By Jon Carlos Rodriguez
Game-winning buzzer beaters, 50-point games, 25 straight points—these are some of the heroic and bizarre occurrences that fans bear witness to when two alpha teams clash in a seven-game series, particularly one that would catapult the victor a step closer to the championship.
The Conference Finals is the real test before the real, real test—the final hump before the NBA Finals. This is the point in the playoffs where the line is drawn between destined legends and “maybe next year.” Excuses are no longer valid; choking becomes a thing. When the stars align, we are blessed with moments that mold players from being merely athletes wearing sweaty jerseys to idols we respect. Here are 8 of those moments at the Eastern Conference Finals.
It was 1998 and it was Michael Jordan’s year, yet again, and everyone knew it. But in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Reggie Miller took his shot at destiny against the favored Chicago Bulls. Down a point with less than 3 seconds left, Miller—on a hurt ankle—buried a three-pointer over Jordan to give the Indiana Pacers the lead with 0.7 seconds left. The Pacers guard celebrated by running down the length of the court, jumping in circles, his injured ankles momentarily healed by joy. Chicago had a chance to rob Miller of his glory, but Jordan’s desperate stab via a double pump, off-the-glass three-pointer rimmed out as the clock expired. Miller’s moment was safe—at least for that game. The Bulls went on to win the series and eventually won its third straight title.
‘HAVLICEK STOLE THE BALL’
The raspy-voiced commentary of late broadcaster Johnny Most, frantically screaming “Havlicek stole the ball!” is what most fans—and their fathers—will take away from highlights of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals between the defending champs Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. The moment happened in the deciding Game 7 of the series, the Celtics protecting a 1-point lead with only five seconds left. Philly had possession and Hall of Famer Hal Greer was set to inbound the ball. Havlicek snuck between Greer’s pass and receiver Chet Walker, tipped the ball to his teammate Sam Jones, and ran off to the finals, where Boston would go on to win its seventh straight title.
THE ANSWER VS VINSANITY
Basketball is beautiful when it’s masterfully played with teamwork. Yet when basketball becomes a one-on-one affair, a boxing match between two heavyweights, a Wrestlemania title bout, it turns into visual art that you just can’t say no to. At the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, two of the greatest one-on-one scorers to ever play the game—Allen Iverson and Vince Carter—embraced their respective one-man team roles and turned their matchup into the NBA version of a hotdog-eating contest: senseless and fun at the same time. Iverson shot 34 (!) times in the first game of the series, but only made 11 attempts in the loss. So in Game 2, he took more shots and ended up with 54 points. Carter answered with a 50-point game of his own in Game 3. Iverson, the season MVP, had the last laugh with a 52-point game in Game 5. The series extended to seven games and ended in the worst way possible if you’re a VC fan: a missed last-second jumper that could’ve sent the Toronto Raptors to the finals.
Reggie Miller is always in his best shooting behavior when he is playing against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden. It’s as if he was hardwired to destroy the Knicks at all costs, particularly if Spike Lee is watching in the stands. The Knicks had its taste of Miller Time in Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals as the Indiana Pacers guard poured 25 points in the fourth quarter, leading his team to a seven-point win. Miller did not only hold a scoring clinic to willfully steer his team to the W, he did it while pooping on Spike Lee’s soul at every 3-point bomb. At one point, Miller gestured a choke sign towards Lee to put his indelible mark on the moment. The Knicks did go on to win the series, but whatever, the iconic image of Miller with both hands on his neck will forever haunt Knicks fans—right up there with the image of Eddy Curry in a Knicks jersey.
LEBRON BEATS INDIANA
A couple of things stand out in this play in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals: it happened so fast Marv Albert had to transition from being calm to animated in .00001 seconds; Dwyane Wade, sitting on the bench, jumped so high to celebrate he looked like 2006 Dwyane Wade; playing basketball is too easy for LeBron James. Watch the play again. Look how effortless it was for LeBron to slightly nudge Paul George, catch the ball, turn, stride, and lay the ball up in two seconds. People strolling at a crowded mall last Saturday probably had a more difficult time getting around than LeBron James did at the closing seconds of this important game. Watch the video again, but this time imagine a seven-foot-two Roy Hibbert clogging the lane. Would he have made the difference? Thanks to that crucial and questionable coaching decision by Frank Vogel, we will never know.
Larry Bird was known for his silky smooth shooting and cerebral play in his days with the Boston Celtics. In Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, Bird added a new layer to his legacy when he stole an inbounds pass intended for Bill Laimbeer with five seconds left and dished out a game-winning assist to a cutting teammate. What’s great about the steal was that just seconds later, Bird almost threw the game away when he went on a suicide mission to the heart of Detroit’s interior defense and failed. But as legends do, Larry Legend turned it around with a snap of a finger.
4-PT PLAY FROM LJ
Down by three points with less than 12 seconds left Game 3 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, Larry Johnson caught the ball at three-point territory, looked back on his life, made peace with himself, and prayed for a three-ball miracle in the name of the city of New York. He was granted the miracle, plus a bonus free throw that ended up the game-winner. The best part about the play was that the Knicks shouldn’t even have been there. Entering the playoffs as the last seed, the Knicks flipped the script by knocking off the Miami Heat and the Atlanta Hawks in the first two rounds. New York—a team that battled controversy and drama whole season long—down three in a conference finals game was blessing enough. LJ completing a four-point play to win the game was straight out of the New Testament.
Here are the numbers to remember from Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Detroit Pistons: series was tied 2-2; LeBron James scored 29 of the Cavs’ 30 points in the last 16 minutes; LeBron James scored 25 straight Cavs points, including a dunk that forced overtime and a lay-up that won the game in double overtime; LeBron James finished with 48 points; LeBron James was 22 years old then. How he did it at a very early point in his career against a team known for its tough defense was phenomenal—a rare performance that deserves to be sealed in a glass case and preserved at the LeBron James museum.
Which among these do you remember? Tell us about it below!