It’s now been over 60 days since the NBA suspended its season due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the national quarantine that would follow. If things had gone according to plan the Conference Finals would have started this week, leaving basketball fans with nothing but their thoughts on what would have been had the season played out.
In most cases, the historical conversation of a season comes down to the Finals, but it’s not uncommon for the Conference Finals to provide some of the best basketball played in any given season. For fans looking for a way to get their fix of basketball, here are some of the best Conference Finals the NBA has ever seen. These Conference Finals are filled with superstar players, All-time performances and outcomes with huge impacts on NBA history.
1981 Eastern Conference Finals
Boston’s Larry Bird was in just his second year but considered by many to already be the best player in the league and Philadelphia’s Julius Erving had just won the season MVP award when they met in this all-time great series. In total, 10 players from this series would end up in the Hall of Fame.
Besides games 2 and 3, every game in the series came down to the final play. The 76ers won the first game by just a point and the teams would then split the next two games by double-digit victories. Philadelphia then won game 4 putting the Celtics on the brink of elimination for the following three games. Boston would win both games 5 and 6 by just one point, on free throws from M.L. Carr in game 5 and an unbelievable block on Andrew Toney by Kevin McHale in game 6.
The Celtics were down for most of game 7 but would close out the fourth quarter with a 9-1 run capped off by a Larry Bird jumper to seal the victory. In what has been called the greatest series of all time the Boston Celtics came back from a 3-1 deficit and pulled off arguably the greatest comeback in sports history up until that point. If the 76ers swing just one game in this extremely close series, Bird and the Celtics of that era may not be looked at the same way historically and Erving and the 76ers may be elevated in the minds of NBA fans.
1998 Eastern Conference Finals
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were on their quest to win their sixth and final championship when they ran into a loaded Indiana Pacers team with Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin and Mark Jackson. The Bulls were heavy favorites to win the title this season and were expected to roll through the Pacers on their path to the Finals and after winning the first two games it seemed that would be the case. The Pacers would shock the Bulls and bounce back to win the next two games as Reggie Miller hit a game-winning 3-pointer in Game 4 with just two seconds to go.
The Bulls dominated all of Game 5, the only game won by double digits in the series and everyone thought it was over. However, the Pacers showed they had no fear of Jordan or the Bulls and were able to hold on and win an incredibly close Game 6.
Before Game 7 Jordan personally guaranteed a victory and trip to the Finals for the Chicago Bulls. Jordan would go on to score nearly a third of the Bulls points in their Game 7 victory, averaging just under 32 points per game in the series.
This series pushed Michael Jordan and the Bulls further than they had ever been in their championship era. Six of the seven games in the series were decided by 6 points or less and was one of only three series in Jordan’s career to reach a Game 7. Had the Bulls lost this series, the final memory of Jordan as a Bull would be much different from the famed shot over Bryon Russell we all know of today and Reggie Miller may have brought a title to Indiana.
2012 Eastern Conference Finals
This series had as much on the line as any non-Finals series in history. LeBron James and his Miami Heat team were coming off a poor Finals performance from the previous season and were set to face their rival, the Boston Celtics. Boston’s core “Big 3” did what was expected with a tenacious effort on both ends by Kevin Garnett and big shots throughout the series by Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Also, Rajon Rondo had one of the best series of his career, averaging over 20 points and 11 assists per game and setting his career-high in Game 2 with 44 points. After losing the first two games of the series, Boston would rally to win the next three, putting themselves up 3-2 and James and the Heat on the brink of another playoff failure.
But this would be James’ series to shine.
James came into Game 6 with a look of pure determination. In the first half, he scored 30 points on over 85 percent shooting. James would end his night with 45 points and 15 rebounds, and a 19-point win to send his team to a Game 7. In that final game of the series, Miami’s own “Big 3” of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would combine for 73 points on 52 percent shooting. Bosh’s performance was notable as well, as he had missed the first four games of the series with an injury he had suffered in the previous series against the Indiana Pacers.
This is arguably the most important series of James’ career, and certainly one of the most impactful in the history of the NBA. If James had lost his series and not gone on to win his first ring, things may have gone differently, and his legacy, as well as NBA history, may be totally different.
2016 Western Conference Finals
The reigning champion Golden State Warriors were fresh off the best regular season in NBA history with a record of 73-9. Steph Curry won his second straight MVP and became the first player to unanimously win the award. Analysts around the league were saying this Warriors team was the best of all time and was heavily favored to win the title.
Curry and the Warriors would need to get through the Oklahoma City Thunder, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The teams seemed to be set on a collision course ever since earlier that season, when they met in one of the best regular-season games in recent memory, an overtime thriller, where Curry would set the record for most 3-pointers in a game with his game-winning forty-foot buzzer-beater. That game was just a taste of what was to come in this series.
In Game 1, the Thunder handed the Warriors their first home loss of the entire season before being blown out in Game 2. Oklahoma City would bounce back to dominate the next two games on their home court, putting them up 3-1 over the Warriors and a game away from reaching the NBA finals. Game 6 would turn out to be back and forth battle until the 4th quarter when Klay Thompson scored 19 points and hit 5-of-6 3-pointers creating the legend of “Game 6 Klay” and leading the Warriors to the win. By Game 7 the Warriors were back in their groove and took control of the series in the second half, ultimately going on to meet LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals.
This series had everything that could be asked for, both teams superstars played at their highest levels in a historic season with incredible stakes. If this series goes the other way, LeBron James may not win his third title, Durant may not leave the Thunder for the Warriors and the Golden State dynasty may never come to be.
“From Our Haus to Yours”