The later the NBA playoffs go, the higher the stakes become. When it comes to crowning a champion, the NBA Finals become the peak of basketball.
Some of the most iconic playoff series in league history have come a couple rounds before the Finals, though. With just eight teams remaining, the second round of the playoffs has provided some truly iconic playoff moments.
The Boston Celtics are familiar with the second-round stage. They advanced past the first round in the first round in each of the last four seasons prior to their 2021 exit at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets.
With this year’s second round ready to tip-off, let’s look back at some of the most iconic battles from this part of the playoffs over the last 30 years:
1988 Boston Celtics vs. Atlanta Hawks
Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins provided a battle for the ages in Game 7.
The top-seeded Celtics jumped out to a 2-0 series lead over the No. 4 seed Hawks. Atlanta bounced back in Game 3 and put Boston on the ropes with three straight wins to take a 3-2 series lead over the defending Eastern Conference champs. The Celtics then squeaked out a Game 6 win on the road to force Game 7 in Boston.
Wilkins was mesmerizing in Game 7, scoring 47 points on 19-for-33 shooting. It wasn’t enough for Atlanta, though, as Bird went off for 20 fourth-quarter points in a 118-116 win for the C’s. Boston ended up falling to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals.
1992 Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks
Fresh off their first NBA title, Michael Jordan and the Bulls rolled through a 67-15 regular season and were heavy favorites to repeat as champions. The Knicks, led by Patrick Ewing and John Starks, were up for the fight in their second-round matchup.
The Knicks came out swinging with a Game 1 win in Chicago. The Bulls entered Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead before Ewing and Starks scored 27 points apiece at Madison Square Garden to force a Game 7. Jordan dropped 42 points as the Bulls stomped the Knicks 110-81 in Game 7, but the Knicks deserve credit standing their ground against the soon-to-be two-time champions.
1995 Houston Rockets vs. Phoenix Suns
The 1994-95 Rockets used a string of four upsets to become the first No. 6 seed in NBA history to win the NBA Finals.
After beating the No. 3 Utah Jazz in the first round, they dropped two games against the No. 2 Suns in Phoenix by 46 combined points. They went down 3-1 in the series following a 114-110 defeat, but then they rattled off three straight wins to eliminate Charles Barkley and Co. Game 7 went down to the wire before Mario Elie hit his go-ahead “Kiss of Death” 3-pointer with under 10 seconds left to help seal a 114-110 win for Houston.
1995 Indiana Pacers vs. New York Knicks
On the other side of the 1995 NBA playoff bracket, we got one of the most exciting and heated playoff series of all time.
There was history between the two sides coming in, as the Knicks had bested the Pacers in a seven-game Eastern Conference finals series the year prior. On top of the drama on the court, Pacers star Reggie Miller had some notorious trash talk with famed Knicks fan Spike Lee.
Fast forward to 1995, and Miller got things started in Game 1 by scoring eight points in a nine-second span to stun Lee and the Madison Square Garden crowd. The Pacers then built a 3-1 series lead before the Knicks won Games 5 and 6, forcing Game 7 at MSG. The final game came down to the final shot. Down 97-95, Ewing missed a layup in the dwindling seconds as the Pacers advanced to play the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference finals.
1997 Houston Rockets vs. Seattle SuperSonics
The stars were out for this series.
Barkley joined Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in Houston and went 57-25 in the regular season. On the other side, Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and the Sonics entered the season as the defending Western Conference champions. The Rockets went up 3-1 in the series before the Sonics clawed back with wins in Game 5 and 6 to force Game 7 in Houston. Barkley, Olajuwon and Drexler all scored 20-plus points as the Rockets edged the Sonics by a score of 96-91.
Barkley missed out on an elusive NBA title that season as the Rockets fell to the Utah Jazz in six games in the conference finals.
2004 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Sacramento Kings
With Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell at his side, Garnett was unleashed. He was the 2003-04 NBA MVP and played like it against Sacramento. He averaged 23.9 points and 15.6 rebounds in an eye-opening 44.6 minutes per game in the series, capping it all off with 32 points and 21 rebounds in a 83-80 Game 7 win on his home floor.
Both teams have miserable playoff histories since. The Kings lost in the first round in each of the next two seasons and have a 15-year playoff drought dating back to 2006, while the Timberwolves have only reached the playoffs one time since beating the Kings in 2004.
2006 Dallas Mavericks vs. San Antonio Spurs
The top two teams in the West back in 2006 met in the second round thanks to the NBA’s division format. Despite winning more games than the Pacific-winning Phoenix Suns (54-28) and Northwest-winning Portland Trail Blazers (44-38), the No. 4 seed Mavericks (60-22) were tasked with facing the No. 1 seed Spurs (62-20) in the second round.
Tim Duncan and the Spurs won a narrow Game 1 before Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks rattled off three straight wins. San Antonio won Game 5 and 6 to force a Game 7 on their home floor. Duncan and Nowitzki went toe to toe, scoring 41 and 37 points, respectively, with 15 rebounds apiece. Manu Ginobili hit a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute, but Nowitzki matched it with a clutch and-one basket to force the game into overtime. Dallas emerged from the series with a 119-111 win on the road and eventually fell to the Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals.
2007 San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns
Coming off the heartbreaking second-round defeat the year prior, the Spurs were tasked with another heavyweight second-round series in 2007. This time, Duncan, Gregg Popovich and Co. had to battle Steve Nash, Mike D’Antoni and the “seven seconds or less” Suns. Phoenix had the NBA’s highest-scoring offense in the regular season and dominated Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. San Antonio, meanwhile, handled the Denver Nuggets in a five-game first-round series.
The Spurs and Suns split the first four games of the series, but not without controversy. Bruce Bowen notoriously knee’d Nash in Game 3 and Robert Horry checked Nash late in Game 4.The Spurs asserted their dominance with their play on the court in Games 5 and 6. They held the explosive Suns to just 85 points in Game 5 before winning Game 6 114-106 on their home floor. The Spurs went on to lose just one game the remainder of the playoffs en route to their fourth NBA title, while the Suns fell short of their third straight Western Conference finals.
2008 Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
This series was about LeBron James against the Big 3.
LeBron had just carried the Cavaliers to the 2007 Finals, where they were swept by the aforementioned Spurs. The Celtics, meanwhile, had revitalized their franchise by bringing in Garnett and Ray Allen to play alongside Paul Pierce.
The Celtics finished the regular season with a dominant 66-16 record, but nothing came easy for them in the playoffs. They needed seven games to beat the No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks, and they needed seven more games to finally take down LeBron and Co. in the second round. James dropped 45 points at TD Garden, but the C’s were able to emerge victorious behind 41 points from Pierce. The Celtics proceeded to beat the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals and Lakers in the 2008 Finals to win their first title in 22 years.
2019 Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia Sixers
Seven games. Four bounces. One shot.
Kawhi Leonard capped off this series with one of the most unbelievable shots in NBA playoff history. He got a shot off from the right corner as time expired and it eventually fell after hitting the rim four times, sending the Raptors to the Eastern Conference finals.
It took a Herculean effort from Leonard to get past Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and the Sixers. The former Spur averaged 34.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 39.7 minutes per game across the seven-game clash. He went on to win NBA Finals MVP after leading the Raptors past the Golden State Warriors.