A rematch of one of the great NBA Finals of all time is set. The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs each closed out their conference finals in six games, and we’re back to where we were last June. It’s time to find out what NBA Finals rematch history teaches us about where Miami-San Antonio II might go.
Last June we were watching a great seven-game battle that hit its peak with two extraordinary games in Games 6 & 7—with Game 6 really being at some level higher than extraordinary. Each game was won by Miami, as they won a repeat NBA championship.
All year long we’ve heard how the Spurs are motivated by the desire to return to the Finals and avenge last year’s loss. The Heat side of the story is no less compelling—can LeBron James get his third straight ring?
There’s any number of ways to break down this series, but given the prominence that the revenge factor (or the “we know how to beat them” factor if you put a pro-Heat slant on it), shouldn’t we know how this same factor has played out in recent NBA Finals history?
What follows is a list of the NBA Finals rematches that have taken place since 1977, when the NBA-ABA merger happened and the league as we know it began to take shape.
1979: The Seattle Sonics (today’s Oklahoma City Thunder) lost a heartbreaking Game 7 to the Washington Bullets in 1978, the last time a team lost a Game 7 of the Finals on their home floor. Seattle didn’t have homecourt when the rematch of 1979 happened, but it didn’t stop the Sonics from rolling the Bullets in five games.
1983: The Philadelphia 76ers had lost not just the 1982 NBA Finals, but 1980 as well to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Sixers added Moses Malone to the mix in 1983 and one of the game’s all-time great rebounders was the difference-maker. Philly swept LA in four.
1985: Larry Bird got the best of Magic Johnson the first time they met in a Celtics-Lakers Finals in 1984. It was different in ’85. The Lakers, in spite of not having homecourt, won in six games, clinching on the Garden parquet.
1989: Magic’s Lakers won an epic seven-game battle over the Detroit Pistons in 1988, a series so good I don’t think it was matched until last year’s Heat-Spurs battle. Detroit and LA resumed hostilities in 1989, this time with Detroit holding homecourt. The Lakers lost both Magic and backcourt mate Byron Scott to injuries within the first two games and the Pistons swept.
1998: We finally get a year where the same team won both matchups and it took Michael Jordan to make it happen. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls broke the heart of the Utah Jazz both times. It didn’t matter who had homecourt—unlike ’97, Chicago had to go on the road to win Game 6. Jordan’s game-winning jumper over Byron Russell is on the upper echelon of the greatest sports moments of all time.
Those are the five “pure rematches”, where the same teams played in consecutive years. There are five other instances where teams featuring more or less the same cast of characters met a second time in the NBA Finals.
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The 1986 Boston Celtics: Bird’s Best Champion
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The 1996 Chicago Bulls: Jordan Completes The Mission
The 2006 Miami Heat’s Championship Run
The 2007 San Antonio Spurs Build On Their Quiet Legend
1982: We touched on Philadelphia’s 1983 victory in the rematch, but it did take the Sixers three cracks at the Lakers to do it. Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Co., beat Philly twice in three years, including 1980.
1987: It was another Bird-Magic battle with the Celtics and Lakers. Los Angeles won this one, just as they had in 1985, although as noted above, Boston did win 1984.
2010: A new era and a new Celtics-Lakers rivalry, this time with Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant. Pierce led the Celtics to a title in 2008 over the Lakers. Kobe returned the favor in the 2010 rematch.
There are two other instances that I think are a little too sketchy to include. The Bird-era Celtics beat the Houston Rockets in 1981 and 1986, but Moses Malone was the key to the Houston team of 1981 and was no longer in town five years later.
And in 2011, Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks got revenge on the Miami Heat for 2006, but LeBron had not been a part of that ’06 team. In both cases, the difference in personnel is too dramatic for the rematch to have mattered to anyone but the fans.
I think the evidence from NBA Finals rematch history is pretty clear that the rematch does tend to work in favor of the team that lost the initial battle. This shouldn’t be surprising. In addition to the revenge factor, there’s just simple probabilities at work—put two teams that are reasonably evenly matched and it’s going to be tough for the same team to keep winning.
That brings us to the one big exception, and the historical undertone that accompanies all of LeBron James’ appearances in the NBA Finals. Michael Jordan was able to buck the trend and beat the same team twice.
In fairness to LeBron, this edition of the San Antonio Spurs has accomplished championship players, whereas the Utah Jazz of Karl Malone and John Stockton had a reputation for not coming through in the clutch.
Nonetheless, the results of this year’s NBA Finals can at least serve as one more barometer in the quest for LeBron’s backers to put their man on a par with His Airness. I’m not saying I’ll join them, but for a lot of reasons, including the historical difficulty of beating a team back-to-back years, winning the 2014 NBA Finals would be a significant breakthrough for LeBron in building his legacy.