The two best words in sports are Game Seven.
When it comes to the NBA Finals, Game 5 isn’t too bad, either.
Either one team has a 3-1 lead, which means the trailing team will scratch, claw, bite, fight and cheat to stay win. Or the teams are tied 2-2, which means both teams will scratch, claw, bite, fight and cheat to win.
Our collection of the best Game Five showdowns of the David Stern Era includes three in which the series was tied and two where a team held a 3-1 lead. There are big names such as Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade and not-so-big names such as Vinnie Johnson and Latrell Sprewell. Avery Johnson appears as both a player and a coach.
Tonight, it likely will be the Oklahoma City Thunder scratching and clawing to avoid the end of their season – and get the Finals back on their court. We could be in store for a memorable performance from Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook. Or it could be the night that LeBron James gets his championship.
Before the Thunder and Heat tip off, spin through our list of best Game 5’s below.
5. SPREWELL DUELS DUNCAN: The lockout-shortened 1999 season will not be remembered for its quality of basketball. Nowhere was that more evident than in the Finals, where the San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks both made their names with grinding defense. The Spurs cleared 90 points once; the Knicks had a high of 89 and low of 67. It was tough to watch until Game 5, when Spurs forward Tim Duncan and Knicks guard Latrell Sprewell engaged in a duel that seemed entirely out of place in this series. Sprewell scored 25 of New York’s last 34 points on a variety of pull-up jumpers and drives, giving the Knicks belief that they could stave off elimination and send the series back to San Antonio. Duncan scored 15 of his 31 points in the final 24 minutes, torturing Kurt Thomas with mid-range bank shots, hooks and pump-fake drives for fouls. At one point early in the fourth quarter, Sprewell had scored 21 of New York’s last 25 points and Duncan had scored 14 of San Antonio’s last 15. Ultimately, the game-winning shot was a short corner jumper by San Antonio’s Avery Johnson with 47 seconds to play. On New York’s last two possessions, Sprewell missed a 15-footer when he was forced to arc a shot over the 7-foot Duncan that came up short. The Spurs won, 78-77, for their first NBA title. After starting the season 6-8, they won 46 of their last 53 games including the playoffs.
4. THE MICROWAVE HEATS UP LATE: After gaining a split of the first two games of the 1990 Finals on the road, the Portland Trail Blazers were ideally positioned to upend the defending champion Detroit Pistons – and promptly lost their first two games on their court to fall into a 3-1 hole. The Blazers showed some resolve, however, and held a 90-83 lead with two minutes to go. The series appeared to be headed back to Detroit, but Pistons reserve Vinnie Johnson had other ideas. Known as “The Microwave” for his ability to heat up quickly, Johnson made a leaning jumper and drew a foul at the 1:50 mark and pulled up for a short corner jumper with 1:21 to go that made it 90-88. At the other end, Detroit’s vaunted defense was digging in, getting stops and rebounds, and a jumper by Isiah Thomas tied it with 36 seconds to play. Portland’s Terry Porter threw away a pass, and Detroit capitalized as Johnson buried a jumper over the much taller Jerome Kersey with 0.7 seconds remaining, stunning the raucous crowd in Portland into silence. The Blazers missed a desperation shot and the “Bad Boys” secured their second straight championship. Johnson finished with 16 points off the bench, a role he relished throughout his career. How he never won a Sixth Man Award is one of the league’s great mysteries.
3. BIG SHOT ROB SAVES THE SPURS: The 2005 Finals were a matchup of the last two champions – the San Antonio Spurs (2003) and the Detroit Pistons (2004). It also paired coaches and good friends Gregg Popovich and Larry Brown against each other. But there was not a lot of intrigue through the first four games, which saw the Spurs win twice by a combined 36 points on their floor and the Pistons win twice by a combined 48 points on their floor. But Game 5 did not follow the series script with 12 lead changes, 18 ties and two-time Finals MVP Tim Duncan struggling with missed shots, missed free throws and turnovers down the stretch. But Duncan was bailed out by reserve Robert Horry, who lived up to his nickname of “Big Shot Rob.” Horry did not score until closing the third quarter with a 3-pointer but finished with 21 points. His 3-pointer with 1:17 left in regulation gave the Spurs an 88-87 lead, and the teams headed to overtime after a driving layup by Detroit’s Chauncey Billups and a free throw by Duncan, who had missed six in a row from the stripe. Duncan also missed a bunny at the end of regulation and fumbled away a pass in the final minute of overtime with Detroit holding a 95-93 lead. But Billups missed a drive, giving the Spurs one last chance. After a timeout, Horry inbounded into the left corner to Manu Ginobili and Rasheed Wallace – marking Horry – doubled down on Ginobili, who whipped a return pass to Horry, who drilled the go-ahead 3-pointer with 5.8 seconds left. Detroit’s Richard Hamilton missed at the buzzer, and the Spurs wrnt home with a 96-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The Pistons actually won Game 6, their first win in San Antonio in eight years that produced the first Game 7 in the Finals in 11 years. But the Spurs regrouped to dethrone the Pistons for their third championship in seven years.
2. DWYANE WADE GETS THE MICHAEL JORDAN TREATMENT: The 2006 Finals had perhaps the biggest 180 in NBA history. The Miami Heat had lost the first two games and trailed by 13 points midway through the fourth quarter of Game 3 before recovering to win that game and blow out the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 to even the series and turn Game 5 into the pivotal game of the series. The Mavericks led by as many as 11 points in the first half and still held a nine-point lead late in the third quarter when Heat guard Dwyane Wade began a parade to the free-throw line not seen since Michael Jordan was winning championships in the 1990s. Ultimately, Wade scored 43 points and made 21-of-25 free throws, which identically matched the numbers for Dallas. Down the stretch, Wade dueled Dallas sub Jason Terry, who scored 10 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter. Wade scored 17 points in the period, including the last 11 – and a short jumper with 2.8 seconds left that forced overtime. The extra session would have made the Ringling Bros. proud. Neither team led by more than two points, with the Mavericks squandering a huge chance to open some breathing room when Josh Howard missed two free throws with 54 seconds left and Dallas holding a one-point lead. Gary Payton – who also had a huge basket at the end of Game 3 – made a tough banker to give the Heat the lead with 29 seconds to go. Dirk Nowitzki, who had a somewhat quiet 20 points, splashed a corner jumper with 9.1 seconds left and ran down the court with his tongue hanging out as Dallas reclaimed the lead. But he had nothing to celebrate moments later as Wade – after averting what should have been a backcourt violation – weaved his way through several defenders without ever looking at a teammate and getting bailed out with a dubious foul call on Nowitzki, who put his hand on Wade’s hip but didn’t appear to push or shove him. For comparison’s sake, Nowitzki’s foul is a love tap compared to LeBron James’ hook on Kevin Durant at the end of Game 2 in this year’s Finals. There was 1.9 seconds to go, and Dallas had one timeout – which Howard inexplicably used between Wade’s free throws. Howard denied calling timeout, saying he was asking coach Avery Johnson when he wanted the timeout. Referees Bennett Salvatore, Joe DeRosa and Joe Crawford determined Howard had indeed called for time, and that left the Mavs with all 94 feet to negotiate after Wade knocked down the go-ahead free throw. A half-court shot by Devin Harris was no good, and one of the most controversial finishes in Finals history was in the books. After the game, Crawford gave a statement to a pool reporter regarding the timeout, Mavs owner Mark Cuban openly questioned the lopsided officiating, and Howard got into a locker room tiff with our editor-in-chief, who had the temerity to ask him about the last timeout. (Josh and I cleared the air prior to Game 6-CS)
1. JORDAN LEAVES THE JAZZ WITH A SICK FEELING: In the hours leading up to Game 5 of the 1997 Finals, the whispers began to grow louder. Michael Jordan was sick. He had a stomach virus, apparently from a bad pizza from room service. He might not be able to play. And even if he did, he would not be Michael Jordan. His pregame consisted of lying down on a table in the trainer’s room with all the lights turned off. It was a huge window of opportunity for the Utah Jazz, who had won the previous two games on their home floor and looked positioned to return to Chicago with a 3-2 lead. At the outset, Jordan clearly was not himself and the Jazz pounced, opening an early 36-20 lead. Jordan somehow found the strength to score 17 points in the second quarter and cut the deficit to 53-49 at halftime. The Jazz rebuilt their lead to 77-69 before Jordan’s indomitable will again took over as he scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, including a 3-pointer that snapped a tie and gave the Bulls an 88-85 lead with 25 seconds to play. The Bulls held on for a 90-88 win as Jordan finished with 38 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals in perhaps the biggest inspirational performance in Finals history. After the game, Jordan had to be helped to the locker room, where he gave a couple of quotes to a pool reporter before trudging to the bus, beads of a feverish sweat still building on his forehead. Lost in Jordan’s remarkable effort were a number of poor plays and decisions by the Jazz, who prided themselves as one of the smartest teams in the NBA. Karl Malone shot 1-of-6 in the field in the second half, including an airball prior to Jordan’s 3-pointer. He allowed Toni Kukoc to sneak in for an offensive rebound on Jordan’s missed free throw to set up the go-ahead shot. And after the Jazz scored to make it a one-point game, Malone – playing with five fouls – refused to foul Scottie Pippen and allowed the Bulls to escape for a dunk that virtually sealed the win.