The first round of the NBA playoffs have a history of being slightly disappointing. Unlike the NHL, the NBA usually looks at its first round as television fodder for the networks to discuss future matchups in later rounds. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been memorable moments. In fact, the first round has seen some of the most dramatic moments in NBA history. Here are the 10 best first round series in NBA history.
1989: Chicago vs. Cleveland
The series that saw the beginning of how clutch Michael Jordan was at crunch time. But it wasn’t supposed to go that way. The Cavaliers were favoured to win the series, after a franchise best 57-25 record. Led by the trio of Mark Price, Ron Harper and Brad Daugherty, the Cavs were poised to make a long run in the playoffs.
The Bulls had Jordan, a rising star in Scottie Pippen, and not much else. Depth was a concern for the Bulls, who needed Jordan to be superhuman, in order to win the series.
Chicago got their wish in the first game as Jordan’s 31 points paced the Bulls to a 96-88 win. Pippen added 22 points to the Bulls cause. But the surprise was shooting guard Craig Hodges who chipped in with 15 points off the bench, which included going 3 for 4 from three-point range. The Cavs didn’t have Price in the lineup as he was nursing an injury.
The Cavs bounced back in Game 2, as Price returned to the lineup which sparked his teammates. Harper’s 31 points to go with 15 from Price and 16 points from Larry Nance, gave the Cavs a 96-88 win to even the series. Jordan did manage 30 points, but was frustrated throughout the game, thanks to strong defending from Craig Ehlo.
The scene shifted to noisy Chicago Stadium for Game 3 where the Bulls fed off their frenzied fans, to post a 101-94 victory, thanks to a 44-point performance from Jordan. MJ was simply dominant this game as the Cavs had no answer to the greatest ever.
The Bulls had a chance to wrap up the series at home, but the Cavs answered with a tight 108-105 victory to force a fifth and deciding game, despite Jordan putting up 50 points. Nance led the way with 27 points, while Daugherty’s 15 points and 17 rebounds gave the Bulls fits.
Richfield Coliseum was the site for the deciding contest, that turned out to be one of the most thrilling games in NBA history. Jordan hit a jump shot with 6 seconds left to give the Bulls a 99-98 lead. From the inbound, Ehlo and Nance played a perfect give-and-go, with Nance finding Ehlo, who drove the lane and beat Jordan to the rim, to lay it home, giving the Cavs a 100-99 lead with 3 seconds left. Chicago called timeout and decided to inbound the ball from halfcourt. Brad Sellers inbounded the ball to Jordan who pushed Nance away and slid past Ehlo to pull up from the foul line. Ehlo was desperate to get a hand in MJ’s face, but to no avail as Jordan hit the shot at the buzzer, giving the Bulls a dramatic 101-100 victory. Michael finished with 44 points and his reputation as a clutch player was born.
1991: Indiana vs. Boston
For all intensive purposes, this was Larry Bird’s last hurrah. And what a show he put on. The Celtics were the veteran team, used to the playoff pressure. The Pacers were young and full of enthusiasm and vigour.
The Celtics took the first game 127-120, thanks to a 28-point performance from Reggie Lewis. The Pacers evened the series 130-118, as Chuck Person led the way with 39 points, including 7 three-pointers.
Game 3 saw the scene shift to Market Square Arena, as the Pacers tried to feed off their home crowd. But it was the Celtics who quieted the faithful, posting a 112-105 victory, Kevin McHale came off the bench to score 22 points to lead Boston to victory.
Meanwhile, the trash talking was reaching a fever pitch. Person and Bird were engaged in a war of words that had the media salivating with delight. Both were not shy in letting their feeling be known, which made the series even more intriguing.
In a must-win Game 4, Person came up big scoring 30 points while Reggie Miller netted 27 points in a Pacer 116-113 victory, to tie the series and force a winner take-all scenario at Boston.
The famed Boston Garden had seen many memorable moments. Game 5 would add another chapter in the fabled history at the old barn on Causeway Street. Late in the second quarter, Bird banged his head against the parquet court while chasing after a loose ball. He left the game and was diagnosed with a concussion. When Bird didn’t come back for the start of the third quarter, the fans at Boston Garden grew tense and nervous as the Pacers were slowly taking control. Bird finally reappeared midway through the third quarter and proceeded to take over the contest. In the end Bird accounted for 32 points as the Celtics hung on for a 124-121 victory, and win the series 3-2. Person did score 30 points in a losing effort, but missed a key three-point attempt with 10 seconds remaining.
Bird’s back flared up in the second round, which hurt the Celtics as they fell in six games to the Detroit Pistons.
1993: L.A. Lakers vs. Phoenix
Most observers saw the Phoenix Suns as contenders for the NBA Championship in 1993. Those same observers thought the Los Angeles Lakers were past their prime, and were heading for a downfall. On paper, this looked like a mismatch.
The Suns were led by Charles Barkley, who came over from the Philadelphia 76ers in an offseason trade, to boost their post presence. Barkley had an MVP season, averaging 25.6 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. The Lakers were still stinging from the sudden retirement of Magic Johnson from the previous season, after he tested positive for the HIV virus.
The Lakers were running on fumes all season, but veterans such as James Worthy and Byron Scott were still around to provide experience to the younger players. The Lakers went into Game 1 at America West Arena with nothing to lose and played like it, upsetting the Suns 107-103. Sedale Threatt led the way with 35 points while Scott chipped in with 22 points.
Game 2 saw more of the same for the Lakers. They frustrated the Suns by playing solid defense, while capitalizing on Suns turnovers for easy points. Balanced scoring by the Lakers was vital as they stole the second game 86-81, to take a 2-0 lead in the series. Vlade Divac led the way with 19 points, while Scott added 17 points. Meanwhile, Barkley managed only 18 points, seven off his season average. Richard Dumas and Tom Chambers also scored 18 points but it wasn’t enough for Phoenix.
The series shifted to Tinseltown for Game 3, where Laker fans were smelling upset. No 8 seed had ever defeated a 1 seed in NBA playoff history. The Lakers were looking to become the first team to achieve that feat. But the Suns found their game in Los Angeles. Barkley led the way with 27 points and 11 rebounds in the Suns 107-102 victory, to cut the series deficit to 2-1.
The Suns carried that momentum into Game 4. Barkley led the way again with 28 points, while Oliver Miller and Kevin Johnson each added 16 points, in the Suns 101-86 victory to tie the series.
The scene shifted to the desert for the fifth and deciding game. While it was noisy inside America West Arena, the crowd was nervous as well. Could the Suns complete the comeback? Or did the Lakers have one last miracle left in them? The Suns took a 78-71 lead into the fourth quarter, and looked to be in charge. But the Lakers had one last run in them. Led by Worthy who showed his championship pedigree, the Lakers outscored the Suns 24-17 in the fourth quarter, to tie the game and force overtime. But the Suns recovered in overtime. Oliver Miller scored 8 points in the extra frame and the Lakers ran out of gas. Phoenix won 112-104, to complete the comeback and avoid being the first #1 seed to lose to a #8 seed. Barkley once again led the way with 31 points, while Kevin Johnson notched 24 points. Worthy did score 24 points off the bench to lead the way and all 5 Laker starters reached double-figures in points. But it wasn’t enough.
Phoenix continued their run all the way to the NBA Finals until they were shot down by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
1994: Denver vs. Seattle
The Seattle Supersonics had the best record in the NBA during the 1993-94 season. Many considered them prohibitive favourites to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. The Denver Nuggets were a young, inexperienced team that were given little chance against the powerful Sonics.
The first two games went according to forum. Detlef Schrempf’s 21 points paced the Supersonics to a 106-82 Game 1 victory. The Sonics built a 25 point halftime lead, and never looked back.
Game 2 saw more domination from Seattle. Gary Payton led the way with 18 points, while Sam Perkins and Ricky Pierce combined for 24 points off the bench in a 97-87 victory for Seattle, giving the Sonics a 2-0 lead. Everyone thought this series was over.
However, the Nuggets thought otherwise. With the series moving to Denver for Game 3, the young Nuggets were hopeful that their fans would provide a boost. The crowd obliged as McNichols Arena rocked as Denver scored 41 points in the first quarter, and cruised to a 110-93 victory. Reggie Williams led the way with 31 points, while Dikembe Mutombo notched 19 points, 13 rebounds and 6 blocks.
Game 4 saw another electric atmosphere at McNichols, and once again the young Nuggets responded. In a thrilling contest, LaPhonso Ellis led all scorers with 27 points, while Mutombo was a defensive force with 8 blocks as the Nuggets squeezed out a 94-85 overtime victory to tie the series. The Nuggets outscored the Supersonics 12-3 in the extra frame as Seattle could not buy a basket in overtime.
When the series moved back to Seattle for the fifth and deciding game, the normally boisterous crowd at the Seattle Centre Coliseum was quieted with nerves. Angst filled the old building as the Sonics wanted to avoid being on the wrong end of history. Seattle built a 10-point lead early in the third quarter, and looked like they would survive the scare. But Denver refused to die. Robert Pack came off the bench to score 23 points while Mutombo dominated the paint with 8 blocks as the Nuggets overcame all the obstacles, to shock the Supersonics 98-94 in overtime to win the series. It was the first time in NBA history that a #8 seed defeated a #1 seed. It was a devastating loss for the Supersonics who thought they were going to be champions that season.
Denver nearly did the impossible in the second round, overcoming a 3-0 series deficit to force a seventh and deciding game against the Utah Jazz. However, Denver ran out of gas, and were eliminated.
1999: Sacramento vs. Utah
The Utah Jazz were still considered title favourites in 1999, but the championship window was closing. Meanwhile, the Sacramento Kings were seen as a team on the rise, playing an exciting brand of basketball. What incurred was an outstanding first round series.
However, the Jazz looked like they would have an easy time of the series early on. Karl Malone delivered 21 points while Jeff Hornacek put up 18 points in Utah’s easy 117-87 victory. The Jazz were used to playoff pressure while the Kings were new to this stage.
Sacramento proved to be quick learners in the next game though. In Game 2, Chris Webber led the way with 20 points, while Vlade Divac and Jason Williams each provided 18 points apiece in Sacramento’s shocking 101-90 victory to tie the series.
Arco Arena was the scene for Game 3, and it was rocking with excitement. The building was nearly shaking as the Kings took the court and it made a difference. Divac led the way with 22 points while Corliss Willamson produced 18 points in a thrilling 84-81 victory for the Kings. Sacramento’s defense was pivotal as they confused and pressured the Jazz all over the court.
Game 4 was an outright classic. The teams exchanged leads and momentum like trading cards, while the fans heart rates were reaching a fever pitch. Utah led 86-84 with 31 seconds remaining and needed a defensive stop, to force a Game Five. But Divac had other ideas. The Kings centre posted up Malone and drove to the hoop. John Stockton came over for the double-team but was too late as Divac scooped it in plus took the foul. Divac made the free-throw for the old-fashioned three-point play, giving Sacramento an 87-86 lead with 23.3 seconds left. Utah answered right back as Stockton and Malone went pick-and-roll with Malone getting the layup, giving Utah an 88-87 lead 13.1 seconds on the clock. Sacramento answered as Divac was fouled as he drove to the basket. Divac made both free throws giving Sacramento an 89-88 lead with 7.2 seconds remaining. But Stockton had the last word, hitting a long-range jumper with 0.7 seconds left, giving Utah a 90-89 victory, to tie the series.
Game 5 was another outstanding game as the teams laid it all on the line. Utah’s experience was too much though, as Malone’s 20 points and 12 rebounds paced the Jazz to a 99-92 overtime victory. It was an exhilarating series that took the life out of Utah. They were eliminated by Portland in the second round.
1999: New York vs. Miami
The New York Knicks and Miami Heat despised each other in the late 1990s. The two franchises had met in the previous two playoffs, and both series featured brawls and bad blood. There was no shortage of hype when these two bitter rivals met in the first round in 1999. The Heat were the top seed in the Eastern Conference, thus making them heavy favourites. The Knicks had a further disadvantage as Patrick Ewing was nursing an injured knee and wasn’t at 100%.
But the Knicks were up to the challenge. In Game 1, Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell each scored 22 points as the Knicks won 95-75.
The Heat bounced back in Game 2 as Alonzo Mourning poured in 26 points as the Heat won 83-73 to even the series.
Madison Square Garden was the site for Game 3 and the Knicks used the raucous New York crowd to their favour. Sprewell had a game-high 20 points off the bench, while Houston knocked in 18 points as the Knicks crushed the Heat 97-73.
The Knicks looked to wrap up the series in Game 4, and held an 8 point lead early in the fourth quarter. But Miami roared back, outscoring the Knicks 29-10 in the fourth quarter to take the fourth game 87-72, to even the series. Terry Porter came off the bench to score 16 points, while Clarence Weatherspoon chipped in with 14 points off the bench to spark the Heat.
Game 5 returned to South Florida, where the Heat were hoping that home-court advantage would be the difference. The game was a defensive struggle as both teams played stifling, physical basketball. That suited Ewing just fine, as he led the Knicks with 22 points, despite the wonky knee. But the game came down to the final seconds, as Allan Houston’s driving shot bounced off the rim, off the backboard and into the net with 0.8 seconds left, giving the Knicks an improbable 78-77 victory and the series. It was only the second time in NBA history that a #8 seed defeated a #1 seed.
The Knicks used this series as a springboard to a magical run to the NBA Finals where they eventually fell to San Antonio.
2001: Dallas vs. Utah
The Dallas Mavericks were in the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, bringing with them a young, exciting team with a brash owner. The Utah Jazz had this playoff thing down pat, as the veteran-laden team were looking for one more run at a title.
Game 1 saw both teams battle down to the wire. A pair of free throws by Karl Malone with 25.8 seconds left, gave the Jazz an 88-86 victory. The Mailman led the way with 26 points to pace Utah to victory.
Utah took control of the series in Game 2 as Malone delivered 34 points as the Jazz won going away 109-98. The Mavericks tried to keep up as Michael Finley did put up 32 points. But the lack of playoff experience seemed to hurt Dallas.
The Mavericks were hoping the friendly confines of Reunion Arena would reignite their hopes. It took until the final minute, but the Mavericks finally prevailed. Steve Nash’s turnaround jump shot with 22. 7 seconds left combined with two clutch free throws from Finley, gave Dallas a 94-91 victory.
The Mavericks were buoyed with a new-found confidence following Game 3. Dirk Nowitzki poured in a game-high 33 points while Steve Nash posted 27 points as the Mavs crushed the Jazz 107-77. The crowd at Reunion Arena went crazy as their Mavericks were playing inspired basketball for the first time in over a decade.
The fifth and deciding game was at the Delta Centre where the Jazz felt comfortable playing at home. However, the pressure was immense on Utah. On the other hand, Dallas were playing footloose and fancy free. The Jazz started strong and built a 48-33 halftime lead. When the fourth quarter arrived, Utah had a seemingly comfortable 71-57 lead. It looked like the Jazz would be moving on to the second round. But the Mavericks mounted a furious comeback, led by Finley who had a game-high 33 points. With 9.8 seconds remaining, Finley made a nice pass to Calvin Booth after Finley was double teamed. Booth made a quick post move and stroked it home to give Dallas a surprising 84-83 lead. The Jazz had one last chance, but Byron Russell missed a three-point attempt and Karl Malone’s jumper at the buzzer clanged off the rim, giving Dallas the upset victory.
The Mavericks didn’t last long in the next round as they were dispatched by San Antonio, but the torch had been passed from the old guard to the young guns.
2003: Portland vs. Dallas
The NBA made a big change in 2003. The first round would go from a best-of-five to a best-of-seven format. The main reason was television and revenue as more playoff games means more money. However, history was just about made in 2003, thanks to the new format.
The Dallas Mavericks got a big performance from Dirk Nowitzki in the opening game of the series, as he recorded 46 points and 10 rebounds as the Mavericks won 96-86.
Game 2 saw Steve Nash be the hero. His three pointer as well as two clutch free throws in the final minute, gave the Mavericks a 103-99 victory and a 2-0 series lead.
The series shifted to the Pacific Northwest for Game 3 where the Portland Trail Blazers were looking to turn around their fortunes. But Nowitzki took care of business for the Mavericks, scoring 42 points including 16 in the fourth quarter, giving Dallas a 115-103 victory and a 3-0 series lead.
The series looked to be over. In fact, it would have been over under the old format. But Portland had a second life and they took advantage of it. Zach Randolph collected 25 points and 15 rebounds, while Rasheed Wallace contributed 23 points in the Trail Blazers 98-79 victory.
Dallas looked to wrap up the series back home, but Portland had the momentum. A clutch three-pointer from Wallace with 1:05 remaining in the fourth quarter, to go with Randolph’s 22 points gave the Blazers a 103-99 victory, to push the series back to Portland.
The Rose Garden was jumping for Game 6, and the Blazers fed off the energy. A huge second quarter saw Portland outscore Dallas 37-14, and the Blazers never looked back, winning handily 125-103. Randolph led the way with 21 points, while Ruben Patterson came off the bench to record 20 points.
Game 7 was held at the American Airlines Arena. The crowd was pensive as they wondered if their Mavericks would be the first team in NBA history, to blow a 3-0 series lead. The game was a tight and tense affair as both teams knew was at stake. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter until the Mavericks asserted themselves, outscoring the Blazers 36-22 in the final frame. The Mavericks survived the series, winning the game 107-95. Nowitzki led the way with 31 points, but Nick Van Exel was huge off the bench, scoring 26 points while shooting 66.7% from the field. Van Exel also went 3 for 5 from downtown as his shooting was the deciding factor. The Mavericks avoided history. The Blazers gained respect.
2009: Chicago vs. Boston
Despite the rich histories of the two franchises, this was the first meeting between the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics in the playoffs since 1986. When the Bulls dominated the NBA in the 1990s, the Celtics were on the downside. When Boston ruled the roost, the Bulls were either mediocre, or just plain bad. In 2009, the Celtics were the defending NBA champions while the Bulls were the team on the rise.
Game 1 was a beauty as the Celtics looked to use home-court to their advantage. But Derrick Rose had other ideas. The Bulls point guard poured in 36 points while dishing out 11 assists as the Bulls surprised Boston 105-103 in overtime.
Game 2 was another thriller as the Bulls youth showed some moxie. Rose was injured and didn’t play, but Ben Gordon picked up the slack by scoring 42 points. But it wasn’t enough as Ray Allen’s 30 points, including a game winning three-pointer with 2 seconds remaining, were enough for Boston to escape with a 118-115 win to tie the series.
The series shifted to the United Centre but it was Boston who dominated Game 3. Paul Pierce led the way with 24 points as the Celtics won easily 107-86.
Game 4 was a classic. Ben Gordon’s three-pointer with 4.5 seconds left in the first overtime period, extended the game into double overtime. The Bulls never trailed in double overtime as they drew even in the series with a 121-118 victory. Gordon’s 22 points and Rose’s 23 points were just enough for the Bulls to eke out a victory.
Game 5 was another thriller. Despite the absence of Kevin Garnett and Allen fouling out, Pierce took the Celtics on his shoulders and carried them to victory. His jumper at the buzzer forced overtime. In the extra period, Pierce hit 3 baskets in the final 77 seconds, giving the Celtics a 106-104 victory and a 3-2 lead in the series. In total, Pierce finished with 26 points.
Game 6 will go down as one of the greatest games ever played. Despite 51 points from Allen, the Celtics couldn’t close out the Bulls. The game went back and forth all the way to triple overtime, where the Bulls came up with the big plays. Joakim Noah stole a Pierce pass, and raced down the court for an emphatic dunk, plus the foul. Noah completed the three-point play giving the Bulls a three-point lead. Then it was Rose’s defense that shone as he blocked a potential game winning shot from Rajon Rondo, that preserved a 128-127 victory for the Bulls, tying the series 3-3.
The question is, what would these two teams do for an encore? Game 7 was back in Boston where the Celtics were just looking to survive. The Bulls tried as Gordon did have a game high 33 points, but Allen’s 23 points to go with Pierce’s 20 points and Eddie House contributing 16 points off the bench, gave the Celtics a 109-99 victory and the series.
Boston survived, but ran out of gas in the second round, as they fell in seven games to Orlando.
2012: L.A. Clippers vs. Memphis
Two franchises with checkered pasts met in the first round in 2012, and they produced the best series of that year. The Clippers were finally starting to win, thanks to the likes of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. The Grizzlies were led by Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph.
Game 1 featured one of the greatest comebacks in NBA playoff history. The Clippers were trailing by 27 points in the third quarter. By the time the fourth quarter arrived, the Clippers were down 95-71. Everyone thought the Grizzlies had the first game in the bag. But the Clippers mounted an incredible comeback, as Nick Young scored 19 points and the Grizzlies only made one field goal in the last nine minutes as the Clippers won 99-98, before a stunned crowd at the FedEx Forum.
The Grizzlies did bounce back in Game 2, as Gay recorded 21 points while O.J. Mayo notched 20 points off the bench as Memphis won 105-98 to tie the series.
The Staples Centre was the scene for Game 3. Once again, the Grizzlies blew a lead. Ahead by 7 going into the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies surrendered the lead to the Clippers as Paul’s 24 points and 11 assists led the Clippers to an exciting 87-86 victory.
Game 4 went into overtime, where Paul and Griffin took over. Griffin’s 30 points to go with Paul’s 27 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists paved the way for the Clippers to emerge victorious 101-97.
Faced with a must-win the Grizzlies returned home for Game 5. Marc Gasol led the way with 23 points while Randolph chipped in with 19 points as the Grizzlies prevailed 92-80.
Game 6 went down to the wire. The Clippers were minus Paul due to injury and it cost them. The Grizzlies got another 23 point performance from Gasol to go with 18 points from Randolph, as Memphis overcame an 8 point fourth quarter deficit, to win 90-88 to tie the series.
The Grizzlies looked to have the momentum as they went home for Game 7. But the return of Paul to the Clippers lineup was the deciding factor. The Clippers point guard put up 19 points and 9 rebounds, while Nick Young contributed 13 points off the bench to give the Clippers an 82-72 victory and the series. It was a tough loss for Memphis to take while the Clippers were starting to emerge from the Lakers shadow in Los Angeles.
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