The phrase that there are no better two words in sports than “game seven” might be cliche at times, but the statement rings true. Game 7 is the ultimate situation after six grueling games between two teams have been played, one more is needed to decide the winner. On every game seven broadcasts the phrase “win or go home” will be used plenty of times because for one team it’s the chance to move on (or win the title if it’s the finals), and to the loser goes thoughts of wondering and regret.
Above all game 7 gives us sports fans the height of performance, ability, entertainment and puts on full display the skill and desire of the athletes that we watch. The NBA has had a number of game 7s over the years and many have delivered moments of drama, greatness, failure, redemption, and even left long-term effects on the league. Here are the ten best game 7s in NBA playoff history.
10. 2006 WCSF- Mavericks vs Spurs
The only game 7 on this list that did not occur in a Conference or NBA finals series, the Spurs and Mavericks seven-game series from 2006 is underrated looking back at it, and it’s game 7 was filled with a massive comeback, great plays, a critical mistake, drama, and history. The backstory was that the Spurs forced game 7 after trailing to the Mavericks 3-1 in the series. The Mavs had won both games in Dallas by a combined six points and seemed poised on winning the series quickly, but the Spurs were the number one seed in the west that year for a reason, and they forced the decisive game.
The game itself looked like a blowout early on. The balanced offense of the Mavericks gave them a 20-point lead with just over three minutes to go in the first half as it looked like they’d run away with things. The Spurs would eventually cut down the lead to single digits and the game would see-saw between a Mavericks run to extend it and a Spurs run to cut the deficit. It all got tied up with just over a minute to go after a Tim Duncan free throw, and the Spurs took the lead 104-101 after a Manu Ginobili three-pointer with about 32 seconds to go.
However, while the Spurs comeback was seemingly complete, the game was far from done. Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki was fouled on a driving layup that he made by Ginobili. Nowitzki tied the game up to force overtime. The Mavericks eventually pulled away in overtime and prevailed, defeating the Spurs in a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.
This big win for the Mavericks helped propel them to defeat the Pheonix Suns in the next round and make the NBA finals before falling to the Miami Heat in six games. Meanwhile, this loss ended the repeat campaign for the Spurs, as they were the 2005 champions, and this ended up costing them a chance at a three-peat as they would go on to win the title in 2007. Had the Spurs moved on they would’ve been favored over the Suns and eventually the Heat, and had they won in 06, and followed things up in 07, the Spurs would be even more prestigious than they already are and the legacies of Duncan, Popovich, and others would be even greater.
9. 1970 NBA Finals- Lakers vs Knicks
The first championship in New York Knicks franchise history came in one of the most moment heavy series in NBA history. Prior to game 7, game 3 saw the now-famous highlight of Jerry Wests’ game-tying half-court shot to force overtime. The two franchises also went back and forth during this series. Games 2-4 were all decided by six points or less, and games 3 and 4 went to overtime. The Knicks won game 5 to take a 3-2 lead, but the Lakers tied things up by winning game 6, in part due to Willis Reed missing the game due to a severe thigh injury.
It had seemed game 7 would belong to the Lakers due to the absence of Reed, but what unfolded afterward was like a movie script come to life. Reed famously walked onto the court during warmups and played. He scored the first four points of the game for the Knicks and handled Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain on defense, limiting Chamberlain to 2-9 shooting. Reed only played the first half, but at that point, the Knicks led 61-37. Walt Frazier took it from there and finished with 36 points and 19 assists en route to the Knicks first title.
This game 7 is one of the popular old games whenever the NBA promotes its’ history. Reed playing through his injury is a signature moment. Frazier and Reed became beloved by Knicks fans for generations after winning both this title and the eventual 1973 championship. For the Lakers, it was another failed finals attempt in Los Angeles that they would eventually make up for in 1972, which would be the first title the Lakers claimed since they moved to Los Angeles.
8. 2010 NBA Finals- Celtics vs Lakers
The two most storied franchises in NBA history met a number of times on the biggest stage the sport has to offer and their most recent meeting in 2010 was a slugfest. The Lakers were the defending champions from the previous year and the Celtics defeated teams led by Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Dwight Howard to advance to the 2010 finals. In a rematch from their meeting in the 2008 finals, the Lakers and Celtics took things a step further in this series, as the series went to a deciding seventh game.
The two teams exchanged blows throughout the series, Kobe Bryant sealed the Lakers game 1 win whereas a Ray Allen three-point barrage led the Celtics in game 2. The Celtics would take a 3-2 series lead before the Lakers won a blowout game 6 to force the final game. Game 7 proved to be a back and forth affair as the game was close for the most part in the first half before the Celtics took a commanding 13-point lead early in the third quarter. However, a combination of Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and the then-named Ron Artest led the comeback that would end with an 83-79 score, and a second straight championship for the Lakers.
For the Lakers, this was their 16th championship in franchise history and provided revenge for their 08 finals loss to their rival. For Bryant, it marked his fifth and final championship while giving him total redemption for the loss two years prior. For the Celtics, this loss marked the last appearance during their “Big Three” era. The following season the Miami Heat would form their own “Big Three” and since then, the Celtics have yet to make it back to the finals, this included back-to-back losses in the playoffs at the hands of the Heat.
7. 1988 NBA Finals- Pistons vs Lakers
Yeah, the Lakers have been in a lot of game 7s during their history now haven’t they? The Showtime Lakers that ran the NBA in the 80s were special, they won the most championships during the decade with five, and only one of those five titles went to seven games. That was the 88 finals that saw the Showtime Lakers face the hard-nosed Detroit Pistons.
This was a star-studded series on both sides. Both teams headlined by franchise point guards with Magic Johnson leading Los Angeles and Isiah Thomas bein the maestro for the Pistons. Thomas was supported by Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer, and others. Johnson had the help of longtime running mates Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper, and James Worthy and Byron Scott.
The first five games all ended in double-digit wins which saw the Pistons took a 3-2 lead going back to Los Angeles. After a one-point win in game 6, the stage was set for the final game, but it was not without drama. Game 6 saw Thomas put on one of the greatest and gutsiest performances in NBA history when he scored 25 points in the third quarter, 11 of them on a bad ankle. Despite this, the Pistons lost the game.
Game 7 was a back-and-forth affair between both teams, but when Thomas was forced to sit out most of the second half, the Lakers built a lead that proved to be too much. While Johnson had a double-double, he was outdone by teammate James Worthy, who proved once and for all why he earned the nickname “Big Game James” as he finished with a triple-double and won the Finals MVP award.
This series marked the first repeat by an NBA team since the 68-69 Celtics. This also ended up being the last title for the Lakers until 2000, and it also made good on the promise then Lakers coach Pat Riley made the year prior when he promised a repeat. The Pistons used this loss as fuel for their own run. The two teams would meet again the next year but in 89 the Pistons swept the Lakers. The Pistons would then repeat with winning the title in 1990.
6. 2013 NBA Finals- Spurs vs Heat
Right off the bat, the popular game of this series that everyone will always remember will game 6 due to the Ray Allen shot that tied the game, and forced overtime which was eventually won by the Heat. In less than a minute the series went from being over, as the court was being prepared for a trophy celebration, to going to a final decisive game. While it was difficult seeing game 7 live up to that level of drama, it did not underperform in the slightest.
The game 7 battle between these two teams was filled with everything you’d expect to see in a win or lose the title game between two teams headlined by hall of fame players. Duncan led the way for the Spurs, finishing with 24 points on the night. A young Kawhi Leonard grabbed a game-high 16 rebounds and Manu Ginobili finished with 18 points. On the other side, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade carried the load, with James scoring 37 points while Wade added 23 of his own. The two were supported by Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier, who hit six three-pointers in that game. Both teams also had key players struggle as Tony Parker and Danny Green shot a combined 4-24 from the field, while Chris Bosh and Ray Aleen were both held scoreless for Miami.
Ultimately it was the star power that drove the Heat and an unthinkable occurrence. With under a minute to go Tim Duncan was guarded by Shane Battier near the basket and missed not only an easy layup but the ensuing tip in to tie the game. LeBron subsequently hit a jump shot and two free throws to put the game out of reach and lead Miami to their second consecutive title.
For the Heat this was the second title during the “Big Three” era, proving that their experiment was a success. For the Spurs, this was the first and to this day only finals appearance they’ve had that didn’t end with them holding the trophy. This loss would also fuel them to finish first in the west the following season, and exact revenge on the Heat as they’d beat Miami in five games in the 2014 finals.
5. 1981 Eastern Conference Finals- 76ers vs Celtics
Referred to by some as the greatest playoff series in NBA history, the game 7 of 76ers-Celtics series in 1981 was just as intense as the rest of the series was. Aside from games 2 and 3 in the series, every other game was decided by one or two points. Also noteworthy is the fact that the 76ers held a 3-1 lead in the series before the Celtics won the next two games by a combined four points to force the final game.
Headlined by the duel that we would see between Julius Erving and Larry Bird, the game was a grind, with the two teams going back and forth throughout and the 76ers holding a four-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Tough interior defense was played and both teams had some foul trouble. In the end, while Erving did all he could, even extending the 76ers lead to 89-80 at one point, the Celtics would close out the game on an 11-1 run, which included a game-winning shot by Bird.
For the Celtics, they had gotten revenge, as the 76ers had beaten them the year prior in the 1980 eastern conference finals. The Celtics went on to win the title that season. For these two teams, this was not the last time they’d meet, as the two teams would meet up again in the 1982 and 1985 eastern conference finals, cementing them as the second greatest rivalry of this time period.
4. 1969 NBA Finals- Celtics vs Lakers
The 2010 Finals game seven was not the first time that these two franchises went to 7 games in the finals. The two franchises battled in seven finals from 1959-1969, three of those series went to a game 7, and all of them were won by the Celtics. Of their three-game 7 clashes during the 60s, the 1969 finals were the most entertaining of the clashes, and also had the most drama to it.
After years of falling to the Celtics, 1969 was meant to be a full changing of the guard. The Lakers had added Wilt Chamberlain to their duo of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. They were the top team in the west and despite struggles in the playoffs, the Lakers advanced to the finals. The Celtics weren’t expected to go far as the team was the fourth (and at that point in the NBA) final playoff team in the east, but they won the conference.
Despite the overwhelming odds that favored the Lakers, the series went back and forth. After falling down 0-2 the Celtics won the next two games, then after being down 3-2, they forced a game 7. The game itself was close, and as we know, the Celtics won it 108-106. However, it was all the factors that surrounded the game itself that adds a lot to the lore of this game.
Prior to the game, then Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke was so confident in a Lakers victory that he ordered thousands of ballons to be suspended from the rafters that had “World Champion Lakers” printed on them. He had also planned the USC marching band to play a song after the win and had planned out the order of interviews after the win. Word of these arrangements was circulated in the Celtics locker room and led to Bill Russell infamously telling Jerry West that the ballons would be staying up in the rafters. Stay up they did as the Celtics pulled out the win.
However, that does not end the crazy stories that the 1969 finals gave us. Notoriously, Lakers head coach at the time, Butch Van Breda Kolff sat Wilt Chamberlain in the final minutes of the decisive game. Chamberlain had checkout earlier due to an injury but moments later told Van Breda Kolff that he was ready to return, but the Lakers coach refused to put the superstar big man back in the game. In one of the most controversial decisions ever, Chamberlain wasn’t put back in as the Celtics won, after the series, Van Breda Kolff quit to avoid being fired. Also noteworthy is the fact that Jerry West won the Finals MVP award with how he played in this series. West averaged 38 points per game and had a triple-double in game 7, despite being on the losing team, he was awarded the Finals MVP award. Not only does it make him the only NBA Finals MVP winner to be on the losing team as this was also the first series that would have a Finals MVP award.
This end of this series marked a change for the NBA as a whole. The Celtics dynasty that had ruled the decade ended after this, as Russell retired from the team. While the Celtics would win two titles in the 1970s, it wouldn’t be until the 80s that they rose to be a power in the league again. Whereas for the Lakers this disappointing loss led them to continue to make moves for the team to get over the hump, which would all come together in 1972, where they would win the title.
3. 2016 WCF- Thunder vs Warriors
The impact of this game cannot be understated in terms of the long term impact that it eventually had on recent NBA history. The devastating loss by the Thunder in this series ultimately led to the departure of Kevin Durant and eventually in 2019, the official end of an era in Oklahoma City. However, before all that transpired there was this series.
The 2016 Warriors finished the season 73-9 and broke almost every team record one could think of. The only thing that could complete the dream season would be a championship, but before that came their ultimate challenge of the Oklahoma City Thunder. When the two teams met in the Western Conference Finals that year, many presumed it to be the de facto champion. The Thunder, coming off beating a 67-win Spurs team and years of playoff runs being derailed by injuries took what seemed to be a commanding 3-1 series lead and were on their way to a finals rematch against LeBron James.
From there, the script unfolded as we saw it. The Warriors re-established home court in game 5, Klay Thompson won game 6 for them, and Stephen Curry showed why he was named unanimous MVP that year with 36 points in the closeout game 7. The Thunder, led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, were unable to close the series out for three straight games, highlighted by the fact that the Warriors went from trailing by six points at the half in that game 7, to leading by 11 going into the final quarter.
For the Warriors, this series seemingly showed that they were destined to win the title that year. At the time they were the tenth team at the time to comeback down 3-1 and win the series, and were the first team to do that in a conference finals series since the 1981 Celtics. For the Thunder, this loss ultimately ended their run as a western power. This game 7 loss, and another one that happened a few weeks later would prove to alter the NBA for the next couple of seasons.
2. 2002 WCF- Lakers vs Kings
Along with adding a new chapter to the historic legacy of the Lakers history, the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant Lakers also added another entertaining seven-game series in the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Sacramento Kings. The 2002 Los Angeles Lakers were a team that had the pressure of an entire franchises’ history on their shoulders. No LA Laker team had ever three-peated before, so this Laker team had the chance to add a brand new chapter to the history books to the franchise. Coming off their dominating 2001 playoff run, many expected them to be the favorites to repeat again, but that task was easier said than done.
The team did not dominate the regular season as they had in year past, for the first time in the three year run they had, they failed to clinch homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Despite this, the team easily advanced past the first two rounds into the Western Conference Finals to face the Sacramento Kings, a team that had failed to beat them in both the 2000 and 2001 playoffs. The Kings were long seen as the inferior team to the Lakers, due to recent success, and overall franchise prestige and history. Yet this Kings team seemed destined to change that narrative.
The Kings had clinched the number seed in both the west and the entire league. They lost only one game to the Jazz in the first round and one game to the Mavericks in the second round to set up their rematch with the Lakers. This Kings team, spearheaded by Chris Webber and Mike Bibby, who were surrounded by a great cast of role players were intent on knocking the two-time defending champions off.
The series began with the two teams splitting the first two contests in Sacramento before the Kings took game 3 and had a double-digit lead at one point a 24-point lead. The Lakers chipped away at the lead, with several contributions from their role players, to eventually make it a two-point game with seconds left. After Byrant missed a layup and O’Neal missed a putback attempt, the ball was tapped out to Lakers forward Robert Horry, who hit what is now one of the most iconic game-winning shots in NBA history. Horry hit the game-winning three at the buzzer to tie the series 2-2 and keep the dynasty intact for the team.
The Kings would go on to win game 5 on a Mike Bibby game-winner before the Lakers forced game 7 with a game 6 win, which afterward many called it the most controversial game in NBA history. Controversy aside the two teams went at each other in one of the tightest game 7s of all time. There was a total of 16 ties and 19 lead changes as neither team could maintain a lead for too long. Then came the final 10 seconds. Kings forward Peja Stojaković air-balled a wide-open three-point shot, O’Neal grabbed the rebound and was fouled and proceeded to make only one of two free throws. Then with the Lakers sup two, Bryant fouled Bibby who tied up the game and forced overtime.
While the final score was close, 112-106 in favor of the Lakers, the Kings ran out of gas. The offense stalled as Bibby was the only King to make more than one shot in overtime. The Lakers had all five starters get in double-digits in this game and O’Neal, Bryant, and Derek Fisher scored all the Lakers overtime points to secure the win.
This win led to the Lakers sweeping the 2002 Finals and completing their three-peat. It also proved to be the last title they’d win until 2009 as the tension that was building between Shaq and Kobe ultimately ended their run together. Meanwhile, the Sacramento Kings hopes at winning a title were dashed here. The Kings also lose in game 7s in both the 2003 and 2004 playoffs.
1. 2016 NBA Finals- Cavaliers vs Warriors
3-1 jokes aside, this game is arguably the highest staked game in NBA history. The 73-9 Warriors had come back down 3-1 to the Oklahoma City Thunder to make it to the second finals. The LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers were back in the finals, and this time they had a healthy Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving for the finals. Six all-star players in their primes headlined this series and this was viewed as a battle of the two powers in the league.
The Warriors quickly took a 2-0 lead in the series, winning by the largest margin after the first two games in finals history. The Warriors eventually took a 3-1 lead and everyone was ready to crown the Warriors as the official new dynasty, Curry as the best in the league and in the same conversation as Michael Jordan, and LeBron as having another finals loss in what many viewed as his downfall from being the best in the league. Then, games 5-7 happened.
Game 5 saw James and Irving score 41 points each and force game 6, then James scored 41 points as the Cavs forced the game 7, becoming the first finals team to force a game 7 after being down 3-1 in 50 years. Game 7 was a rollercoaster ride, with literally everything on the line. The first professional title for a Cleveland sports team in 54 years, the legacy of LeBron James, the legacy of the 73-9 Warriors were all on the line, as well as the NBA title. Highlighted by 20 lead changes and 11 ties, the Cavaliers eked out a four-point victory with a final score of 93-89. This game will forever be known by three plays that happened in the final few minutes dubbed by fans as “The Block,” “The Shot,” and “The Stop.” With just under a few minutes to go, LeBron James blocked what would have been a lead taking layup by Andre Iguodala to keep things tied. Moments later Kyrie Irving hit a three-pointer over Stephen Curry to take the lead, and then Kevin Love, after being switched onto Curry due to a pick, did not allow Curry to get off a high-quality shot.
The victory for the Cavaliers symbolized a lot of things, it lifted a weight of the shoulders of the city, ending the 54-year championship drought. It also justified James decision to return and guaranteed his legacy as one of the top players to ever play, as James finished the game with a triple-double, won Finals MVP, and became the first player in Finals history to lead both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks.
For the Warriors, this loss ended what was the greatest single-season in history record-wise. The 73-9 record and 88 wins overall (including playoffs) gone to waste, the team was forced to do the unthinkable. Their disappointment came at the same time the NBA cap got a massive boost, with more space and players like Curry and Thompson on team-friendly deals signed years ago, the Warriors signed Kevin Durant and the immediate history of the league changed from that moment on. Not only was the Cavs-Warriors game 7 the best in history, its’ fallout was also the greatest we had seen and likely will ever see for a long time.