We already know that the 2021 NBA Finals are going to produce a champion that hasn’t lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 50 years. The Phoenix Suns have never claimed a title in their 53-season history, while the Milwaukee Bucks last won the NBA championship in 1971. So this edition of the Finals is set to be historic, but if history is any indicator, NBA fans are in for a treat, because going back every five years, the NBA Finals have produced something special.
Five years ago, in 2016, it was the Cleveland Cavaliers ending a 52-year title drought for the city by becoming the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. In 2011, it was the Dallas Mavericks earning the franchise’s first ring against the Miami Heat‘s vaunted Big Three. That avenged a loss that had come five years prior, when it was the Heat overcoming a 2-0 deficit to beat the Mavericks.
While we wait in anticipation of what the Bucks and Suns will do to make history this year, let’s look back at some of the incredible feats of years past.
2016: Cavaliers defeat Warriors 4-3
The Cavaliers’ classic against the Golden State Warriors in 2016 was about so much more than those three late plays, but to have a series that was already dripping with drama come down to the final minutes of a Game 7 with so much riding on the outcome truly made for one of the greatest games in basketball history. If one of those plays had gone in the Warriors’ direction — say J.R. Smith fouls Andre Iguodala before LeBron James can swoop in to block his sure layup off the backboard, or Kyrie Irving‘s side-step jumper falls short, or Stephen Curry finds a way to elude Kevin Love guarding him one-on-one beyond the 3-point line — we’re likely talking about a different outcome.
The ripple effects of the opposite outcome are unfathomable. Does Kevin Durant ever join the Warriors? Does James ever leave Cleveland without delivering the hometown title? Do those 2015-16 Warriors earn unanimous recognition as the greatest team of all time? All of that is up for barbershop debate. What’s indisputable is the 30 million-plus domestic viewers who tuned in witnessed a game they’ll never forget.
— Dave McMenamin
2011: Mavericks defeat Heat 4-2
Dwyane Wade, the Mavericks’ nemesis since the Finals five years earlier, held his post-shooting pose for a few extra beats after swishing a corner 3 right in front of the Mavs’ bench. LeBron James jogged over, playfully jabbing Wade in the chest a few feet in front of their seemingly overmatched foe.
There was 7:14 remaining in Game 2, and the Heat were up 15 points, well on their way to a 2-0 series lead. The superteam’s celebration — which really started with the “Not one, not two, not three, not four …” pep rally/news conference soon after free agents James and Chris Bosh took their talents to South Beach to join Wade — had resumed.
But the Mavs, incensed by what they perceived as taunting, spoiled the party. Dallas rallied to win Game 2 with a 22-5 run, capped by Dirk Nowitzki driving and spinning for a lefty layup.
It wasn’t the last time in the series that Dallas felt disrespected by the Heat’s stars. Nowitzki and his teammates were incensed when they saw the video of James and Wade playing sick and coughing after Miami’s Game 5 shootaround, mocking the storyline of Nowitzki playing despite a 102-degree fever in Dallas’ series-tying win a couple of nights earlier. (The other major storyline from Game 4: James being held to eight points on 3-of-11 shooting.)
The Mavericks won the final three games of the series, finishing the Heat off in Game 6, led by an efficient 27 points from Jason Terry, the only other player remaining from the 2006 team. Mark Cuban and the Mavs celebrated until sunrise at Club Liv in Miami Beach, where Nowitzki chugged from a bottle of Ace of Spades champagne that was about the size of his Finals MVP trophy.
— Tim MacMahon
2006: Heat defeat Mavericks 4-2
In the fourth quarter of Game 3, Dwyane Wade and his Heat teammates were down double digits and facing the possibility of going down 3-0 to Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks. It was Wade who led the charge as the Heat won 98-96 and never looked back. Wade’s 42 points in Game 3 kick-started a four-game stretch in which he scored 36 in a Game 4 blowout win, 43 in a Game 5 overtime win (including the go-ahead free throws with 1.9 seconds left to play) and 36 in a Game 6 closeout win in which he also hit four clutch free throws down the stretch.
He became the sixth player in NBA history to have multiple 40-point games in the Finals (LeBron James eventually became the seventh) and his 21 made free throws in Game 5 are still the most ever in a Finals game. His performance earned him the Finals MVP (becoming the fifth-youngest ever to win the award at the time, now sixth thanks to Kawhi Leonard in 2014) and helped Shaquille O’Neal earn his fourth and final championship.
— Andrew Lopez
2001: Lakers defeat 76ers 4-1
In Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals, Allen Iverson crossed up Tyronn Lue and then famously stepped over Lue while leading the 76ers to a victory over the Lakers.
If Thanos were an NBA team, he would be the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. To have Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal at the peak of their powers simultaneously, with Phil Jackson pulling the strings to uplift a capable group of role players around them, there’s little surprise L.A. was undefeated in the playoffs coming into the Finals that year. Then Thanos met Allen Iverson and lost. No superhero comp needed. A.I. was one on his own.
Even if the Philadelphia 76ers only took one game off the defending champs that year, the one was a masterpiece. Iverson helped Philly steal a 107-101 overtime victory in Game 1, scoring 48 points and logging 52 out of 53 minutes, preventing the Lakers from becoming the first team in NBA history to go 15-0 in the postseason. Shaq and Kobe would go on to collect the second of their three titles together by eliminating the Sixers in five games, but Iverson’s footprint in Game 1 — from that stepover on Tyronn Lue — remains frozen in time.
1996: Bulls defeat SuperSonics 4-2
The Chicago Bulls rolled into the playoffs on the strength of 72 regular-season wins — an NBA record at the time — and T-shirts with the phrase “Don’t mean a thing without the ring” on them. The group understood the magnitude of the achievement would only hold if they won a championship at the end.
The Bulls had dominated the Eastern Conference playoffs — including a four-game sweep over an Orlando Magic team buoyed by young stars Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway, along with former teammate Horace Grant, who knocked them out of the playoffs when Michael Jordan ended his retirement.
In the Finals, Chicago was paired against the Seattle SuperSonics, led by burgeoning stars Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton and coached by George Karl, like Jordan a North Carolina alum. Jordan led the way, averaging 27.3 points per game in a six-game series win, while earning the fourth Finals MVP of his career. It is because of this particular Finals win, paired with the regular-season dominance, that these Bulls are widely considered the greatest team of all time. The 2015-16 Warriors finished with 73 regular-season wins, but couldn’t complete the championship journey after losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals.
— Nick Friedell
1991: Bulls defeat Lakers 4-1
The knock on Michael Jordan throughout the early part of his career was that he was a great scorer who couldn’t carry his team all the way to a championship. The Bulls couldn’t find a way to get past the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference, and there was at least some doubt as to whether they would ever break through on the game’s biggest stage.
But the core of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant continued to build together and finally reached the top during an impressive run through the 1991 playoffs that included a four-game sweep of the same Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals and a five-game blitz of Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the Finals.
Backed by a strong, versatile defense, Jordan took his game to a new level — while taking the NBA’s mantle from Johnson and the Lakers in the process. Jordan averaged 31.2 points, 11.4 assists and 6.6 rebounds in the Finals, setting the tone for the rest of the decade as the game’s most iconic player on the game’s most dominant team.
1986: Celtics defeat Rockets 4-2
The 1986 NBA Finals marked the first time in league history that the league’s championship round was officially called “the Finals.” Before that, it had been called the “NBA World Championship Series.” It also marked the third and final time Larry Bird would be crowned an NBA champion.
The ’86 Boston Celtics have gone down as one of the greatest teams in NBA history, featuring a starting lineup that included four future Hall of Famers — Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson — as well as future Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, plus Hall of Famer Bill Walton coming off the bench. Houston, meanwhile, was a team built around the “Twin Towers” of 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and future Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon.
Ultimately, though, the might of the Celtics was too much for Houston to overcome. While the Rockets managed to win a couple of games in Houston to extend the series to six games, the Celtics blew out the Rockets back in Boston in Game 6 to close out the series and hand Bird his third championship.
The victory in Game 6 also cemented the Celtics as having the best home record in NBA history. Boston went 40-1 at home during the regular season — a record matched by the 2015-16 San Antonio Spurs for the best single-season mark at home — before going a perfect 10-0 at home in the postseason to finish with a combined 50-1 record at home.
— Tim Bontemps
1981: Celtics defeat Rockets 4-2
The Houston Rockets finished the season 40-42, but behind the power of Moses Malone, they made the shocking run to the Finals, the last team to make it that far with a losing record. They did it by beating the defending champion Lakers in the opening round, but, in part, were helped by the best-of-three opening-round format. They beat George Gervin and the Spurs in seven games in the second round, which set up the bizarre scenario of playing the Kansas City Kings, who also had a losing record.
That set up a David vs. Goliath matchup in the Finals against the Celtics, who had the best record in the league. With their Big Three — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish — the Celtics were overwhelming favorites. But after four games, the Rockets looked like they belonged, taking a 2-2 split to Game 5. Malone was feeling himself a little, talking some smack after Game 4, saying “Boston ain’t that good,” and “I could get four guys off the street in Petersburg [Virginia, Malone’s hometown] and beat them.”
The Celtics won Game 5 by 29, then got a few clutch buckets from Bird in Game 6 to win by 11, giving Boston its 14th title and Bird his first.
— Royce Young
1976: Celtics defeat Suns 4-2
While the Boston Celtics beat the Phoenix Suns in six games to win yet another NBA title, this series will forever be remembered for the triple-overtime thriller the two teams played in Game 5 at the Boston Garden, a game that is widely considered to be among the best in NBA history.
The reason it holds such historic significance, in addition to it simply going to three overtimes, is because of the unlikely things that helped extend the game multiple times. With the game tied at 95 late in the fourth quarter, Celtics forward Paul Silas appeared to call for a timeout while Boston didn’t have one, but the officials missed it. Had the timeout been granted, the Suns would have been granted a technical foul shot, potentially winning the game in regulation and giving Phoenix a 3-2 lead in the series.
That, however, paled in comparison to the final 20 seconds of the second overtime. Both teams exchanged possession several times. Three shots were made in the final six seconds, including one by Phoenix’s Gar Heard at the buzzer to send the game to a third overtime. Fans stormed the court, causing a several-minute delay, and Phoenix’s Paul Westphal intentionally called a timeout when his team didn’t have any, resulting in a technical foul but allowing the Suns to inbound the ball from midcourt, setting up Silas’ shot.
Eventually, the Celtics went on to win the game in that third overtime and subsequently won the title in Game 6 back in Phoenix. The Suns have arguably never come closer to winning their first championship — something they might finally accomplish this season.
1971: Bucks defeat Bullets 4-0
Fifty seasons before Giannis Antetokounmpo roamed the paint for Milwaukee, the Bucks had another dominant MVP big man. Lew Alcindor, who later would go by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was in his second season with the Bucks during the 1970-71 season. The Bucks would pair Oscar Robertson with Alcindor, and the duo was unstoppable.
Milwaukee owned the best record in the league that season, winning 66 games, including a 20-game winning streak. Alcindor won the first of six MVP awards and led the Bucks to playoff wins over San Francisco and Wilt Chamberlain‘s Los Angeles Lakers. They won both of those series 4-1.
The Finals opponent standing in their way was the Baltimore Bullets, led by Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson. Unfortunately for the Bullets, their stars were banged up and no match for Alcindor, Robertson and Bob Dandridge. The Bucks won their first championship easily, as Alcindor averaged 27 points and 18.5 rebounds to win Finals MVP. Robertson, in his 11th season, averaged 23.5 points, 9.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds. And Dandridge averaged 20.3 points and 9.8 rebounds. The 6-foot-7 Unseld did his best to battle Alcindor and had a triple-double of 11 points, 23 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 4. But the Bucks completed their domination, only the second sweep in the Finals in league history at that time.
The Bucks’ championship in only their third season in the league marked the fastest any expansion team won a title in the history of major professional sports.
1966: Celtics defeat Lakers 4-3
The 1966 NBA Finals were historic for a number of reasons, beginning with the Celtics making their record-setting 10th straight NBA Finals appearance, an accomplishment that will all but certainly never be matched again in the history of the NBA. It also became noteworthy when, after the Lakers won in overtime in Game 1, legendary coach Red Auerbach — who had already said the 1966 season would be his last — declared that future Hall of Famer Bill Russell would become the team’s player-coach the following season. Russell would become the first African-American head coach in NBA history.
The drama, however, didn’t end there. As the rivals played in the NBA Finals against each other for the fourth time in five years (part of what would ultimately be six meetings in a nine-year span, all won by Boston), the Celtics staked themselves to a 3-1 series lead, only to see the Lakers claim victories in Games 5 and 6 to force a Game 7.
The Celtics bounced back to send Auerbach out a champion, winning Game 7 95-93 behind 25 points and 32 rebounds from Russell. Still, the Lakers’ resilience was impressive. No team would even reach a Game 7 after falling behind 3-1 in the Finals for another half-century, when LeBron James led the Cavaliers to an NBA championship.