Here's five greatest NBA Game 7s
To coincide with the 40th anniversary on Saturday of Willis Reed's dramatic return for Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, here are the greatest Game 7s in NBA history:
1. 1970 NBA Finals: Knicks beat Lakers 113-99
It was Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, and nobody knew whether Willis Reed would play. The center and captain of the New York Knicks had suffered a torn muscle in his right thigh during Game 5 against the Los Angeles Lakers, and had not played in Game 6 when Wilt Chamberlain's 45 points and 27 rebounds enabled the Lakers to tie the series at 3. When the teams took the floor for pregame warm-ups, Reed was not with his New York teammates. He remained in the locker room. "I wanted to play," Reed recalls. "That was for the championship, the one great moment you play for all your life. I didn't want to have to look at myself in the mirror 20 years later and say I wished I had tried to play." Reed took an injection to dull the pain in his leg, and just moments before tipoff he limped through the tunnel and onto the court. Waves of cheers cascaded down from the Garden stands as fans caught sight of the Knicks' captain, a sight that was not lost on New York's opponents. "I saw the whole Laker team standing around staring at this man," Knicks guard Walt Frazier said. "When I saw that, when they stopped warming up, something told me we might have these guys!" Reed lined up against Chamberlain for the opening tap and scored the Knicks' first two baskets of the game. Those would prove to be his only points, but his presence was more than enough to inspire the Knicks to a 113-99 victory and the franchise's first NBA championship. Overshadowed by Reed's emotion-charged effort was one of the great playoff performances in NBA history by Frazier, who led the Knicks with 36 points and 19 assists.
2. 1965 Eastern Conf. finals: Celtics beat 76ers 110-109
It is the most famous radio call in basketball history, hoops' equivalent to Russ Hodges' famed "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" call from baseball's 1951 National League playoffs. There simply is nothing like the gravelly tones of late Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most describing the closing seconds of Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference finals between the defending champion Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. First, to set the scene: The Celtics' lead had shriveled to 110-109, and Philadelphia regained possession with five seconds left after an inbounds pass attempt by Boston's Bill Russell hit one of the wires that ran down from the ceiling of Boston Garden and helped support the baskets in those days. Hall of Fame guard Hal Greer prepared to toss the ball inbounds under his own basket. The logical target seemed to be massive Wilt Chamberlain in the low post, but Russell fronted Chamberlain and took away that option. K.C. Jones, guarding Greer, leaped along the baseline and frantically waved his arms to distract Greer as the five seconds ticked away. To get a better view of the court, Greer jumped up and spotted high-scoring forward Chet Walker, seemingly open beyond the key. But Boston's John Havlicek had taken a position several feet off the direct line between Greer and Walker, making it look like Walker was open when he really wasn't. After counting off a couple of seconds in his head, Havlicek sneaked a peek over his shoulder at Greer just as the 76er prepared to release the ball. He moved into the passing lane but let Most tell it: "Greer is putting the ball into play. He gets it out deep," Most intones, before his voices rises into a frenzy. "Havlicek steals it. Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It's all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!" Havlicek tipped the inbounds pass away from Walker and toward teammate Jones, who dribbled out the clock as fans poured onto the court. The Celtics had the win, and would go on to capture their seventh consecutive championship. Havlicek scored more than 26,000 points in an NBA career that lasted 16 seasons, but he is best remembered for that steal immortalized on tape by the late Most.
3. 1957 NBA Finals: Celtics beat Hawks 125-123 in 2OT
The Celtics and St. Louis Hawks staged one of the best rivalries of the NBA's early era, meeting in the Finals four times in five years beginning at the end of the 1956-57 season. That would be the first of a record 17 titles that immortalized the Boston Celtics as the most successful franchise in pro basketball, and it went down to the wire. The Celtics survived for a 125-123 double-overtime victory in Game 7 as St. Louis player-coach Alex Hannum threw a court-length inbounds pass off the backboard to Hawks star Bob Pettit, whose attempt at a tying shot rolled off the rim as time expired. How did the two Celtics "rookies" handle the pressure of Game 7 in the Finals? Bill Russell (19 points, 32 rebounds) and Tom Heinsohn (37 points and 23 rebounds), along with Frank Ramsey, were instrumental in leading the Celtics to their first NBA title. If this series had taken place today, it might be called the greatest ever. It opened with the Hawks defeating the Celtics in Boston Garden 125-123 in double overtime. It ended in Game 7 with the Hawks losing to the Celtics in Boston Garden 125-123 in double overtime after Pettit's last second attempt rolled off the rim.
4. 1988 Eastern Conf. semifinals: Celtics beat Hawks 118-116
This seventh game will be remembered for the shootout between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins. But it was Dennis Johnson, who was bleeding around his right eye, who sealed the Celtics' victory. Johnson, an insignificant part of the offense in the first half, scored 10 of Boston's 25 third-quarter points and hit two free throws in the closing seconds to help the Celtics to a 118-116 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference semifinal series. Bird and Wilkins squared off in the fourth quarter, matching clutch basket for clutch basket. Bird finished with 34 points, 20 in the final quarter. Wilkins scored 16 of his 47 in the final period. "It took everything we had to give," said Bird, who was 9-of-10 from the field in the fourth. "It was one of those games that you feel whoever makes the first mistake will lose." Going into the final 12 minutes, Bird had an ordinary 14 points and Wilkins a more impressive 31. Then the shootout began. "It was like two gunfighters," said Boston forward Kevin McHale, who finished with 33 points and 13 rebounds. "Who was going to draw first? Who was going to drop first? Larry got that look in his eye. You could see that look. It says, 'I want the ball.' Larry Bird just won't let you lose."
5. 1962 NBA Finals: Celtics beat Lakers 110-107 in OT
After Frank Selvy missed a game-winning shot for the Lakers at the end of regulation, the Celtics prevailed 110-107 in overtime. Bill Russell had 30 points and 40 rebounds, and Bob Cousy famously scurried around the backcourt with a clock-burning display of right-handed dribbling.
Peter Newmann is an NBA researcher at ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.