In terms of true legitimate NBA superstars, I can’t remember a series that featured more than the 1997 Western Conference Finals. Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton – these guys weren’t just Hall of Famers, these were guys you could argue were among the one or two greatest ever to play their position.
As they have for about the past 100 years, the Jazz looked unbeatable on their home floor and jumped out to a 2-0 series lead. When the series shifted back to Houston, the Rockets fed of their home crowd all the way to a 118-100 blowout. It looked as if Game Four could be the turning point in the series as Utah would either take a commanding 3-1 lead heading home or watch Houston knot things up at two games apiece.
With the score tied and the Rockets in possession with 6.7 seconds remaining, it wasn’t Barkley, Drexler or Olajuwon taking the deciding shot in the contest, but former Suns sharpshooter Eddie Johnson. With Drexler drawing an immediate double team, the ball found its way into the hands of Johnson – a player who has never seen a shot he didn’t like. Several feet beyond the three-point line, “EJ” hoisted up a prayer from way downtown which suddenly made this series a best-of-three.
Again the Jazz took care of business at home and it appeared as if this series could be going the distance. Stockton had other ideas, however, as the game’s all-time assist leader displayed his shooting touch with a memorable buzzer-beating three-point shot of his own. The shot propelled the Jazz into the first of two consecutive Finals appearances, but in each trip, the team came up short to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, proving again and again how hard it is to knock the defending NBA Champions off of their throne.
We were reminded of this once more in the 2002 Western Conference Finals matchup between the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers had looked unbeatable in postseason play during their run in the early part of this century, and heading into this series, had lost just twice in their last 25 playoff games. It was beginning to look as if nobody could challenge the Lakers for a single game let alone an entire series.
At the time, ARCO was considered one of the toughest road arenas to compete in, and with fans ringing so many cowbells even Christopher Walken himself would’ve been satisfied, the home court advantage they had secured looked as if it could be a factor. It did not take the Lakers long to prove otherwise, grabbing a 106-99 victory in Game One. With Sacramento’s back against, the wall, the Kings responded in Game Two, but knew they would need to grab a victory on the road if they wanted to regain the home court advantage they’d fought all season for.
At times leading by as many as 20 points, the Kings took it to the Lakers in Game Three, winning at the STAPLES Center 103-90. Perhaps more importantly than regaining the home court advantage was the fact that Sacramento had regained its swagger, and not only looked like a team that could dethrone the World Champion Lakers, but a team that expected to.
In Game Four, Robert Horry AKA “Big Shot Bob” added another chapter to his cookbook on championship success when delivering in what was by far the most memorable game of this series. The Kings again looked like the superior team in the contest early, stretching their lead at one point to 24 points over the Lakers in their very own building. Facing the prospect of a 3-1 series deficit and a scenario which would force them to win twice in Sacramento, the Lakers showed the Kings just how hard they would be to exterminate. Thanks to a furious second half, Los Angeles had the ball trailing by just two points with ten seconds to go. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal both had chances around the basket but could not finish. On the third rebound of the play, the ball was tipped out to Horry, conveniently standing at the top of the key where he would drain the game-winning trifecta at the buzzer.
Following a brief war or words which included Vlade Divac calling Horry’s shot “just luck”, Game Five would also come down to the closing seconds. This time it would be Mike Bibby performing some late-game heroics in front of his home fans as the Kings would now be headed to Los Angeles with a chance to close the Lakers out. In yet another close contest, O’Neal simply could not be slowed down as his 41 points and 17 rebounds carried the two-time defending champions to a do-or-die game back in Sacramento.
In the decisive game, both teams proved that whomever was going to go down in the series was going to go down swinging as not even 48 minutes in Game Seven were enough to determine a winner. The Lakers had been looking for a challenge entering that 2002 postseason and now on the road in overtime for Game Seven, it appeared they had one. Sacramento took the lead early in the extra session, but as they had done all series, the Lakers excelled along with the pressure and the Diesel’s 35-point, 13-rebound effort finally put the Kings away.
Like the Lakers in 2002, the Dallas Mavericks easily appeared to be the team to beat in the 2007 NBA Playoffs. After making their first Finals appearance the season before, Mark Cuban’s ballclub appeared poised and determined during the 2006-07 campaign finishing with an incredible record of 67-15. A confident team led by Dirk Nowitzki immediately appeared shaken, however, when matched up with the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors not only presented a number of matchup problems for Mavericks coach Avery Johnson, but Johnson’s one-time mentor, Warriors Head Coach Don Nelson, appeared to have a personal vendetta against his former ballclub and was extremely motivated to oust them in the first round. Were his Warriors to succeed, they would be the first eighth seed ever to eliminate a top seed in a seven-game series.
As expected, the Warriors came out running Game One and on the road captured a 97-85 victory behind Baron Davis’ 33 points – 19 of which came in the third quarter. The point guard also added 14 rebounds and eight assists, and just like that, the home court advantage had been pulled from under Dallas’ boots. The Mavericks would bounce back in Game Two behind their own point guard, Jason Terry, who along with that season’s MVP Nowitzki contributed a combined 51 points in a must-win 112-99 victory.
The Mavericks left Dallas disappointed with the 1-1 split and knew playing in an environment like Golden State would be no easy task. The Bay Area had not played host to the postseason since the days of Tim Hardaway and Chris Webber, and the city was licking its lips at a chance to upset the Mavericks. No Warrior appeared to feed off their energy more in Game Three than current Sun Jason Richardson who scored 10 points in the first quarter and 30 for the contest. After a 13-year hiatus from the postseason, Golden State’s crowd appeared to agree it was worth the wait as they watched their team jump out to a 2-1 series lead.
Having donned their “We Believe” shirts since the postseason had started, Warriors fans now smelt blood as the two teams took the court for Game Three. This contest would prove to be the closest of the series, and despite the Mavericks continuously finding a way to hang with the red-hot Warriors, it was Golden State ending up on top as they headed back to Dallas with a chance to wrap up the series in five games.
It was fitting that the Mavericks would win Game Five, 118-112. The energy from the fans in Golden State had helped make this series so much fun, things would have been less climatic had the Warriors closed things out on the road. Their fans did not disappoint in Game Six and neither did the Warriors, completing the monumental upset with a 111-86 win to close out the series.
Hard to imagine considering a series which didn’t include any memorable games and was never really much of a series to begin with among the greatest I’ve seen, but that’s just how much fun the run-and-gun Warriors were to watch. Every night a different guy was leading them and although many saw the writing on the wall even before Game One, it still has to be considered perhaps the greatest upset in NBA history (25 games separated them entering the postseason – that’s almost a quarter of a season).
Other series worth mentioning here include a Lakers-Blazers series from 2000, the Lakers-Spurs matchups from 2003 and 2004, a 2004 Western Conference semifinals meeting between the Timberwolves and Kings and a great rivalry matchup in 2005 between Dallas and Houston. The latter is certainly worth mentioning as it saw the Mavericks drop Game One and Game Two at home but still come back to win the series in seven games. One more series I hate the leave out again features the Mavericks, who in 2003 nearly had a team reverse the favor in pulling off an unforgettable comeback against them. Leading the Portland Trailblazers 3-0 in their Opening Round series, the Blazers actually fought all the way back to force a Game Seven. The Mavs avoided the collapse, however, winning that decisive game, 107-95.
Well that was exhausting! Again, it’s impossible to sort through each and every playoff series that’s taken place over the last 15 years, especially when time is limited, so feel free to send along any suggestions. Also be sure to check back tomorrow when we’ll head East to look back at some slobberknockers involving the Knicks, Pacers, Heat and, of course, Da Bulls.