With the Lakers and Magic set to tip-off the NBA Finals tonight, it’s fitting that on day four we would look back at some of the best championship rounds in recent memory. Unfortunately the championship round has been overshadowed as of late by many of these other series I’ve touched on. Following a seven-game series between the Rockets and Knicks in 1994, the NBA Finals have been a combination of four-game sweeps and complete domination at the hands of either the Chicago Bulls or Los Angeles Lakers.
In each of their three trips to the Finals made by the Bulls between 1996 and 1998, Jordan and his team were pushed to six games, but I don’t think anybody really ever thought the Utah Jazz or Seattle SuperSonics had a legitimate chance. Not to say those series weren’t filled with unbelievable games, but as a series, each left more to be desired. The three-peat by the Lakers which began just two seasons later was even more lopsided for the champions who lost just three games combined during the entire stretch.
Last season’s NBA Finals were entertaining, but that was due more to the allure of a Lakers-Celtics matchup than anything else. Los Angeles looked as if it might make things interesting when they won Game Three on its home floor and cut Boston’s series lead to 2-1, but after that it was pretty much all Celtics capped off by a 131-92 blowout in the decisive Game Six.
I hate to say it, but the two most exciting NBA Finals I can remember since 1994 may have involved both the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs (I know, I know, my stomach is turning also). In 2004, the Lakers were the heavy favorites to take home their fourth title in five seasons when they met the Detroit Pistons. The Bad Boys who appeared to have been resurrected with guys like Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace just appeared to be too inexperienced to match the likes of future Hall of Famers Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone. Los Angeles had almost become a modern day Dream Team since doing their best George Steinbrenner impression that previous summer and adding Payton and Malone to a team that was already considered to be a dynasty. There just didn’t seem to be any way the Pistons could counter that firepower.
The Pistons did not appear star struck, however, and did not wait long to snatch the home-court advantage away from the Lakers with an 87-75 win in Game One. A team which prided itself on its defense had defeated Los Angeles at home – their first such loss of that postseason – and done so held the two new additions held to just a combined seven points. Following the Lakers only win of the series in Game Two, it was apparent there would be no parade in Los Angeles as the Pistons dominated the final three games of the series by a combined 41 points. The series was never close and didn’t involve any games worth mentioning, but everybody loves a good David and Goliath story (particularly one that has Los Angeles playing the role of Goliath).
The other which stands out to me also involves the Detroit Pistons but this time found them coming up short to Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. This 2005 series saw the Pistons looking to repeat as NBA Champions while the Spurs were looking to recapture the title they had earned in 2003. While the Lakers may have taken the up-and-coming Pistons for granted in 2004, the Spurs showed right away they had no intentions of doing the same in 2005. San Antonio dominated Game One at home, winning 84-69 behind their big three of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. They again disposed of the Pistons easily in Game Two, this time by a final score of 97-76.
The series then shifted to Detroit where Pistons fans could only hope their team would respond to the pair of blowout losses. Led by their backcourt of Billups and Hamilton, the team did just that and returned the favor with a 96-79 blowout victory of their own. Things got even uglier for San Antonio in Game Four where Detroit emerged 102-71 victors behind Rasheed Wallace’s 14-point, eight-rebound and two-block effort. Game Five would be the only memorable game of this series as Robert Horry drained a three-pointer in overtime which gave the Spurs the only close victory in the series, 96-95. The Pistons responded in Game Six on the road, but ultimately the San Antonio Spurs proved to be too much for Detroit and ran away in Game Seven, 81-74.
Like the Lakers-Pistons Finals from the year before, this series wasn’t necessarily memorable for its nail-biting games and close finishes. It was, however, one of the greatest series of all time in terms of redemption and bouncing back when appearing completely helpless just two nights ago. But while I appreciated each of these series, being a guy who loves nothing more in the NBA than watching guys perform in the clutch, the other storylines which highlighted both the 2004 and 2005 Finals just aren’t strong enough to make them the greatest series I have ever seen.