A couple crazy, unpredictable Conference Finals have set the stage for one of the most intriguing NBA Finals match-ups we’ve seen in recent memory. Last week, the Thunder finished off a brilliant comeback against the Spurs, rising from an 0-2 deficit with four straight wins to take the series. The Heat were practically on the other end of a similar series, losing three straight to the Celtics after winning the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals. But an amazing Game 6 from LeBron James and a great all-around effort in Game 7 brought the Heat back to the Finals for the second straight season.
This will be LeBron’s first Finals appearance in which he’s the more seasoned veteran leader of his team. This time, LeBron (age 27), Dwyane Wade (30) and the Heat face down the Thunder, a team led by exceedingly young star players Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden (age 23, 23 and 22 respectively). Will LeBron be able to deliver the first of several championships he promised to Miami upon his arrival? Or will the Thunder shock the NBA by taking the title before anyone thought it was their time to win one? Whatever the outcome, it’s sure to be a must-watch series.
To prepare for this year’s showdown, here’s a look back at some of the best games and moments in recent NBA Finals history:
2000, Game 4 – Los Angeles Lakers 120, Indiana Pacers 118 (OT)
Young Kobe Bryant Closes Game Against Pacers After Shaq Fouls Out
Today, we look at Kobe Bryant as a seasoned NBA veteran—not only that, but someone who’s paid his dues, dominated the league and has the rings to show for it. But back in 2000, he was still a 21-year-old kid looking to make a name for himself.
All that said, it was Shaquille O’Neal who led the attack for the Lakers in the 2000 NBA Finals against Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers, as the Big Man eventually received the Finals MVP Award for his efforts. In Game 4, he put up 36 points and 21 rebounds – absolute monster numbers, but his fouling out in overtime gave Kobe the chance to shine on his own in the final two minutes. Bryant hit two long two-point jumpers and tipped in a missed shot to score six of the last eight LA points on the night. Miller’s missed three at the buzzer handed a 3-1 series lead to the Lakers, who would close out the series two games later on their home court. It was the closest Miller would get to a title in his successful yet frustrating NBA career.
2002, Game 4 – Los Angeles Lakers 113, New Jersey Nets 107
Shaq and Kobe Complete the 3-peat
After defeating Allen Iverson and the 76ers in a five-game NBA Finals in 2001, the Lakers returned to the Finals against the Nets in ’02 looking for the first NBA 3-peat since the Michael Jordan Bulls of the ‘90s. The Nets put pressure on the Lakers throughout the series, keeping all but one of the games close going into the final minutes, but the Lakers’ Kobe/Shaq combo was simply too much, and the Nets were swept out of the series. In Game 4, the two of them dominated late, helping them pull away and close out the game. Kobe finished with 25 points and 8 assists but Shaq was even more impressive for the series, averaging 36 points and 12 rebounds per game. He earned his third straight Finals MVP as LA grabbed their third straight championship.
2003, Game 6 – San Antonio Spurs 88, New Jersey Nets 77
Spurs Come Back to Finish Off Nets, David Robinson Retires on Top
Jason Kidd led the Nets to a second-straight Finals appearance in 2003, but once again, they came up short. It was definitely more of a fight to the finish than the previous year though, as the Spurs and Nets split the first four games before the Spurs took Game 5. Back in San Antonio for the sixth game, the Nets took control all the way into the fourth quarter, when the Spurs went on a 19-0 run to change the face of the game. Thanks to Stephen Jackson’s three-point prowess and Tim Duncan’s ridiculous overall game (21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists, 8 blocks), the Spurs brought a second title to San Antonio and allowed all-time great David Robinson to retire in style.
2005, Game 5 – San Antonio Spurs 96, Detroit Pistons 95 (OT)
Robert “Big Shot Rob” Horry Goes Off, Hits Game-Winning 3 with 5.8 seconds Left to Give Spurs 3-2 Series Lead
Robert Horry had one of the most impressive, clutch performances in NBA Finals history in Game 5 of the 2005 Finals between the Spurs and the Pistons. Not only did he hit the game-winning three-pointer with under 6 seconds to go, but he dominated the end of the game, putting up 21 points over the course of the fourth quarter and overtime, single-handedly carrying the Spurs to victory in a critical game. The Spurs eventually closed out the defending champion Pistons in Game 7.
Horry was never close to being the best player on any team he played on, but he served as proof that having clutch role players is key for championship-caliber teams, as he won seven, that’s right, seven NBA titles over the course of his career—two for the Rockets, three for the Lakers and two more for the Spurs, putting up several huge playoff performances in close games along the way.
2006, Game 5 – Miami Heat 101, Dallas Mavericks 100 (OT)
Dwyane Wade Drops 43 Points as Heat Take Control of Series
Despite the Mavericks taking the first two games of the series by decisive margins, this turned out to be Dwyane Wade’s NBA Finals. Unlike the three titles Shaq won in LA, this time he was clearly in the supporting role, as Wade led the Heat in scoring all six games, scoring 36 points or more in Games 3-6, all of which ended in Miami wins, bringing them out of an 0-2 hole to become NBA champions.
Game 5 may have been the perfect Finals game for Wade, as his point total went through the roof and he proved himself in the clutch, banking home a jumper to force overtime then hitting the tying and winning free throws with 1.9 seconds left in OT for the win. Game 6 was almost as close, but the Heat prevailed again, with Wade taking the Finals MVP in obvious fashion.
2007, Game 4 – San Antonio Spurs 83, Cleveland Cavaliers 82
Spurs Finish Off Another Title, Prove Too Much For Young LeBron and Cavs
An improbable playoff run orchestrated by LeBron James, practically on his own, met a dead end in the Finals against the experienced championship teamwork of the Spurs, who won their fourth title in nine years in a sweep. This would end up being LeBron’s only Finals appearance with the Cavs, as the three seasons he spent with the franchise after ’07 ended in disappointing Eastern Conference playoff exits. Frustrated with the lack of help, we all know what happened after that. In Game 4, the Cavs actually led midway through the fourth quarter, but a 12-3 Spurs run sealed up another title for Tim Duncan and Coach Gregg Popovich.
2008, Game 4 – Boston Celtics 97, Los Angeles Lakers 91
Celtics Go on Huge Third Quarter Run to Come Back and Take 3-1 Series Lead
The Lakers, back to the Finals for the first time since their 2004 loss to Detroit, looked poised to tie the ’08 Finals against their historic rival, the Boston Celtics, in Game 4, jumping out to a huge early lead and maintaining a 24-point margin as late as the third quarter. However, led by Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, while also getting huge efforts off the bench from several players, the Celtics stormed back into the game, going on a 21-3 run heading into the fourth quarter. It was Allen who contributed the dagger with a little over a minute left, draining a three to put Boston up by five. Game 4 ended up being the only road victory for either team during the series, as the Celtics won their first title since 1986 in six games.
2009, Game 4 – Los Angeles Lakers 99, Orlando Magic 91 (OT)
Lakers Come Back Late to Take Command of Series
Kobe and the Lakers finally returned to the top in 2009 with an authoritative five-game win over the Orlando Magic in the Finals. The series served as Kobe’s proof that he could lead a team to a title as its unchallenged top player, since he was technically number two by a slight margin when Shaq was in his prime from 2000-02.
The ’09 series isn’t looked back upon too often for its drama, and the reason for that is likely due to the Lakers’ ability to come back and win Game 4. Up 2-1 in the series, they trailed 87-82 with a minute and a half remaining. After pulling within three, they still needed an epic three-ball from Derek Fisher to tie it up and force OT with just 4.6 seconds to play. After that, it was some big plays from Kobe, Gasol and Fisher (again) that finished the win for LA in overtime. The outlook of the series changed after the game, as the Lakers rolled past Dwight Howard and the Magic in Game 5 for the championship.
2010, Game 7 – Los Angeles Lakers 83, Boston Celtics 79
Lakers Cling to Victory Over Celtics Despite Kobe’s Shooting Woes
The 2010 NBA Finals once again featured the league’s most classic match-up, Lakers-Celtics, in a series that went the full seven games. That being said, Game 7 was not always, or even usually, the most fun game to watch. It was a gritty, defensive battle in the trenches, without a single star player having much success offensively. The game’s top scorer was Kobe Bryant, as expected, but he shot an atrocious 6 of 24 to score his 23 points.
With Kobe struggling, the Lakers ended up needing strong performances from Metta World Peace (aka Ron Artest) and Pau Gasol to win the game. LA trailed by as much as 13 in the first half before the game started to shift in their favor. By the fourth quarter, the Lakers had a decent handle on the game, but it wasn’t a sure thing until Sasha Vujacic knocked down two free throws in the final seconds to create a four-point lead. The series resulted in Kobe’s fifth title and second straight Finals MVP.
2011, Game 4 – Dallas Mavericks 86, Miami Heat 83
Mavs Engineer 4th Quarter Comeback to Tie the Series, Turn the Tide
Game 4, like many other NBA Finals in recent memory, shifted the momentum and set the ball rolling for the rest of the series. Up 2-1, LeBron, Wade and the Miami Heat looked poised to come within one step of their first of many championships, as they infamously promised prior to the start of the season. But, ahead by nine points early in the fourth quarter, the game and series began to unravel for them, as the Mavs went on a run and took the lead midway through the quarter. It stayed close all the way to the end, but the final seconds featured Dirk Nowitzki driving for a layup, then Wade bobbled the inbounds pass on the game’s last possession. Wade dove after the ball and got it to Mike Miller to prevent a backcourt violation, but Miller missed the potential tying three-pointer. Dallas never looked back after Game 4, winning the next two games and the series—LeBron playing suspiciously average in each game. Nowitzki was named Finals MVP as he won his first title.