What were the best NBA games of the past 10 seasons?
With a new NBA decade beginning this fall, ESPN’s panel of experts is breaking down the very best moments of the 2010s. On Monday, Kirk Goldsberry ranked the 10 best shooters. Now, it’s time for our list of the greatest games.
For this ranking, our panel gave their top three picks for the best games from the 2009-2010 season through 2018-19. The list features career-defining playoff moments and a couple of the most entertaining regular season games of all time.
Let’s dive in.
8. Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics | 2012 Eastern Conference finals, Game 6
Score: Heat 98, Celtics 79
Date: June 7, 2012
Miami’s 19-point margin of victory underrates why this was such a good game. This one was all about LeBron James‘ dominant 45-point, 15-rebound performance in a must-win matchup, helping the Heat force a Game 7 at home.
Remember, this was the same Heat team that lost in the NBA Finals the previous year and was one loss away from having nothing to show for its splashy Big 3. James’ legacy was on the line, and he delivered.
The dominoes from this game also are intriguing. Ray Allen left for Miami that summer, then Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were traded to the Brooklyn Nets in 2013, breaking up Boston’s own Big 3. James won his first championship against the Thunder in 2012, and Miami repeated the following season. And OKC? Months after losing to LeBron in the Finals, the Thunder traded James Harden to the Rockets.
Would that trade have happened if OKC faced a less formidable Boston team in the Finals? We will never know. – Bobby Marks
Score: Trail Blazers 84, Mavericks 82
Date: April 23, 2011
Brandon Roy knows they weren’t all good shots, but he took them anyway. He had nothing to lose.
The three-time Blazers All-Star had been demoted to a bench role in the middle of the season after returning from double knee surgery. His career was on the brink. Just a few days before this iconic Game 4 performance, he had to keep himself from crying after logging sparse minutes in Game 2.
Portland was down 21 points before Roy sank a 3 at the end of the third quarter, trying to keep the 2-1 series from slipping away entirely.
“I just went into that game like, ‘Who cares?'” Roy told J.A. Adande in 2013. “I was loose. I just played.”
Then Roy scored or assisted on 12 of the Blazers’ 15 field goals as they erased the Mavs’ impossible lead in the fourth quarter. The last two were the very best.
He drilled a bold, and-one 3-pointer over Shawn Marion before swan-diving to the floor, injecting Andre Miller with maybe the NBA’s most endearing high step. Roy’s free throw tied the game. On the next possession, Roy came down and did what he always had done best: Create just enough space. His pull-up banked in over Marion and Portland held on for the win.
The Blazers lost that series a few nights later, but who cares? – Austin Tedesco
Stephen Curry breaks his own record for 3-pointers made in a season, connecting on an NBA record 12 3-pointers in a single game, when he sinks a 32-foot shot in overtime to send the Warriors to a 121-118 win over the Thunder.
Score: Warriors 121, Thunder 118
Date: Feb. 27, 2016
For a game on a sleepy, cold Saturday night in late February, the stakes were cranked to unusual levels. The Warriors were the burgeoning juggernaut, winners of 52 of their first 57 games. The Thunder were maybe their greatest threat to immortality, a springy, rangy, athletic team with top-shelf talent. In front of a juiced crowd producing decibels normally reserved for mid-May, the ample amount of starpower was on full display.
With 14.5 seconds to go, Kevin Durant hit a wing 3 to put the Thunder up four, and it appeared — appeared! — Oklahoma City was about to notch a signature win. Klay Thompson answered with a quick layup, and then 47 minutes and 49 seconds of exceptional basketball was undone for OKC. Russell Westbrook inbounded to Durant, who was trapped in the corner. Like a quarterback in duress, he flung up a pass off his back foot, hoping for an answered prayer. After a scramble, Andre Iguodala drew a foul and made both free throws to force overtime.
But the game hadn’t even really gotten good yet.
The extra five minutes were back-and-forth; the dueling brilliance of Durant and Westbrook versus the Splash Brothers — the pure, archetypical version of it. Westbrook missed a jumper with nine seconds left in a tie game, Iguodala rebounded and sent an outlet pass to Stephen Curry. The way Curry took his time coming up the court was disconcerting to some, but in reality, he was just timing his steps to launch one of the most iconic shots in NBA history. Never expecting a 40-footer with time on the clock, Andre Roberson briefly turned his back, giving Curry the cue. Thunder assistant coach Darko Rajakovic was the only man in the building who could see what was coming, screaming for Roberson to get a hand up the moment Curry crossed the half-court line. But with an arena roaring at full throat, Rajakovic’s pleading went unheard.
“Bang! Baaaaaang! Oh, what a shot from Curry!” announcer Mike Breen howled.
The roar went dull; the Thunder slumped in complete shock. Curry strutted, screamed and shimmied. It was his 12th 3-pointer of the game, tying an NBA record. It was the kind of shot that felt more fable than real, the magnum opus moment in a relentlessly mesmerizing season of 73-win dominance. – Royce Young
Former Lakers guard Kobe Bryant will be remembered as one of the greatest players in NBA history. Take a look back at the Black Mamba’s 60-point performance in his final game.
Score: Lakers 101, Jazz 96
Date: April 13, 2016
Mamba Out (Kobe Bryant, 2016)
What were the details behind Kevin Garnett’s final game? Tim Duncan’s? Ray Allen’s? When stars retire sans injury, the game itself often is a blank canvas of messy moments and nostalgia that the mind fills — a picture with a clear outline from afar but a lack of detail or form when investigated up close.
Kobe Bryant’s final game, though, is indelibly clear at any distance.
The Lakers trailing by 10 points with 3:04 to play? Bryant scoring 17 of the final 19 to seal a win? The contest was brimming with a variety of hallmarks that brand it as a “Kobe game” (50 shot attempts?). And that doesn’t even delve into the edges of the night — how Shaquille O’Neal sat courtside and challenged the retiring Laker to score 50; how the Lakers issued 336 credentials for media from 40 countries; how a finale between two teams eliminated from contention drew as much attention as a historic Golden State squad seeking its 73rd win of the regular season. (The Warriors issued approximately 350 credentials that night.)
Retirement parties in the NBA, in the best of circumstances, are Monets. Yet in the case of Bryant, the send-off wasn’t simply a final image, but a tour through the exhibit of Kobe, capturing an entire oeuvre in a single night. – Andrew Han
4. Dallas Mavericks vs. Miami Heat | 2011 NBA Finals, Game 2
Score: Mavericks 95, Heat 93
Date: June 2, 2011
This seesaw Finals battle ranks among the greats, not only because of the starpower — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion — but also the impact it had on the legacy of an all-time great.
After splashing a corner 3 with 7:14 left in the fourth quarter to put the Heat up 15, Wade held his follow-through in front of the Mavs bench, with James joining him in celebration shortly after. In the first season of the Big 3 era, Miami’s master plan was working to perfection. The Heat looked far too dynamic for the aging Mavericks and appeared well on their way to a 2-0 Finals lead.
But behind Jason Terry, Kidd, Marion and Nowitzki, the Mavs went on a 20-2 run to take a 3-point lead with 26 seconds remaining. The Heat’s Mario Chalmers drilled an open corner 3 shortly after with 24.5 on the clock. Then Nowitzki scored his ninth consecutive point with Bosh checking him, spinning past the agile big man for a left-handed finish, even more impressive given the torn ligament in his left middle finger. Wade’s buzzer heave misfired, and the Mavericks stayed alive, ultimately going on to knock off the Heat in 6 games.
If the Mavs didn’t go on that run — holding the Heat to just one field goal after that Wade 3 — would Nowitzki be seen as one of the greatest of all time never to win a ring? – Mike Schmitz
3. Golden State Warriors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder | 2016 Western Conference finals, Game 6
After a rough first half against the Thunder, the Warriors storm back to force Game 7 of the Western Conference finals behind outstanding performances from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who set a playoff record for 3s with 11.
Score: Warriors 108, Thunder 101
Date: May 28, 2016
As Klay Thompson took the court for the fourth quarter of Game 6, Stephen Curry had a message for him.
“This is your time,” Curry said. “Put on a show out there, and have some fun.”
Everything was lining up for the Thunder until this moment. After years of heartbreak, OKC had unleashed length and athleticism around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in overwhelming fashion. They had an eight-point lead and were only 12 minutes away from making it back to the Finals for the first time since the James Harden trade.
Then Thompson erupted for 19 fourth-quarter points, leading Golden State to a stunning 108-101 victory. At one point in his shooting spree, Thompson let one go from a few steps in front of the half-court line, barely squaring up and Westbrook in his face. It was just one of the many times he looked automatic and unstoppable.
For the Thunder, the joyful mood throughout the arena became their most devastating moment of all. This ended up being Durant’s last game in OKC as a member of the Thunder. The loss, combined with the Warriors falling in the Finals, helped pave the way for KD’s move to Golden State, shifting the entire balance of power in the NBA.
At the time, it felt as if Thompson had saved the Warriors’ season, putting them back on the path to finish off their 73-win campaign as champions and the greatest team of all time. Even though that didn’t wind up happening, it remains one of the most important (and fun) games in NBA history. The ramifications still are reverberating today. – Tim Bontemps
2. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors | 2016 NBA Finals, Game 7
On June 19, 2016, the Cavaliers defeated the Warriors in seven games to win the first championship in franchise history.
Score: Cavaliers 93, Warriors 89
Date: June 19, 2016
The 2016 Finals, pitting LeBron James against a Warriors team that had won a record 73 games during the regular season, was a great series without a great game — until Game 7.
Klay Thompson’s layup with 4:39 left tied the score at 89, and with defensive intensity at its highest, neither team scored for more than 3½ minutes — a stretch highlighted by James’ iconic chase-down block of an Andre Iguodala fast-break layup attempt. Kyrie Irving broke the deadlock in the final minute with a pull-up 3, followed by Stephen Curry missing a tying attempt isolated against Kevin Love. After a hard fall on a dunk attempt, James sealed the victory on the final possession by making his second free throw attempt.
The win gave Cleveland its first major professional sports championship since 1964, with Akron, Ohio, native James winning Finals MVP to cap his return to the Cavaliers. The outcome of Game 7 also shook the league’s foundation. Shortly after the loss, Warriors forward Draymond Green famously called Kevin Durant from the Oracle Arena parking lot, and barely two weeks later, Durant would sign with Golden State as a free agent. – Kevin Pelton
1. San Antonio Spurs vs. Miami Heat | 2013 NBA Finals, Game 6
On June 18, 2013, Ray Allen knocks down a corner 3-pointer to send the Heat to overtime against the Spurs in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. In OT, Chris Bosh blocks Danny Green’s last-second shot attempt to send the series to a seventh game.
Score: Heat 103, Spurs 100
Date: June 18, 2013
We’ll let the 2013 oral history of this game take it from here:
Spurs 95, Heat 92 | 9.0 seconds
Chris Bosh, not blocked out, is perfectly positioned to grab LeBron James’ miss and wrests the rebound away from the shorter Manu Ginobili. As he does, his body twists toward the right corner of the court, and his line of sight lands directly on Ray Allen, the most prolific 3-point shooter in the history of the NBA.
Allen: When I saw Bosh get the ball, I just backpedaled right to the 3-point line. I was hoping I was where I needed to be. Whether CB threw me the ball or not, I had to get myself in a position where I was ready. We needed a 3. Two points wasn’t going to cut it. My mental checklist was to have my legs ready and underneath me so when the ball came, if it came, I was ready to go in the air.
Erik Spoelstra: In practice, Ray does this routine. He lies on his back in the middle of the paint with a coach at the top of the key. He pops up and backpedals without looking down at the 3-point line or the out-of-bounds line. And hits the 3. And does it over and over and over again. Just instinctually does it.
Shane Battier: The devil is in the details, and it’s in his routine. If you know Ray, he lives very military-like, discipline-like. Everything has a purpose, and everything is succinct. Anyone who’s had success in the corners understands the footwork, understands the spacing of the box that is the corner 3 shot. Ray’s maybe the best corner 3-point shooter of all time.
Allen: I try to put my body in precarious situations coming from different parts of the floor, different angles to try to get my momentum going moving forward. I honestly can say I gave myself a great opportunity, a great chance to make that shot. And it wasn’t unfamiliar to me, positionally.
James: I’ve been on the other end of seeing him get them feet down, putting them stupid two fingers up after he makes the shot.
Bosh: You can’t put it into words. He’s the best 3-point shooter of all time. And the fact that he was open is just unbelievable. In my head, I told myself to wait for Ray to get back, but I know it still happened pretty fast.
Allen: Once I got my legs there, I just let the ball go.
James: I saw it in the air, and I was like, “It’s going in. It’s got a chance.”
Dwyane Wade: When he shot it, I was looking at the ball and I said, “Oh, my god … that’s going in.” It was kind of like I couldn’t believe it in a sense. But also, “Oh, my god … it’s going in.”
Spoelstra: Ray did what he’s done for so many years.
Ginobili: Bad, very bad.
Tony Parker: We all have scars in our careers. That one is pretty deep.
Tim Duncan: It was painful.
Gregg Popovich: I’ve thought about it every day. I’m anxious for it to go away. It hasn’t happened yet.