There is nothing like NBA playoff basketball. While the most logical of fans would argue that the numerous incredible moments that the playoffs have generated is the simple result of putting the best basketball players in the world against each other in an extended playoff format that puts everything on the line, I’ve always preferred to describe the seemingly impossible amount of unbelievable playoffs fans have been blessed with over the years as the result of pure magic. It might not be a logical argument, but there are times when it’s the only one that could possibly describe what we are seeing.
As I was watching Steph Curry amaze the world yet against via his 17-point overtime performance against the Trail Blazers in the second round, I couldn’t help but think back on the history of incredible NBA playoff games gone by. While the playoffs tend to be remembered in terms of series, or even incredible moments and player performances, it has always been the individual games that have stood out to me the most. The increased stakes that come with the NBA Playoffs lends games an atmosphere of tension that no regular season match-up could hope to achieve.
A good NBA Playoff may contain a dominating performance, impossible moment or single point finish, but the very best NBA Playoff games usually include all of those characteristics and more. They leave you breathless, shaking your head in disbelief at what you just witnessed. The best way to often describe them is as indescribable and they are often defined by a feeling they leave you with that cannot, itself, be defined.
Though there is shockingly no shortage of games over the years that meet these seemingly impossible standards, these are the top 15 most unbelievable NBA Playoff games of them all.
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15 Game 7 - Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers - 2010 NBA Finals
Many questioned if the storied rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers could really reach the same heights in the modern era that it had achieved in the 1980s, but sure enough these teams managed to pull it off. This unbelievably close series came down to a Game 7 that summarized what made this series so great. Even though the Celtics brought their A game on this night and pressed the Lakers like few teams had that season, Kobe Bryant would not be denied his fifth NBA Championship. His intense post-game celebration atop the scorers’ table perfectly captured the intensity it took to win this incredible game.
14 Game 6 - Philadelphia 76ers vs. Chicago Bulls - 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
While it wouldn’t be fair to say that nobody gave the very capable 76ers a chance to win this matchup, the franchise’s long drought without a playoff series victory combined with the Bulls' impressive regular season sure did a convincing job of painting them as underdogs. In this climatic Game 6, however, Andre Iguodala exemplified the heart that helped Philadelphia reach this point via a 20-point performance. With time winding down and the 76ers trailing, he would also be the one to sink two clutch free throws that finally put Philadelphia ahead with 2.2 seconds left. Chicago could not answer, and the 76ers grabbed their first series win in almost 10 years.
13 Game 7 - Boston Celtics vs. Atlanta Hawks - 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals
You don’t earn the nickname “Human Highlight Reel” without being something pretty special. Dominique Wilkins earned his intimidating moniker through a combination of unbelievable power dunks and single-game performances that brought teams to their knees. While it looked like Wilkins' stunning 47 points against an all-time great Celtics team was going to be enough to put them away, Larry Bird was not prepared to bow so easily. Through a 37 point performance of his own, he kept Boston alive through Wilkins' dominating scoring sessions. Though the incredible efforts of both men sealed their legacies, in the end, Boston proved too much for Atlanta to handle as they won 118-116.
12 Game 5 - New York Knicks vs. Indiana Pacers - 1994 Eastern Conference Finals
While you may never want to claim that any lead represents a "sure thing" in the world of basketball, when you've got an incredible Knicks team up big over the defeated looking Pacers going into game's final minutes, it's pretty safe to say that the game is in the bag. Apparently the only person that didn't get this message was Reggie Miller who went on to drop five 3-pointers in the final quarter en route to an astounding 25 4th quarter points. Behind this effort, the Pacers rallied to win this game and some say that Reggie Miller can't visit New York to this day.
11 Game 6 - Los Angeles Lakers vs. Philidelphia 76ers - 1980 NBA Finals
The collective sigh of relief that the Philadelphia 76ers let loose when they found out that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would not be able to play in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals can be heard to this day. All the 76ers had to do was contain Magic Johnson and they were still alive. As it turns out, that was easier said than done as the rookie Magic Johnson pulled off perhaps his most superhuman effort by playing every position throughout the game (including filling in as center for Kareem) en route to 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists and one NBA Championship.
10 Game 7 - New York Knicks vs. Los Angeles Lakers - 1970 NBA Finals
When Knicks center Willis Reed left Game 5 of this 1970 series with a torn thigh muscle, he deprived the Knicks of both a powerful presence and one of the team’s biggest hearts. Against all odds, it was revealed that Willis Reed had received a numbing injection and was going to play in Game 7. Though the Knicks has slipped in this series following Reed's injury, this news provided them with just the fight they needed to challenge the dominating Lakers. Though Reed only scored four points in this game, his mere attendance made it clear to all that New York would not be beaten on this night.
9 Game 5 - Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz - 1997 NBA Finals
Despite the fact that he could do things on the court that suggested otherwise, at the end of the day Michael Jordan was still human. As such, when Michael came down with the flu during this tied 1997 series, there was a very real chance he was going to miss a critical Game 5. Despite looking like he very may well collapse at any moment, Jordan still played and stunned the Jazz by dropping 38 points and seven rebounds on the way to a Bulls 90-88 victory. Hmmm…maybe I shouldn’t be jumping the gun with that “Michael Jordan is human” argument after all.
8 Game 4 - Brooklyn Nets vs. Chicago Bulls - 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
The best games are almost always the product of two teams that refuse to exhibit a moment’s weakness that could potentially cause them to lose. That is certainly the case in this modern classic between the Bulls and Nets. Both teams showcased the kind of fight that would usually lead to lopsided victories but, in this instance, it was simply a case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. It took three overtimes and an improbable 14-point final run by Nate Robinson for the Bulls to finally put away the Nets in a game that left the fans as emotionally exhausted as the players were physically exhausted.
7 Game 5 - Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Detroit Pistons - 2007 Eastern Conference Finals
Nobody had ever denied the LeBron James drive and determination prior to this Game 5 Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Detroit Pistons, but there were few who thought that even his legendary abilities could possibly help the Cavs overcome a late deficit against one of the stoutest defenses ever assembled. That changed when King James tightened his laces, straightened his crown and rocked the Pistons in the fourth quarter by somehow managing to score the Cavaliers' final 25 points. All told, LeBron walked away with 48 total points as the Cavaliers beat the Pistons 109-107 in double overtime.
6 Game 2 - Boston Celtics vs. Chicago Bulls - 1986 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Sometimes you must stop and really appreciate just how dominant a player Michael Jordan truly was. If you should ever find yourself in such a moment, there is perhaps no better reminder of that fact than watching this game. Even though Jordan’s Bulls were outmatched by the Celtics in nearly every respect, there was nobody in Boston that night that could stop Jordan.
Through every obstacle and via every shot imaginable, Michael dropped 63 points on the Celtics in a double-overtime losing effort and set a playoff scoring record that stands to this day. When Larry Bird commented that he believed number 23 may be “God disguised as Michael Jordan,” there were none that argued.
5 Game 7 - Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers - 1965 Eastern Conference Finals
The idea of winning eight consecutive NBA championships is an absurd notion today but, in 1965, the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics were a win away against Wilt Chamberlain and the 76ers from accomplishing just that. After an intense back and forth contest worthy of the legacy of both these teams' stars, the game came down to whether or not the 76ers could successfully complete an inbound pass and drop a basket in order to finally dethrone the Celtics. The answer would prove to be “no” as John Havlicek snagged the inbound pass and secured the Celtics’ 110-109 victory.
4 Game 4 - Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers - 1987 NBA Finals
As great as this game is, it is perhaps best viewed as a brief summary of everything that made the rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers so special. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had led their respective teams to the final series once again in 1987 and, true to form, both displayed the kind of unbelievable performances that put the deciding factor on the shoulders of the game’s final moments. With just 12 seconds to go, Magic Johnson took the ball down the court and dropped in the smoothest hook shot you are likely to see in order to give Los Angeles the 106-105 win.
3 Game 5 - Boston Celtics vs. Detroit Pistons - 1987 Eastern Conference Finals
Before the Celtics could get to that legendary 1987 finals series against the Lakers, they would first need to find a way to get past Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons. Given that Detroit had a knack at this time for giving the Celtics fits, that was going to be easier said than done. Although it feels somehow wrong to suggest that one game somehow trumps them all, Larry Bird was at his absolute best on this night as he hung 36 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists on Detroit.
Ultimately, however, his best play would be a defensive one as he stole an Isiah Thomas inbound pass and set up the game-clinching layup by Dennis Johnson.
2 Game 5 - Boston Celtics vs. Phoenix Suns - 1976 NBA Finals
You hear announcers highlight many incredible moments in sports by suggesting that they “couldn’t have been written better,” but in the case of this legendary game that statement might actually be true. It took two overtimes, but a John Havlicek shot that put the Celtics up 111-110 finally looked like it was going to be enough to put the Phoenix Suns away. However, in a Hollywood twist moment, it was revealed that there was, in fact, one second still on the clock. A second that Garfield Heard would use to send the game into triple overtime. In the end, the Celtics grabbed the win and both teams left fans with one of the best games of all time.
1 Game 6 - Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz - 1998 NBA Finals
What do you look for in a memorable basketball game? Big names? Big stakes? Incredible performances and climatic moments? Well, this is the game that had all of that and more. Utah was down 3-2 going into this one and came out swinging against a Bulls team that looked outmatched for the first time in a long time. The Bulls just couldn’t keep up with the onslaught that Karl Malone and John Stockton were laying upon them, but did manage to pull within a single point of the Jazz as the game was coming to a close.
It was then that Michael Jordan hit perhaps the most famous shot in the history of basketball and ended his career as a Chicago Bull in the most dramatic way possible.
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