already palpable, Jordan’s health became an issue when it was reported that he had flu-like symptoms before the game.
Many thought a less than 100% Jordan spelled doom for the Bulls. Somehow, though, he put together the gutsiest performance of his career, which was later dubbed the “Flu Game.” Jordan played over 44 minutes and had 38 points, including a clutch triple down the stretch to seal the 90-88 victory. He nearly collapsed in Pippen’s arms during a late-game timeout and was visibly exhausted the entire game. This game epitomized the competitor and winner Jordan was.
3. 2016 NBA Finals Game 7
(15.8, 31.02 million viewers)
The most viewed NBA game of the modern era, Game 7 of the 2016 Finals lived up to the hype. It's over 31 million viewers, nearly doubled the totals of Games 3 and 4, as many declared the series over once Golden State went up 3-1. Luckily, the series was far from over.
LeBron James played two magnificent games to help even the series and force one last battle in Oracle Arena, gradually increasing the belief of the masses that Cleveland could be the first team in Finals history to win after being down 3-1. The Cavaliers faced a record-setting 73-win Warriors team led by first unanimous MVP Stephen Curry, and it came down to one more game for the title. Of course, fans watched in droves.
None of the series’ previous six games were particularly close, but this contest was a nail-biter. The game came down to an incredible chase-down block by James and then an ice-cold stepback triple from Kyrie Irving, two of the most famous plays in recent basketball history. James had a triple-double while Curry and Klay Thompson shot a combined 6-of-24 from the field. It stands as the greatest comeback in Finals history.
2. 1993 NBA Finals Game 6
(20.3, 32.1 million viewers)
After the Suns surprisingly won Game 5 in Chicago, many thought the Bulls were in trouble. Game 6 was in Phoenix and Horace Grant scored just one point in the previous outing. It looked like the series would go down to the wire.
Grant scored just one point again in Game 6, but the Bulls got valuable contributions from B.J. Armstrong, Trent Tucker and especially John Paxson. The game was close throughout and Chicago had just nine points in the fourth quarter as the Suns went up two points in the final minute. Then, in what was a true display of teamwork, the Bulls executed a perfect play to win the game. Jordan brought up the ball, passed ahead to Pippen who found Grant in the paint and then kicked-out to a wide-open Paxson on the wing to hit the go-ahead triple with less than four seconds remaining.
It was the peak of Chicago’s first three-peat and a heartbreaking defeat for Barkley and his Suns. Although no one knew at the time, the game would be Jordan’s last for over a year and a half as he retired for the first time a few months later. It’d also be Barkley’s last chance at glory since he never again reached the Finals.
1. 1998 NBA Finals Game 6
(22.3, 35.89 million viewers)
The last game of Jordan’s career with the Bulls was both the most-watched NBA game ever and the perfect storybook ending to his illustrious Chicago career. If you didn’t watch it live, go on YouTube and watch the last minute or so. The final sequence epitomizes the greatness of Michael Jordan.
No one wanted to miss Jordan’s swan song (let’s not count his Wizards years), and he gave fans one last spectacular show. The Bulls led the series 3-2 and were running on fumes. After losing Game 5 in Chicago, Jordan needed to finish off the Jazz in Game 6 and thwart any chance Utah of going into a Game 7 at home with confidence. The Jazz gave a good effort, led by Malone’s 31 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, but Jordan’s 45 points were too much to overcome.
With Pippen hobbled by a bad back, Jordan carried the Bulls with 45 points. In the final minute, Jordan stripped Malone with a brilliant baseline double-team, then went down the floor and swished the game-winning jumper. He held his follow-through as the ball went through the net, leaving basketball fans with a lasting image to remember him by. Chicago won its sixth and final championship with an 87-86 win in Utah, completing one of the most iconic dynasties in the league’s history.
Top 10 Most Viewed NBA Series on Average:
1998 NBA Finals: Bulls defeat Jazz 4-2 (18.7, 29.04 million viewers)
1993 NBA Finals: Bulls defeat Suns 4-2 (17.9, 27.21 million viewers)
1997 NBA Finals: Bull defeat Jazz 4-2 (16.8, 25.59 million viewers)
1996 NBA Finals: Bulls defeat SuperSonics 4-2 (16.7, 24.86 million viewers)
1987 NBA Finals: Lakers defeat Celtics 4-2 (15.9, 24.12 million viewers)
1991 NBA Finals: Bulls defeat Lakers 4-1 (15.8, 23.91 million viewers)
1988 NBA Finals: Lakers defeat Pistons 4-3 (15.4, 21.7 million viewers)
1989 NBA Finals: Pistons defeat Lakers (15.1, 21.26 million viewers)
1992 NBA Finals: Bulls defeat Trail Blazers 4-2 (14.2, 20.84 million viewers)
1986 NBA Finals: Celtics defeat Rockets 4-2 (14.1, 14.43 million viewers)