When we decided to flush out the five best NBA Finals games of the David Stern Era, we didn’t think we would have so much trouble with Game 3.
Since Stern became commissioner in 1984, no Finals game number has had more duds than Game 3. While other games had seven and eight candidates for our top five list, we had issues coming up with five truly great Game 3 showdowns.
Three of the games making our list took place in the last six years. Prior to that, if there was a Finals game that was worth missing due to a graduation, wedding or dinner at the in-laws, it was definitely Game 3.
Of course, it should be noted that during Stern’s reign as commissioner, the best Finals game also was a Game 3.
5. LEBRON DOESN’T GET THE CALL: How easily we forget that LeBron James carried a Cleveland Cavaliers team whose second-best player was – who? Drew Gooden? Anderson Varejao? – to the 2007 NBA Finals in just his fourth season. They lost the first two games on the road to the championship-tested San Antonio Spurs and needed to win Game 3 to have any chance of staying in the series. Abandoning the ridiculous idea of having Larry Hughes and his plantar fasciaitis try to stay in front of Tony Parker, the Cavs dug in on defense and fought out of a 10-point hole in the fourth quarter within 73-72 on James’ layup with six seconds to go. Two free throws by Manu Ginobili rebuilt the lead to three points before Cleveland again went to James, who came off a downscreen, caught the ball above the circle and took an escape dribble away from Bruce Bowen, who grabbed his arm trying to commit a foul before James could shoot. James was in his shooting motion and – as the MVP playing on his home floor in the NBA Finals – could have been awarded three shots on continuation. But the whistle of Bob Delaney remained silent, James missed the shot, and the Cavs were done.
4. I DO NOT LIKE THIS SAM I AM: In 1994, the New York Knicks were back in the Finals for the first time in 21 years and had a real chance to win the title after splitting the first two games on the road against the Houston Rockets. The hype was the matchup between centers Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, but Game 3 was decided by a lesser-known member of Olajuwon’s supporting cast – rookie guard Sam Cassell, who became an instant villain at Madison Square Garden. Houston pulled within 89-88 on two free throws by Cassell with 32 seconds to play. The Rockets got a stop and Cassell – ignoring Olajuwon – drilled a 3-pointer for a 91-89 lead. The Knicks had a chance to tie, but Ewing was called for an illegal screen trying to free John Starks and Cassell sealed it with two more free throws to finish with 15 points, more than twice his season average. The Rockets ultimately won their first championship by taking Games 6 and 7 at home, denying the Knicks.
3. DIRK’S DOZEN DOESN’T GET IT DONE: A year ago, the Miami Heat were coming off a stunning Game 2 home loss to the Dallas Mavericks in which they blew a 15-point fourth-quarter lead and lost on a last-second bucket by Dirk Nowitzki. In Game 3, they were watching a shorter version of the same movie, opening an 81-74 lead with less than six minutes to go before Nowitzki caught fire, scoring Dallas’ next 12 points to forge an 86-86 tie with 1:39 to play. A baseline jumper Dallas native Chris Bosh – just 6-of-17 from the field to that point and nursing a swollen left eye – gave Miami the lead with 39 seconds remaining. Nowitzki had two more chances, but threw away a pass and, after LeBron James missed a 3-pointer, back-rimmed a jumper at the horn as he was hounded by Udonis Haslem. The Heat had escaped with the win, and many felt that they had regained the upper hand in the series. But they never won again as they were done in by James’ disappearing act and Nowitzki’s clutch shooting.
2. PAT RILEY’S ONE-WORD MESSAGE: The Heat and Mavericks first met in the 2006 Finals, when Dallas easily won the first two games by neutralizing Shaquille O’Neal, limiting him to a combined 22 points and 13 rebounds. O’Neal wasn’t much better in Game 3, and a big third quarter by Dallas turned a nine-point deficit into a 77-68 lead heading into the final period. Heat coach Pat Riley called timeout with 8:36 left and his team trailing, 83-71. On his greaseboard, he didn’t draw up a play but wrote ‘SEASON’ across it, letting his players know that their season would be over if they didn’t come back and win this game. The Heat got the message – especially Dwyane Wade, who scored 11 of his 42 points in a five-minute stretch. A jumper by Gary Payton gave Miami a 97-95 lead with 3.4 seconds to go. Even though Dallas managed just one basket in the final five-plus minutes, it still had a chance to tie when Dirk Nowitzki was fouled and went to the line with 3.4 seconds to go. But the 90 percent foul shooter missed the second free throw. Wade made 1-of-2 from the line, and Nowitzki overthrew a lob pass. A day later, the NBA admitted there were a pair of malfunctions in the final minute that allowed extra time to run off the clock, which clearly impacted Dallas’ last possession. It was the first of many things that seemed to work against the Mavs, who had a meltdown over the next week and never won again in the series.
1. THE SECOND-GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED: Uh, probably not. But the fact remains that there have been just two triple-overtime games in Finals history and both involved the Phoenix Suns – Game 5 at Boston in 1976, which many considered the greatest game of all time, and Game 3 at Chicago in 1993, which the Suns won to stay alive after losing the first two games at home. Phoenix’s coach was Paul Westphal, who played in the 1976 game. The Suns blew an 11-point lead with six minutes to go in the fourth quarter, but Westphal kept telling jokes before the start of each overtime to keep his team loose. In the first overtime, the teams shot a combined 3-of-16 for eight points as fatigue already was setting in. The Suns looked dead in the second OT, trailing 114-110 in the final minute before a basket by Charles Barkley (24 points, 19 rebounds) and a jumper with 3.2 seconds left by Dan Majerle (25 points, six 3-pointers) forced a third overtime. Majerle’s 3-pointer and steal leading to Barkley’s layup gave the Suns a 121-118 lead with 2:38 left before the game’s key play. Chicago’s Horace Grant fouled out and was replaced by Stacey King, who grabbed a rebound but threw a lazy pass underneath his own basket that Barkley stole and laid in for a 123-118 bulge. Phoenix made six free throws in the final 100 seconds, matching Chicago’s total for the entire game. There was no late clutch shooting by Jordan, who scored 44 points but made just 19-of-43 shots. Teammate Scottie Pippen had 26 points on 13-of-35 shooting. Johnson set a Finals record by playing 62 minutes and Majerle played 59 minutes without a foul or turnover. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the 1976 game, but it is the best Finals game of the Stern era.