Aught Lang Syne: Top 10 Games — NBA

I’ll start with some brutal honesty: This was not a good decade for the NBA. It saw Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform, severe conference imbalance, the collapse of the Knicks as a viable franchise, and more than its share of forgettable championships.

But this isn’t the time to dwell on that; this is the time to remember the best that the NBA had to offer in the aughts. The following are what I consider the 10 best games the NBA gave us this decade, with the caveat that I am a Nets fan, and so the team that has this season returned to its long-held status as the Eastern Conference’s answer to the Clippers is perhaps overrepresented. Before we get to the top 10–you want a criteria? Well, overtime helps, folks–the only Finals game to garner serious consideration was Game 5 of the 2005 Finals between San Antonio and Detroit, and the worst series of the decade was the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, in which the Pistons and Pacers played six games without either team surpassing 85 points.

10. Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals: Boston Celtics 94, New Jersey Nets 90

A personal recollection: I was over the house of a Celtics fan. At halftime, with New Jersey up by 20, he turned the TV off and demanded we do something else. After I dominated him (NJ-Boston style) in basketball in the street, we went back inside to check the score. It was one of those TVs where you hear the sound well before the picture comes back, and I was immediately struck by how loud it was in Boston. Why is it this loud? Aren’t we killing them? Boston was already back within a half-dozen, and Byron Scott was in the midst of one of the worst coaching jobs ever with his inexperienced team (seriously, Scott pulled the whole “I’m gonna call timeout and stay outside of the huddle while you guys realize what you’re doing wrong” in A PLAYOFF GAME! WITH HIS TEAM COLLAPSING!) A Paul Pierce Parade to the free-throw line helped the Celtics outscore New Jersey 41-16 for the largest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA playoff history and a 2-1 series lead. My Nets would get the last laugh, winning the next three to advance to the Finals.

Note: This was also the game that propelled Mike Breen to NBA announcing stardom.

9. Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals: Los Angeles Lakers 89, Portland Trail Blazers 84

In 2000, the 67-win Lakers were still the team that hadn’t gotten over the hump, having been swept out of the playoffs the two previous seasons by the Western Conference champ. It looked like they might flop again at the hands of a deep and balanced Portland team that had forced a Game 7 after being down 3-1. Trailing by 15 in the fourth, Shaq and Kobe went to work—with the help of a trio of key trifectas from Brian Shaw—and punctuated the rally with the defining play of their dynasty.

8. Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals: Los Angeles Lakers 74, San Antonio Spurs 73

I can’t put this any higher than No. 8 because the final score was 74-73. At the same time, perhaps only Duke and Kentucky in 1992, with Christian Laettner topping Sean Woods, featured two better shots in the final seconds—and the “perhaps” is important.* Duncan’s ridiculous fadeaway was one-upped by Derek Fisher at the buzzer in the game that everyone knew would pretty much decide the NBA Championship. The fact that it didn’t—and that the Lakers lost to the Pistons in the Finals—is often overlooked.

*I mean, can we call Duncan’s the greatest shot ever in the final half-second of a game that put his team ahead but didn’t win the game? I think we can.

7. Game 7 of the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals: Dallas Mavericks 119, San Antonio Spurs 111 (OT)

In another one of those “Conf. Semis that we all thought was pretty much the NBA Finals”—it happened three times in the decade, and twice the winner was upset in the Finals—Dallas had blown a 3-1 series advantage and a lead it had held for 47 ½ minutes of Game 7 when Manu Ginobili hit a tiebreaking three. On the other end, Dirk Nowitzki—the soft star of a soft team—drove hard to the basket for an and-one, aided by arguably the dumbest foul of the decade from Ginobili (You’re up three! Give him the “easy two!”). The Mavericks cruised in overtime and in the Western Conference Finals against Phoenix, only to be stunned in six games by the Heat in the NBA Finals.

6. Game 5 of the 2002 Easter Conference Quarterfinals: New Jersey Nets 120, Indiana Pacers 109 (2OT)

Before you blast me for putting a first-round game this high, do you understand what happened here? After Richard Jefferson missed TWO free throws with five seconds left, Reggie Miller banked in a 35-footer in an do-or-die elimination game to send it to overtime! It is the basketball equivalent of Endy Chavez’s catch in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS—except if it happened in the Bottom of the 9th. Of course, the parallel also holds because both Chavez and Miller, despite their heroics, ended up on the losing end.

5. Game 5 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Semifinals: New Jersey Nets 127, Detroit Pistons 120 (3 OT)

And then it happened AGAIN two years later!!! I actually had this game in the top 10 even before I remembered that Billups hit that shot to send it to the first overtime. After that, it was a war of attrition that saw several star players foul out and the Nets play Brian Scalabrine at center. He hit a huge triple in the third overtime, though, to propel the Nets to a huge victory* made less so by back-to-back blowout losses in Games 6 and 7 that prevented NJ from reaching its third consecutive Finals.

*You want to talk about resiliency? The Nets blew the biggest fourth-quarter lead in playoff history…and won the series anyway. They had near-halfcourt shots banked in to tie playoff games TWICE in three years…and won both games anyway. I didn’t realize how much I missed the early-decade New Jersey Nets.

4. Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals: Los Angeles Lakers 112, Sacramento Kings 106 (OT)

By 2002, the Lakers were the known quantity, and the Kings were the stiffest challenge they’d faced during their dynasty—a more talented team even than those aforementioned Blazers. The entire series was memorable, with Mike Bibby and Robert Horry providing last-second heroics and the Game 6 officials providing water-cooler fodder, even to this day. Game 7 at ARCO Arena was probably the most anticipated basketball game of the decade; I don’t even like the NBA and I was psyched for it, and not just to answer that ever-present question, “Who’s going to slaughter the Nets in the Finals?” The finale didn’t disappoint: The taut affair went into overtime before Sacramento’s failures at the foul line—a bit ironic when you think about it—caught up to it.

3. Game 1 of the 2008 Western Conference Quarterfinals: San Antonio Spurs 117, Phoenix Suns 115 (2OT)

This was the third time in four seasons the Spurs and Suns were meeting in the playoffs—each time a round earlier—and fit the common theme of those encounters: How did the Suns manage to lose? The thrilling opener included a Spurs’ fourth-quarter comeback and three game-tying threes with under 20 seconds on the clock from Michael Finley (in regulation), Tim Duncan (in overtime), and Steve Nash (in double overtime). But Nash left a little too much time for Manu Ginobili, who beat Raja Bell off the dribble for the game-winning layup with 1.8 ticks left on the clock. It was a mesmerizing conclusion to the best game between these two mid-decade rivals.

2. Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Chicago Bulls 128, Boston Celtics 127 (3OT)

I mean, how do you pick one game from this series? Easily both the best series this decade and the best first-round series ever, the Celtics and Bulls had combined to play four overtimes in the first five games of the series before Game 6. Already hailed as an instant classic of a series, Boston and Chicago had their best in store for us at the United Center in a Game 6 that saw Ray Allen—who had a memorable shot-for-shot duel with Ben Gordon in Game 4 and who definitively owns the sweetest jump shot of the decade—put up 51, Boston go on an 18-0 fourth-quarter run, Brad Miller go on a personal 5-0 run to tie the game in the last minute, and a pair of tremendous defensive plays by Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose to take the lead and seal it late for Chicago. For a basketball fan, the whole series was like Christmas morning, and Game 6 was the car in the driveway.

1. Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers 109, Detroit Pistons 107 (2OT)

I’ll be honest: By 2007, I knew LeBron James was really good. Like best player in the game really good. I did not know he was this good. I didn’t know anyone was this good. This wasn’t against a Mike D’Antoni defense; this was going up against Tayshaun Prince and the Pistons’ D with teammates named Eric Snow and Sasha Pavlovic! He scored their last 25 points and 29 of their last 30 because he had to! The game-winning layup, giving him 48 points on the night, was literally scored with five Pistons surrounding him.

Most of all, this is No. 1 because it’s when a lot of people realized that the ceiling for LeBron James is even higher than previously thought. It was kind of like Jordan’s 63-point game against the Celtics merged with his hanging jumper against the Cavs—LeBron did it all AND hit the winning shot in an enormous game. Some day, years from now, we’ll remember May 31, 2007 as the day LeBron James took the leap from superstar to global icon—when he went from being great to being transcendent. LeBron will have other, perhaps greater games and moments in his career.

But you never forget your first.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on December 8, 2009 at 10:17 PM

    A personal note about the 2002 Western Conference Finals: The day after the game, everyone in high school was talking about the game, even people with only a passing interest in the NBA, like myself, or sports in general (girls). In the middle of a conversation, one of the dumbest (and hottest) girls in my class interrupted: “I felt so bad for that guy Mike Bibby. Nobody on his team was helping him!” That basically ended the discussion. What else could you say?


  2. […] already been pretty extensive in breaking down the top 10 games of the decade in the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, college basketball, and college football. But we haven’t yet […]


  3. […] WAS A GREAT SERIES! False. It was a great Game 1. The series was over after […]


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