East meets West in the NBA Finals, the last two teams standing square off and the winner earns bragging rights to be called NBA champions.
Great teams have great players who do great things in winning a championship. Every NBA Finals matchup creates colorful stories of the events unfolding on the hardcourt that leaves a lasting impression on basketball fans. In the last 2023 NBA Finals, the Cinderella team Miami Heat had to work their way from the play-ins to the finals, and the starters were mostly undrafted players..
We’ve gathered the 15 best NBA Finals matchups of all time for your reading pleasure.
Match Up # 1: 2016 – Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors broke the NBA record for the most wins at 73-9 and earned the home-court advantage, the Cavaliers were 57-25. With the Splash Brothers (Curry and Thompson) showing their deadly form, the Cleveland Cavaliers were buried in a 3-1 hole. The Warriors looked every inch the 2016 winner and a two-peat was in the offing.
The Cavaliers team, starring King James and Kyrie Irving, clawed back to even the series at 3-3. In Game 7, neither team gave an inch, the lead changed hands 20 times, and there were 11 deadlocks. Irving gave the Cavaliers the go-ahead with a trey, 92-89. With time down to 53 seconds, Love contested a three-point attempt by Curry, which he missed. In the ensuing play, Draymond Green fouled LeBron in a botched dunk, and King James made one of two free throws to seal the game.
The Cavaliers’ successful comeback regards the 2016 Finals as the best NBA playoff series of all time.
The Cavaliers’ win in the 2016 Finals established a lot of firsts in the NBA:
1. The Cavaliers were the only team with two rookie coaches, Tyron Lue and David Blatt, in their two consecutive trips to the Finals.
2. The dynamic duo of James and Irving scored 41 points each in Game 5, the first teammates to accomplish the feat of scoring over 40 points in a Finals game.
3. Each team had the same number of points after six games at 610.
4. The 2016 title was the first for the Cavaliers franchise.
5. King James led all NBA players in a playoff series in the following departments: scoring, assists, boards, steals, and blocks.
Match Up #2: 1977 – Portland Trailblazers vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The 1977 Finals marked the first season of the NBA-ABA merger. ABA players were acquired by NBA franchises. Five ABA products started for both teams. Maurice Lucas and Dave Twardzik went to the Portland Trailblazers to partner with Bill Walton, and Julius “Dr. J” Irving, Caldwell Jones, and George McGinnis beefed up the Philadelphia 76ers team.
Dr. J owned two ABA titles (1974, 1976) with the New York Nets, and pushed the 76ers to the championship in his initial NBA season. The 76ers were too hot for the Blazers in the first two games, winning both. In Game 2, 76ers’ Dawkins and Blazers’ Gross went for the rebound, resulting in a brawl.
The scuffle was a game-changer. It unified the Blazers team and bent their ire on their opponents. It was all business from Game 3 onwards as the Blazers won the next four games to win in six and hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The win was the only title won by the Blazers, and it was done in their first playoff appearance.
Match Up #3: 1984 – Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics
The storied rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson during their college days continued in the NBA arena after four years. When they finally met, it was for the 1984 NBA title in a face-off between Bird’s Celtics and the Showtime Lakers of Magic Johnson.
The Lakers would have been up 2-0 if not for the miscues in Game 2. Gerald Anderson made a game-tying layup off a steal from James Worthy. There was still time remaining, but Magic dribbled out without taking a shot. The Celtics won in overtime, 124-121, from a baseline jumper by Scott Wedman with 14 ticks remaining.
Execution errors in Game 4 pulled down the Lakers, allowing the Celtics to level the series at 2-2. This was the second time in the series that the game went into OT. Magic made two crucial errors; he made a bad pass late in the fourth and missed two foul shots during OT. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fouled out with 16 ticks left, and Larry Bird made a jumper of Magic. M.L. Carr dunked off a steal from James Worthy to seal the deal at 129-125. The game was marred by a clothesline take-down by Kevin McHale to a fast-breaking Kurt Rambis.
The Celtics closed out the Lakers in Game 7, 111-102, and Larry Bird was named the Finals MVP.
Match Up #4: 1998 – Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz
The Bulls, with five titles were considered as the team of the 90s face off with the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals, a rematch of the 1997 Finals. The Bulls were considered underdogs by their two losses to the Jazz during the regular season.
The Bulls finally defeated the Jazz in Game 2 to level the series. A huge fourth-quarter run placed the Bulls on top and held on to win at 93-88. Malone played poorly in both games, including a point-blank miss in Game 2. The Jazz suffered a 42-point blowout in Game 3, setting the record for the most point loss and lowest point production of 54 in an NBA Finals game. Karl Malone showed his best form of the series in Game 5 with 39 points.
Game 6 was a thriller; neither team gave an inch. Pippen played hurt with a back injury, and Michael Jordan had to carry the Bulls on his shoulders. Jordan did not disappoint with a 23-point performance in the first half to keep the game close. With a minute left in the game, Jordan made two crucial gift shots to tie the game.
A John Stockton trey with 41.9 seconds remaining pushed the Jazz on top 86-83. Jordan cannot be denied. He drove to the basket for a deuce (86-85) and stole the ball from Karl Malone. The game was on the line with ten ticks left. Jordan crossed over to his left, eluding Jazz Bryon Russel and let go a 20-footer for an 87-86 win.
Michael Jordan scored 45 points including the game-winner, a sixth-time Finals MVP, and he cemented the Bulls dynasty with two 3-peat, 1990-93 and 1996-98.
Match Up #5: 1962 – Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The Celtics won five consecutive titles before the 1962 NBA Finals. The matchup had all the ingredients of a great series, complete with drama, big names, and close contests. The series took the whole route, ending in an epic Game 7 battle.
The score in Game 7 was tied with 5 seconds left in regulation when Laker Frank Selvy let loose a 12-footer that missed the target. The game went into overtime. The Celtics surged ahead and never looked back, winning their sixth title in a row, 110-107.
Great things happened in the series.
- The six consecutive titles pushed the Boston Celtics to establish an 8-peat (1959-1966), the longest winning streak in NBA history.
- Elgin Baylor’s 61 points in Game 5 were the most points scored by a player in a Finals game.
- Elgin Baylor’s 284 total points were the most points scored by a player in a Finals series.
- Bill Russel’s 40 rebounds matched his performance in 1960 for the most rebounds by a player in a Finals game.
- Bill Russel’s 189 total rebounds were the most rebounds by a player in a Finals series.
Match Up #6: 2013 – Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs
The best game of the series was in Game 6. Spurs were leading the series 3-2 and could have been crowned champions but the breaks of the game went the Heat’s way.
The Spurs were in front by 13 points late in the third quarter and fans were anticipating a celebration. But King James wouldn’t let go of his crown without a fight and led the Heat’s charge early in the fourth with a 20-7 run. The shoe of Miller was loose, so he ditched it and received a pass from James for a made three-pointer that cut the deficit to four (77-73).
With over two minutes remaining, the Heat was on top 89-86, and the Spurs fought back. Tony Parker scored five consecutive points from a trey and a reverse layup to regain the lead, 91-89. Things look bright for the Spurs. Manu Ginobili scored three of four free throws from fouls by Ray Allen to push the lead to five, 94-89.
With 28 seconds left, the court was cordoned off for the awards presentation. In a whirlwind of events, James made a three-pointer from a pass by Miller, and Kawhi Leonard was fouled, making one of two gift shots, 95-92, for a one-possession game with time down to 20 seconds.
The play was designed for LeBron to shoot beyond the arc, but he missed. Bosh was able to grab the rebound and pass to an open Ray Allen for a made three-pointer to tie the game at 95 all. Tony Parker drove the length of the court with 5.2 seconds left and attempted a jumper that didn’t drop. The game went into overtime.
James scored on a floater with 1.43 left, and Miami never relinquished the lead till the final buzzer. Allen was fouled in the dying 1.9 seconds and made the two free throws for the final tally, 103-100.
Game 7 wasn’t as exciting. The Heat led in scoring for three quarters and won 95-88.
Miami won two championships in a row, and King James was a two-peat NBA Finals MVP. After the 2012-13, Tracy McGrady of the San Antonio Spurs retired.
Match Up #7: 2019 – Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors
The first two games were split, each team won one, but the Warriors gained the home-court advantage.
The Warriors had a depleted line-up in Game 3 with Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Kevon Looney sidelined with injuries. Kawhi Leonard went to work with 30 markers, backed by Kyle Lowry (23) and Danny Green (18) for a 123-109. The game was marked by a controversy, Golden State.
The Splash Brothers were in their deadly form in Game 5 to narrow the gap to 3-2, Curry had 31 markers and Thompson 26. Durant left the stadium using crutches, and it was his last appearance as a Warrior.
Klay Thompson was hot, scoring 30 points in Game 6. Unfortunately, he had to leave the game in the third quarter due to a torn ACL. It was a Toronto Raptors win (114-110) for their first NBA title, after a 24-year drought, in their first NBA Finals appearance. And the first team to win the title outside of the U.S.
Match Up #8: 1950 – Minneapolis Lakers vs. Syracuse Nationals
The 1950 NBA title series was the first nationally televised NBA championship. The contest featured the best two teams and players in the NBA.
The Lakers, spearheaded by the first superstar of the NBA, George Mikan were defending their crown against the Syracuse Nationals led by Dolph Schayes.
The Nationals tried to even the series in Game 6 with a strong game from Schayes (26 points and 13 boards), but this was no match to the balanced scoring from Mikan, Jim Pollard, and Slater Marin all making over markers apiece. The win was the Lakers second consecutive and Mikan’s MVP award cemented his dominance on the court and his progressive career with the Lakers franchise.
Match Up #9: 1989 – Detroit Pistons vs. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers were no match against the Bad Boys from Detroit and got swept in the 1989 Finals.
It was a rematch, and the Pistons were itching to get back at the Lakers, who beat them by a measly four points total in Games 6 and 7. The loss was like a damp blanket that hung over the Detroit team, haunting them all season long.
Precision plays by Isaiah Thomas (24 points) and Joe Dumars (22 points) doused cold water on every Laker attempt to catch up. Game 1 went to Detroit. 109-97.
With four minutes left in the third period of Game 2, Magic Johnson pulled his hamstring and was out of the game. The gritty Lakes tried to tie the count, 106-105, but the 1988 MVP James Worthy made only one free throw. With a second left, Isaiah Thomas was fouled and canned both gift shots for the final tally of 108-105.
The pain in Magic’s hamstring was unbearable. He played for five minutes and left Game 3. The Lakers made a gallant stand and pulled within three at 113-110, and it was Lakers’ ball with nine seconds remaining. The play was designed for rookie guard David Rivers to tie the game, but he was blocked by Joe Dumars, and Bill Laimbeer was fouled, making one of two free throws for a Pistons win 114-110.
It seemed the Lakers had finally found their bearings in Game 4. James Worthy made 40 points for the night and the Lakers were up 55-49 at halftime. The Pistons would not be denied, they took control in the fourth and closed out a 105-97 to win the title. It was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s last NBA game, Joe Dumars was the Finals MVP.
Match Up #10: 2005 – San Antonio Spurs vs. Detroit Pistons
The 2005 NBA finalists were both champions; the Pistons won three in 1989, 1990, and 2004 and the Spurs got two in 1999 and 2003.
Both teams won three games each to arrange a do-or-die Game 7. The Pistons were eyeing a two-peat, but San Antonio had the home-court advantage. Detroit’s bigs of Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace made Duncan’s life miserable in the paint. But when the Spurs were trailing by nine,48-39, in the third period, Duncan took over scoring 12 of the team’s 18 points to take the lead at the end of the third.
It was a Duncan and Manu Ginobili show in the final period for an 81-74 Spurs victory. Duncan had 25 points and won his third MVP Finals trophy, and Manu Ginobili finished with 23.
Match Up #11: 1976 – Boston Celtics vs. Phoenix Suns
It was the first trip of the Phoenix Suns to the finals, conversely, it was the Celtics’ 13th appearance winning 12 of them. The Celtics won their 13th title winning the series 4-2. Game 5 went into three overtime and was dubbed as the greatest NBA Finals game ever played.
The score was tied at 95-95, and Boston’s Silas signalled a timeout near the end of the fourth period. Fortunately, referee Richie Powers ignored the motion since the Celtics used all their timeouts. The game continued and time expired for the first OT. If the timeout was granted, the Celtics would be slapped with a technical foul and the Suns could have won the game with just one made free throw.
The second overtime was marked by a brilliant strategy from Suns’ Paul Westphal calling a timeout that they didn’t have. The Celtics were up by one, 111-110 and a technical foul was slapped on Phoenix. Celtic Jo Jo White sank the free throw to stretch the lead to two 112 -110 with a second remaining. The ball was inbounded at midcourt and received by Suns’ Gar Heard for a catch-and-shoot to tie the count 112-112 for the third overtime.
The Celtics held onto a 128-126 lead until time expired.
Match Up #12: 1974 – Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks
With two-time MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leading the charge, the Bucks were favored to win the 1974 NBA trophy against the Boston Celtics. The series featured two overtimes, the first was in Game 2 with the Bucks winning 105-96 and the other was won by the Celtics in double overtime in Game 6. The series was won by the Boston Celtics in a winner-takes-all Game 7.
Game 6 was a must-win for the Bucks to tie the series. A long jumper by John Havlicek tied the count at 86-all with over a minute in regulation, and then Oscar Robertson committed a 24-second violation with no time left.
In the first OT, the Bucks were leading 90-88 in the dying seconds. Havlicek received a pass from a steal by Don Chaney, but Kareem fronted him forcing Havlicek to take a jumper which he missed. Havlicek got the rebound and made a shot to tie the count.
There were 11 lead changes in the second OT, and a jumper by Micky Davis put the Bucks on top 100-99 with 24 ticks remaining. John Havlicek fired a high-arching shot over Kareem for a Celtics lead 101-100 with seven seconds remaining. A timeout was called by coach Tom Heinsohn who designed a play for John McGlocklin with Kareem setting a pick. McGlocklin was covered and Jabbar worked his way in the paint and unleashed his patented sky hook for a 102-101 Bucks win that tied the series.
Match Up #13: 1951 – Rochester Royals vs. New York Knicks
The series was marked by a series of game spurts, Rochester Royals won the first three games and the New York Knicks took the next three arranging a knockout Game 7. It was the first time for both teams to be in the NBA Finals and the first time an NBA Finals went into a Game 7.
The series could’ve been shortened if Royals’ center Arnie Risen converted more foul shots, 48-of-75. Risen had a double-double performance throughout the series averaging 21.7 PPG, 14.3 RPG, and 2.7 APG. Arnie Risen was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008.
The score was tied at 75 all with 1:29 left. Royals’ Bob Davies drove into the lane and was fouled by Dick McGuire, Davies canned both free throws for a two-point lead 77-75. Previously, a jump ball was called after foul shots in the last two minutes of the game. The Royals controlled the tip with the bigs of the Knicks fouling out. Jack Coleman received a pass from Red Holzman for a deuce and the final count at 75-79. It was the only NBA championship won by the Royals, now the Sacramento Kings.
Match Up #14: 1978 – Washington Bullets vs. Seattle Supersonics
The two finalists were unexpected, the Seattle Supersonics had a dismal start to the season 5-17 and the Washington Bullets were 44-38 during the regular season. The series was tied at 3 games apiece and needed a rubber match to determine the 1978 NBA champion.
All the marbles were in Game 7. After three quarters, the Bullets were on top by 13, 79-66. The Sonics slowly clawed back, helped by the fouling out of Bullets’ Elvin Hayes, who was playing well with eight minutes remaining. Sonics’ Fred Brown hit a 12-footer to narrow the gap to 98-94. With 90 seconds to go, Kupchak received a pass from Henderson for an AND 1, extending the Bullets’ lead to seven, 101-94.
The never-say-die Sonics scored five points in succession to narrow the gap to two, 101-99. The Sonics fouled Wes Unseld, a 54 % free throw shooter, hoping to capitalize on his misses. Unseld made both, and Dandridge provided the exclamation dunk to seal the win for Washington 105-99.
Seattle Guard Dennis Johnson was a disappointment with a 0 for 14 shooting and making four of six free throws.
Match Up #15: 2023 – Denver Nuggets vs. Miami Heat
Although it was a lopsided series victory, the Miami Heat’s Cinderella Story was impressive and worth mentioning.
The Heat went through two play-in games; the first was a defeat to the Atlanta Hawks, and a victory in the second game earned them the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. In the playoff round, Miami defeated powerhouse teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks, and the Boston Celtics.
In the series with the Bucks, the team lost Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo to injuries. There were only two starters to man the fort, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Veterans Kyle Lowry, Zeller, and Love helped in the production. Undrafted players like Caleb Martin, Max Struss, Gabe Vincent, and Duncan Robinson stepped up and showed grit
What Makes an NBA Finals Matchup Memorable?
Every NBA finals matchup has its own story to tell. It becomes memorable if there’s a historical significance, how the players acted their roles on the court, behind-the-scenes events, and clutch moments.
The 1970 NBA Finals featuring the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers had all the ingredients for a memorable matchup.
The series was tied at one game apiece in the early going. Game 3 looked like the Knicks bagged the game with a made shot from David DeBusschere (102-100). Time was down to three seconds. The Lakers had no timeouts. Jerry West received a pass and heaved a prayer shot beyond midcourt. The shot went in. Fortunately for the Knicks, there was no three-point shot then, or the Lakers would have won the game outright. The Knicks won in OT, 111-108.
Game 4 went into the second overtime of the series, and the Lakers tied the series.
The teams split Games 5 and 6 for a knockout Game 7.
Willis Reed suffered a thigh injury in Game 5, he was a no-show in Game 6 and was not expected to play in Game 7. The iconic scene of Willis Reed limping out of the tunnel before the opening tip drew widespread applause and cheers. Reed made only two shot attempts in the game and made both. Reed’s tight defense limited Chamberlain to only two of nine shots. With 3:05 left in the first half, Reed was sent to the bench for good with the Knicks ahead by 24 (61-37).
Reed’s heroics rubbed to his teammates and melted the Celtics’ spirit. Clyde Frazier took it from there, scoring 36 points and handing out 19 assists and DeBusschere helped clear the board with 17 rebounds. The Knicks won the game 113-99 to claim their first NBA title.
Wrapping Things Up: 15 Best NBA Finals Matchup of All Time
After playing 82 grueling games during the regular season, only a few players make it to the NBA Finals throughout their careers.
The NBA Finals is a setting where great players become legends, and where dynasties and history are made. It ends with great games that join the classic list of the greatest NBA finals ever played.