The Last Week in May: 22 memorable moments in NBA history

From clutch shots to incredible finishes, the final week of this month has produced plenty of historic memories

The last week of May on the NBA calendar is a time in which legends are made, with the conference finals (and in years past, The Finals) taking place.

The 2019-20 season remains on hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic and, as such, so do any new playoff memories in May. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t reflect on the final week of May and the moments therein from the NBA’s history book.

Below are 22 fantastic May moments in NBA history that are worth looking back on.

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May 24

Jazz sweep Lakers, return to Finals (1998)

Why it is important: The Jazz made the Lakers’ budding dynasty wait while they tried to take care of unfinished business from their ’97 Finals meeting with Chicago. The Jazz outscored the Lakers by 13.5 points per game to handle young Shaquille O’Neal and second-year Kobe Bryant (Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones were L.A.’s other two All-Stars). So we never got precocious Kobe vs. veteran Jordan on the biggest stage. Years later, O’Neal gave Utah credit in a social media account, posting “We couldn’t beat these boys for nothing.”

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Nets sweep Pistons, clinch Finals berth (2003)

Why it is important: New Jersey didn’t just sweep Detroit — it had swept Boston in the previous round. That meant five days of rest before taking on the Pistons, winning two close games on the road before dominating the next two at home in East Rutherford. Run by point guard Jason Kidd, New Jersey earned a second consecutive trip to The Finals but fell this time to San Antonio in six. For the Pistons, this was the first of six consecutive East finals (or better). Good things were ahead, but the quick exit got coach Rick Carlisle fired and made Detroit only the 12th No. 1 seed to that point to get swept.

May 25

Warriors sweep Bullets in Finals (1975)

Why it is important: Finals MVP Rick Barry, who averaged 29.5 points in the series, refers to this as the greatest upset in NBA Finals history. The Warriors had surprised simply by winning 48 games and weren’t expected to last long in the postseason. The Bullets won 60 games with stars Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Phil Chenier. But Barry, Rookie of the Year Jamaal Wilkes and a tight group of role players prevailed, coming back from 14 down in Game 4 to secure the title.

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Mavs oust Thunder in Game 5 of West finals (2011)

Why it is important: Snagging a second conference championship trophy was fine, but Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t content with just that as Dallas beat OKC 4-1 to earn its second Finals appearance. The Mavericks crushed the Thunder’s spirit in Game 4, turning a 15-point deficit with five minutes left into an overtime victory in OKC. So digging out of an eight-point hole in the final quarter two nights later was no biggie. Nowitzki and Shawn Marion scored 26 points each, while Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant combined to shoot 19-for-48 for their 54 points. Nowitzki made a sudden exit from the on-court celebration afterward, determined not to follow the Mavs’ 2006 pattern. This time, he was focused on beating the Heat.

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LeBron becomes all-time leading playoff scorer (2017)

Why it is important: When LeBron James caught and passed Michael Jordan to take over as the career points leader in NBA playoff games, it didn’t settle anything. It merely fanned more flames in the “who’s better?” debates that persist to this day. James topped his childhood idol with a 3-pointer from the left wing late in the third quarter of Game 5, a subplot in Cleveland’s 135-102 blowout over the Celtics in Boston that won the East title and got the Cavs to their third consecutive Finals. Jordan scored his 5,987 playoff points in 179 games, while James needed 212 to pass him.

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Raptors clinch first Finals trip (2019)

Why it is important: Toronto made it to the Finals for the first time in franchise history by making life miserable for Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. It used multiple defenders and thwarted “The Greek Freak” in his attempts to get to the rim and, just like that, the Bucks’ 2-0 series lead was lost in a six-game elimination. Leonard had 27 points and 17 rebounds to help Toronto erase a 15-point deficit in the Game clincher.

May 26

Bird’s iconic steal off Thomas in Game 5 (1987)

Why it is important: The Celtics were down by a point with five seconds left, on the brink of slipping behind 3-2 in the series against Detroit. All the Pistons had to do was inbound and run out the — oops! Isiah Thomas’ floating pass for Bill Laimbeer was intercepted when Bird flashed in. He shoveled it to Dennis Johnson and Boston had life. It wasn’t a momentum play, it was a math play — the Pistons won Game 6 back at home but now had to play a Game 7. Which the Celtics won, giving us our third and final Finals matchup of Bird and Magic Johnson.

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LeBron clinches first Finals trip for ‘Heatles’ (2011)

Why it is important: In hindsight, imagine if Miami — in the first season of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh “Big Three” — had not prevailed in the East finals against Chicago. Miami trailed by 12 with 3:53 left in Game 5, then ripped off a 19-4 run to win. The Heat had James defend Chicago star and reigning MVP Derrick Rose, stifling him at the end. The “Big Three” combined for 69 of their team’s 83 points that day (23 from the foul line to 15 for the entire Bulls team).

May 27

‘Memorial Day Massacre’: Celtics rip Lakers in Game 1 of Finals (1985)

Why it is important: A 148-114 trouncing in Game 1 of The Finals might have seemed dominant enough to send Boston to the title … but that’s why the series is best-of-seven. The Lakers outscored the Celtics by 50 points in these Finals and and clinched the title in Game 6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who looked old in Game 1 with 12 points and three rebounds, averaged 28.4 points and 10.2 rebounds the rest of the way to earn the Finals MVP at age 38. In the opener, though, Boston was a machine. Led by reserve Scott Wedman’s 11-for-11, the Celtics shot 60 percent.

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Bulls sweep Pistons in East finals to reach first Finals (1991)

Why it is important: The news on this date wasn’t the series sweep but rather Thomas, Bill Laimbeer and a few other Pistons refusing to shake hands with Michael Jordan and the Bulls after Game 4. It apparently led to Thomas being snubbed from the Dream Team in 1992, and it has hung over the Pistons Hall of Famer ever since. As for the game itself, it was a rout (Bulls 115, Pistons 94), as the proud “Bad Boys” had their run of three straight Finals appearances clipped.

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Bulls head back to Finals after 3-year absence (1996)

Why it is important: There was no guarantee at that time that the Bulls would get past Orlando, the team that had put them out a year earlier with a rusty Jordan back on board. Chicago’s 72-10 record suggested the ’96 meeting might be different. Games 1 and 3 were blowouts, but the other two were decided by five points each. Jordan and Scottie Pippen averaged a combined 48 points, while young Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway topped that at 52.5 ppg. The Bulls were back, but with O’Neal leaving for the Lakers and Hardaway losing 86 games to injury over the next two seasons, Orlando’s dreams fizzled.

May 28

Dennis Johnson blocks 7 shots in Game 3 of The Finals (1978)

Why it is important: First of all, that was a Finals record by blocked shots by a guard — and it remains so. Second, his defense clearly had an impact in a game Seattle won, 93-92, with the Bullets coming just one point short despite shooting 36 of 107. Unfortunately for Johnson and the Sonics, Washington won three of the next four to take the title. But in a rematch a year later, Seattle beat Washington in five games and Johnson was Finals MVP.

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Thompson saves day for Warriors in Game 6 (2016)

Why it is important: Trailing at halftime, down 3-2 in the series and playing in OKC, the Warriors’ 73-victory season was teetering on the brink. That’s when Thompson ignited for 26 points in the second half, 19 in the final quarter, to spark the Game 6 win that led to a series victory. He hit a record 11 3-pointers, the last one breaking a 101 tie with 1:35 to go. Without Thompson’s eruption, OKC might have advanced — and maybe beaten LeBron James’ Cavs in The Finals, altering his legacy at least for a year.

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Warriors rally past Rockets in Game 7, return to Finals (2018)

Why it is important: The Warriors fended off elimination in Game 6 of this series and climbed from a 10-point hole that game. When they were down 54-43 halfway through Game 7 on the road, they erased that deficit in less than 12 minutes, outscoring the Rockets 33-15 in the third quarter. This is the game that threw Houston’s obsession with the 3-ball, and James Harden’s style of play, into serious doubt. The Rockets shot 7-for-44 on 3-pointers, with Harden and Eric Gordon combining to go 4-for-25. Golden State got a 12-for-26 combo platter from the arc from Stephen Curry and Durant.

May 29

Smits’ shot keeps Pacers alive in Game 4 (1995)

Why it is important: Magic big men Shaquille O’Neal and Horace Grant had fouled out and the home-standing Pacers faced a potential 3-1 series deficit. The two teams traded haymakers in rapid succession: a Brian Shaw 3-pointer, then a Reggie Miller 3-pointer and then a lunging Penny Hardaway 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left. Pacers center Rik Smits caught an inbounds pass, got aging Magic big man Tree Rollins to bite on a fake, then stepped under for a 14-foot game-winner. The Magic, however, would ultimately win the series in Game 7 at home.

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Stockton’s shot sends Jazz to first Finals (1997)

Why it is important: To fans of the Jazz and Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton, this looms as arguably the most thrilling moment in franchise history. Stockton’s shot to beat the buzzer snapped Utah’s streak of 13 playoff appearances as a bridesmaid, finally boosting them to The Finals. In sinking the shot, Stockton capped a furious fourth quarter Utah rally that eliminated aging Houston legends Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler.

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Lakers are Finals-bound, again … and again … and again (2008-10)

Why it is important: Something about May 29 appealed to the Lakers, because for three consecutive postseasons, that was the date on which they eliminated their competition out West to advance to The Finals. Didn’t matter if it was the Spurs, the Nuggets or the Suns. Didn’t pack all that much drama, either, since none of the three conference finals rounds produced a Game 7. A scan of the rosters shows that no Lakers player in those three years had a birthday in May, never mind specifically on May 29. Neither did coach Phil Jackson. So it must have been a fluke of the calendar, and a tribute to the talent of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom and the role players, with a touch of triangle and Zen.

May 31

Sixers, Malone sweep Lakers in Finals (1983)

Why it is important: The Sixers finally broke through after suffering Finals losses in three of the previous six seasons. This wound up being the only championship won by Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Moses Malone. Erving took the Sixers to four Finals before this, but it took Malone’s arrival for 1982-83 to push Philadelphia over the top. This was the postseason of Moses’ “Fo’, fo’, fo’” prediction of three spring sweeps, which the Sixers missed only by dropping one game to Milwaukee in the East finals.

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Jordan scores 54 in Game 4 of East finals (1993)

Why it is important: Sometimes Michael Jordan’s remarkable scoring nights get dismissed as empty calories. That’s wrong most of the time, particularly in this one. The Bulls were at risk of going down 3-1 against the Knicks, which would have derailed their first three-peat. After a 3-for-18 night in Game 3, Jordan outscored New York’s top two players (Patrick Ewing, John Starks) by himself. Momentum shifted, and no Knick besides Ewing scored more than 17 in the last two games of the series.

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Bulls beat Pacers, clinch final trip to Finals (1998)

Why it is important: The closest the Jordan-era Bulls ever came to elimination — and a documentary series-spoiling exit as Eastern Conference finalists — came against a loaded Pacers team. It was Chicago’s next-to-last dance, in effect, pushed to the limit after Reggie Miller’s clutch 3-pointer evened the series at 3-3. This was a gang effort as Toni Kukoc (21 points) and Steve Kerr were heroes late while Jordan (28 points, nine boards, eight assists) played strong defense on Miller late when Ron Harper’s sore back required the switch.

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‘Memorial Day Miracle’ in San Antonio (1999)

Why it is important: An unremarkable series near the end of a mostly dreary 50-game lockout-shortened season still offered something for the ages: the Memorial Day Miracle. San Antonio trimmed an 18-point deficit in Game 2 to two when Sean Elliott, the Spurs small forward, caught an inbounds pass, battled with his balance and — as Rasheed Wallace charged at him — launched from the right side. His heels hovered over the sideline, but his toes (and the shot) were in. From there, Portland never recovered, got swept and San Antonio reached its first Finals (where it won in five games for its first title).

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Lakers stay alive in notorious Game 6 of West finals (2002)

Why it was important: Sacramento went an NBA-best 61-21 in 2001-02 behind Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic and a deep roster. But the Lakers were still busy with their three-peat, fueling speculation that the NBA preferred the defending champs to advance. How else, Kings fans said, to explain the Lakers shooting 40 free throws (27 in the fourth quarter), when they had averaged just 25 through the series’ first five games? How else to explain Mike Bibby getting whistled for grabbing Kobe Bryant, when Bryant elbowed Bibby in the face (maybe a split second later)? Well, first of all, legit whistles. In Game 7, on their own court, in overtime, the Kings lost in part because they missed 14 of 30 free throws. But there’s no denying that Sacramento group would have a different legacy if they had reached one Finals.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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