10 Best 1st Round Playoff Series In NBA History
We all know the drill; the 1st round of the NBA playoffs more times than not leads to pretty big mismatches. But, for a variety of reasons, we can get some classic wars in the first round. Here are the 10 best of all-time:
10. Houston Rockets vs Utah Jazz (2007): Jazz Win 4-3
This is easily one of the greatest first round series in playoff history. This unknowingly would be the last time any of us would see T-Mac at his apex. Although T-Mac didn’t shoot well his overall greatest & versatility was on full display. Unfortunately for McGrady & the rockets, the Jazz Deron Williams & Carlos Boozer was unstoppable. Boozer in particular was unguardable in arguably the greatest performance of his career leading the Jazz to victory. Even in defeat T-Mac shined and in my opinion proved his greatness. This series cracks the top 10 for a couple of reasons. The first is this was essentially booking a ticket to the conference finals with top seeded Dallas getting bounced in the first round. And secondly, this is the last we saw of not only T-Mac, but also Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer in their primes. The game 7 was an absolute classic, and I still feel to this day that had Houston won that game, they would have handled not only Golden State in the second round, but also defeated San Antonio in the conference finals and swept Cleveland in the finals.
9. Utah Jazz vs Sacramento Kings (1999): Jazz Win 3-2
After falling short to the Chicago Bulls in 97 and 98, Utah was the favourite to claim the title before the 99 season began. Karl Malone struggled early on, but the Jazz lifted late in the season and reached the 3rd seed (despite having the 2nd best record in the league). They drew the Kings, who after being the laughing stock of the league, had turned things around by trading for Chris Webber, signing Vlade Divac, and drafting Jason Williams. But still, nobody thought they would pose a real threat to the Jazz. How wrong they were! The Kings won game in Salt Lake City, then won game 3 at home to put Utah on the verge of elimination just 3 games into their playoff run. Utah was able to come from behind to win a thriller in game 4, and then do the exact same in the decisive game 5 back at home. At the end of game 5, Bob Costas said that “Utah barely escaped”. I disagree wholeheartedly with that statement. The Jazz had to elevate their game to get through to the second round. Despite losing the series to Utah, this was indeed a changing of the guard moment in the NBA as Sacramento would emerge in the upcoming seasons as a true contender, and Utah would struggle to remain competitive in the West.
8. Boston Celtics vs Indiana Pacers (1991): Celtics win 3-2
Offense and Celtic pride were on full display in this series, and The Celtics needed every bit of both to fend a young up and coming Pacer team lead by “The Rifleman” Chuck Person, 6 man extraordinaire & overall jack of all trades Detlef Schrempf, and breakout star Reggie miller. The Celtics were lead by the up and coming Reggie Lewis & the iconic Larry legend. Though diminished by age & injury bird and his Parrish, McHale all played pivotal roles. These 3 past great all displayed flashes of past greatness in this explosively entertaining offensive series. This was their last real moment of glory before injuries (and deaths) ended this wonderful era in Celtics (and NBA) history.
7. Phoenix Suns vs Los Angeles Lakers (1993): Suns win 3-2
Throughout the regular season, the Suns had notched up 62 wins and looked prime for a championship run when the playoffs began. The Western Conference was extremely top heavy with the Suns, Sonics, Rockets, and Jazz, all considered legitimate contenders. The Lakers regular season was a complete disaster. Magic Johnson scrapped plans of a return in the pre-season, and James Worthy battled injuries all year long, and they stumbled into the playoffs with a 39 win campaign. No chance, right? Well, that’s why they play the games. In game 1, Sedale Threat dropped 35 points as the Lakers won game 1 by 4 points. In game 2, the Suns stopped Threat (9 points on 4-14 shooting), but Divac/ Byron Scott/ Elden Campbell combined for 51 points and the Suns choked in the 4th quarter (only scoring 11 points) to go down 0-2, and faced three elimination games. With minimal room for error, the Suns came back to life in L.A., winning both games behind Barkley (27/11 in game 3, 28/11 in game 4) to bring the series back to Phoenix. You would have been forgiven for expecting a Suns blowout, but the Lakers showed up in this one with all 5 starters in double digits, along with Worth (who was playing his final game) dropping 24 points, and tested the Suns resolve one last time. Barkley was epic, once again, with 31/14, but he had support from KJ (24 points, 13 assists) and Oliver Miller of all people with 17 points and 14 rebounds coming off the bench. Phoenix escaped, but this was really the first time in NBA history an 8 seed came close to knocking off a 1 seed, and had Barkley not played so well in those 3 straight games, there’s no doubt in my mind they would have gone down.
6. Phoenix Suns vs Los Angeles Lakers (2006): Suns win 4-3
Coming into this series, nobody gave the 7th seed Bulls a chance against Cleveland. Why would they? The Cavs had won the season series 6-0. Jordan, however, predicted the Bulls would win in 4 games, and took note of all the reporters who had predicted a sweep for the Cavaliers. After dropping 31 points and 11 assists in a shock 95-88 Bulls victory, Jordan walked past press row and said “Sweep, my butt.” As he himself admitted in his infamous Hall of Fame speech, he never forgot the slightest slight. Cleveland recovered to win 2 despite Jordan’s 30 points and 10 assists. The series shifted to Chicago, and the Bulls regained control of the series with a victory behind Jordan’s 44 points, 10 assists, and 5 steals; and MJ looked to be making good on his prediction of a Bulls series victory in 4 games. Chicago were up by 2 at the end of game 4, and Jordan had the opportunity to ice the game at the foul line. He missed both shots, however, and Cleveland tied the game up to send it to overtime. The Cavs would take advantage of their reprieve and win in overtime to send the series to a 5th and deciding game in Cleveland. Jordan was in tears after the game, and told his father “This won’t ever happen again.” He had scored 50 points, and made 22 free throws, but it wasn’t enough.
Game 5 was an absolute classic that is still talked about to this day. Pippen finally showed up down the stretch to hit some big 3’s, but what happened in the last minute is what made this series iconic. With under 10 seconds left, Craig Ehlo scored a crazy lay up after a give and go from an out of bounds play to give Cleveland a 1 point lead with less than 3 seconds to play.
Phil Jackson: “I was the guy that scouted Cleveland and I didn’t have that play down, the one where Ehlo made the cut and the layup. I was distraught at the time because we had a one-point lead at the time and only seconds remaining.”
The Bulls still had time left on the clock, and Jordan, and that would be enough. On the inbounds pass, the Cavs initially doubled MJ with Ehlo and Larry Nance. Jordan shook free, caught the pass on the run, made a hard cut and made one of the most incredible shots in NBA history to send the Bulls into the second round. You guys know probably already know this, but this play is simply known as “the shot.” Think about all the incredible shots that have been made in NBA history, and this one is the one that is referred to as “the Shot”.
Michael Jordan: “I never saw the shot go in, but I knew from the silence.” It would be a similar reaction to close out the Jazz in the 98 finals in Utah. In game 5, he had 44 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists. For the series, he averaged 40 ppg, 6 rpg, 8 apg, and 3 spg. He wasn’t done here though, as he led the Bulls past the Knicks in the second round before running into the Pistons in the conference finals. Chicago lost 4-2, but it’s important to note that the Pistons only dropped 3 games that entire playoff run, and 2 of those loses came from the Bulls, and he beginning of the Pistons/ Bulls rivalry had just taken place. For the entire playoffs (a 17 game sample), Jordan averaged 35 ppg (53% fg), 7 rpg, 8 apg, 3 spg, and 1 bpg. Tell me he isn’t the greatest to ever play this game, I dare you.
3. Denver Nuggets vs Seattle Super Sonics (1994): Nuggets win 3:2
1994 was the first season after Michael Jordan retired. With him gone, there was a power vacuum at the top of the NBA. The Seattle Sonics were the standard of the league throughout the entire season, and finished with a league best 63-19 record. The Nuggets had 21 fewer wins that season. To put things into perspective, that would be the equivalent of this years Cavs team losing to a 36 win club in the first round. This historic upset marked the first time a 8th seed beat a 1st seed. The Sonics were lead by an iconic duo of Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton, whose energy and athleticism often bewildered opposing teams. In the first 2 games of the series, the Sonics won both games by a combined 34 points as Denver struggled against the vaunted Sonic press.
But as the series shifted to Denver, Nuggets coach Dan Issel countered by playing Robert Pack (one of the best athletes to ever play point guard) a lot more to counter the Sonic’s pressure. What we saw was Pack routinely break the pressure, and create 4 on 3 or 4 on 2 or 3 on 2 situations, and got the Nuggets easy looks at the basket. The Nuggets finally found life behind Pack, Dikembe Mutombo, and LaPhonso Ellis, as they blew out Seattle in game 3, and won game 4 in OT. Issel initially stated that he just wanted the young Nuggets to win a single game to get some experience, and it turned out to be quite the experience as they now had a chance to create history and shock the world. The Nuggets battled Seattle toe to toe, with neither team establishing a double digit lead. Dikembe Mutombo (who set an NBA record with THIRTY ONE blocks in the series) locked down Shawn Kemp, and the Sonics offense stalled. Robert Pack was huge with 23 points, Ellis had 19, and Brian Williams (later known as Bison Dele, R.I.P) had 17 points and 19 rebounds off the bench, as the Nuggets prevailed in overtime in one of the most shocking developments in the history of the game.
This first round match-up pits the 2nd seed defending champs Boston Celtics vs the 7th seed Chicago Bulls. During the regular season the Celtics won the season series 2 games to 1. This series figured to be competitive considering that Kevin Garnett was injured and his status was in doubt but nobody gave the young Bulls a chance of dethroning the champs. 2 years earlier the Bulls swept a Heat team featuring Dwyane Wade and Shaq that had just won a title the year before in the first round.
Game 1 saw Derrick Rose tie Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most points scored in a playoff debut as his 36 point 11 assist effort helped the Bulls offset a Rajon Rondo near triple double in the Bulls 105-103 win in overtime. Game 2 had Ben Gordon erupting for 42 points and hit a game tying floater with 12 seconds left to tie the game up. Not to be outdone by a fellow UConn Huskie Alum, Ray Allen hit a game winning 3 pointer for his 30th point to give the Celtics a 118-115 victory.
The Bulls felt good about their chances after winning a game and almost stealing a second one at Boston. The good vibes ended quickly as the defending champs jumped on the Bulls early and ran away with game 3 by a final margin of 21 points at the United Center. Game 4 was another classic as Gordon, hobbled by a pulled hamstring, hit a game tying 3 in the first OT to send the game into another extra frame. John salmons hit 4 clutch free throws and blocked a potential Paul Pierce game tying three as the Bulls evened the series with a 121-118 double OT victory.
Game 5 was going good for the Bulls as they were nursing an 11 point lead in the fourth quarter and Allen fouling out but The Truth led the Celtics back and in OT hit 3 clutch jumpers over Salmons to give the Celtics a 3-2 series lead. If I had to show somebody what playoff basketball was all about I would pop in a video of game 6. Jesus Shuttlesworth (Ray Allen) poured in a game high 51 points in this triple overtime thriller but the Bulls, behind a beautiful steal and dunk by Joakim Noah will being fouled and a block shot by Rose on Rondo with 3 seconds left helped the bulls prevail 128-127.
Game 7 saw Boston and their championship pedigree turn a second quarter deficit around with a backbreaking 29-7 run behind the superb bench play of Eddie House and the White Mamba (Brian Scalabrine) who combined for 24 points on 8 of 10 shooting. The Bulls mounted a furious rally in the fourth quarter and got as close as 3 on a Kirk Hinrich 3 pointer but the Celtics knocked down 11 straight free throws to close out maybe the greatest playoff basketball series ever. Seven games, seven overtime periods, and countless clutch plays.
1. Los Angeles Clippers vs San Antonio Spurs (2015): Clippers win 4-3
When the 2015 NBA playoffs began, everyone had their eyes on this match-up. Despite being perennial underachievers in the post-season, the Clippers found themselves matched up with the defending champions Spurs. This wasn’t like the Celtics and Bulls when Boston was defending their championship without KG; San Antonio had peaked at just the right time after flirting with missing the playoffs in the stacked West (7 teams finished with 50 or more wins). Nobody would have been completely surprised if the Spurs worked them over in 5 games, but there was also excitement around the potential of the series. Both teams split the first 2 games in L.A., before the Spurs blew out the Clippers in game 3 by 27 points. That’s when the fun kicked in as the road team won the next 3 games, including one of the best performances by Tim Duncan in the past 10 years in game 5 (21 points on 8/13 shooting, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and a block) and the response by the Clippers in an elimination game on the road where Paul, Griffin, Reddick, and Jordan combined for 79 points to force a decisive game 7 at Staples.
This game is what set this series apart. You had a team determined to defend their championship going head to head with a team that had always underachieved but was desperate to set that right. Tim Duncan was absolutely amazing with 27 points and 11 rebounds, and was supported by Parker with 20 and Danny Green with 16. The Clippers found themselves down by double digits in the 3rd before being led back by some clutch shooting from Reddick to bring them back. But make no mistake about it, this was Chris Paul’s moment. After injuring his leg, he returned in the 4th quarter to hit bucket after bucket to keep the Clippers close. In the last minute, he clearly flopped on a jumper after kicking his leg out, and the ref rewarded him with a trip to the line. He made both to put the Clippers up. Then on the ensuing play, Duncan was fouled. The Spurs were down by 2, but Duncan (who has been shaky at the foul line in big moments) knocked down both shots to tie the game up. The Clippers had one last possession, and everyone that saw that play will have no problems remembering it. Paul drove, pushed off Danny Green (I had to say it, it was as obvious as any foul I’ve ever seen) and then hit an incredible shot over the top of Duncan. I wouldn’t have mentioned the push-off had the officials been consistent. The previous Clippers possession, they were whistle happy and rewarded his flop. Why not be whistle happy here too? I can’t answer that. Regardless, it was an amazing shot that ended the series on the spot.
So, you might be asking why this is number 1. There’s two reasons for that. 1 is that the Spurs were legitimate contenders last season despite being the 6th seed. Outside of the Warriors, the West was wide open, and the Spurs were the second favourites to make the finals. So this was actually an upset. But number 2 is, and I don’t mean to pour salt on thirsty Clippers fans, but it proved that the Clippers had massively underachieved in years past. This series showed us that they could actually win a big playoff series against a contender. Of course, they backed it up by blowing a 3-1 lead (and a 20 point 4th quarter lead at home) to the team that is synonymous with underachieving and disappointment, the Houston Rockets.