If not for the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 NBA Conference Finals would’ve started last May 19th and by now, we would’ve already had an idea which teams will meet in the 2020 NBA Finals. But as it stands, we will have to wait whether the NBA will even resume the 2019-20 season.
In the history of the NBA, we’ve seen a lot of great conference finals series. These best match-ups include the best teams facing each other, hard-fought battles, and great individual performances.
Let’s take a look at the best conference finals ever. We listed them in chronological order because we can’t pick out which one is more iconic than the others:
1995 Western Conference Finals
The Houston Rockets won the 1994 NBA title by defeating the New York Knicks in a seven-game series. The Rockets’ title defense wasn’t easy as the team struggled during the regular season and finished 6th in the Western Conference standings. The Rockets had to win Game 5 at Salt Lake City to advance to the second round and they had to go to Phoenix and win Game 7 behind Mario Elie’s “kiss of death” three-pointer to move on to the Conference Finals.
The Spurs were led by David Robinson who had been named MVP over Hakeem Olajuwon that season. Olajuwon took the matchup as a challenged and he averaged 35.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.25 steals, and 4.2 blocks per game. Houston won the first two games of the series but the Spurs bounced back to win two in a row to tie the series. The defending champions closed out the series by winning Games 5 and 6
1998 Eastern Conference Finals
During their “Last Dance”, the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz were tied for the best record in the league with 62 wins each. That’s why it was only fitting that they met in the 1998 NBA Finals in the final year before the Bulls’ dynasty was disbanded. However, Chicago’s road to the Finals wasn’t an easy one, especially in the 1998 Eastern Conference where they faced a stubborn Indiana Pacers team led by Reggie Miller.
Indiana won 58 games during the regular season and they took the Bulls to the seven-game limit to become only the second team to do so during Chicago’s title run. Reggie Miller delivered a game-winner in Game 4 while Travis Best’s free throws in Game 6 won two close games for the Pacers. However, Chicago’s defense stifled Miller in Game 7 as he failed to score a point in the final 15 minutes of Game 7 to seal Indiana’s fate.
2000 Western Conference Finals
The 2000 Western Conference Finals made the Los Angeles Lakers a dynasty. L.A. was dominant in the regular season and Shaquille O’Neal was unstoppable. They won 67 regular-season games and had the best record in the league. Meanwhile, the Blazers had the second-best record in the NBA but they were a far eight games behind the Lakers in the team standings.
However, with Scottie Pippen and Rasheed Wallace leading the Blazers, this turned out to be a very even match-up. The Blazers looked on their way to victory with a 15-point lead in the 4th quarter of Game 7. However, Shaq and Kobe led a furious rally that culminated in that iconic alley-oop from Kobe to Shaq. The Lakers won the series but neither team won three straight games in the series and Games 3,5, and 7 were decided by single digits.
2002 Western Conference Finals
2002 was the last of the Lakers’ three-peat under Phil Jackson and it proved to be their most challenging win. The Sacramento Kings finished with the best record in the NBA that season with 61 wins while the Lakers came in tied for second with the San Antonio Spurs. The teams would meet in the 2002 Western Conference Finals and produce one of the best Conference Finals ever.
This series will be remembered for Robert Horry’s buzzer-beating three-pointer that gave the Lakers a one-point win in Game 4 of the series. Had the Kings won that game, there wouldn’t even be a Game 7 to talk about. But then Horry’s heroics happened and instead of heading home with a 3-1 lead, the Kings and Lakers were tied 2-2 after four games. The Kings won Game 5 but the Lakers won the last two games of the series to become the first team to win on the road in Game 7 during the final two rounds of the playoffs. Games 4-6 were decided by a combined six points.
2007 Eastern Conference Finals
The 2006-07 Eastern Conference was a competitive one with the Detroit Pistons having the best record in the East at 53-29. The Cleveland Cavaliers came in second at 50-32 behind the rising superstar LeBron James. This series will be remembered for James’ Game 5 effort which is ranked as one of the best individual performances in NBA playoff history.
Detroit opened the series with two straight wins at their home floor but the young Cleveland team was determined to win their first-ever Eastern Conference title and they won the next two games in Cleveland to tie the series at 2-2. Then in the famous Game 5, James scored 49 points including 29 out of the Cavaliers’ last 29 points in the game. His lay-up with two seconds left gave the Cavs the series-changing victory over the Pistons. The Cavs went on to win the series in Game 6, only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs 4-0 in the Finals.
2012 Western Conference Finals
The San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder were the two best teams in the Western Conference in 2012 and it was but correct that they met in the 2012 Western Conference. San Antonio represented the present and they were a tried and proven championship team. On the other hand, the Thunder were the new breed, led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka.
The Spurs used their experience to win the first two games of the series, extending their playoff winning run to 20 games. But the Thunder fought back to win the next two games in Oklahoma City. In Game 5, the Thunder fought off a 34-point effort from Manu Ginobili to steal a win on the road. The Thunder finished off the Spurs in Game 6 and set up a title duel against the Miami Heat.
2012 Eastern Conference Finals
The heavyweight matchup of 2012 was the proverbial passing of the torch in the Eastern Conference. The Boston Celtics Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen helped the team win its first title in the post-Larry Bird era in 2008. On the other hand, the Miami Heat’s newly formed Big Three of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh humiliated the Celtics during the previous season and they were out to finish off the Celtics’ Big 3 era.
The teams split the first four games of the series with each team winning its home assignments. Behind the heroics of KG and Pierce, the Celtics won the all-important Game 5. However, Miami dug deep to win Games 6 and 7, and LeBron James’ 45 points and 15 rebounds performance in Game 6 is one for the ages. Boston started Game 7 strong and had a triple-double performance from Rajon Rondo. However, James scored 31 points to put the Heat back to the NBA Finals.
2016 Western Conference Finals
The Oklahoma City Thunder of 2016 was determined to return to the NBA Finals and they dominated the defending champions Golden State Warriors in the first four games of the series. Despite having altercations with Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook put up impressive performances that gave the Thunder a quick 3-1 lead that put the defending champs on the ropes.
During the regular season, Golden State set the record for most wins during the regular season with 73. However, with their season on the line, they mustered enough confidence to stave off elimination in Game 5. Then Klay Thompson hit 11 three-pointers in Game 6 as the Warriors forced a deciding Game 7. In Game 7, OKC came off the gates firing and took an early 13 point lead but the Warriors’ defense prevailed in the end as they won 96-88. Durant would join the Warriors after the season.
2018 Western Conference Finals
The Golden State Warriors were engaged in another thrilling conference Finals after their 2016 duel with the OKC Thunder. In 2018, the Dubs squared off against a Houston Rockets team that was led by their dynamic backcourt of James Harden and Chris Paul. The Rockets boasted that they were a team that was built to beat the Rockets and it appeared that they did.
Harden matched Curry and Thompson’s three-point shooting while the Rockets had defenders which limited Kevin Durant’s performance. Then Chris Paul’s experience proved to be key for the Rockets who took a 3-2 lead going to Game 6. Unfortunately, Paul sat out Game 6 after suffering a hamstring injury late in Game 5 and the Warriors were able to send the series to a deciding Game 7. Paul was unavailable again for Game 7 but despite that, the Rockets still had a 15-point lead. However, the Rockets missed 27 consecutive three-pointers and Durant led the Warriors back to victory.
2019 Eastern Conference Finals
The Milwaukee Bucks were determined to win the NBA title with Giannis Antetokounmpo ascending to the throne as the best player in the NBA. The Bucks had the best record in the Eastern Conference and they faced the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors were led by Kawhi Leonard who was in his first season with the Raptors after his trade from the San Antonio Spurs.
The Bucks took a quick 2-0 lead behind the Greek Freak. Milwaukee won the first two games of the series by an aggregate winning margin of 30 points. But then after the Raptors won the double-overtime Game 3, they simply went to another level. Khris Middleton scored 30 points and Toronto blew out Milwaukee to tie the series in Game 4. Leonard scored 35 in their Game 6 win in Milwaukee and the 2019 Finals MVP pumped in 27 points in the series clincher at the Scotiabank Arena.