Posted May 25 2012 10:53AM - Updated May 26 2012 10:24AM
While the two teams competing for the last spot in the Eastern Conference finals are still sorting out their differences, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have spent most of this past week resting and sizing each other up from afar. They are anticipating a Western Conference finals showdown some observers feel is the true battle of the NBA's best teams.
It sounds a bit presumptuous to crown anyone the best of the best before the league's Final Four begins. But it's not unprecedented. There have been several instances in the history of the league when the conference finals were viewed as The "real" Finals.
In a league where nine teams (the Celtics, Lakers, Sixers, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, Spurs, Heat and Mavericks) have combined to win every Larry O'Brien trophy since 1980, it's easy to adopt that sort of myopic view.
We have the benefit of hindsight in deciding when the conference finals were more entertaining, more compelling and more hard-fought than The Finals.
We begin our look back with five conference finals that ended up better than The NBA Finals:
Looking back: For all of you 1980s babies, great basketball was played prior to Michael Jordan's arrival. And in the eyes of many, this epic battle between the Celtics and Sixers ranks as perhaps the greatest series of all time. They didn't just play seven games to decide the Eastern Conference champs. This was a classic heavyweight battle with five of the seven games decided by two points or less.
Each of the final four games in the series went down to the wire. Game 7 wasn't decided until the final possession. With Larry Bird defending, Sixers forward Bobby Jones lobbed a pass towards the basket, but it bounced off the top of the backboard and was tipped by Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell to preserve a 91-90 win end as the Boston Garden crowd stormed the court. The Celtics became just the fourth team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit to win it. By the time they got to The Finals, a Houston rockets team that became the first in league history to advance to the championship round with a losing (40-42) record was no match for the Eastern Conference champs. The Celtics won in six, finishing off the Rockets in Houston.
Looking back: The upstart and third-seeded Bulls, led by Jordan, were making their second straight appearance in the conference finals against the Bad Boy Pistons. Chicago had watched the Pistons and Celtics battle it out in consecutive years prior to their two-year tussle with them.
Led by Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, the Pistons wound up needing the security that home-court advantage provided as the home team won every game in this series. The Bulls pushed the series to seven games, however, and gave their fans a glimmer of hope and a hint of what was to come from the Jordan era. They won Game 6 by 18 points. So Game 7 was not considered an automatic for the Pistons. But a Chicago win was not going to happen, not with that seasoned Pistons team having clawed its way to the top after repeated whippings at the hands of the Celtics and the Lakers three years earlier in The Finals. The Pistons finished off the Bulls by 19 points in Game 7 and went on to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers 4-1 in The Finals to claim the second of two consecutive Larry O'Brien trophies.
Looking back: The Pacers did their best to prevent Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls from completing their second three-peat in the decade by waging a physical and relentless campaign in this tense seven-game series. The Bulls held serve at home in the first two games and the Pacers escaped with a narrow 107-105 Game 3 win. They needed a Reggie Miller 3-pointer with seven-tenths of a second to play to pull out a 95-94 Game 4 win.
They traded wins in the next two games, with each home team prevailing and setting up Game 7 at the United Center. This was just the second time in the Bulls' championship era that they'd ever been pushed to a Game 7 (the Knicks did it in 1992). The Pacers took them to the limit. But Jordan (28 points, nine rebounds and eight assists), Pippen (17 points, 12 and three) and Toni Kukoc (21 points, 3-for-4 from behind the 3-point line) proved to be too much for the Pacers to handle in the Bulls' 88-83 Game 7 win. They went on to knock off the Jazz 4-2 in The Finals, with Jordan's famous pull-up jumper with 5.2 seconds to play in Game 6.
Looking back: One team's collapse opened the door for another's dynasty in this epic series that saw the mighty Lakers, winners of 67 games during the regular season, get pushed to the brink of elimination on their home floor in Game 7.
A deep and talented Trail Blazers team won Games 5 and 6 in this series, rallying from a 3-1 series deficit, to force that Game 7. The Blazers had the Lakers down 15 points in the fourth quarter with one of the great upsets in playoff history within their grasp. But Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant would not allow it. The Lakers' dynamic duo led a furious rally as the home team went on a 15-0 run to erase that deficit in one of the most mercurial 10-minute stretches in the Lakers' storied history.
The Lakers surged as the Blazers, who had bottled O'Neal up the first three quarters by double- and triple-teaming him, flatlined during crunch time. They missed 13 straight shots, six from Rasheed Wallace, during that 15-0 Lakers' run that wiped out their lead. Shaq scored nine points in the fourth quarter, punctuating the comeback with a monstrous dunk on a lob from Bryant that gave the Lakers an 85-79 lead with 40 seconds to play. They went on to defeat the Pacers in The Finals in six games, the Lakers' first title since the Showtime era ended.
Looking back: Widely regarded as one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history, this colossal matchup between bitter rivals included four games coming down to the final seconds. Two games were decided by game-winning shots (the Lakers' Robert Horry did honors in Game 4 and the Kings' Mike Bibby returned the favor in Game 5) and there was an overtime session in Game 7.
Toss in the swirl of controversy after a Game 6 that saw the Lakers shoot 40 free throws, including 27 in the fourth quarter alone, and there's nothing this series lacked. The Kings had what appeared to be everything a team would need to upset the Lakers' three-peat run. They had home-court advantage and the star power -- Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic -- and firepower to go toe-to-toe with the Shaq-Kobe-Phil Lakers.
The series came down to that Game 7 at Arco Arena in Sacramento, a tense thriller that included 16 ties and 19 lead changes. But Shaq and Derek Fisher combined for 10 points in overtime and the Kings' woeful free-throw shooting (16-for-30), ugly 3-point shooting (2-for-20), nerves and the refusal of anyone other than Bibby (12 points in the fourth quarter, free throws to force overtime and team-high 29 points) to step up at crunch time did them in. Shaq finished with 35 points, Kobe with 30 and all five Lakers starters reached double figures in the 112-106 win. They went on to demolish the Nets in The Finals, sweeping them as Shaq earned his third straight Finals MVP trophy.
Five more that looked like the "real" Finals and turned out not to be:
Looking back: With Jordan retired for the first time, there was finally a clear path to the Eastern Conference title for a team capable of withstanding the rigors of the postseason. The Patrick Ewing-led Knicks, coached by Pat Riley, took that to heart. They played a record 25 postseason games, one short of a full postseason slate, on their way to The Finals. (The 2005 Pistons would later tie that record, by the way.)
The Knicks took down the Jordan-free Bulls in seven games in the conference semifinals and then went at it with the rival Pacers in a wicked seven-game series that saw both teams draw their share of blood (proverbial and actual plasma).
Game 5 included Reggie Miller's scintillating 25-point fourth-quarter effort. But the Knicks ultimately prevailed with a 94-90 Game 7 win at Madison Square Garden. There was no way they could get through that gauntlet in a loaded Eastern Conference and not win it all, right? Well, Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets had other plans. They won a seven-game slugfest that saw a Game 5 during the infamous O.J. Simpson freeway car chase and Olajuwon's series-saving block of a John Starks 3-pointer that would have sealed the championship for the Knicks in Game 6. The Rockets closed with a gritty 90-84 Game 7 win that saw Olajuwon cement his MVP performance with 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
Looking back: With the champion Rockets having to fight just to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, they were the sixth seed, and the Shaq-Penny Hardaway Magic steamrolling through the competition all season and the Jordan-led Bulls in the conference semifinals, this series with a seasoned Indiana team was supposed to be the only potential roadblock to a title for young Magic.
The Pacers proved to be a worthy adversary. A young, dominant Shaq had his hands full night after night with the Pacers' Rik Smits. Smits nailed a buzzer-beater to seal the Pacers' Game 4 win that evened the series at two games each.
But the Magic loaded up in Game 7 with five 3-pointers from Dennis Scott and 25 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks as Shaq dominated his matchup with Smits to roll to a 105-81 win. It was the last playoff win these Magic would see, however. The Rockets were busy on the other side of the postseason bracket shocking everyone by knocking off the top three seeds in the conference (No. 3 Utah in the first round, No. 2 Phoenix in the semifinals an the top-seeded Spurs and league MVP David Robinson in the conference finals) on their way to a return trip to The Finals. They didn't need home-court advantage this time around as they snatched Game 1, after four straight missed free throws from Nick Anderson led to a clutch 3-pointer from Kenny Smith to force overtime, and ultimately swept the Magic.
Looking back: This was supposed to be an epic clash between the two teams that had won two of the past three NBA titles. It also showcased the best big men in the game, Shaq and Tim Duncan, the Hollywood road show and the South Texas rodeo crew. Whoever the Eastern Conference offered up after these two heavyweights finished working each other over was considered little more than a nuisance on the way to either the Lakers or Spurs being crowned as champs.
But the monster battle that this series was supposed to be never materialized. The Spurs ended up being roadkill on the Lakers' scorched-Earth path to the title in what many consider the most dominant playoff run in history. Shaq and Kobe led the Lakers on a record-setting 15-1 march through the postseason. Their only loss? Game 1 against the Sixers in The Finals.
They became just the second team (following the '95 Rockets) to defeat four 50-win or better teams on their way to the championship. That includes a Spurs team that posted the best record in the league during the regular season. Shaq earned his second straight Finals MVP trophy and left no doubts as to who was the league's most dominant force individual force.
Looking back: Kevin Garnett's MVP season and the Timberwolves' home-court advantage throughout the postseason led many to believe that the winner of this Lakers-Timberwolves matchup would have its way with whomever won the East. Flanked by Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell, Garnett had finally broken through the first-round playoff roadblock that had marred his career.
He got his chance to face a star-studded Lakers team that included not only Shaq and Kobe, but also Hall of Fame-bound title-chasers in Gary Payton and Karl Malone. A tightly contested conference final that saw the Timberwolves battle but ultimately succumb to the Lakers' seemingly endless flow of firepower surrendered more than just the conference crown. It also delivered home-court advantage to the Lakers for The Finals matchup against a Pistons team that lacked the star power usually reserved for a contenders.
Clear underdogs in what was billed as a David versus Goliath matchup, the Pistons bullied a Lakers team beset with injuries, turmoil and Shaq-Kobe tension into submission in what was described by those of us covering the series as a five-game sweep. If not for Kobe's miracle, game-tying 3-pointer from the scorer's table that forced overtime in Game 2, a game the Lakers went on to win, this series would have been over in four games. Coach Larry Brown's cohesive, defense-first unit led by Finals MVP Chauncey Billups and Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace was simply too much for Goliath.
Looking back: This had to be the Mavericks' year. They finally found a way past the Spurs, almost blowing a 3-1 series led and needing a hard-fought Game 7 overtime win (just the second in league history for a road team) in San Antonio to defeat the defending champs in the conference semifinals. All that stood in their way was the Suns and ex-Mavs star (and 2006 MVP) Steve Nash, who did not have Amar'e Stoudemire (out with a knee injury) to work his devastating pick and roll with.
The Mavericks had to sweat a little bit, but handled the outgunned Suns in six games, clinching the conference crown in Phoenix with a 102-93 Game 6 win. They continued that roll against Dwyane Wade, Shaq and the Heat in the first two games of The Finals, winning those games by a combined 23 points. They had a commanding 13-point lead with six minutes to play in Game 3 in Miami before the bottom fell out and Wade took over the series. Wade finished with 42 points and 13 rebounds and Gary Payton's jumper with 9.3 seconds left capped the Heat comeback that changed the series. Wade went on to claim Finals MVP honors as the Heat finished off the Mavericks in six games, delivering the death blows to the Mavericks faint title hopes with 36 points in the Game 4 win, 43 in the Game 5 win and 36 for good measure in Game 6.
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