Tonight is Game 1 of the NBA Finals, and the buzz is palpable.
Can the Heat draw on last year’s disappointment as motivation? Is the stage too big and bright for the youth of the Thunder? Which team will get its vaunted transition game going?
And if it is a one-possession game in the final minute, will LeBron James again become a shrinking violet or impose his newly indomitable will?
We all want to see a competitive series with no shortage of spectacular plays, emotional swings and moments to remember for a lifetime. We want to see the best players on the two best teams compete at the highest possible level, because that is what the NBA Finals should be about.
There have been dozens of memorable moments and games in the Finals. Starting today, Sheridan Hoops will take a look back at the five best Game 1 showdowns since 1984, which marks the beginning of David Stern’s tenure as NBA commissioner.
On Thursday morning, we will have our top five Game 2’s. On Sunday, Game 3, and so on.
Our best Game 1’s are below. Agree or disagree? Leave a comment and tell us why.
5. SAM PERKINS GUNS DOWN HIS COLLEGE TEAMMATE. The 1991 Finals were Magic Johnson’s last and Michael Jordan’s first. They began in Chicago, and both superstars were fantastic. Johnson had a triple-double with 19 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds and Jordan had 36 points, 12 assists and eight boards. The Bulls held a 91-89 lead on two free throws by Scottie Pippen before Perkins – who played alongside Jordan at North Carolina and was taken right behind him in the 1984 draft – drilled a 3-pointer to give the Lakers the lead. Still slightly fallible at the end of games, Jordan missed a mid-range jumper, LA’s Byron Scott split two free throws and Pippen missed a halfcourt shot at the horn. Although the Lakers stole Game 1 with a 93-91 win, it was their only one of the series. Five months later, Johnson announced he had contracted HIV and retired.
4. MICHAEL JORDAN’S THREE SPREE. In 1992, the Bulls were back to defend their title against the Portland Trail Blazers, a deep athletic team led by Clyde Drexler. Many considered Drexler the NBA’s second-best player behind Michael Jordan, who wasted no time asserting his superiority. Not known as a deadeye 3-point shooter, Jordan knocked down six shots from the arc en route to 35 points in the first half, breaking Elgin Baylor’s Finals record of 33. After the sixth 3-pointer, Jordan turned toward the NBC television crew at courtside and shrugged as if to say, “Even I don’t know where this is coming from.” Chicago held a 66-51 halftime lead and stormed to a 122-86 victory despite just four more points from Jordan. It was after this game that Portland guard Danny Ainge was asked if his team could bounce back from such a beating. “Sure,” he said. “This isn’t the Tour de France.”
3. BRICK, CLANG, CLANG, BRICK. The 1995 Finals featured Hakeem Olajuwon and the defending champion Houston Rockets, who had beaten three teams with at least 59 wins to return to the championship, taking on Shaquille O’Neal and the precocious Orlando Magic, who had never won a playoff series prior to that season. O’Neal nearly had a triple-double with 26 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists, helping the Magic build a 20-point lead. The Rockets staged a comeback that looked like it was going to fall short when Nick Anderson stepped to the line with 10.5 seconds left and Orlando holding a three-point lead. Anderson missed both free throws, but the Magic got the offensive rebound and Anderson was fouled again. Completing a stunning choke job, Anderson missed both free throws again, giving the Rockets a chance to tie – which they did on Kenny Smith’s seventh 3-pointer of the game. The game was still tied in the waning seconds of overtime when Olajuwon tipped in a miss to give Houston a 120-118 victory. Orlando never recovered, losing the series in a sweep. And free throws became a mental block for Anderson, who dropped to 40 percent from the line two years later.
2. THE JAZZ STINGER. This year’s Finals features MVP LeBron James vs. scoring champ Kevin Durant. The last time that happened was 1997, when MVP Karl “Mailman” Malone led the Utah Jazz against scoring king Michael Jordan and the defending champion Chicago Bulls. There was some grumbling in the Windy City about Malone winning the MVP over Jordan, who had led the Bulls to only 69 wins. The Sunday night opener had a thrilling endgame as Scottie Pippen and John Stockton traded 3-pointers to leave the Jazz with an 82-81 lead in the final n minute. Jordan split two free throws to tie it before Malone was fouled with 9.2 seconds to go. As he stepped to the line, Pippen came up behind him and said, “The mailman doesn’t deliver on Sunday.” Malone missed both free throws, Chicago called timeout and drew up an isolation for Jordan, who drilled a left-wing jumper over Bryon Russell as the buzzer sounded. It was the first pure buzzer-beater in the Finals in 12 years.
1. FIRST CROSSOVER, THEN STEPOVER. Allen Iverson’s Finals debut in 2001 was, um, pretty good. Facing a Lakers team that had yet to lose in the postseason, “The Answer” singlehandedly pulled his stagestruck 76ers teammates out of a 13-point hole with 30 points in the first half. Philadelphia built a 15-point lead before LA shadowed Iverson with Tyronn Lue and rallied behind Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to force overtime, where it built a five-point lead. But Raja Bell flipped in a shot before Iverson – scoreless for nearly 13 minutes – took over. He sank two free throws, buried a 3-pointer in transition, then schooled Lue with a stepback crossover from the right corner that splashed through as a flailing Lue fell at his feet. Iverson took a pronounced step over the fallen defender as he headed back upcourt. He finished with 48 points in the Sixers’ only win of the series, which prevented a sweep of the entire postseason by the Lakers.
THURSDAY: The five best Game 2’s