The 10 Best Playoff Series
… of the past 10 years.
Without purposely dousing the flame that was this Celtics-Bulls seven-game epic with an overkill of historical perspective, there’s no denying it ranks right up there with the greatest playoff series’, if nothing else, of the last 25 years.
If history has taught us anything about this game, it’s that to be considered great, a playoff series must reek with drama: Amazing individual performances, rivalries or conflict, a skirmish or four, and the occasional heart-stopping finish. Boston-Chicago ticked three of those boxes, regularly, and gave us a crazy series. Crazy good.
You know when Ray Allen drops 51, Rajon Rondo has a 19-assist/zero-turnover doozie, and it comes on the road, in triple-overtime, with the opposing team clinging to its season, and it’s still not enough to win, then you’re dealing with something special.
But just how special?
At least three writers suggested prior to Game 7 that it was only fitting that either Bird or Jordan should lace ‘em up for the decider; Derrick Rose has almost single-handedly pumped life into a franchise whose heart hasn’t bumped in going on 11 years this June; and the two teams have made “lead changes” and “overtime” grossly overused terms. Also, when you consider the Heat-Hawks series was a concentration in blowouts (the closest margin was 10), you realize just how unique this Bulls-Celtics series was.
Appropriately or not, the only thing left to do is anoint it, and place in the echelon of great playoff series.
This list was made, believe it or not, after Game 5. But circumstances change. Oh, how they change. Game 6 happened. The list was altered, re-worked, and shuffled, you name it. But then it occurred to me: Game 7 hasn’t happened yet. What if KG did in fact play? What if Derrick Rose gave us some Magic-in-’80 type stuff? What if—pause for effect—they went to overtime again? And crikey, what if MJ and Bird did play? The point is, the tombstone for this duel was still awaiting its final inscription. But now that Game 7 is in the books—a 10-point Celtics win—we can move on, and put it in context.
Below is a list of the 10 best playoff series of the past 10 seasons. Is this list definitive? Nope. It’s the opinion of one man. Is it open to chatter? You bet, fire away.
GEEZ, IT WAS HARD LEAVING YOU OFF:
2008 East Semis, Celtics-Cavs (if for nothing else, LeBron and Pierce swapping 40-pointers like trading cards in Game 7); 2006 West Semis, Suns-Clippers (high-scoring, went the distance, with Game 5 entering lore and Game 7 providing a classic D’Antoni snapshot: 7 Suns played, 7 Suns had double-figures); 2005 West Semis, Suns-Mavs (Nash and Amare both average 30-plus, with the Canadian claiming sweet revenge on Cuban & Co.); 2004 West Semis, Wolves-Kings (KG, welcome to the other side); 2004 West Semis, Lakers-Spurs (LA, at the height of their in-house insanity, roars back from 0-2 down against the deepest Spurs squad of the Duncan Era, boosted by Fisher’s 0:04 miracle); 2001 East Finals, Sixers-Bucks (George Karl demands to see X-rays of Philly’s banged-up bodies, Iverson drops 44 in Game 7).
10. Heat (2) vs. Knicks (3) | 7 Games | 2000 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Latrell Sprewell was a lot of things: Athletic, bold, aggressive, good with his hands (*cough*). He was, however, never mistaken for a prophet. But he should’ve been. When the Knicks dusted off the Raptors in round one in 2000, he was asked about a pending matchup with Miami. He simply said they should fast forward to the final three minutes of the seventh game, tie the scores, and play it from there. It’s exactly what happened.
For the third time in three years, NY went to Miami and won the decider, escaping with an 83-82 win. It was a game that, simply, shouldn’t have been played. Miami blew a 15-point halftime lead in MSG in Game 6; the final score was 72-70 Knicks. So really, a 15-point lead in a game of such low scoring probably represented something more. Anyhow, the Heat blew that lead, blew the homecourt, and the series ended up being a culmination of a four-year rivalry of the most heated (pun kinda intended) proportions.
Yes, it was ugly; perhaps the lowest ebb of a defensive-minded era. But it was tough. Every possession was grinded to dust. Every play—whether it be Anthony Carter’s over-the-backboard fling in Game 3, Ewing’s top-of-the-key fadeaway in Game 6, or Clarence Weatherspoon’s desperate attempt at the series clincher that went just long—seemed to carry additional weight. The final word: Over the seven games: Knicks 568, Heat 562. That’s how close it was.
9. Jazz (4) vs. Mavericks (5) | 5 Games | 2001 Western Conference First Round
Calvin Booth served as the bridge between the end of a remarkable era of consistency for the Jazz and the beginning of a, well, remarkable era of consistency for the Mavs—as strange as that sounds. It was Booth—not Mike Finley, not Dirk Nowitzki, not Steve Nash—who hit the game-winning shot in the final minute as the Mavs came from fourteen down in the fourth, in Utah, to win Game 5. Booth landed a handsome contract as a result of 12 minutes work, but hey, that’s a story for another day.
Utah bolted to a 2-0 lead behind excruciatingly effective half-court play, and not even Mark Cuban (seated 17 centimeters behind Don Nelson) blowing kisses at Jerry Sloan could slow the Jazz. Utah was 20 seconds from a sweep, but a late Nash jumper won Game 3, and then a Mavs blowout in Game 4 knotted the series at two apiece, sending things to a deciding game. Nelson’s pseudo-halfcourt zone trap (Nellie’s always up to something) changed the game in the second half, and Finley’s 33 points gave Dallas a sniff. After Booth’s heroics, Karl Malone missed from the top of the key as time expired, and Dallas celebrated on the Delta Center floor. A bizarre scene if there ever was one.
8. Sixers (1) vs. Raptors (5) | 7 Games | 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals
A series that was really exciting at the time, and one that had a synchronized mix of star power and controversy. Allen Iverson averaged over 33 ppg, while Vince Carter went for 30 per, as the series went to seven. The scoring got downright stupid in this one: AI dropped 54 in Game 2, VC went for 50 in Game 3, and AI responded with 52 (while picking up his MVP) in Game 5.
Carter, whose armor, at that point, was nary a chink, copped plenty of flak for attending his UNC graduation on the morning of Game 7—he then missed the potential game-winner as time expired. Iverson, still trying to convince his detractors that his style of play could lead a winner, dished out a career-high 16 assists as Philly won 88-87 and advanced to the East Finals. A classic case of the favorite (Philly) slowed by numerous injuries but staying firm, holding off the underdog (Toronto) who were growing in confidence, which is not unlike Boston-Chicago.
7. Suns (2) vs. Spurs (3) | 6 Games | 2007 Western Conference Semifinals
It’s hard writing about this series because it was sufficiently covered at the time. But here’s a new spin: If Amar’e Stoudemire wasn’t so foul prone (he played just 21 minutes for 21 points in Game 3, and flirted with foul danger in two others) he wouldn’t have been on the bench at the end of Game 4, hence he couldn’t have left it when the Robert Horry hip-check occurred. Just a thought.
This series was really, really well played. It never failed to be riveting to see Phoenix, at the height of their offensive powers, battle San Antonio, whose defense was stingy and thoughtful: Staying home on shooters, trying to make Nash a scorer, defending the pick-n-roll with vigor. The Suns were unlucky in Game 1, when Nash split his nose open and missed most of the final minutes, and just couldn’t hang on in Game 5 (without Stoudemire and Boris Diaw) after building a double-digit lead at home. So obviously, this thing could’ve gone either way, and it probably deserved to go seven.
Bottom line: As always though, the Spurs executed better in the final minutes. Always. Look it up. Whether it was 2005, 2007 or 2008, San Antonio was better in crunch time than Phoenix, and it was a large reason they overachieved and beat a very good Suns team in 2007. It didn’t go to a deciding game, but the series oozed with drama, tension, and quality. And most notably, it left scars.
6. Suns (2) vs. Lakers (7) | 7 Games | 2006 Western Conference First Round
A beautiful series on a variety of levels:
1) Perhaps most underrated is the fact that the media leaked, prior to Game 2, that Nash would double-up on MVPs, and it coincided with this “teammate-friendly” version of Kobe Bryant that was shooting less, facilitating more, and leading L.A. to a 3-1 series lead;
2) Featured a number of heated moments: The Nash/Vujacic catfight in Game 2, Kwame Brown and Boris Diaw in Game 3, and Raja Bell and Kobe engaging in some late-game limbo in Game 5;
3) Game 4, from the late Nash turnover, to the Kobe game-tying fling, to the overtime, to the awful jump-ball/Salvatore freeze, to the Kobe game-winner—simply put, one of the best games of recent memory;
4) Game 6, Kobe gets sucked in to a 50-pointer, Tim Thomas forces overtime and saves the Suns’ season with a three, and Phoenix wins what was, essentially, the series clincher in L.A.;
5) Game 7 sees Kobe take three second-half shots, get accused of shot-withdrawal, as Phoenix comes back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series in lopsided fashion, and Nash produces one of the most awkward postgame quotes in league history.
5. Mavs (1) vs. Warriors (8) | 6 Games | 2007 Western Conference First Round
There was only team the 67-win Mavs didn’t beat during the 2007 season: Golden State. Was this the greatest playoff upset ever or the perfect storm? Honestly, it’s slanted toward the latter. Take nothing away from the Warriors, who played and talked tougher, but make no mistake, they wanted it more than Dallas. Plain and simple. For 11 days, Baron Davis existed as we always wanted him to, Stephen Jackson took permanent residence in Dirk Nowitzki’s subconscious, and Don Nelson playfully tore down the monster he created. It was beautiful. And exciting. And shocking. Nowitzki’s MVP trophy suddenly had a smudge on it, Cuban ended up taking Nelson to court, and the Warriors adopted a cult-like status for slaying a (regular season) giant.
4. Lakers (1) vs. Blazers (3) | 7 Games | 2000 Western Conference Finals
Perhaps this series is somewhat overrated because of how weird Game 7 turned out. In reality, it was a game that could have altered history. Had the Lakers lost, they would’ve surrendered a 3-1 series lead, and this after acquainting themselves with consecutive playoff sweeps in ’98 and ’99, which prompted the hiring of Phil Jackson.
People forget Shaq had no impact in Game 7 against Portland. Sure, he tore the rim off in the final minutes on that oop from Kobe, but he took nine shots (for 17 points); Kobe took 19. Who knows if this would have fueled more bickering? With those two, certainly don’t rule it out. And just imagine, Scottie Pippen might have won a ring without Jordan and Phil Jackson, totally re-routing the minds of many. But the Lakers did win. They had homecourt advantage, flexed their muscle by taking a 3-1 lead, and ensured that Jackson’s pre-series fear (that Pippen knew the triangle better than any of the Lakers) didn’t haunt them.
L.A. overcame a 15-point fourth quarter deficit in Game 7, Kobe had one of his more forgotten playoff gems (25-11-7 with four blocks while holding Steve Smith and Pippen to a combined 10-27 from the field), and the Lakers advanced to the Finals for the first time in nine years.
3. Spurs (1) vs. Mavericks (4) | 7 Games | 2006 Western Conference Semifinals
With the exception of Game 2, this series was every bit as tight as the Celtics-Bulls of 2009, with five of the seven decided by five points or less, and Game 7 going to overtime (with Dallas winning by eight). It’s arguably Nowitzki’s crowning achievement: He attempted 80 free throws over seven games, and just eight threes, averaged 27 and 13, and scored 37 in the clincher. Oh, and his late-game three-point-play (thank you Manu Ginobili brain melt) forced overtime in Game 7 and essentially helped the Mavs avoid a 3-1 collapse.
Tim Duncan, himself, was perhaps never more heroic. He scored over 30 in five of the seven games, averaged 32 and 13, and his 41 points in a losing effort was flat-out Jerry West-ish for gold standard play in a losing effort. The series had a bit of everything: Ridiculously high standards of play, Jason Terry giving Michael Finley a fierce crotch inspection in Game 5, the Spurs pulling out a gutty road win in Game 6, Mark Cuban giving unflattering assessments of San Antonio’s tourism industry, and a Game 7 for the ages.
2. Celtics (2) vs. Bulls (7) | 7 Games | 2009 Eastern Conference First Round
How do words do this one justice? Or numbers? They don’t. Dave Corzine and Fred Roberts could’ve suited up for Game 7 and it wouldn’t have made a negative dent in this series. What’s left to say? The Bulls, as the underdog, won a lot of people over with their grit—can’t wait to see their season-after-pushing-the-champs response.
Boston, on the other hand, may be running on empty as a result. From Rose’s Game 1 masterpiece, to Rondo being 0.7 boards off averaging a triple-double, to Ray Allen allowing us to watch him shoot the basketball, to the series-long physicality, to Game 1, and 2, 4, 5, and by golly, Game 6 too, it’s one series that better get comfortable in the memory bank. Boston-Chicago’s ultimate legacy: Not the lead changes or overtimes played, but the element of surprise that these two teams could give us something like that.
1. Kings (1) vs. Lakers (3) | 7 Games | 2002 Western Conference Finals
Many remember the horrid officiating in Game 6 and Horry’s rip-your-heart-out-and-stomp-on-it shot in Game 4, but if you’re examining the nuts and bolts of the 2002 Lakers-Kings series, you’ll see Sacramento gave up homecourt advantage by losing Game 1, pawned a 24-point lead in The Horry Game, and lost the decider at home by being nothing short of putrid on offense (2-20 on threes and 16-30 from the foul line).
Really, the Kings should have won the series in five, but they didn’t. To give a small sample of perspective on how good Shaq and Kobe were as a tandem: They both went for 30-plus in Game 7, back when Arco Arena was a concoction of cowbells and deafening din, and controlled the overtime period by simply doubling as the two best players on the planet. Yes, the Kings were stiff to lose, but they weren’t totally robbed.
So why was this series Numero Uno? The last four games were classics, the teams openly despised each other, and all that was at stake for the League’s two best teams was a championship (yes, both were beating the Nets in the Finals).
Sounds like the best series to me.