This is the second half of last week’s Finals Countdown, a subjective ranking on the staying power of every Finals this millennium. The complete breakdown of the first nine Finals ranked can be found here. However, here’s the recap:
18. 2007 Finals: San Antonio Spurs over Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-0
17. 2003 Finals: San Antonio Spurs over New Jersey Nets, 4-2
16. 2002 Finals: Los Angeles Lakers over New Jersey, Nets 4-0
15. 2009 Finals: Los Angeles Lakers over Orlando Magic, 4-1
14. 2005 Finals: San Antonio Spurs over Detroit Pistons, 4-3
13. 2017 Finals: Golden State Warriors over Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-1
12. 2000 Finals: Los Angeles Lakers over Indiana Pacers, 4-2
11. 2012 Finals: Miami Heat over Oklahoma City Thunder, 4-1
10. 2015 Finals: Golden State Warriors over Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-2
On to the most memorable National Basketball Association Finals since Charles Barkley hung it up and joined the TNT panel.
9. 2014 Finals: San Antonio Spurs over Miami Heat, 4-1
The result: The Spurs were motivated, focused, and healthy. The Heat were none of those things. The fourth and last Finals appearance from the collective talent of Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade was unremarkable. In fact, the Spurs clubbed them. The Spurs won their four games by an average of 18 points. Not one of their four wins saw a deficit of less than 15. Tim Duncan nabbed his fifth ring and Kawhi Leonard emerged as a future superstar, becoming the youngest Finals MVP since Magic Johnson in 1980.
The narrative: The 2014 San Antonio Spurs were on a mission. Once perceived as boring, without a narrative tied to their wagon they were a constant but colorless presence in the playoffs. Not this year, not this time. Revenge was on their minds, after a haunting loss in the 2013 Finals, they were not settling for anything short of a dismantling of the Heatles.
“The Spurs have pulled off the remarkable feat of rebuilding while remaining a championship contender. In the past three years, San Antonio found value in players no one else in the League wanted (Boris Diaw, Danny Green and Mills) and added the future of the franchise (Leonard) in 2011. Those pieces allowed Duncan, Ginobili and Parker to adapt to diminished roles without losing their effectiveness.”
With James’ pending free agency (and subsequent departure), Leonard’s ascension and no clear-cut team up next, the Spurs looked poised to keep on rolling. A flawless machine steamrolling through the Association for another decade.
8. 2001 Finals: Los Angeles Lakers over Philadelphia 76ers, 4-1
The result: 15-1. The Los Angeles Lakers 2001 playoff run was authoritative. Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers stealing Game 1 of the Finals was an act of scornful defiance in a futile fight. Iverson going for 48 points, 5 rebound, 6 assists, and 5 steals in that win is still one of the most impressive individual Finals performances of all-time. That said, the Sixers just didn’t have it and might’ve been one of the biggest underdogs in Finals history. Shaquille O’Neal shredded the Defensive Player of the Year (Dikembe Mutombo) to the tune of 33 PPG and was awarded his second Finals MVP. Kobe Bryant tried his best to come out of Shaq’s big shadow, but he was clearly not ready yet. He averaged 24.6 PPG while shooting just .415, but he did fill in the other areas (7.8 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.4 SPG and 1.4 BPG).
The narrative: Iverson might have been the most polarizing player in the series and the conversations at the time reflect that. The reigning MVP, the rebel, the fashion icon. But this Lakers team was perceived as invincible. Although we know now they’d only win one more ring, there was no end in sight at the time, especially when O’Neal was just 29 and Kobe was 22.
“”I think they’ll win five more years as long as they don’t take Kobe away from Shaq or Shaq away from Kobe,” said Manuel Bravo, also sporting a No. 34 jersey.”
Oops. They would win one more (against another overmatched team, the Nets, No. 16 on this list) on sheer talent before the Shaq-Kobe fissure became bigger than the San Andreas fault that the city sits near.
7. 2004 Finals: Detroit Pistons over Los Angeles Lakers, 4-1
The result: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard, or in this case, when talent works hard against itself. The Goin’ to Work Pistons felled the dynasty but the Lakers lack of chemistry and excess of pride led to the fall. For more on the specifics, Ric Bucher did a great oral history on what he coined as the “1st Super Team.”
The Pistons sported a balanced cast who understood the value of chemistry and teamwork. Chauncey Billups was awarded the Finals MVP but Ben Wallace’s defense vs. O’Neal and monster 18-point, 22-rebound closing effort are also worth noting.
The narrative: After an exhausting season filled with drama that could’ve made the current Cavaliers squeamish, the Lakers dynasty toppled over. Bryant and O’Neal were headed for a divorce and everyone knew it. Jackson was collateral damage of the Bryant takeover and the next few years would be a struggle for the Lakers.
“Even in this realm of oversized men brazenly pursuing their own agendas, it’s hard to fathom the Lakers’ implosion. “In the history of the game,” said one GM, “there’s never been that much turmoil after that much success. “Anyone with any sense knows that a team with Shaq and Kobe on the same page (or at least in the same book) and Jackson ruling sagaciously from the sideline should have been practically unbeatable. On some level O’Neal and Bryant knew that as well.”
Be that as it may, Game 5 of the 2004 Finals would be the last the two would ever play as teammates (not counting the 2009 All-Star Game, where the two would reunite to share game MVP honors). The rift continued for a few years after—there were the icy pregame theatrics, a diss track and numerous jabs through the media—before the two made up, formalized with their recent sit down summit for TNT. The breakup remains the one of the biggest what-ifs in the NBA.
6. 2006 Finals: Miami Heat over Dallas Mavericks, 4-2
The result: Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks flew high in 2005-06 with a 60-win season, but Wade and the Heat hit the summit first. Averaging 39.3 PPG in the final four games of the series, Wade literally could not be stopped. Seriously, the Mavericks threw an assortment of looks at Wade and he simply would not be denied. He averaged 18.3 free throw attempts night over those four games, making the likes of Josh Howard, Marquis Daniels, and Jerry Stackhouse all pay.
The narrative: Understandably, Wade’s performance was the story. According to CNN over 500 articles popped up in June of 2006 comparing Wade to Michael Jordan. A lesser footnote was O’Neal playing the secondary role for a championship team for the first and only time in his career. O’Neal also secured his fourth ring before Bryant, further kindling for the unquenchable Bean blaze.
“For Dallas, it’s foul trouble—they have the right guys to guard Shaq and Wade, but you can’t predict those games when all the calls start going Miami’s way. And that’s the thing that bothers me about this series: No team depends on the refs quite like the Heat. When the refs are calling all the bumps on Shaq and protecting Wade on every drive, they’re unstoppable. When they’re calling everything fairly, they’re eminently beatable. If they’re not getting any calls, they’re just about hopeless. I could see the refs swinging two games in Miami’s favor during this series, possibly three. In fact, I’m already depressed about it and the series hasn’t even started yet.”
The Heat had 86 free throws over the final two games, the Mavericks had 45. Wade had 43 on his own, but he was also the most aggressive player on the court. The victory established Wade as one of the top players of his generation (he would be the first player from the vaunted 2003 draft to win a Finals MVP) and be a reason for LeBron James’ arrival four years later.
5. 2008 Finals: Boston Celtics over Los Angeles Lakers, 4-2
The result: Danny Ainge’s super juggernaut (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen) formed in the offseason meant business and were not at all intimidated by the Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol pairing. Pierce secured the Finals MVP but the team played with Kevin Garnett’s intensity, rallying back from a 24-point deficit in Game 4. Allen and Pierce shot like men possessed the entire series and the Garden was burning in Game 6. The Celtics dismissed the Lakers in savage fashion, winning the final contest by 39 points.
The narrative: It was Celtics-Lakers for the new generation as the two storied franchises met on the Finals stage for the 11th time. The Celtics won their League-high 17th title and a trio of long celebrated stars saw their all-time stock raise immensely and guaranteed themselves a future Hall of Fame induction. For Bryant, it was a long journey back to the Finals, the first time back since Shaq departed Los Angeles. The Lakers would be thwarted but not defeated. The loss would serve as motivation—not that Kobe needed any more—to come back.
“The Celtics did not just beat the Los Angeles Lakers, they crushed them—and left no doubt that the Larry O’Brien trophy belonged back in Boston after a 22-year hiatus.
Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce—three stars who had known individual glory but no gratification—will soon have their fist championship rings. So will Coach Doc Rivers, who deftly blended their talents after they were united last summer.”
The series was nostalgic for many older NBA fans who can recall the ’80s, when the two teams squared off three times in the Finals and even a regular-season affair between the Lakers and Celtics meant appointment television. For the even more seasoned fan, it harkened back to the ’60s, when the two teams had a one-sided rivalry as the Celtics were 7-0 in the Finals vs. the Lakers from 1959-1969.
4. 2010 Finals: Los Angeles Lakers over Boston Celtics, 4-3
The result: The rematch of 2008, this time with Bryant’s and Gasol’s Lakers getting their revenge from two years prior. The Celtics team had the same name power from their 2008 championship, but the stars had already begun to burn out. Pierce was 32, Garnett was 33, Allen was 34, and the new addition Rasheed Wallace was 35. Bryant won his fifth and final ring in a tough series with huge contributions from Gasol and Metta World Peace. Bryant battled through injuries most of the year and this was the last time the core would reach the pinnacle. The last chapter of the League’s most prestigious rivalry to date.
The narrative: Not unlike the 2014 Spurs, the series was personal for Bryant, Gasol, and the Lakers who were embarrassed by the franchise’s rival in 2008. As much as revisionist history likes to paint a picture of Bryant honing his mamba eyes and sharpening his fangs to will the Lakers to victory in Game 7, it wasn’t a singular effort. The Lakers blew the doors off the Celtics in Game 6 to set up the win-or-go-home game. In those final pivotal two games, the Lakers needed Gasol’s poise and inside presence, Derek Fisher’s clutch shooting and World Peace’s elite two-way play to close it out.
“It’s honestly too soon to know whether fans will look back at the 2010 NBA Finals and remember Bryant’s poor performance, or if they will just remember that he won a ring against Boston.”
Bryant’s fifth title broke the tie between him and Shaq and put him in the same stratosphere as Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Tim Duncan. Kobe deservedly took home his second Finals MVP, but he needed all the help he got from his teammates. The series overall was a defensive slog—the Lakers averaged 90.6 PPG and the Celtics 87.1, while combining to shoot .425—and serve as Bryant’s last appearance in the Finals. The Lakers would be competitive for two more seasons before Bryant would succumb to injuries.
3. 2013 Finals : Miami Heat over San Antonio Spurs, 4-3
The result: Before there was the block, the shot, and the stop there was, “Rebound Bosh, Back out to Allen, his three-pointer, BANG! Tie game with five seconds remaining!” The most memorable individual shot of my lifetime. Game 6, 2013. If Coach Gregg Popovich doesn’t pull out Duncan, if Bosh doesn’t grab the rebound or if Allen misses the shot—the Heatles era ends with one title. With the emotional high of the Game 6 victory, James converted the momentum into a 37-point finale, securing Game 7 despite Allen and Bosh each failing to convert even one shot in the contest.
The narrative: For the first time ever, Duncan and Popovich had been bested on the big stage. James fully healed himself of the sweep scars the Spurs strapped him with in 2007 and Wade won his third ring, tying Larry Bird. Game 7 sealed it but Game 6 was a once-in-a-generation contest and people knew it.
“…In terms of the stakes at hand, the palpable urgency, and the overall quality of play, this was the greatest Finals game since…I’m not sure when. There are a couple of Utah-Chicago games from the 1997 and 1998 Finals that have a place in the discussion, especially the Jordan Flu/Food Poisoning Game, but if you prefer last night’s elimination thriller to that legendary non-elimination game, then you have to reach back into the peak Jordan-Bird-Magic years to find something that compares. That’s how great this game was. I can still barely process it.”
Most people took the “…not six, not seven” championship claims as boasting, when it was merely hyperbolic banter (it was a pep rally to introduce the team, after all). That aside, this title made good on the multiple championships that were promised—and expected—with LeBron’s arrival to South Beach along with Chris Bosh. No one did predict at the time that this would be the last championship for the Heatles chapter in Miami, but at the same time, no one would imagine that LeBron would be playing in the next five Finals after this one either.
2. 2011 Finals: Dallas Mavericks over Miami Heat, 4-2
The result: After a special playoff run, Nowitzki and his hungry cast of veterans drew the League’s newest and fiercest super team. It was supposed to be the King’s time to shine atop the mountain but it was the Baller from the G who registered a flu game. After being mocked by James and Wade for, in their eyes, embellishing his illness, Nowitzki had a game-high 29 points and led the Mavericks to a pivotal 3-2 series lead. Back in Miami for Game 6, the Mavericks closed shop just in time to spend the night at LIV with Larry O’Brien.
The narrative: It was the title of dreamers, of underdogs, of cherished veterans, of beloved characters. The Mavericks title was tantalizing, the victory ever more blissful because it came against those Heatles of such public distrust and disdain. The masses loved Nowitzki, the masses did not love those Heat teams. The 2011 Miami Heat were hated more than the current Warriors and the Mavericks winning was perceived as some sort of cosmic justice. It was the perfect moment for long serving Association favorites and notable mainstays. Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, DeShawn Stevenson, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic had all made their mark in one way or another but together they left an imprint on the very mythology of the game.
“After this year of scolding and moral posturing, we have arrived at a final scene: Dirk Nowitzki—a simple man from vague origins—walks alone into battle against three mercenaries whose heedless and reckless pursuit of personal gain has unhinged the American Way. . .
The 2011 Finals, strangely, is the most metaphoric series in years, not because the Mavericks, or even Dirk, carry any inherent meaning, but because something must stand in opposition to Team Villain.”
The 2011 Finals was very much scripted like a WWE main event: You had a heel in Miami, who brashly declared victory before the season even started. The “face” in Dallas, a hardworking unit that had knocked on the title door, only to see it never open. The Mavericks were the midwestern scrappy David against the Goliath from glamorous South Beach. Even the hate-watchers didn’t put much hope in Dallas coming out on top. The series served as a lesson of comeuppance, humility and schadenfreude for messing with the basketball gods.
1. 2016 Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers over Golden State Warriors, 4-3
The result: The first 3-1 comeback in Finals history. How’s that for a result? Admittedly, the series wasn’t always an invigorating thrill ride. The first three games were all blowouts and the tone was grim when Game 4 closed out. Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5 and the Cavaliers capitalized. James and Kyrie Irving each went for 41 points to get out of Oracle alive. The Warriors were disoriented in Game 6 at Quicken Loans and James hit them with another 41 to force Game 7. The final and most epic game of the series came down featured poor shooting and a defensive tone. 89-89 and then, “Iguodala to Curry back to Iguodala up for the layup—oh blocked by James!” The Warriors wouldn’t score again and an Irving three would seal the deal.
The narrative: James averaged 36.3 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 9.7 APG, 3 SPG and 3 BPG in the three elimination games. The GOAT debate was cracked wide open, James had pushed his underdog Cavaliers over a 73-win Warriors team that defeated and wounded was lusting for Kevin Durant in the parking lot following Game 7. Cleveland’s drought ended and not that he owed them anything but James did right by every man, woman, and child in Ohio.
“In the end, maybe the most emphatic element here is that James does this to Iguodala, who won Finals MVP for defending James last year, and who many felt had “solved” James again early on in this series. (Hint: I was one such person.) In the final two games of this series, James blocked Iguodala, Green and Curry. Message: delivered.”
In the 2011 Finals, LeBron and the Justice League Heat were served up a heaping slice of humble pie. They learned from that lesson and won two subsequent titles. When LeBron returned home in 2014, he took that experience back with him to Cleveland. The Warriors were 73-9 that season, making them the greatest (regular season) team of all time. LeBron made sure of that parenthetical statement. LeBron remembered what it was like to play the cocky favorite and turned the tables against a great team. LeBron took the cherry—and sprinkles, chocolate sauce and whipped cream—from the Warriors’ sundae and placed it on top of his banana split. LeBron didn’t promise a title for Northeast Ohio, but he did it anyway, making amends to a tortured fanbase and earning himself a free pass to possibly leave again.