The NBA (or National Basketball Association) is the most elite professional basketball league in the world. Founded in 1946, the 30-team league has featured thousands of incredible moments and top-notch athletic performances over its many decades. Trying to reduce hours of play to a list of just 15 of the NBA’s most significant games is an almost impossible task, as it’s mostly subjective.
That said, I’m going to try! For starters, the games on this list all took place in the playoffs or NBA Finals; to be considered one of the best, a contest needs raised stakes. Sure, some of the sport’s most impressive feats have come during the regular season, but we’re talking about the greatest games overall. You’ll notice many of the games on this list took place late in their respective series’ and/or in elimination games.
There also may be a bit of recency bias. While I try to appreciate classic rivalries and matchups throughout NBA history, the moments that came over the last few decades feel more relatable and important from my specific vantage point.
In 2013, the Miami Heat—led by Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh—would advance to the NBA Finals once again, looking to become the sixth team to go back-to-back. The year prior, the “Big Three” took down the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games to give James his first title, and the franchise its second.
However, late in Game 6 of the 2013 finals, repeating as champions seemed extremely unlikely. The Spurs were up three games to Miami’s two and entered the fourth quarter up 10, 75-65. LeBron fueled a 20-7 Heat run, giving his squad a three-point lead with only two minutes to play.
Miami’s lead was short-lived. After a LeBron James turnover and a Manu Ginobili free throw, San Antonio was up 94-89, with only 28 seconds remaining.
Things looked so dire for the Heat, NBA officials began roping off the court and preparing the trophy for the championship ceremony.
Following some quick possessions, the Heat had one more chance to tie the game, down only three points. LeBron came down to take the last shot, but his jumper was short. The ball careened off the hoop and found Chris Bosh in the lane for the rebound. He immediately redirected the basketball to Ray Allen, who was back-peddling to the corner.
The veteran marksman caught the pass, looked down to check that his toes were behind the three-point line and let off a patented Ray Allen rainbow from the corner. He swished the clutch game-tying shot, pushing the contest to overtime. Miami gutted it out in OT, pulling ahead 103-100 and forcing Game 7.
Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals has forever been immortalized in basketball history as Michael Jordan’s legendary “Flu Game.” At 2 AM, on the morning before the contest, MJ called his personal trainer to report that he was stuck in the fetal position, drenched in sweat, and was barely able to get out of bed.
Doctors diagnosed Chicago’s superstar with food poisoning, likely from a pizza he’d eaten on the road in Utah, where Game 5 would be played. The team’s trainers didn’t think there was any way he’d be able to compete. This was particularly terrible news for the Bulls, who lost the past two games, tying the series 2-2.
Jordan spent one day resting up and willed himself to the stadium on Wednesday night, just before tip-off. However, he was still extremely sick and running a temperature. MJ was noticeably ailing to start the contest but gradually caught back up to speed as the action progressed.
Utah was ahead most of the game, including an eight-point lead that they built in the third, with Michael relegated to the bench. The fourth quarter is when Jordan’s heroics once again took over. He scored 15 points in the quarter, reducing the deficit to a single score with 46 seconds remaining.
The most dramatic moment in the game came with 25 seconds left to play when MJ hit a massive three-pointer to give Chicago the 88-85 lead. After trading a couple of baskets, the Bulls held on to steal the win, with Jordan collapsing into Scottie Pippen’s arms at the final horn, one of the NBA’s all-time iconic pictures.
The 2016 Golden State Warriors were an absolute juggernaut. After winning the title in 2015, Steve Kerr’s squad became an unstoppable machine of off-ball motion and three-point shooting. They finished the regular season with the best win/loss record of all time, notching 73 wins and only nine losses.
Additionally, Steph Curry was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, as half of the league’s highest-scoring frontcourt duo alongside fellow Splash Brother, Klay Thompson. The 2016 NBA Finals pitted the defending champs against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the same team they beat the year prior. This time, however, the Cavs had Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love healthy and available.
The Warriors built a 3-1 series league before Cleveland clawed back consecutive wins to force a Game 7. This was a rare feat, as the Warriors hardly lost two in a row. The final contest took place at Oracle Arena in Oakland.
Golden State went into halftime with a seven-point lead, but the Cavaliers exploded in the second half. Over the final two quarters of the 2016 season, LeBron’s team outscored the 73-win-franchise 51-40. The biggest contributing factor was Cleveland’s lock-down defense, punctuated by James’ unbelievable chase-down block on Andre Iguodala.
Perhaps the most stunning shot of the night came from Kyrie Irving, who drilled a deep three-pointer over Steph Curry, giving his squad a 92-89 lead with less than a minute on the clock. Next, Kevin Love defended Curry brilliantly after being switched onto the superstar guard on the perimeter, forcing a miss. Cleveland held onto the lead, completing a massive comeback series upset and earning King James his most impressive championship.
Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals is widely regarded as “the greatest game ever played,” so it had to be included on this list. The showdown between the Phoenix Suns and the Boston Celtics required three overtimes before declaring a winner and featured several extremely controversial officiating decisions.
The poor refereeing and missed calls nearly resulted in a riot in the arena; however, when all was said and done, the Celtics escaped with the win, giving them a 3-2 lead in the series. The first controversy took place in the fourth quarter when Boston’s Paul Silas tried to call a timeout, despite the team being out. This should have awarded the Suns a technical free throw.
Instead, the score remained tied when the clock expired, sending them into OT. The Celtics were saved by the refs again when John Havlicek sunk a jump shot at the buzzer. The timekeeper didn’t start the clock until after Havlicek had already dribbled the ball and pump-faked a defender. The contest proceeded into another overtime.
This time, Boston hit a jumper as time expired, giving them a one-point lead. The fans rushed the court to celebrate; however, there were still two seconds left to play.
The Suns purposely called a timeout they didn’t have to get out from underneath their basket, giving the Celtics a technical shot and a two-point lead.
Phoenix’s Gar Heard inbounded the ball from half-court, passing to Curtis Perry, who sank the tying jumper. At the end of the third overtime, the Suns reduced the deficit within two again but were unable to force another period, allowing the Celtics to escape with a dramatic Game 5 victory and the series lead.
Games can be great for different reasons. Usually, they’re tightly contested, back-and-forth matchups, but sometimes, the historical significance of the moment outweighs the competitiveness. In 2012, LeBron James had yet to win his first championship, with some of his greatest disappointments coming at the hands of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce’s veteran Boston Celtics.
When Boston took Game 5 on the road in Miami, the media once again obsessed over James’ inability to get over the hump and win it all. With Game 6 being played on the Celtics’ home floor, few pundits expected the series to return to Cleveland.
The LeBron James that showed up on the court at tip-off was unlike anything the world had ever seen up to that point. His facial expression never changed. He showed no emotion but was a stone-cold killer from the jump.
King James was completely unstoppable, wrecking the Celtics and notching 45 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists en route to a 98-79 blowout win. The Heat forced a Game 7 back in Miami, where the Big Three dominated their Boston rivals once again, sending them to the NBA Finals.
The 1980 Los Angeles Lakers were powered by their superstar center and NBA MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was 6-foot-9-inch point guard Magic Johnson’s rookie campaign, and thus, his debut trip to the finals. LA’s series versus the Philadelphia 76ers were tied 2-2 heading into Game 5.
The Lakers prevailed in the fifth contest, but Kareem suffered a severely sprained ankle in the process.
Lakers would have to travel to Philly without their offensive centerpiece for Game 6, who couldn’t fly due to swelling. There was the possibility of Abdul-Jabbar returning in the final matchup if necessary.
Without Kareem, Lakers coach Paul Westhead threw the 76ers a major curveball by playing Magic at the center position. This created significant matchup problems for Philadelphia, allowing LA to jump out to an early lead. However, after multiple strategic adjustments by both sides, they went into halftime tied 60-60.
Magic’s squad exploded into the second half as well, scoring 14 straight to open the frame. The Sixers continually battled back to keep things competitive, but Johnson kept forcing the Lakers to pull away. The rookie from Michigan State finished the game with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, and three steals—an all-time great performance. Los Angeles won the context 123-107, earning Magic Johnson his first title and Final’s MVP honors in the process.
Boston General Manager Danny Ainge went all-in during the 2007-08 offseason, trading for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen from the Timberwolves and SuperSonics, respectively. The Celtics’ new “Big Three” entered the postseason as the top seed in the East. Their historical rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, had the best record in the West. The two legendary franchises met in the NBA Finals for the 11th time in NBA history.
The Celtics won their opening games at home before dropping Game 3 at Staples Center in LA. Game 4 would either lock the series up at 2-2 or give Boston an almost insurmountable 3-1 lead. Kobe’s Lakers smashed the Big Three in the first quarter, establishing a 35-14 advantage early.
The second quarter was more competitive, but the home team maintained their lead. By the third quarter, Los Angeles was able to pull away by 24 points and appeared to be coasting to a massive victory. That’s when the Celtics seemingly flipped a switch.
Boston closed out the third with a 21-3 run, reducing the once-massive deficit to only a two-point margin by the end of the quarter. The Celtics took their first lead of the game with only four minutes left to play. They ultimately outscored LA 26-18 in the fourth, completing the largest comeback in league history to earn a 3-1 series advantage.
Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen all played key roles in securing the win, while the Celtics bench outscored LA’s 35-15.
The 1998 NBA Finals was a rematch of the previous season between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz. In their prior encounter, the Jazz fell victim to Michael Jordan’s iconic “Flu Game” on the way to a 4-2 series defeat. Now, Karl Malone and John Stockton would get their shot at revenge.
Utah was coming into the finals confident after sweeping the regular-season series against MJ’s Bulls but found themselves down three games to two heading into Game 6. Nevertheless, the Jazz had to have liked their chances after Scottie Pippen injured his back during the opening play of the game, hampering the all-star small forward for the entire contest.
Michael Jordan and Karl Malone each dominated for their respective teams. Jordan put up 45 points in 44 minutes of playing time, while Malone scored 31 points, to go along with 11 rebounds and seven assists in 43 minutes of his own.
The fourth quarter began with Utah leading Chicago by five, 66-61. However, the Bulls kept fighting back, resulting in an 83-83 tie with slightly less than a minute left to play. A John Stockton three followed by a layup from Jordan gave the Jazz a one-point lead less than 20 seconds on the clock.
Utah had possession of the ball and fed it into the post for Malone to close the game; however, Michael Jordan ripped the power-forward, forcing a turnover.
The GOAT advanced the ball up the court, performed a crossover (and arguably a push-off) on a defending Bryon Russell, and rose up for a spectacular 20-footer to give Chicago the go-ahead score with five seconds left. The Jazz couldn’t convert their last-second attempt, giving the Bulls their second three-peat.
Of all the NBA’s greatest games, 2004’s matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs is the only one to happen earlier than the conference finals rounds. This Western Conference Semi-Final was different, however, pitting the two franchises responsible for the five previous NBA championships against each other.
This series saw the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal-Gary Payton-Karl Malone LA Lakers competing against Gregg Popovich’s prime Spurs, led by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen, and Manu Ginobili. Coming into Game 5, the home team had triumphed in each of the first four contests, leaving the series tied at two games apiece.
When the two organizations met in the previous year, it was San Antonio who advanced, so the Lakers were looking for revenge. While they jumped out to a huge 16-point lead, Los Angeles couldn’t hold off the Spurs for long, and Duncan’s squad rallied back while holding LA to only 12 points in the fourth quarter.
It was the final few possessions of the contest that made this game an instant classic. The Lakers held a two-point lead, with the Spurs inbounding the ball for what was expected to be the last shot of the night. Tim Duncan received the pass and launched a 20-foot jumper over Shaq to put San Antonio up by one. However, there was still 0.4 seconds left on the clock.
Los Angeles wouldn’t have time to do much more than a tip-in or immediate shot upon putting the basketball into play. With the defense keyed-in on Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher curled into an opening by the elbow, caught the pass, turned, and released the ball before the buzzer. He made it, resulting in one of the least-likely walk-off playoff victories of all time.
Each of the first four contests in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals was won by the home team, sending the Pistons and Celtics into Game 5 knotted up at two games each. The result would feature one of the NBA’s all-time historical moments, starring Hall of Famer Larry Bird. It’s a clip that’s included in every compilation of incredible basketball plays ever published by the league.
Down one in the waning moments of the game, Larry Bird drove to the basket but was blocked at the rim by a swarm of Pistons defenders. The ball was subsequently knocked out of bounds, and while it looked like Detroit touched it last, they were awarded possession with only five seconds remaining in regulation.
The win seemed like a sealed deal for the Pistons, who just needed to inbound the ball and run out the time. Unbelievably, Larry Bird flew through the lane to intercept Isiah Thomas’ pass out of nowhere. He immediately dumped the ball off to Dennis Johnson, who was cutting towards the basket. Johnson finished the layup, stealing the win for the Celtics as time expired.
Boston needed seven games to finish off Detroit, before meeting the LA Lakers in the NBA Finals. The Celtics lost to their heated rivals in six games.
When the Lakers and Celtics met in the 1985 NBA Finals, it was their eighth time competing against each other for the championship. Boston had emerged victorious on all eight occasions. Nevertheless, LA entered Game 6 up 3-2 in the series, giving the franchise its best chance to defeat their longtime nemesis.
This was the “Showtime Lakers,” built around Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and Byron Scott and coached by Pat Riley.
In the finals, they met the Celtics squad dominated by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, and Robert Parish.
Game 6 was tied at the half, but the Lakers exploded out of the break to have a monumental third quarter. LA outscored their opponents 27-18 over that stretch, a lead that they never gave back. Kareem and James Worthy finished the contest with 29 and 28 points, respectively, while Magic led the Lakers with 14 assists.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was named Finals MVP after averaging 25.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.5 blocks over the six-game series. Magic Johnson was equally impressive, averaging 18.3 points, 14 assists, and 6.8 rebounds per game.
By the time the 1988 NBA Finals rolled around, the Showtime Lakers were an established dynasty with four championships under their belt since 1980 on six attempts. Meanwhile, Chuck Daly’s Detroit Pistons were emerging as a hungry and physical new powerhouse in the East, with a roster built around Isiah Thomas, Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, Adrian Dantley, and Bill Laimbeer.
The Pistons entered Game 6 with the series lead, up three games to two. They’d get a once-in-a-lifetime performance from their Hall of Fame point guard, Isiah, to help them try to upset the defending champs, whose collective backs were against the ropes.
Los Angeles was up eight points in the third quarter before Thomas heated up, scoring his team’s next 14 points, with two free throws, a layup, four jumpers, and a brilliant running shot off the glass. However, the Lakers were still ahead 70-64 when Isiah rolled his right ankle in the last five minutes of the quarter, hobbling the surging superstar for the rest of the night.
At first, Thomas couldn’t run on his injured leg and was forced to the bench. However, he re-emerged on the floor a little over a minute of playing time later, visibly hurting. Every shot the Pistons legend took was money. The Hall of Famers finished the third with an NBA record 25 points in a single quarter, on 11-for-13 shooting.
The legendary point guard continued to lead Detroit through the fourth quarter, even taking a one-point lead with only 1:17 left on the clock. Unfortunately, Isiah Thomas’s legendary performance wasn’t enough. The Lakers benefited from a controversial foul call on Bill Laimbeer, which sent Kareem to the line, resulting in a 103-102 lead for LA. The Pistons weren’t able to score again, ending Thomas’s 43-point and eight-assist night on a sour note.
You can’t make a list of the NBA’s greatest games without conjuring up images of Reggie Miller slaying the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. In 1994, New York and Indiana met in the Eastern Conference Finals. Both franchises won their two opening home games, leaving the series tied 2-2 heading into Game 5 in NY.
New York pulled away with a 15-point lead early in the fourth quarter, which is right about the time Knicks superfan and famous director Spike Lee started trash-talking the Pacers marksman. Miller got nuclear-hot, scoring 25 points in the period, including five three-pointers. The moment NBA fans undoubtedly remember is Reggie turning to Spike and miming the “choke sign,” as he completed his comeback.
Over the course of that final quarter, Indiana destroyed the Knicks and outscored them 35-16. This was enough to give the Pacers a seven-point win as time expired. The next morning, the front page of the New York Daily News was a picture of Reggie Miller’s “choke,” with the headline, “Thanks a Lot, Spike.”
Despite winning the pivotal fifth game, the Pacers weren’t able to maintain the momentum. The Knicks took the final two contests and the Eastern Conference title. Unfortunately, for New Yorkers, their franchise ran into Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets in the finals, who took the championship in seven games.
Over the ensuing years, Reggie Miller would record numerous memorable moments in Madison Square Garden, earning him the moniker, “The Knicks Killer.”
Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals was ranked ESPN’s “greatest Game 7 in finals history,” in a vote held in 2010. This was all thanks to Willis Reed’s stunning and dramatic return to the court after a brutal thigh injury. The final contest of the series between the Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers was played at Madison Square Garden.
The ‘70 Knicks featured a roster of Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, and Dick Barnett, while the Lakers were led by Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Elgin Baylor. New York traveled to LA and got crushed by the home team 135-113 in Game 6, so things were tense coming into the deciding game.
NY’s leading scorer, Willis Reed, tore his quad muscle in Game 5, which kept him out all of Game 6 and made his status doubtful for the remainder of the series. However, he gave his teammates and the fans at Madison Square Garden the emotional jolt they needed by coming onto the court during warm-ups and reassuming his role in the starting lineup.
Reed was fed the ball on the first two possessions, making both. He also played tremendous defense on Wilt Chamberlain, holding the big man to only two shots on nine attempts. Willis wasn’t able to finish the half, but his presence and inspiration were enough. The Knicks were led by Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who recorded 36 points and 19 assists in the title-winning game.
To understand how a Game 1 can be included in the greatest NBA games of all time, you have to appreciate how dominant the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers were. LA entered the season as the defending champs, with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant both in their respective primes. Sure, the Lakers started the year slow, as Shaq gradually played his way into shape, but by playoff time, they were firing on all cylinders.
They swept the entire Western Conference playoffs 11-0, knocking off the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, and San Antonio Spurs along the way. Meanwhile, Allen Iverson’s 76ers gutted out consecutive seven-game series’ in the Eastern Conference Semifinals and Finals versus the Raptors and Bucks, respectively.
Nobody gave Philadelphia a chance to knock off the defending champions, and most expected the Lakers to finish sweeping the entire postseason.
Iverson didn’t get the memo and was an absolute force of nature in Game 1. He scored 30 in the first half, and the 76ers built a 15-point lead midway through the third.
Phil Jackson made the most significant adjustment of the series in the fourth quarter when he inserted backup PG Tyronn Lue into the game to defend Allen Iverson. His pronounced speed advantage over Derek Fisher made him the better option to contain the high-volume scorer.
That said, the enduring vision of this series is Iverson draining a step-back jumper over Lue, who fell closing out on the shot. As the ball fell through the rim, AI stepped over his defender as disrespectfully as possible, giving NBA fans a clip for the ages.
Philadelphia closed out the upset win in overtime, finishing 107-101. However, it was their only win of the series. Los Angeles took the next four consecutively, earning their second title in as many years.
The NBA is currently enjoying one of its most skillful and talented eras in the history of the league. As such, we’ll continue to see new inclusions in these lists of the greatest games, while others will be lost to recency bias and the passage of time. Whether you agree with these 15 contests being the very best or not, we can all agree they’ve provided some of the most thrilling and important moments in NBA history.
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