Top 10 NBA Finals Moments Since 1990

By Scott Kacsmar

The 2024 NBA Finals will start this Thursday when the Dallas Mavericks meet the Boston Celtics. Boston has been favored all season long but there’s always a chance for the team that has the best player in the series (Luka Doncic). We’ll see if Doncic can create any iconic NBA Finals moments in his first trip to the biggest stage in basketball.

If we are being perfectly honest, the NBA Finals have not been delivering a ton of compelling best-of-7 series and moments in recent years. Maybe the injuries to star players have watered down the competition, or maybe it’s the Miami Heat overachieving and reaching the Finals twice since 2020 only to lose a couple of mostly forgettable series against the 2020 Lakers and 2023 Nuggets.

But we thought this would be a good time to look back at the most memorable NBA Finals moments since the 1990s. Why not the 1980s? We didn’t feel like parsing through all those series with the Lakers or Celtics (or both). Let’s just go back to the 1990s when Michael Jordan and the Bulls were often on top of a league that was expanding in size.

Top NBA Finals Moments: Honorable Mentions

Since 14 would have been an awkward number to countdown, we have a few honorable mentions before we get to our top 10 NBA Finals moments. This is what just missed the cut.

1993 Chicago Bulls vs. Phoenix Suns: John Paxson’s Series Winner in Game 6

This was a fun series between the two most efficient offenses in the NBA that season, led by a pair of 30-year-old legends in Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. They did not disappoint in the Finals with Jordan averaging a Finals-record 41.0 points per game as the Bulls led 2-0 and 3-1 in the series.

But Barkley had a strong series himself and led a double-digit comeback in the fourth quarter of a decisive Game 6 in Phoenix. Despite the presence of Jordan, the ball made its way to an open John Paxson, who hit a huge 3-point shot to give the Bulls a 99-98 lead with 3.9 seconds left.

Those were Chicago’s only points in the fourth quarter not scored by Jordan. Horace Grant blocked Kevin Johnson’s shot on the ensuing possession and the Bulls pulled off a three-peat, prompting Jordan to retire from basketball for the first time in his career.

He would be back.

1994 Houston Rockets vs. New York Knicks: The O.J. Simpson Chase

Despite Michael Jordan’s absence, this ended up being a compelling 7-game series between a couple of great centers in Patrick Ewing (Knicks) and Hakeem Olajuwon (Rockets).

But maybe the series is remembered for the wrong reasons such as the Game 5 breaking news coverage from NBC of the O.J. Simpson car chase in Los Angeles on June 17, 1994. This was in relation to the double murder of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman. Simpson, who threatened suicide from the back of his vehicle, actually tried calling broadcaster Bob Costas, who was pulling double duty in calling the game that night at Madison Square Garden.

The Rockets prevailed in Game 7 after Knicks guard John Starks infamously shot 2-for-18 from the field, including 0-for-11 from 3-point territory.

2018 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors: The J.R. Smith Meme

You might not have expected to see a sweep mentioned. But this moment became an instant meme, it wasted a historic night from LeBron James (51 points), and it ultimately may have ruined the series for Cleveland as this was its best shot to make this a series against the heavily favored Warriors with Kevin Durant leading the way.

With 4 seconds left in Game 1, George Hill made a free throw for Cleveland to tie the game at 107. But Hill missed the second free throw, J.R. Smith made the offensive rebound, but instead of running offense, he ran to halfcourt and dribbled out the clock thinking the Cavaliers were up a point.

Instead, the game went to overtime where Cleveland was outscored by 10 points and lost the game before getting swept. A frustrated James reportedly punched a whiteboard in the locker room, leading to a bone contusion in his hand. Just a working hazard of having J.R. Smith as your teammate.

LeBron James is beside himself after J.R. Smith forgets the score in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals.

2019 Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors: The Injuries

By this point, fans were happy to see a Finals that wasn’t Cleveland vs. Golden State after a 4-year run of that. While the Warriors returned to this one, they weren’t the same team thanks to injuries, and for a change, the injury bug was in favor of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard as he led the Raptors to the championship in his first season with the team.

But the series is remembered best for its injuries to the Warriors as Kevin Durant tried to return in Game 5, looked great with an 11-point quarter to get things going, then was lost to a ruptured Achilles tendon. Then in Game 6, Klay Thompson was hot with 30 points, but he tore his ACL, which halted his career for a couple of years.

After a late turnover, the Warriors had the ball with 9 seconds left in a 111-110 game and a chance to force Game 7. But Steph Curry missed a 3-point shot and that was the end of the Durant-era Warriors as Toronto won 4-2.

The Top 10 NBA Finals Moments Since 1990

Without further ado, these are our top 10 NBA Finals moments since 1990. No series appears more than once as we wanted to include as many series as possible. Some series certainly had multiple memorable moments, which was the easiest way for them to rank higher on this list.

10. 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors: The Dellavedova Series

There wasn’t much hope for Cleveland in 2015 against a superior Golden State team, especially after Kyrie Irving was lost for the series in Game 1. The Cavaliers were already down Kevin Love, leaving LeBron James on an island with the likes of Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mosgov as his supporting cast.

But the Cavaliers ended up stealing Game 2 in overtime with James posting a line of 39 points, 16 rebounds, and 11 assists. Cleveland then held on in Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead after James had 40 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists. Was he really going to pull off this upset?

But the Warriors bounced back and won the next three games to win the series 4-2 after that early scare. It was a weird series with Andre Iguodala winning Finals MVP despite only averaging 16.3 points per game. His supposedly great defense still didn’t stop James from averaging 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 8.8 assists in the series –one of the strongest cases ever for Finals MVP to go to a player on the losing team.

This would only be the first clash between the Cavaliers and Warriors in the Finals, but the best was yet to come.

9. 2005 San Antonio Spurs vs. Detroit Pistons: Big Shot Bob

The Spurs and Pistons were strong defensive teams that had won the previous two championships in the 2003-04 seasons. Their matchup in the 2005 NBA Finals felt like a bit of a letdown after the exciting offensive season the 62-20 Suns had behind league MVP Steve Nash.

It did not help that the home team won each of the first four games in this series by 15-plus points each time. However, Game 5 proved to be an overtime classic with the Spurs winning 96-95. Veteran Robert Horry made big shots down the stretch of the fourth quarter to force overtime, then he hit the game-winning shot in overtime with 5.8 seconds left.

“Big Shot Bob” won seven championships in his career, and this was as big of a highlight and contribution he made to any of those rings.

The Pistons then went on the road and forced Game 7 with a 95-86 win. In Game 7 in San Antonio, both defenses were tough, and the Spurs got 25 points out of Finals MVP Tim Duncan. Detroit was close in the final minutes, but the Spurs put them away to win their third title in the Duncan era.

8. 2010 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics: Game 7 Revenge for Kobe

The Lakers and Celtics met in the 2008 NBA Finals with things not going well for Kobe Bryant’s team. That was the start of the “Big Three” era for the Celtics in adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to help Paul Pierce, and like in most cases of the Celtics and Lakers meeting in the NBA Finals, Boston had the advantage.

Two years later, the teams met again after the Lakers won the Finals in 2009 against Orlando. A couple of changes for the Lakers this time compared to 2008 included more size with Andrew Bynum and more defense with Metta World Peace. It also helped that Garnett (33) and Allen (34) were getting up there in age.

But a defensive battle ensued with the Celtics taking a 3-2 series lead back to Los Angeles when the Finals format was still 2-3-2. After the Lakers won 89-67 in Game 6 to set up a Game 7 at home on a Friday night, they came out very flat and trailed 23-14 after a quarter. This was the first time legendary coach Phil Jackson ever coached a Game 7 in the NBA Finals, and his team trailed by as many as 13 points in a low-scoring affair.

But the Lakers kept chipping away and the game was tight in the fourth quarter. Bryant shot just 6-for-24 on the night, and the Lakers as a team only shot 32.5% from the field. To this day, that’s still the second-lowest FG% in a Game 7 win in NBA Finals history. The Lakers also missed 12 free throws (25-of-37).

However, Bryant found other ways to affect the game. He scored 23 points thanks to getting to the free throw line 15 times, including a foul on a 3-point shot in the fourth quarter that he converted into a 3-point possession by making every free throw to make it 59-58. He also had 15 rebounds, his second most in 220 playoff games.

The Lakers took the lead for good with just under half a quarter left, but it was close until the very end. Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace had some huge baskets down the stretch, and Boston ultimately blew it in an 83-79 final as the Lakers completed the comeback and repeat.

It would be the final championship for the careers of Bryant and Jackson. It wasn’t the prettiest game to watch, but having experienced it live, it was one of the most intense basketball games I’ve ever seen with everything on the line. It is also only the second time in NBA Finals history that a team won Game 7 despite being outshot by more than 5 percentage points. The Celtics did that to the Lakers in 1984 when they were outshot by 9.3 percentage points and still won Game 7 at home.

Consider this one payback.

7. 2006 Miami Heat vs. Dallas Mavericks: The Game 3 Turnaround

After years of coming up short in the playoffs, the Dallas Mavericks finally seemed to be on the path to a championship with Dirk Nowitzki as their best player. The Mavericks were up 2-0 with a pair of double-digit wins against Dwyane Wade and the Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals.

In Game 3, it sure looked like Dallas was ready to take an insurmountable 3-0 lead after the Mavericks led 89-76 with just over half a quarter left. But Wade got hot on his way to 42 points, Nowitzki missed a game-tying free throw with seconds remaining, and the Heat pulled off a huge comeback to stay alive in the series.

From there, Wade took over and lived from the free throw line in the series. He won Game 5 for Miami with a pair of free throws in the final seconds in a 101-100 win. In Game 6 in Dallas, Wade shot 21 free throws and scored 36 points in a 95-92 win to lead the Heat to their first championship and overcoming a 2-0 deficit with four straight wins.

But it was that final half-quarter in Game 3 that doomed the Mavericks and swung the series in favor of Wade and Miami.

The Mavericks would have to wait until 2011 to get their revenge.

6. 2011 Dallas Mavericks vs. Miami Heat: Dirk’s Revenge

Still searching for that elusive ring, Dirk Nowitzki had a ragtag group of veterans on his side during a 2011 playoff run for the ages. This time he had to contend with a Miami team that acquired LeBron James and Chris Bosh to go along with Wade, the 2006 Finals MVP who terrorized Dallas in that series.

But this time it was Dallas who staged a wild comeback early in the series to change course for the series. In Game 2, the Heat led 88-73 with half a quarter to go before the Mavericks came back behind Jason Terry and Nowitzki.

The Heat went cold, and Nowitzki made three baskets from the field in the final minute in a 95-93 win to avoid going down 2-0. It was one of the greatest comebacks in NBA Finals history.

Dallas survived a close Game 4 to tie the series again, then outlasted the Heat in the final two games to win the series 4-2. Nowitzki was named Finals MVP for the only ring in his career while James disappointed with a very unorthodox 17.8 points per game in the series as he took a passive approach. Out of 54 playoff series in James’ career, this is the only one where he averaged under 22.0 points per game.

For Nowitzki, it was the cherry on top of a fantastic postseason where he led the Mavericks over the Trail Blazers, Lakers, Thunder, and the hyped Heat.

5. 2021 Milwaukee Bucks vs. Phoenix Suns: Giannis’ 50 Piece

The best NBA Finals in recent years came in 2021 when Giannis Antetokounmpo put the Milwaukee Bucks on his back and had one of the best series ever after his team fell behind 2-0. Just when you thought Chris Paul was finally going to earn a ring after reaching the Finals for the first time in his career, Antetokounmpo rose to the moment.

Someone scored 40 points in each of the final five games in this series. The Bucks were able to survive back-to-back 40-point games from Phoenix’s Devin Booker to win Games 4 and 5 and take a 3-2 series lead.

In Game 6, big runs by both teams set up a memorable finish. Antetokounmpo scored 13 of his 50 points in the final quarter. Both teams were cold from 3-point range, so an incredible night at the free throw line for Giannis, an area where he usually struggles, saved the day as he made 17 of his first 18 free throws before missing another at the end of the game. But it was already enough to win as the Bucks won 105-98 to claim the championship.

4. 1997 Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz: Flu Game and Steve Kerr’s Game Winner

The 1997 NBA Finals had a few key moments between league MVP Karl Malone and superstar Michael Jordan. Game 1 ended with Jordan’s buzzer-beater to break the tie in an 84-82 final.

The home team held court in the series until a crucial Game 5 in a 2-2 series that became known as The Flu Game for Jordan, who came in under the weather. He hit a late 3-point shot to give the Bulls the lead for good, and he finished with 38 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists in a 90-88 win that gave the Bulls a 3-2 lead.

In Game 6, the Bulls were down 73-64 early in the fourth quarter before rallying. The game was tied at 86 for most of the final two minutes before an open Steve Kerr hit a 14-foot shot on an assist from Jordan to take an 88-86 lead with 5 seconds left. The Jazz threw the ball away on the ensuing possession and the series was over, giving the Bulls a fifth ring in the Jordan era.

3. 1998 Chicago Bulls vs. Utah Jazz: The Last Dance

We got a rematch the following year between the Bulls and Jazz. This time, Jordan was the league’s MVP again, but as documented in The Last Dance, that 1997-98 season was a tough journey for the veteran Bulls. They still won 62 games, but so did the Jazz, who had homecourt advantage this time and took Game 1 by a slim 88-85 margin.

While this series did not have the Jordan buzzer-beater in Game 1, the Flu Game, or Kerr’s game-winning shot, it is still one of the most competitive Finals in NBA history. It had 5 games decided by 1-to-5 points, which has only been done in the Finals in 1955 and 1957. In fact, this series had a game decided by 1 point, 2 points, 3 points, 4 points, and 5 points.

The only game that wasn’t close was Game 3, which Chicago won 96-54. That game was historic too as Utah set the record for the fewest points scored in a game in the shot clock era (since surpassed). It is still the fewest points any team has ever scored in an NBA Finals game.

After Karl Malone scored 39 points in Game 5 to make it a 3-2 series, things shifted back to Utah for a decisive Game 6. While it would be his last game in the NBA Finals, it ended up producing perhaps the most iconic moment and game for Jordan in the Finals in his career.

We covered earlier the championship-clinching shots from Paxson (1993) and Kerr (1997) for the Bulls, but this time it was all about Jordan. He scored 45 points in this game while Toni Kukoc (15 points) was the only other Chicago player in double digits.

John Stockton made a 3 to put the Jazz up 86-83 with 41 seconds left. But in an all-time sequence, Jordan made a layup, stole the ball from Malone, then sized up Bryon Russell before burying a 17-foot shot with 5 seconds left to take an 87-86 lead.

Some would say Jordan pushed off, but that proved to be the final iconic moment in his Chicago career as it won his sixth championship.

2. 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors: The 73-9 Warriors Blew a 3-1 Lead

Despite the fact these teams met in the NBA Finals four years in a row, 2016 was easily the best series of them all as it was the most even between the teams. This was before the Warriors recruited Kevin Durant, and this time Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were healthy for LeBron’s supporting cast. Irving’s health was especially crucial as he averaged 27.1 points in the series and hit the biggest shot in Cleveland’s franchise history.

But it was still incredible to see Golden State go from a record-breaking season with 73 wins to having to come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Then they of course blew a 3-1 lead themselves in the Finals against Cleveland.

The early games in this series were not very good or competitive, including a 30-point blowout win by each team. But after the Cavaliers fell behind 3-1, they lived on to fight another day in Game 5 in Golden State after James and Irving were fantastic with 41 points each.

In Game 6, the Cavaliers led 31-11 after the first quarter and never looked back, forcing a Game 7 in Golden State. Finally, we’d get a classic, back-and-forth game out of this series in the finale. The Warriors led 76-75 to start the fourth quarter.

Few games have ever been this intense. There was a sequence where James sank all three free throws after he was fouled on a 3-point shot, then after a turnover by Steph Curry, James hit a 3-point shot to take an 89-87 lead. Klay Thompson answered right back with a layup to tie the game at 89 with 4:39 left, setting up a wild sequence that went on for minutes as the teams combined to miss 12 straight shots.

None of those failures was more memorable than LeBron’s block of a layup attempt from Andre Iguodala with 1:50 left. An instant classic:

Just when you thought these teams were going to go almost the final 5:00 without scoring a point, Irving stepped up and hit a 3-pointer with 53 seconds left. Curry failed to answer with his own 3, and LeBron hit a free throw to give the Cavaliers a 93-89 cushion that held up to complete the historic comeback.

To date, this is the last time the NBA Finals have gone to Game 7, and it is the only time a team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals. While the Warriors had few problems with Cleveland in the next two seasons after adding Durant to the roster, this series gave us a taste of what could have been in more evenly matched series.

1. 2013 Miami Heat vs. San Antonio Spurs: That Game 6 Finish

While there is an undeniable aura and history in the 73-9 Warriors blowing a 3-1 lead, most of the games in that series were not that interesting to watch if we are just being honest. In fact, Game 7 was the only game in that series that was decided by single digits. There were also just a total of two lead changes in the fourth quarter in Games 1-6 combined for that series.

If you want a series where both teams played a lot of fantastic basketball, both rosters were loaded with future Hall of Famers, and we watched not one but two incredible elimination games to end it, then you have to go with the 2013 NBA Finals between the Heat and Spurs. It is only the second NBA Finals ever where both teams shot over 40% from 3-point territory, and one of those shots stands out above the rest in NBA lore.

In Game 6, the Heat were facing elimination at home and trailed 75-65 to start the fourth quarter. After some lead changes, the Heat ended up turning the ball over on three straight possessions and were staring at a 94-89 deficit with 22 seconds left. They needed a miracle, and it would come in the form of offensive rebounds.

After James missed a 3, the Heat got the rebound and gave him another chance, which he converted to make it 94-92. The Spurs helped when a young Kawhi Leonard missed a crucial free throw, keeping it a one-possession game at 95-92.

After James missed another 3, Chris Bosh came down with the rebound, the ball found its way to Ray Allen in the corner, and he swished one of the greatest clutch 3-point shots in NBA history.

The Heat prevailed in overtime to force Game 7 in Miami. This might be the rare series where Game 6 has overshadowed Game 7. It was going to be hard to top Game 6 with an encore, but this was a high-quality Game 7 to decide the champion. While Bosh and Allen were heroes in Game 6, they were both scoreless in Game 7. James took on a bigger role and scored 37 points to go along with 12 rebounds and 4 assists as he took home MVP honors again.

The game was very tight the whole way through, and Miami only led 90-88 with 2:00 to play. But the Spurs went scoreless the rest of the way while James was the closer with a basket, a steal, and a couple of free throws in a 95-88 win to secure back-to-back championships for the Heat.

We should probably thank the 2-3-2 format for setting up this brilliant finish as the Heat were the home team in Games 6 and 7, coming back from a 3-2 deficit to hand the Spurs their only loss in the NBA Finals. The 2-3-2 was replaced by the conventional 2-2-1-1-1 again for the Finals starting in 2014. The Spurs and Heat also met again in the 2014 Finals, but San Antonio’s red-hot shooting made that a brief series as they won in Game 5.

But we’ll always remember the Ray Allen shot in Game 6 and the impact that had on LeBron’s career and how we view the success of that Miami team.

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