The greatest NBA Finals rivalries

The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are facing off in the first NBA Finals in which the same opponents meet for the third consecutive year. This puts the Warriors and Cavaliers among the greatest Finals rivalries of all time. But is it the best? There have been legendary franchises with legendary players throughout NBA history that have battled for the sport's biggest prize.

Let's look back at the best NBA Finals rivalries ever to see how this current rendition holds up.

Boston Celtics vs. St. Louis Hawks (1957, 1958, 1960, 1961)

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The Celtics and Hawks met in the NBA Finals four times in a five year span. If that isn't enough to make it a rivalry, how about in 1956, when the two teams made a huge trade that sent Bill Russell to the Celtics for Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan? All three players obviously would come up huge in their championship rivalry, as would St. Louis' Bob Pettit, who was the best scorer in the NBA at that time.

Boston would win the 1957 championship in an epic Game 7 that went to double overtime. Ten Hall of Fame players competed in that series. The next season, the Hawks got their revenge by beating the Celtics in six games (there were just 12 Hall of Famers in that one). After a year off where the Celtics swept the Lakers, the Celtics and Hawks would meet the next two years in the Finals with Boston winning both times. The Celtics would win nine championships in ten seasons (including eight straight), with the only loss coming to the Hawks.

Boston Celtics vs. Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers (1959, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969)

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Sure, how can it be a rivalry when one team wins all the time? I see your point, but these two ran the NBA for over a decade in the 1950s and 1960s. The NBA's first dynasty, the Lakers, took on the budding one in the Celtics. The two would meet seven times in an 11-year period, with Boston winning every time. Even though the Celtics dominated with championships, it wasn't always easy. Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were outstanding when they came up just short in Game 7 of the 1962 Finals. 

In 1966, the Lakers came back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7 but would lose in Red Auerbach's final game. In 1969, the Lakers acquired Wilt Chamberlain and took the Celtics to another Game 7. Los Angeles made a furious comeback late, but a fortunate bounce off a shot from Don Nelson ended all hope, giving Boston their 11th title in 13 years. West would win the first-ever Finals MVP award and is still the lone player to do so for the losing team.

New York Knicks vs Los Angeles Lakers (1970, 1972, 1973)

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Bill Russell would retire as player and coach of the Celtics after the 1969 NBA Finals and the Knicks took their place as the East's top team. The Lakers were still there, trying to get their first title in Los Angeles. In their first meeting in 1970, the Finals had everything. Jerry West hit a 60-foot shot to send Game 3 into overtime (there was no three pointer then), but the Knicks would go on to win that game. Game 4 also would go to overtime but the Lakers would prevail. After Willis Reed missed Game 6 with a thigh injury, he would famously hobble onto the floor and give the Knicks that lift to their first NBA championship.

Two years later, the Lakers would have the NBA's then-regular season wins record (69-13) that included a still-record 33-game winning streak. After losing Game 1, the Lakers reeled off four straight to finally break through for that elusive title. The two teams would meet again in 1973, with the Knicks winning in five games for their last title.

Seattle SuperSonics vs Washington Bullets (1978, 1979)

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Probably the most forgotten Finals rivalry, the Sonics and Bullets ended the 1970s with a pair of championship appearances. Neither were expected to get there in 1978, as both failed to win 50 games in the regular season. The Sonics lost 17 of their first 22 games of the season while the Bullets had twice reached the Finals in the decade but were swept on both occasions. In '78, Seattle held a 3-2 series lead before the Bullets won Game 6 by 35 points. In the finale, Sonics' guard Dennis Johnson picked the worst time to have a horrid game (D.J. went 0-for-14 from the field) and the Bullets won Game 7 on the road (that feat wouldn't happen again until 2016).

The following year was much different as both Seattle and Washington earned top seeds in their respective conferences and squeaked through the playoffs to get back to the Finals. In those Finals, the SuperSonics lost Game 1 in Landover, Maryland but would win the next four to win their first NBA championship.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Philadelphia 76ers (1980, 1982, 1983)

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In the mid-1970s, both the Lakers and 76ers would acquire a player that launched their franchises into elite status. For the Lakers, it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In Philly, it was Julius Erving. "Dr. J." helped immediately by getting the Sixers to the 1977 Finals, where they'd lose to Portland. It would take the Lakers a bit of time and a whole lot of Magic (Johnson, that is) to finally get back to the Finals. In 1980, the two met for the first time in the Finals with Johnson's legendary Game 6 effort (starting at center and scoring 42 points and grabbing 15 boards) leading L.A. to the first title of the Showtime Era. That series also featured Dr. J's famous baseline scoop.

In 1982, the Lakers pretty much did the same thing and dominated the series in five games. The following season, the teams met again but the Sixers had MVP Moses Malone in tow. Malone won his third regular season MVP that season and followed it up with a Finals MVP with a convincing sweep of the Lakers (the famous "fo', fo', fo'" playoffs).

Los Angeles Lakers vs Boston Celtics (1984, 1985, 1987)

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The second round of this rivalry is a bit different than the first. For one thing, despite all the hoopla surrounding the Magic-Bird rivalry, they only met three times in the Finals. Another unique thing was that the Lakers actually beat the Celtics -- twice. In 1984, it was business as usual as the Celtics would win in 7 games. However, the rivalry took on a bitter twist with Kevin McHale's clothesline of Kurt Rambis in an epic Game 4. The Celtics' luck looked to continue when the two teams met again in 1985 after the Celtics won Game 1 148-114 in the "Memorial Day Massacre". The Lakers would get their revenge by not only winning four of the next five games but by clinching the title on Boston's own floor. After eight Finals meetings, the Lakers finally beat the Celtics for the championship.

In 1987, the rubber match was on as both teams fought tooth and nail. The most memorable moment was Magic hitting a baby hook in the final moments (over three Hall of Famers) to win Game 4 at the Boston Garden. The Lakers would go on to win that series in six games and, in effect, close out the Boston Celtics dynasty.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Detroit Pistons (1988, 1989)

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The two only met twice, but those back-to-back meetings were epic in varying ways. There was first and foremost the clash of styles -- the Showtime Lakers loved to run the floor while the Bad Boy Pistons loved to play physical and ugly. The Lakers were trying to become the first team in 19 years to repeat as champion while the Pistons had just ended the Celtics' reign on the Eastern Conference and were trying to win their first title. In 1988, the Pistons drew first blood by shocking the Lakers at The Forum. Eventually, Detroit would carry a 3-2 series lead back to L.A. in what would be a classic Game 6. Isiah Thomas would score 25 points in the 3rd quarter despite spraining his ankle but the Lakers would hold on to a one-point win. In Game 7, some crucial mistakes late cost Detroit and the Lakers would win another championship.

The following year, the Lakers would enter the Finals after winning all 11 playoff games. But the Pistons were on a mission and swept the injury-prone Lakers in four games. It would mark the end of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's career while the Pistons would go on to win the 1990 championship.

Chicago Bulls vs Utah Jazz (1997, 1998)

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The two most memorable moments that came from the two Bulls-Jazz series were "The Flu Game" in 1997 and Michael Jordan's iconic shot that ended the 1998 Finals. In the '97 series, regular season MVP Karl Malone and the Jazz finally broke through to the Finals to face the Bulls, the defending champs who won 69 games and four of the last six championships. After the home teams won the first four games, Jordan scored 38 points and a late three-pointer to win the aforementioned Flu Game and take a 3-2 series lead back to Chicago. In Game 6, Steve Kerr hit the go ahead jumper to win another title for Chicago.

In the rematch in '98, Utah had home court advantage and won Game 1 in overtime before Chicago would win the next three. The Jazz would spoil the Bulls' coronation in Chicago in Game 5, but Jordan's steal from Karl Malone and subsequent jumper would secure the second threepeat for the Bulls.

Los Angeles Lakers vs Boston Celtics (2008, 2010)

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The third rendition of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry kind of came out of nowhere. The Celtics were mired in a rut for nearly two decades when several trades added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to a roster that featured Paul Pierce. The Lakers made their own trade the year before, getting Pau Gasol to solidify the middle for Kobe Bryant and successfully transition the franchise after Shaquille O'Neal left. The Celtics would win three of the first four games on the series before blowing out the Lakers by 39 points in the Game 6 for their first title in 22 years.

The next year, the Lakers would beat the Magic for the championship, setting up the 2010 series featuring the last two champs. It was a heated series that saw the the teams splitting the first six games. Game 7 wasn't the most well-played game, but it was close throughout. Big shots by Ron Artest and a struggling Kobe Bryant pulled another NBA championship out for Los Angeles. Lakers coach Phil Jackson won his 11th championship, passing Red Auerbach on the all-time list. Neither storied franchise has made it back to the Finals since.

Miami Heat vs San Antonio Spurs (2013, 2014)

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The Heat were defending champs and were taking on the Spurs, who had won four titles in the previous 14 years. While the Spurs were aging, young stars Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were key to giving San Antonio a 3-2 series lead with only one of the games even competitive. Game 6, however, would feature one of the more shocking endings in Finals history. The Spurs held a five-point lead with 28 seconds remaining. The league started to tape off the floor for the Spurs' championship presentation and Heat fans started to file out of the arena. LeBron James would hit a three to get the game to two points. After a Leonard free throw, the Heat missed a three but Chris Bosh grabbed the rebound and tossed it out to Ray Allen who hit a three to send the game into overtime. Heat fans who left the arena were back at the gates trying to get back in.

Miami would win in overtime and then win Game 7 to stun the Spurs and win back-to-back titles. The next season, the teams would meet again with the outcome much different. San Antonio was on a mission and won the series in five games with all their wins in blowout fashion.

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