Top 10 NBA finals series of all time
Of all the great NBA finals series, which would make the top ten? We rank the 10 greatest series in NBA Finals history.
One of the most magnificent events in sports is the NBA Finals. It involves a thrilling seven-game contest between the Eastern and Western Conference champions, vying for the prestigious league title at the conclusion of the season.
Who won the NBA Finals 2022?
In the 2022 playoffs, the Golden State Warriors made their long-awaited return to the NBA Finals, taking on the talented Boston Celtics led by Jayson Tatum.
This marked the Warriors' first appearance in the championship since their defeat to the Toronto Raptors in 2019. During that challenging loss, the team endured the absence of Klay Thompson, who suffered a debilitating ACL tear followed by a torn Achilles, sidelining him for two seasons.
However, Klay's triumphant return during the 2022 campaign proved crucial for the Warriors' playoff journey. With his help, the team regained their title as NBA champions, securing their first championship since 2018.
When do the NBA Finals start?
The NBA Finals of 2023 will commence on June 1st and may extend until June 18th if the series requires seven games.
The Boston Celtics have the best current NBA finals odds, followed by Phoenix and Philadelphia.
NBA Finals History
The inaugural NBA Finals occurred in 1947, back when the league was named the Basketball Association of America (BAA). The championship series featured the Chicago Stars and the Philadelphia Warriors, with the latter emerging victorious with a 4-1 score.
By the time the 1950 NBA Finals arrived, the league had already rebranded itself as the NBA. In that season's championship, the Minneapolis Lakers triumphed over the Syracuse Nationals.
Throughout history, several teams have enjoyed extended periods of success, but few have achieved the level of dominance exhibited by the Boston Celtics under the leadership of the iconic Bill Russell. Their reign included eight consecutive championships from 1959 to 1966, cementing their place in NBA history.
What is the NBA Finals Format?
The NBA finals format has always been a best of seven series. This is unlike the first round of the playoffs which used to be a best of five games format.
Ranking the Top 10 Greatest NBA Finals Series of all time
- 2009-2010 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers vs Boston Celtics
Series Result: Los Angeles Lakers 4 Boston Celtics 3
Finals MVP: Kobe Bryant
The Boston Celtics and the L.A. Lakers have had perhaps the most legendary NBA Finals history matchup. It all started in the 1960s between Bill Russell's Celtics and Jerry West's Lakers, and the rivalry continued with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 80s. After some time, the two teams met again in a classic 2010 series.
In 2010, the Celtics and Lakers faced off again, having featured together in the finals just two years earlier in 2008, where the Celtics were victorious. The Lakers were seeking revenge. The series started with the Lakers losing Game 2 and squandering their home court advantage, but they managed to take Game 3 and lead the series 2-1. The Lakers then lost two straight games to fall behind 3-2, even with Kobe Bryant's 38 points in Game 5.
The Lakers were on the brink of elimination, but back-to-back stout defensive performances helped them claim the series. In Game 6, the Celtics scored just 67 points as the Lakers prevailed, taking the series to Game 7 back at the Staples Center. It was the Lakers who would pull away, largely thanks to a crucial three-pointer from Ron Artest that stretched their lead to six late in the game. While Kobe didn't have his best shooting night, he still managed to score 10 important points in the fourth quarter, and Pau Gasol was superb in rebounding.
After the game, Phil Jackson praised Artest, claiming he was the night's MVP and one of the key reasons the Lakers were once again NBA champions.
- 1961-1962 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers
Series Result: Boston Celtics 4 Los Angeles Lakers 3
The 1962 NBA Finals featured the new Los Angeles Lakers. This was the first time since their relocation from Minneapolis in 1959.
The Boston Celtics were a dominant force in the late 1950s and early 1960s, winning three straight championships with a star-studded roster that included the likes of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Sam and K.C. Jones. However, the Los Angeles Lakers, who also had their share of Hall of Famers such as Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, posed a real threat to the Celtics' reign as champions.
Baylor was particularly impressive in the series, and his 61-point performance in Game 5 remains the most points scored in an NBA Finals game to this day. He also grabbed an impressive 22 rebounds. Despite Baylor's heroics, the Celtics managed to keep the series close, setting the stage for an epic Game 7.
The final game was a nail-biter, and it took overtime for Bill Russell and the Celtics to secure their fourth consecutive championship. Russell was instrumental in the win, putting up an impressive 30 points and an incredible 40 rebounds, setting the record for the most rebounds in an NBA Finals game, a record that still stands today.
- 1993-1994 NBA Finals: Houston Rockets vs New York Knicks
Series Result: Houston Rockets 4 New York Knicks 3
Finals MVP: Hakeem Olajuwon
In 1994, the NBA Finals witnessed a historic showdown between two of the game's greatest centers. The Houston Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, faced off against the New York Knicks, with Patrick Ewing leading the charge.
The series was closely contested, with neither team able to gain a decisive advantage in the first six games. Hakeem proved his mettle by outscoring Ewing in every game, but Ewing responded with impressive defensive performances, setting an NBA record for the most blocks in an NBA Finals series with 30. The matchup between these two giants of the game was truly memorable and will be remembered for years to come.
In the end, Houston emerged victorious in Game 7, thanks in part to a poor shooting performance from the Knicks' John Starks. Hakeem led the Rockets in scoring, rebounding, and assists, and was named Finals MVP for his efforts. With this victory, the Rockets claimed their first NBA championship in franchise history.
- 2012-2013 NBA Finals: Miami Heat vs San Antonio Spurs
Series Result: Miami Heat 4 San Antonio Spurs 3
Finals MVP: Lebron James
In 2013, Lebron James and the Miami Heat returned to the NBA Finals as defending champions, boasting an impressive 66-16 regular season record. Their opponents were none other than the San Antonio Spurs, led by Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, reigniting a matchup between James and Duncan from their previous Finals showdown in 2007.
Despite being the favorites, the Heat stumbled in Game 1 at home, with the Spurs mounting a fourth quarter comeback to claim the win. The series remained neck-and-neck as the two teams traded wins, until the Spurs took a 3-2 lead.
Game 6 proved to be one of the most memorable NBA Finals games in history, with the Heat and Spurs locked in a tight battle. With Miami leading 101-100, Dwyane Wade missed a jumper that could have extended their lead, allowing Manu Ginobili to take the ball and attempt to seal the series for San Antonio. However, Ray Allen had other plans, stealing the ball and drawing a foul. Allen coolly sank both free throws to force a Game 7.
Lebron James then took over in the decisive final game, putting up an incredible 37 points and 12 rebounds to secure back-to-back championships for the Heat. James was named Finals MVP for the second year in a row, capping off a thrilling NBA Finals series.
- 1987-1988 NBA Finals: Los Angeles Lakers vs Detroit Pistons
Series Result: Los Angeles Lakers 4 Detroit Pistons 3
Finals MVP: James Worthy
The focus of the 1987-1988 series was on the Lakers, as head coach Pat Riley had promised a repeat championship during the team's victory parade in Los Angeles the previous season.
Every other team in the league wanted to prove him wrong, but the Lakers went on to boast the league's best record with 60 wins in the regular season. Both the Jazz and the Mavericks took them to seven games in the playoffs, but the Lakers held off and returned to the finals to defend their title.
The ‘bad boy’ Pistons would have their shot at overthrowing the champions, growing into one of the league's best teams in the late 80s. They were young and hungry for a championship, led by guard Isiah Thomas.
In the 1988 NBA Finals, the Detroit Pistons showed they were a serious threat to the Lakers by stealing Game 1. Isiah Thomas was the standout player, stealing an inbound pass and making a buzzer-beating three-pointer at the end of the first half to give the Pistons momentum. However, Magic Johnson played through the flu to help the Lakers win back-to-back games in Games 2 and 3, aided by James Worthy's scoring.
The Pistons won the next two games, including a memorable Game 5 at the Pontiac Silverdome in front of over 40,000 fans. Isiah Thomas had a career game in Game 6, scoring 43 points on a bad ankle, but a controversial foul call in the dying moments allowed the Lakers to tie the series at 3-3.
In Game 7, James Worthy had the only triple-double of his career with 36 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists, leading the Lakers to victory and making good on Pat Riley's promise of a repeat championship. Worthy was named the Finals MVP, earning the nickname 'Big Game James' for his efforts throughout the series.
- 1979-1980 NBA Finals: L.A. Lakers vs Philadelphia 76ers
Series Result: L.A. Lakers 4 Philadelphia 76ers 2
Finals MVP: Magic Johnson
In 1980, the NBA Finals showcased the Lakers with their star players Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar going up against the Philadelphia 76ers, who were led by the legendary Julius Erving.
The series featured many defining moments, with Kareem leading the Lakers in scoring in the first three meetings, giving the Lakers a 2-1 lead. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Lakers in scoring in the first three meetings, giving them a 2-1 lead, but Julius Erving then stole the show with his famous "baseline move" during Game 4, which left Magic Johnson in awe.
After the series was tied at 2-2 and heading back to the Forum, the Lakers took advantage again, going up 3-2 but unfortunately losing Abdul-Jabbar to an ankle injury in the process.
However, Magic Johnson, who was a Lakers rookie at the time, stepped up and decided to play center to fill in for his injured teammate. In what is still considered one of the most incredible performances in the history of the NBA Finals, Magic scored an astonishing 42 points with 15 rebounds while featuring in all five positions at some point in the series.
Thanks to Magic's heroics, the Lakers won the series 4-2, with his performance in Game 6 being one of the greatest NBA Finals performances ever seen.
- 1968-1969 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers
Series Result: Boston Celtics 4 Los Angeles Lakers 3
Finals MVP: Jerry West
The 1969 NBA Finals featured yet another chapter in the historic rivalry between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt had been traded to the Lakers and teamed up with Jerry West and co. to try and take down Russell’s Celtics. Russell’s team had played in many finals by this point, but the 1969 series is one of the all-time greats in Boston Celtics NBA finals history.
The two sides met in the finals and the stage was set for fireworks, with the Lakers getting out to a 2-0 lead led by the sensational play of Jerry West, who had one of the best NBA finals by any player in league history.
West scored 53 points in Game 1 and 41 in Game 2 as the Lakers took a statement lead. Bill Russell was the Celtics player coach at the time and eventually decided they were going to need to double up when defending West if they wanted to win the series. They claimed Game 3 and a buzzer beater from Sam Jones in Game 4 tied the series at 2-2. One of the best NBA championship finals in history was brewing.
The Lakers won Game 5, but not without Jerry West injuring his hamstring while stretching for the ball. Though West continued to play, his discomfort was evident on the court. The Celtics went on to win Game 6, which forced the series to head back to Los Angeles for a decisive Game 7.
However, the story of Game 7 is infamous in playoff history. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke was so confident of his team's victory that he had prearranged a victory celebration in the arena, complete with balloons suspended from the ceiling, a marching band, and even an interview schedule for the Lakers players after their win. This is one of the most memorable examples of hubris in NBA history.
The word got around, and when it found the Boston team and Bill Russell, they were fired up. Russell boldly exclaimed that ‘those f**king balloons are staying up there’, and that's exactly what happened. Jerry West was furious at Cooke for what he’d done, and the Celtics indeed spoiled the party.
Despite losing the series, Lakers star Jerry West was named the MVP in the first year of the award, the only time in NBA finals MVP history that the winner has come from the losing team.
- 1997-1998 NBA Finals: Chicago Bulls vs Utah Jazz
Series Result: Chicago Bulls 4 Utah Jazz 2
Finals MVP: Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and the Chicago Bulls were chasing their second three-peat in the late 90s. This was after winning back-to-back-to-back championships between 1991 and 1993, and then winning two more after Jordan returned to the NBA in 1996 and 1997.
Standing in their way were the Utah Jazz, who had formed a dangerous outfit around the ball handling abilities of John Stockton and the interior dominance of Karl Malone.
The 1998 finals were set to be the end of the Chicago Bulls dynasty, and everybody knew it beforehand, making the series a final hurrah for one of the greatest teams in NBA history.
After losing Game 1 in an overtime thriller, the Bulls won three straight including a demolition win 96-54 on their home court. Chicago looked set to win their sixth championship of the Jordan era, but Utah fought back and claimed Game 5.
Game 6 would become one of the most documented games in NBA history, with Scottie Pippen leaving the game early with a painful back injury that locked him up and forced him off the floor. Leaving the fate of the Bulls dynasty in Jordan’s hands.
MJ went on to score 45 points in the contest, and it was all him down the stretch. The Jazz had a 3-point lead when Jordan made a layup in the final minute to bring the deficit back to one. He then stole the basketball with the clock ticking down, sent his defender right and pulled back left, hitting the jumpshot that closed out the series. This is now one of the most iconic shots in the league's existence.
The shot became the very last of Jordan’s career with the Chicago Bulls, winning his sixth title and sixth finals MVP award. The series is without doubt one of the best NBA playoff series of all time.
- 2015-2016 NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden State Warriors
Closing NBA Final Betting Lines: Golden State to win the series -220, Cleveland +180
Series Result: Cleveland Cavaliers 4 Golden State Warriors 3
Finals MVP: Lebron James
Lebron James had returned to Cleveland and taken them all the way to the NBA Finals in 2015, only to fall one stop short of a championship by losing the series to the Warriors.
The following season would set up a repeat matchup between the two franchises, following a record-breaking year for Golden State in which they won 73 games in the regular season. The Warriors had just overcome a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Western Conference Finals, and surged ahead in the finals taking a 3-1 lead over Cleveland. Lebron and the Cavs suddenly faced tough odds to win the NBA finals.
What followed would become the biggest comeback in NBA finals history, led by Lebron James and Kyrie Irving. On the brink of elimination, Lebron had two of the greatest NBA finals performances in back-to-back games. He scored 41 points in both Game 5 and 6 to help tie the series at 3-3.
Having won Game 5 on the road to keep the series alive, the Cavs would have to return to Golden State’s Oracle Arena and win again in the series finale to achieve the impossible.
No other team in the history of the league had come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals, but thanks to Kyrie Irving’s clutch three pointer down the stretch, the Cavs became the first. They overthrew the champion Warriors and claimed the first title in Cleveland history, and the third in Lebron's career. He was named the Finals MVP once again, and the Cavs were league champs after one of the best NBA playoff series NBA fans had ever seen.
- 1983-1984 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics vs Los Angeles Lakers
Series Result: Boston Celtics 4 Los Angeles Lakers 3
Finals MVP: Larry Bird
The 1984 NBA Finals between Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Larry Bird's Celtics remains to be arguably the all-time number one NBA playoff series. The two superstars had faced off in the 1979 NCAA Championship with Magic coming out on top at Michigan State.
The two would meet again in the 1984 Finals as two of the league's brightest stars, helping to attract major audiences and inspire the NBA’s growth to what it is today. So, when they appeared on opposite sides of the floor, the nation stood still to watch.
Both the Lakers and the Celtics were the number one seed in their respective conferences. The Lakers had just beaten the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, while the 1984 Boston Celtics roster built around Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish had eased past the Milwaukee Bucks 4-1.
The two sides split the first two games of the series, and after Boston dropped Game 3 at the Great Western Forum in a 137-104 slaughtering, Larry Bird called his team mates out by saying they had ‘played like sissies’.
The fourth encounter went to overtime, but Larry Bird showed out with 29 points and 21 rebounds to tie the series 2-2. Both sides then won at home, including what’s known as the ‘heat game’ at the Boston Garden in Game 5, when the teams played under crazy hot conditions with the air conditioning having broken inside the arena. What was already one of the greatest NBA finals of all time would be decided by a winner takes all Game 7 back in the Garden, this time with slightly cooler temperatures and a lot of blowing fans to try and reduce the heat.
The series was labeled ‘all-out-war’ and by the time the finale came around the two sides had been going right at each other throughout. There’d been a bench clearance in Game 4 after Kevin McHale clothes lined Kurt Rambis in mid air, and the entire series came down to the final minute.
After the Lakers had rallied to cut the Celtics lead away, Cedric Maxwell stole the ball from Magic Johnson in the final minute, taking L.A.s hopes of stealing the win away. The Celtics would be crowned champions. Celtics fans swarmed the players on the court as time expired, and Boston were champions once again.
Parameters for ranking
The ranking of these NBA Finals series is based on both the level of competition and the memorable moments that took place during each series. Some of the iconic moments that contributed to the rankings include Julius Erving's famous baseline move, Michael Jordan's second three-peat, and the intense rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics.
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