Well, I’ve had more than enough time to mull things over at this point in regards to picking what I believe to be the greatest NBA playoff series I have ever seen. Of those discussed in detail throughout the week, I can find a reason to exclude just about any of them.
While I don’t like the idea of writing off a series based solely on the fact it took place in the first round, my argument that it could potentially mean more down the line isn’t evident in any of the candidates I’ve discussed. The 1993 Suns advanced beyond the Lakers in their Opening Round series but ultimately fell to the Bulls in the Finals. In 2006 their series against the Lakers was even better, but again it did not make a difference in whom would be crowned that season’s eventual champions. Same deal with the Celtics, Knicks, Mavericks and Warriors teams who have also been victors in some memorable Opening Round series.
Now, I don’t want to come off as the guy who says it’s all or nothing. Yes, the crowning achievement is to win an NBA Championship, but that’s not to say that it made no difference whether the Suns were eliminated in the first round or the final round. Just take a look at what that 2007 series did for fans in Golden State and I think you’ll have more than enough proof that one series can make a difference in attitude for years to come. But with the concept of choosing an Opening Round series already questionable to begin with, I would need that storyline of a team riding that momentum to a championship to make a stronger argument for any of those series.
On Tuesday, I looked at the Western Conference and of those series, I think the one that stands out the most would have to be that 2002 series between the Lakers and Kings. The series a couple of years later between the Kings and Timberwolves is very underrated, but there is just too much I’d have to overlook from that 2002 series to not give it the Western Conference crown. These two teams both called the same state home, neither liked one another, one was considered the little brother trying to knock the defending champion big brother off of its throne, words were exchanged, last-second shots were hit and Game 7 even required an overtime session – what more could you want? I suppose a Kings victory in that decisive game would have been nice, but it just wouldn’t be fair to factor in who won a series during this process.
Wednesday was dedicated to the Eastern Conference which was much more difficult to assess. I left a lot of truly great series out of that blog including a 1995 battle between the Magic and Pacers with a trip to the Finals on the line, the 1997 and 2000 meetings between the Heat and Knicks (unbelievable that these teams played four-straight years in the postseason with each meeting coming down to a decisive game) and the 1998 Pacers who nearly upset Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. Any one of those series could easily be the greatest I have ever seen yet none were even discussed in Wednesday’s column. That’s how stacked the list of possibilities from this category is. I think the series which has to be selected from this overall group, however, is the 1995 series between the Pacers and Knicks.
The Pacers headed into that matchup confident, but knew that after pushing the Knicks to seven games the year prior, anything less than a trip to the Conference Finals would be a failure. Then to “steal” a win the way they did in Madison Square Garden for Game One followed by Reggie Miller’s comments on television about the Pacers being a team that could potentially sweep the Knicks, things were off to a strong start from the beginning. The Knicks meanwhile would battle back from a 3-1 deficit to host Game Seven where the Pacers heard time after time how rare it was for a team to win a decisive game on the road. Following a barely missed layup by Patrick Ewing at the buzzer, a fantastic Eastern Conference series was in the books.
The following round, the Pacers met the Magic in another series which went the distance and in many ways was just as entertaining. Game Four of this Eastern Conference Finals matchup may have even been more dramatic than Game One of the prior series. But because the storylines weren’t there and because these two teams didn’t share the bad blood that the Knicks and Pacers did, I have to say that 1995 matchup was the greatest I’ve seen out of the Eastern Conference.
As far as why it gets the nod over those fantastic Knicks-Heat matchups (which is a decision I’m putting way more thought into than I should), I think it has to do with the whole “small market” Pacers concept which I just really enjoyed. It’s kind of like the Eastern Conference equivalent to that Lakers-Kings series I discussed had Sacramento come up on the winning end. The Pat Riley factor and the bad taste he left in the mouths of Knicks fans was very intriguing and tough to look beyond, but the fact that some of those series came down to suspensions is a big stumbling block in why it’s tough to name any of those series the greatest I’ve ever seen. I could probably pick any of them, however, and make them a solid third place finisher.
I discussed on Thursday that I have not been lucky enough to have witnessed some memorable Finals matchups in recent years. The only two I really discussed were the Spurs-Pistons and Pistons-Lakers matchups we saw earlier this decade. The latter of which did not have any games worth remembering, but to see that tightly knit group defeat a team with names like Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton is something I will always remember. Unfortunately, the series can’t hold a candle to those Lakers-Kings or Pacers-Knicks matchups, however.
Two series I never touched on this week but certainly worth mentioning are the 1995 Western Conference Semifinal meeting between the Suns and defending champion Rockets (although the results are still painful even today), as well as the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals which saw LeBron James completely own the Detroit Pistons. Never getting to watch Michael Jordan come into his own as an NBA legend (I wasn’t following basketball until his second run), the latter series was my opportunity to watch somebody reach a new stratosphere I’d never “witnessed” first hand before. I even made my 11-year-old sister watch James in those final minutes of Game Five despite the fact she couldn’t care any less about basketball.
Looking through the series I’ve touched on just here today, it’s borderline impossible choosing a clear “best ever.” I think my problem throughout this whole process is I’ve been searching for a perfect series when in reality we’ve never had a perfect series in professional basketball. If I could take the fantastic finishes of this year’s Celtics-Bulls matchup, marinate it in the come-from-behind drama of the 2006 Suns-Lakers series, bake on the high temperature of those Knicks-Heat meetings and then sprinkle on the storylines of the 1997 Western Conference Finals; I’d be set. But what I began searching for at the beginning of all this wasn’t the “closest to perfect” series I’ve ever seen, but simply the best.
There are just a few things I ask for in a playoff series – give me some last-second heroics, give me some drama, go at least six games and bring out the best in one another. And while each of the matchups I’ve focused on during this series have given me that, I don’t believe any did it to the fullest like the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
- Last second heroics – check thanks to Reggie Miller and his furious finish in Game One.
- Drama – check thanks to Reggie’s trash talking during the 1994 meeting and pouring it on still when the two teams met in 1995.
- The series went the distance of seven games – check.
- Nobody who contributed a second of playing time for Pat Riley or Larry Brown in the series left anything on the floor (combined with the usage of sports cliché No. 35 – check).
In every other series I explored, I can think of something major I would have changed. I would not have allowed suspensions to play a factor in those Knicks and Heat meetings and I would have liked for Kevin Garnett to be healthy and see if the Bulls can still push the Celtics the way they did in this season’s Opening Round. The only other series I think lacks flaws is that Lakers and Kings series from 2002. That too had everything I could ask for out of a series. But because in this circumstance the small market team overcame the large market team, because of the way the two teams had battled in a seven game series just one year prior and because calling a team “choke artists” after Game One is a lot cooler than calling somebody’s shot “lucky”, I’m giving the edge to the Pacers and Knicks.
The 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals may not have been perfect, but they were pretty damn good. And besides, this process of searching through these series, as well as this year’s postseason has taught me that having never seen a perfect series in my time as an NBA fan is probably a good thing. Maybe it’s a key reason why I continue to watch every year and why I still invest my time in a series even when it doesn’t involve the Phoenix Suns.
The postseason just wasn’t the same this year without my beloved Suns. Not seeing the Pacers and Knicks – two teams I rooted for heavily in the past – didn’t make things any easier. But getting caught up in that Bulls-Celtics matchup, seeing the Rockets almost do the impossible against the Lakers and watching LeBron James again win ballgames single handedly certainly helped ease the pain.
Maybe next year I’ll finally get that perfect series I was searching for throughout this long and surprisingly draining experience (watching YouTube videos and trying to find recaps of games from 1997 is a lot tougher than it looks). And maybe better than just finding that series, maybe, just maybe, it will involve these Phoenix Suns. Here’s hoping.