The NBA postseason has the tagline, “Where Amazing Happens,” and truer words have never been spoken. Like clockwork, at least one series puts fans into cardiac mode every year and on the edge of their seats. Go way back in the history of the NBA, and you have dozens of exciting playoff series to choose from. If you’re in a reminiscing mood for pulsating and nail-biting basketball, here are the greatest NBA Playoff series of all time.
It’s unfair to only put 15 on the list, but it’s only reserved for the best of the best. Ultimately, this ranking is subjective, but a part of what made these series so great were the electrifying performances that came along with them.
How Do NBA Playoff Series Work?
The NBA Playoffs are all about matchups. Sixteen teams, eight from each conference, advance to the postseason and are seeded based on their records.
Since 2020, the league introduced a play-in tournament that spiced up the postseason. In this system, the seventh to 10th seeds in each conference compete to determine the last two slots in the playoffs. Here’s how the play-in goes:
- The winner between the seventh and eighth seeds secures the No. 7 spot outright.
- The winner between the ninth and 10th seed battles the loser between seven and eight.
- Whoever wins will officially hold the No. 8 spot in the playoffs.
As soon as the brackets are complete, the usual 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5 matchups continue. The winners between the 1-8 and 4-5 series (and 2 vs. 7 and 3 vs. 6) go on to the second round. Whoever wins goes on to the Conference Finals, and the last teams in each conference battle it out in the NBA Finals.
15 Best NBA Playoff Series of All Time
The NBA postseason is where greatness becomes manifest. Playoff basketball is where superstars earn their paychecks by rising to the occasion time and again when they are needed. And what makes these series exciting is that, more often than not, another warrior is waiting on the other side to make things interesting.
Here are the 15 best NBA playoff series of all time:
15.) Bucks vs. Nets, 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Here’s the deal: If only Kevin Durant’s foot was half an inch shorter, the Nets would have advanced to the next round and perhaps go all the way. Instead, Game 7 went into overtime, where the Bucks won 115-111.
But make no mistake about it, this Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup displayed some of the best NBA playoff series performances from the league’s two best players. Giannis Antetokounmpo essentially averaged 32/14/4, while Kevin Durant went absolutely berserk. KD went to work and averaged 35.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.1 blocks in seven games.
It’s possibly the best individual playoff series KD ever had, even compared to his Finals MVP runs.
14.) Clippers vs. Spurs, 2015 Western Conference First Round
Possibly the greatest first-round playoff series of all time, the seven-game struggle came down to the last-second heroics by Chris Paul. The Clippers were the third seed in this matchup, but even if the Spurs were the sixth seed, they were the defending champions with everyone returning.
San Antonio took the pivotal Game 5 at Staples Center, but the Clippers returned the favor in Game 6. This set the stage for an all-out war in Game 7– Chris Paul and Tim Duncan had 27 points each, while Blake Griffin had a 24-13-10 triple-double. Seriously, how many superstars do you know achieved this feat on a Game 7?
With the game tied at 109-apiece with less than nine seconds remaining, Paul got past Green and threw an off-balanced floater that found the bank and into the basket. The Spurs couldn’t get a decent shot with only a second remaining, thanks to great defense by Matt Barnes on a lob to Kawhi Leonard.
13.) Raptors vs. Sixers, 2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals
This was a battle of two stacked teams who didn’t give an inch, and true enough, it went to a Game 7. The Sixers had five players scoring in double-figures, while the Raptors had Kawhi Leonard carrying much of the scoring load by averaging 34.7 points a game. That’s one of the best playoff performances in recent history, considering he averaged ten rebounds, four assists, and 1.3 steals on 53% shooting.
Everyone knew how this turned out, though. Kawhi launched a shot that bounced a couple of times and went straight into the rim with no time left. If he hadn’t made the shot, anything could happen in OT, but basketball fans got the feeling that “The Klaw” couldn’t be denied that year.
12.) Warriors vs. Thunder, 2016 Western Conference Finals
The Warriors just came off the best regular season of all time, breaking the ’96 Bulls’ 72-10 season. However, they found themselves in a 3-1 hole against the OKC Thunder led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
As you would expect, Golden State mounted a comeback by handling Oklahoma City convincingly in Game 5 and unleashing Klay Thompson in Game 6. Dub Nation pulled away for good in the final minutes of the 4th quarter in Game 7 to pull off the miracle.
In hindsight, all signs pointed to KD and Russ finishing the job in Game 6. OKC was up by seven, 94-87, with over five minutes remaining, but the Warriors engineered a 21-7 run to secure the win.
Who knows what could’ve happened if OKC managed to win the series? Maybe KD wasn’t going to be a Warrior, and Steph Curry and the rest of the Warriors wouldn’t have two more rings. It’s anybody’s guess, but those things would have been plausible if only Game 6 Klay didn’t happen.
11.) Celtics vs. Bulls, 2009 Eastern Conference First Round
If there was one first-round series that could top No. 14 on this list, it’s got to be this one. Five of the seven games were decided by one basket, and a young Chicago team led by Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon had their chances, especially in Game 5.
After Ben Gordon tied the game by making three free throws, 104-104, Paul Pierce hit a clutch jumper at the top of the key to give the Celtics a two-point lead with only 3.4 seconds left. In the ensuing play, Brad Miller broke free, attacked the basket, and was fouled by Rajon Rondo.
Unfortunately for the Bulls, Miller cracked under pressure, missing his first throw, which prompted an intentional miss in the second. Nothing happened there, so the Celtics secured the win in a pivotal game 5.
10.) Heat vs. Celtics, 2012 Eastern Conference Finals
What made this series so great was that not only did it go the distance, the Celtics’ 3-2 lead prompted the birth of “Evil Glare” LeBron. This happened in Game 6, and it was probably one of the three best NBA playoff performances by LeBron James.
After Boston won Games 3 to 5, James decided to take matters into his own hands, finishing Game 6 with 45-15-5 on 73% choosing. To finish the job, Bron delivered 31 points and 12 rebounds in Game 7, signaling the era of Villain LeBron.
If he didn’t show up the last two games in this series, haters would have had a field day throwing “choke” jokes on LeBron forever.
9.) Lakers vs. Kings, 2002 Western Conference Finals
This was one of the most talked about series in the history of the NBA, especially the conspiracy theories surrounding Game 6. Whether the stories were true or not, the series was a classic.
Sacramento was the deeper and more talented team, but Los Angeles had the more experienced squad. The Kings had a chance to drive the knife deeper into the Lakers’ collective guts in Game 4, but Robert Horry happened. If the Kings won this game, they have three chances to end the Lakers’ dynasty one season early.
But because of that Vlade Divac tapout and Horry shot, the Lakers stretched the series until the controversial Game 6 happened. In Game 7, the Kings missed open shots and free throws that would have put pressure on the Lakers. The Purple and Gold eventually finished the series with a 112-106 overtime win in Sacramento’s Arco Arena.
It wasn’t Shaquille O’Neal’s best individual playoff series, but the Big Fella averaged 30.3 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks. Kobe Bryant had a decent 27-6-4 stat line to complement Shaq.
8.) Pacers vs. Knicks, 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals
The 90s playoffs involving the Pacers, Knicks, and Bulls were always a bloodbath, and this one was no different. This series was so close four games were decided by two points or less.
And if you needed to be hyped, Game 7 was when the “Reggie Miller, Knick Killer” happened. Miller scored six points in a bat of an eyelash to tie the game, 105-105, with only 13 seconds left. For some reason, Indiana fouled John Starks, who clanked both free throws. After securing an offensive rebound off Starks’ miss, Patrick Ewing missed a “gimme” in the lane, leading to a Miller rebound, foul, and two free throws.
Everyone knew Reggie Miller doesn’t miss many free throws. True enough, Miller made both to win it for the Pacers.
7.) Lakers vs. Blazers, 2000 Western Conference Finals
Aside from the Kings teams in the early 2000s, the Blazers had the most talented roster the Lakers has ever faced. They had a formidable starting 5 (with Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith, and Rasheed Wallace) and a great bench (Bonzi Wells, Detlef Schrempf, and a young Jermaine O’Neal).
But with a 17-point second-half lead in Game 7, the squad began to wilt away under pressure. The Lakers chipped away until they took the lead for good. Then, with only 45 seconds left and leading 83-79, one of the most iconic playoff plays materialized. Kobe Bryant crossed Pippen on the way to the lane and found a wide-open Shaquille O’Neal for an alley-oop slam to book their ticket to the NBA Finals.
The following year, the Lakers got the best NBA playoff record at the time with a 15-1 win-loss slate.
6.) Bulls vs. Pacers, 1998 Eastern Conference Finals
If there was one team in the 90s that gave the Bulls trouble, it’s the 1998 Indiana Pacers. The Pacers, with Reggie Miller and Chris Mullin, had the personnel to be just as clutch as the Bulls in the final moments. In fact, Indiana won three games with a total margin of seven points, highlighted by the infamous Miller three in Game 6.
In Game 7, the Pacers led early, but the Bulls tightened the screws and eventually won it 88-83.
5.) Mavs vs. Spurs, 2006 Western Conference Semifinals
Nothing is more fun than watching two equally great players take each other on in their primes. And it doesn’t hurt that their teams were powerhouses, either. That’s exactly what happened in the 2006 Western Conference Finals. If you remember, this series made the NBA abolish its previous seeding rules regarding division champions.
Dallas almost wasted a 3-1 lead, but Dirk Nowitzki saved the day in Game 7. The German power forward registered 35 points and 15 rebounds to wrestle a 119-11 win. Tim Duncan had 41-15 and 6, but San Antonio couldn’t get anything from their bench. The Spurs only got two points from their reserves, while the Mavericks had 29.
4.) Celtics vs. Pistons, 1987 Eastern Conference Finals
It’s amazing how one play can change the complexion of the series. The Celtics-Pistons ECF series was the best example of that. With only five seconds left in Game 5 and the Pistons leading 107-106, Larry Bird anticipated the inbounds pass by Isiah Thomas.
And this is really where amazing happens. Like operating with telepathy, Bird tiptoed on the baseline and, in one motion, flicked a pass to a streaking Dennis Johnson, who made the layup.
Because of this improbable win, Boston took a pivotal 3-2 lead, and while they lost to Detroit in Game 6, they got the job done, 117-114, in Game 7.
3.) Lakers vs. Celtics, 2010 NBA Finals
Game 7s are ugly, but the 2010 NBA Finals was the most unsightly offensive display of a Finals game in the last 20 years. What it was, though, was a hard-fought defensive battle. The Lakers executed much better down the stretch, putting the Celtics in early penalty in the fourth and attacking the paint plenty and often. This strategy allowed them to come back from 13 points down in the third quarter and capture Banner No. 16.
Like any other close series, there were many what-ifs on this one. The Celtics led 3-2 in the series but lost Kendrick Perkins in Game 6 because of an injury. If Perk was there, the Celtics wouldn’t have to start the ghost of Rasheed Wallace, and maybe they don’t get dominated in the offensive boards, 23-8. Hindsight is always 20/20, but the what-if scenarios prove that this series was so exciting it could virtually go either way.
2.) Cavs vs. Warriors, 2016 NBA Finals
The NBA has seen 3-1 series leads disappear in the playoffs 13 times, but 2016 was the only such occurrence in the NBA Finals. The Draymond Green suspension in Game 5 played a massive role in the momentum shift as it allowed the Cavs to find a rhythm throughout the last three games.
After winning Games 4 and 5 by double-digits, Cleveland had to dig deep after finding themselves down by seven at halftime, 49-42. The lead completely vanished courtesy of a 12-5 run by the Cavs, and from there, it was like two prizefighters in the middle of the ring trying to knock each other out.
Cleveland eventually did land a 1-2 combo in the clutch. The first was a LeBron James special, a chase-down block that prevented the Warriors from taking the lead with under two minutes remaining. Next was a Kyrie Irving three-pointer one minute later to give the Cavs a 92-89 advantage, which they never relinquished.
1.) Celtics vs. Sixers, 1981 Eastern Conference Finals
If there is one matchup that could be the greatest NBA playoff series of all time, it’s the 1981 ECF between the Celtics and the Sixers. The star power was there with Larry Bird and Julius Erving, but everyone was in their element. The Sixers had five players averaging double-figures, while the Celtics had four.
Watch the Game 6 highlights, and it has everything. There were fights, clutch shots, poster dunks, and crucial defensive plays. Watch Game 7, and there was even more pandemonium. Most importantly, almost every game hung in the balance, with five games being decided by two points or less. In fact, the Celtics were down by double-digits in Games 5 to 7, only to rally and salvage the victory.
Wrapping Things Up: 15 Greatest NBA Playoff Series of All Time
The NBA postseason is where hoops fans flock to see high-level professional basketball. They are treated to incredible feats of athleticism and nail-biting finishes that are not for the faint of heart. Of course, playoff series are not created equal, but fans can be sure of at least one that will cause heart palpitations of the best kind.
So, what are the greatest NBA playoff series of all time? The 2010 NBA Finals, the 2016 NBA Finals, and the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals are definitely in the conversation. Of course, defining “great” is subjective, but given the star power, exciting finishes, and overall quality of play, these three should check all the boxes of what makes an incredible series.
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