I generally don’t like sweeping historical statements made in the present moment—most people with an appreciation for history in any field don’t—but there are times when history hits you square in the face. That’s what’s going to happen on Sunday night in Oakland. Game 7 of the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers is not only the biggest game in the history of the league, nothing else is even close.
We can make this historical overview very concise by simply mandating that any game up for consideration must be the seventh game of the NBA Finals. It seems a perfectly reasonable prerequisite and it’s moments like these that make you realize that these games don’t come along very often. Since the ABA-NBA merger prior to the 1977 season that ushered in its modern era, this will only be the eighth time that fans have gotten to see a single winner-take-all battle for the NBA championship.
My premise for elevating Golden State-Cleveland above everything else that came before it is that both teams have much more to both gain and lose than the standard joy or heartbreak that comes with winning a title.
The Warriors either complete the greatest season in league history with a crown or have the worst collapse in Finals history. The Cavaliers either have the greatest comeback in league history and win a title for an embattled sports city, or one of the game’s all-time greats in LeBron James falls to 2-5 in NBA Finals play and loses more points on his legacy.
I submit that in none of these other games is there anything close to that much on the line for both teams. Here they are in chronological order…
Washington Bullets-Seattle Sonics (1978): A classic case of an exciting series, but boring from a legacy standpoint. It stands out in history only because Washington’s win was the last time the road team won a Game 7 in the Finals.
Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers (1984): This one can rank pretty high on the list, as it was the only time Larry Bird and Magic Johnson squared off in a Game 7. But Magic already had two titles and wasn’t going to be considered a loser just for losing one. Although if he played horribly and cost his team two games in the Finals that might be different (which is what happened). Bird had a little more pressure, but his team was still the underdog and he still had one ring at this point.
Los Angeles Lakers-Detroit Pistons (1988): The Lakers were the team with all the pressure on, striving to become the first repeat champions in nineteen years and playing under the burden of head coach Pat Riley guaranteeing they would do it. The Pistons were heartbroken at losing the best Finals I’ve ever watched, but they were still an up-and-comer that would win two titles. And they were seen as such at the time. They had nothing to lose from a legacy standpoint.
Houston Rockets-New York Knicks (1994): A good series, but the historical significance comes mainly from NBC cutting away in Game 5 to watch police track down O.J. Simpson’s White Bronco on the freeway.
San Antonio Spurs-Detroit Pistons (2005): A long dry spell between seven-game series, this one was worth the wait. But would anyone consider Tim Duncan a loser if he hadn’t delivered a title? Detroit lost a chance to win back-to-back championships which does count for something, but the failure of Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace to win multiple titles isn’t exactly up there with Golden State trying to make history or LeBron trying to avoid another Finals loss.
Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics (2010): This had some juice going for it. It meant that Boston’s most recent Big Three (Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett) didn’t win multiple championships, but I’m not sure that should have been an expectation. They got their ring in 2008 and were past-prime by this point. It meant Kobe did win back-to-back titles without Shaq, but the Mamba had cleared a bigger hurdle in 2009 by simply winning one crown without the big guy.
San Antonio Spurs-Miami Heat (2013): Miami had a lot on the line—to only have won one ring in LeBron’s tenure there would have been a major blow. I don’t know that the same is true for San Antonio. The only thing that could change that is if you factor in the Spurs’ crushing Game 6 loss on Ray Allen’s three as heightening their pressure for Game 7. Based on that, I could move this game up the list but it can’t trump Warriors-Cavs on Sunday night.
That’s the list. There have certainly been some great Finals games outside of Game 7. We wonder what might have happened if Michael Jordan would have gone to a seventh game in either 1993 or 1998, both of which would have been on the road. Dramatic wins in Game 6 prevented that. There was a great Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1981, when the Celtics and 76ers played for the chance to take on the 40-42 Houston Rockets, making the Eastern finals the de facto NBA title round.
But Game 6s are not Game 7s and de facto title rounds are not the same as the real thing. The only basis of comparison for Golden State-Cleveland on Sunday night has to start with other Game 7s and this one clearly has the most riding on it for both sides.