1. Dallas over San Antonio, 2006
Simply the gold standard, for our time. Featuring an up-and-comer taking on the defending champs, this contest featured a two-point Spurs win to start it, followed by a shocking 22-point Mavs win in San Antonio. A one-point Mavs win and five-point Dallas overtime victory came next, with a one and five-point Spurs win to follow, ending with a classic Mavericks overtime win in San Antonio that featured a season-saving three-point play from Dirk Nowitzki (37 points, 15 rebounds) at the end of regulation.
Lots of emphasis on point differential? You bet. This whole list is based on how great and how close the actual games were, not any sort of misty recollections or credence slipped toward teams in the final four or two slots in the playoff bracket. This list is for those who were there, watching.
2. Boston/Chicago, 2009
We haven’t even hit Game 7, and yet this is still bordering on an all-timer. Seven overtime periods in six games thus far, alongside one three-point Boston win in Game 2 that turned on the heels of a desperate Ray Allen three-pointer shot over an approaching 7-footer. There may have been more "important" best of seven attempts, but have you ever been a part of one better than this? Assuming Game 7 goes according to script …
3. Utah over Sacramento, 1999
Game 1 featured the expected Jazz blowout win, replete with Greg Ostertag scoring at will over Chris Webber on a couple of possessions. Game 2? Things, shockingly, turned. What followed were two overtime games, and one one-point Jazz win, and some of the best personality-driven brand of playoff basketball that we’ve ever seen.
4. Los Angeles Lakers over Sacramento, 2001
This is a big favorite, but to us it’s a bit marred by the horrid officiating in Game 6, and a full-on Kings meltdown that took place in Sacramento during Game 7. Still, two incredibly fun and talented teams, essentially giving us the best NBA Finals of the last decade, should you consider the deep East/West divide that lasted from 1999 until recently.
5. Golden State over Dallas, 2007
A modern classic, the eighth-seeded Golden State had Dallas’ regular season number for two straight seasons heading into this first round matchup, and proceeded to act as (should have been) expected in this first round against the top-seeded Mavericks.
6. Los Angeles Lakers over Portland, 2000
People tend to remember Portland’s fourth quarter flameout in Game 7, one that saw the Trail Blazers give up a 15-point fourth quarter lead to the Lakers in the final 15 minutes. What few do remember is a dogged attempt from the Blazers, down 3-1 at one point, to get to a seventh game. This series featured Portland stealing the homecourt advantage, giving it up with two losses in Portland, before raring back (spurred on by a Steely Dan concert the night before, no doubt) to take Game 6. Only to toss it all away as the team’s lack of a go-to guy became obvious in Game 7.
7. Phoenix over Dallas, 2005
What stand out are two best friends, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, going at it on several switched screen and rolls. What also stands out are two of the best offensive teams of this generation trading high quality baskets and entertaining play.
8. Dallas over Houston, 2005
Sure, the series ended with a 40-point Dallas win in Game 7, but what we remember is the four games in the middle of this fun one that were decided by six points or less.
9. Dallas over Utah, 2001
A real shocker at the time, and a series that tipped a lot of us off to the fact that, while "playoff moxie" and "veteran doggedness" might be something to appreciate, let’s face it, talent is an asset. And Dallas had the talent enough to pull out a classic Game 5 win with Calvin Booth hitting a clutch shot down the stretch. OK, maybe "talent" isn’t the word …
10. Minnesota over Sacramento, 2004
An underrated one, with five of the seven games turning in at a six points or fewer difference, and Kevin Garnett turning in this Game 7 gem: 32 points, 21 rebounds, two assists, four steals, five blocks, two turnovers.
11. Phoenix over Los Angeles Clippers, 2006
12. Phoenix over Los Angeles Lakers, 2006
Only marred, and served second to the Clipper series, by a should-be classic Game 7 that saw Kobe Bryant apparently moping throughout the proceedings. On Saturday night. On TNT. Uh-oh. Otherwise, the series featured two overtime games and plenty of close contests. And Kobe calling Raja Bell (two years older than Mr. Bryant) "kid."
13. New York over Indiana, 1999
Now that the pace has picked up in this league, and scores have risen, it’s a chore for some to remember just how entertaining these fin de siècle slow-down contests were. Not pour moi. Sure, some parts were pretty dull, but these things tended to turn around by the fourth quarter. Here, I’ll play-by-play it for you.
14. Indiana over Milwaukee, 2000
The Bucks should not have been the eighth seed, they could have probably earned a top-four mark; but they slept through the entire regular season, and barely made it into the postseason over an upstart Magic team that sure seemed to want it quite a bit more. No matter, because once the postseason started, the Bucks stole home court advantage from the eventual conference champions, before eventually falling short in a nail-biting Game 5 that earned Tim Thomas several different Bentleys.
15. Milwaukee over Charlotte, 2001
Others may remember the series that follows at #16, but this one was so, so much more entertaining to watch. Sam Cassell, and a young Baron Davis. Elden Campbell. Stop laughing. You have no idea how good this one was.
16. Philadelphia over Toronto, 2001
Competitive, yes, but quite a lot of isolation play. Very slow, very fun in the last five minutes, but very typical Lenny Wilkens/Larry Brown-play.
17. Dallas over Sacramento, 2003
I’m sorry, but in 2003, to get to watch a seven-game series where the Kings averaged 111 points per game, and the Mavericks averaged 114.6? Come on. It was like the first time I heard the Beatles.
18. Utah over Houston, 2007
If only to give Carlos Boozer (23.5 points per game, 12.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists during the 2007 postseason) the chutzpah, after three double-scotches, to call his agent and ask to opt out of his contract this summer.
19. New York over Miami, 2000
Call it a perverse pleasure. I’m full of ‘em. I eat Marmite, daily. No joke. After Bill Simmons made a joke about this series being on NBA TV’s classic games roster back in 2002, I made a point a few days later to make out with an ex-girlfriend with this game flickering silently in the background, as if it were a Teddy Pendergrass record. I’m a sickie, and I love those old Knick/Heat games.
20. Detroit over Miami, 2005
Honorable mention: Philadelphia over Milwaukee, 2001; New Jersey over Indiana, 2002; Dallas over Portland, 2003; Miami over New Orleans, 2004; Los Angeles Lakers over San Antonio, 2004; San Antonio over Phoenix, 2005; Cleveland over Detroit, 2007; Boston over Atlanta, 2008; Boston over Cleveland, 2008; San Antonio over New Orleans, 2008.