Ranking the Best NBA Finals of the Past Decade

Michael Shapiro

Dating back to the first battles of Magic and Bird, the Finals has served as the premier stage for basketball talent over the past four decades. The Jordan shove and the Iverson step-back become indelible images in our mind, as do dominant dynasties and one-year wonders. Conference finals and assorted playoff rounds get jumbled as the years go by, and even the best round one series pales in comparison to the grand stage of the Finals. Legends are made and goats are shamed. Rivalries are formed, and even for the most anonymous of role players can etch their name in NBA lore. 

As The Crossover looks back at the last decade of basketball this week, we took the time to rank all 10 Finals of the 2010s. Will a LeBron James championship top our list? Or will a mammoth upset take the top spot? Check out our full rankings of the last decade of Finals below.

1. Cavaliers over Warriors (2016)

LeBron James and the Cavs’ 2016 title remains the most impressive accomplishment this decade. The drama beginning with Draymond Green’s groin incident in Game 4 is largely unparalleled, as was the performances by James and Kyrie Irving to close the series. The 2016 Finals marked a kept promise for James and a vault into superstardom for Irving. The historic series trumps the final seven-game battle on our list. 

Cleveland’s dynamic duo torched Golden State at a historic clip in the series’ final three games. Irving logged 40-point efforts in Games 5 and 7, with his last points of the series winning the championship for Cleveland. James scored 40-plus points in Games 5 and  6. He posted a triple-double in Game 7, somehow an afterthought following the best block in recent memory. The 2016 Finals was a defining moment for basketball fans of a certain age. The Cavs’ win vaulted James into the Greatest of All Time argument, and one month later, Kevin Durant arrived in the Bay Area ready to run roughshod through the league. The 2016 Finals are a turning point in league history, solidifying the legend of one Hall of Famer, and indirectly sparking the next chapter for another.

 

2. Heat over Spurs (2013)

Even with a quartet of snoozers from Game 2 through Game 5, the drama we watched in the rest of the 2013 Finals remains unmatched over the last decade. The series kicked off with a bang as Tony Parker wheeled into a one-legged shot in the final seconds to upset the Heat in Miami. Game 6 came 12 days later, and the contest was perhaps the greatest clash of the decade. A confluence of uncharacteristic errors from San Antonio–Ginobili’s missed free throw, Popovich’s benching of Duncan–kept Miami in the game late, and a miracle three from Ray Allen halted the Spurs’ title chase in its tracks. The Heat clung to a 103-100 win in overtime, setting up the two greatest words in sports: Game 7.

Allen’s heroics diminish the intensity of Game 7 in hindsight, though in the moment, San Antonio was in position to seize the championship down two in the fourth quarter. James and Dwyane Wade squashed the possibility down the stretch with the game’s final six points, and James’ elbow jumper over Leonard is likely the most underrated shot of his career. Most NBA fans can tell you where they were when they saw the Ray Allen shot. Paired with the nail-biting drama of Games 1 and 7, the 2013 Finals is one of our best Finals of the decade.

 

3. Lakers over Celtics (2010)

There wasn’t too much drama in the first six games of the 2010 Finals. Los Angeles won Game 1 by 13 and Game 6 by 23, and no contest before Game 7 was decided by five points or fewer. But while the preamble to Game 7 was a touch pedestrian, the most recent Finals matchup between Boston and Los Angeles packed in the drama in a major way.

Neither team shot well in the series-deciding slugfest, especially the game’s stars. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen combined to shoot 8-29 from the field, and Kobe Bryant coughed up a 6-24 effort. But the Black Mamba rose to the occasion down the stretch with a ferocious rebounding effort and 10 points in the fourth quarter, pairing with Pau Gasol to eek out the home victory. The defining image of the series belongs to Metta World Piece, who unleashed the ultimate no-no-yes three in the final minute before sending a kiss to the sky. Bryant won his fifth ring and Los Angeles kept pace with Boston’s banner count. Who knows when we’ll see the longtime rivals meet in the Finals again.

4. Mavericks over Heat (2011)

The best series of the decade to not go seven games is a clear choice to lead the rest of our list. Dallas’ triumph over the then-villian Heat had no shortage of storylines, from Dirk Nowitzki’s redemption to the now-infamous cough gate. The 2011 Heat were a larger collective pariah than the 2017 Warriors, with nearly the entire basketball community (save one future Crossover writer) rallying behind Dallas. What ensued was a raucous six-game series, culminating in the the Mavericks’ revenge five years after Dwyane Wade’s first title in Miami. 

Miami appeared to be cruising to a 2-0 lead in the 2011 Finals with a nine point lead in the final four minutes of Game 2. But James and Miami’s offense crawled to the finish line as Nowitzki ripped off seven points in the final minute, evening the series as it headed to the Lone Star State. The yips began for Miami in Game 4 as James scored just eight points on 3-11 shooting, and the tailspin continued into Game 6 as the Mavericks ripped off three-straight wins to claim the title. The Heat sulked into their home locker room after a 105-95 loss to close the series as Nowitzki erupted in tears upon entering the locker room. The series marked the nadir of James’ career and the peak of Nowitzki’s. Its historical impact has stood strong over the last nine years.

 

5. Raptors over Warriors (2019)

Was the 2019 Finals only three months ago? The tidal wave of player movement in July turned the league on its head, and plenty of the Finals participants are now in new locations. Kawhi is a Clipper and KD is with the Nets. Danny Green and DeMarcus Cousins are now Lakers, though the artist formerly known as Boogie is out for 2019-20 with a torn ACL. It’s a touch difficult to place the most recent Finals in proper historical context, though its likely to be looked upon fondly in future years. The Durant era ended (albeit in heartbreaking fashion) and Toronto won its first title. The basketball was pretty darn good in the interim, especially from the Raptors’ crew of battle-tested veterans. Curry couldn’t quite save the Warriors in Game 6 while Kyle Lowry shined to close the series. 2019 marked perhaps the strangest Finals of the decade, earning it a spot in the top half of our rankings.

 

6. Spurs over Heat (2014)

Consider this the chef’s kiss of Finals performances. One year removed from the most dispiriting Finals defeat of the century, the Spurs absolutely steamrolled Miami in the final three games of a 4–1 series victory, celebrating a championship on their home floor for the first time since 2005. The Spurs shot 46.6% from three in the series. They tallied 127 assists to the Heat’s 76. Boris Diaw led San Antonio in minutes, pinging the ball around the floor between sideline shots of espresso. The 2014 Spurs truly played a beautiful game, outfoxing a Heat dynasty on its last legs. Their title is likely the final championship of Gregg Popovich’s career. Not a bad last moment in the sun.

 

7. Warriors over Cavs (2015)

There was a two-day period in 2015 when it really looked like James would pull off the upset over the Warriors without Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. LeBron and the Cavs slowed the Warriors with the hoops equivalent of a ground-and-pound attack, featuring an obscene dose of James isolation. LeBron and his newfound partner and crime Matthew Dellevadova jumped out to a 2–1 series lead with tight wins in Game 2 and Game 3, testing the Warriors similarly to the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies two rounds prior. 

Golden State ripped off three-straight wins to take down the undermanned Cavs, though this Warriors title felt more like a true battle than an eventuality. The 2015 Finals solidified Curry as the game’s best point guard, and the now two-time MVP cooked Cleveland with 37 points and seven threes in Game 6. Curry’s dusting of Matthew Dellavedova in Game 5 will play on his Hall-of-Fame highlight reel in a decade or so. It’s likely 2015 is currently most satisfying of his three championships.

8. Warriors over Cavs (2018)

I think I’m still mad at J.R. Smith. The veteran gunner was a crucial member of Cleveland’s 2016 title squad, but his bonehead error in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals ranks among the worst blunders in league history. A brief refresher: James turned in the greatest playoff performance this century in Game 1 at Oracle Arena, finishing the night with 51 points on 19-32 shooting with eight rebounds and eight assists. The King’s sheer brilliance–seriously, watch the highlights–brought Cleveland to within one point in its final possession, and James had the ball in his hands with a chance to take the lead at the end of regulation. James slung a fastball to a wide-open George Hill under the basket, and a foul from Klay Thompson sent Cleveland’s point guard to the foul line down 107-106. Hill made the first free throw, then left the second short. What happened next? Better you see for yourself.

The Cavs were outscored by 10 in overtime, then largely blown out through the rest of Golden State’s sweep. The 2018 Finals may be viewed as the decade’s worst, but James’ historic performance and the drama to close Game 1 keeps the series a couple spots out of the cellar.

9. Heat over Thunder (2012)

James’ first ring is viewed in retrospect as a coronation as Miami trounced the young Thunder in five games, yet the 2012 Finals were no gentleman’s sweep. Oklahoma City jumped out to a 1–0 series lead in its home arena, cruising past the Heat in a 105-94 victory. Kevin Durant torched Miami for 36 points in the victory, and Russell Westbrook poured in 27 points and 11 assists. Back-to-back Finals losses was very much in play after Game 1. 

Oklahoma City kept the pressure on for much of Game 2. The Thunder erased a double-digit first quarter deficit to pull within two points in the final minutes, but missed jumpers from Durant and Westbrook gave Miami a critical win as the series headed to South Beach. We know the story from there. The Heat rolled, James got his ring and James Harden was traded to Houston months later. The 2012 Finals represents one of the decade’s great sliding doors moments, shaping a pair of franchises for years to come. 

10. Warriors over Cavs (2017)

This series featured the same Golden State dominance of 2018, but without any true signature games from LeBron. The Warriors trounced Cleveland at Oracle Arena in Games 1 and 2, and the only drama occured in Game 3 as Kevin Durant buried a 26-foot triple to take the lead in the final minute. The Cavs earned a cursory win in Game 4 before a Game 5 loss back at Oracle. Perhaps the 2017 Finals should be bumped up a spot given Durant’s first ring. Though if we’re being completely honest, James’ first title feels more historically impactful. Good for KD for finally cashing in. It didn’t make the 2017 Finals any more exciting.