As good as it gets: the 10 best Game 7s ever

Updated: May 22, 2006, 5:20 PM ET
By Ken Shouler | ESPN.com

Game 7. Three of these anxiety-inducers are being served up in the next two days. It leads us to wonder: Which Game 7 tilts stand above the rest? Here's my Top 10 -- a mix of earlier rounds and finals -- in NBA history. The best games include drama (read: no one-sided contests), with the result hanging in the balance right to the end. If great individual performances are tossed in, that's a bonus.

When it comes to seventh games, there is still one standard bearer and it occurred 49 years ago.

1. St. Louis at Boston, NBA Finals, April 12+, 1957
It took two overtimes before the Celtics prevailed over the Hawks 125-123. Tommy Heinsohn -- Rookie of the Year and one of three Hall of Famers drafted by Boston in 1956 (the others were Bill Russell and KC Jones) -- scored 37 points and snatched 23 rebounds in Game 7. Heinsohn and reserve center Arnie Risen fouled out. On the Hawks side, Cliff Hagan, Jack Coleman and Jim McMahon succumbed to referees' whistles. How important was Heinsohn? Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy shot a combined 5-for-40, that's how important. Bill Russell flourished with 19 points, 32 rebounds and 5 blocks. Each Celtic walked off with a victory share of $1,681.

Hakeem Olajuwon
REUTERS/Adrees LatifOlajuwon averaged 26 points in the playoffs.
2. Houston at Phoenix, West semifinals, May 20, 1995
The phrase "team of destiny" is sometimes used to describe teams that aren't. But Houston was down 3-1 (after surviving consecutive elimination games against Utah in the first round) and down 9 points with 5 minutes left in the third quarter of Game 7. Kevin Johnson scored 46 points for Phoenix, but Houston went on a 22-11 tear to turn the game. A Phoenix trap at center court left Mario Elie free in the corner and his 3-pointer with 7 seconds remaining made it 113-110. Houston held on for a 115-114 win. Danny Schayes was the closest defender to Elie but stayed with Olajuwon. "It was either give up the jumper or let Hakeem have a dunk," Schayes said.

3. L.A. Lakers at Boston, NBA Finals, April 18, 1962
With 74 seconds remaining Boston led 100-96. But guard Frank Selvy hit two shots to tie it and could have clinched it in regulation when he popped free for a 12-footer from the side with 7 seconds remaining. It missed right. The game went into overtime. Jim Loscutoff, Tom "Satch" Sanders and Tommy Heinsohn had fouled out for Boston; Rudy LaRusso and Elgin Baylor were gone for the Lakers. Sam Jones got 5 points in the extra period, Russell got 4 and the Celtics captured their fourth straight championship, 110-107. Russell had 30 points and equaled a playoff record with 44 rebounds. Baylor averaged a dazzling 41 for the series (including a playoff record 61 in Game 5 to put the Lakers up 3-2) and West averaged 31 points. It wasn't enough.

4. L.A. Lakers at Sacramento, West finals, June 2, 2002
Sacramento wasn't the first to think it had bagged the Lakers; just the most recent. The Kings put up as wicked a fight against Los Angeles as any team during their run of three straight championships. It took a combination of 35 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks from Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant's 30 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists (not to mention playing 52 of 53 minutes) to get it done. Those performances -- plus Sacramento's clanging 14 of 30 free throws and Chris Webber's missing his last four shots -- sealed the deal in a 112-106 overtime win for the Lakers.

5. Fort Wayne at Syracuse, NBA Finals, April 10, 1955
Syracuse was the first team to win a title in the era of the 24-second clock. After Syracuse Nationals owner and bowling alley proprietor Danny Biasone -- whom Dolph Schayes labeled the "Wilbur Wright of basketball" -- invented the shot clock, league scoring that first year leapt from 79 to 93 points per game. Syracuse rode playmaker Paul Seymour and Schayes (both All Stars; Schayes a Top-50 all-time player) to the Finals against Fort Wayne. Both teams finished with 43-29 records, but Syracuse (the first championship team with African-American players, Earl Lloyd and Jim Tucker) had four games at its War Memorial, where Fort Wayne never won. Guard George King and Schayes were playing the game with broken wrists, but they outlasted the Pistons 92-91 as King hit a free throw and stole a pass in the final seconds. The Nats kept their unblemished 26-0 home-court record against Fort Wayne.

6. New York at Rochester, NBA Finals, April 21, 1951
All you need to know is that New York was down three games to none and still rallied to even the series. After New York prevailed twice at the 69th Regiment Armory on 25th and Lexington (the Knickerbockers' home away from home while the circus came to town each spring), the series was evened up. If the series went seven, Rochester would play four at home -- an invaluable advantage since New York hadn't won a game in Edgerton Park Sports Arena in three years. New York trailed until 55 seconds were left when a free throw by Vince Boryla tied it at 75. Rather than hold the ball for a final shot, Rochester's slick playmaker Bob Davies drove aggressively toward the basket with 40 ticks remaining and was fouled by Dick McGuire. Davies made both tosses, Rochester won the ensuing tap and prevailed 79-75.

Manu Ginobili
Manu Ginobili and the Spurs knocked off the Pistons.
7. Detroit at San Antonio, NBA Finals, June 23, 2005
A pretty good definition of a dramatic final is one with a tie score entering the fourth quarter of Game 7. After three quarters it was 57-all. In fact, the Pistons had led by nine in the third quarter. But it appeared that their scoring threats -- especially Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton -- couldn't produce the offense necessary to sustain the lead. The duo misfired for a combined 9-of-26 and Detroit scored only 35 points in the second half. So the Pistons' impressive road win in Game 6 was not followed by a comparable effort in Game 7. By comparison the duo of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan was able to carry the Spurs' offense down the stretch. San Antonio won 81-74.

8. San Antonio at Portland, West semifinals, May 19, 1990
Portland trailed the Spurs 97-90 with 2:32 left in regulation. Then Kevin Duckworth hit, Clyde Drexler nailed a 3-pointer and Jerome Kersey dunked to tie the score with 1:17 left. With the score knotted at 103 in overtime, the Spurs' Kevin Strickland inexplicably threw a no-look pass over his head toward the basket with no teammate in the vicinity. Kersey intercepted and threw a court-length pass to Drexler, whom Strickland fouled from behind with 26 seconds left. To make matters worse, Strickland was whistled for an intentional foul and Portland was awarded two shots and the ball. Drexler made both free throws and was fouled again by Terry Cummings 6 seconds later. Drexler made both for a 107-103 lead. Portland won 108-105.

9. Philadelphia at Boston, East finals, April 5, 1962
It was the year that Chamberlain averaged 50 points, nearly 20 ahead of anyone else, and led his team to 49 wins. But those 49 were 11 less than the Celtics registered. In the end his team succumbed to Boston by 2 points, 109-107. Twice Philadelphia had 9-point leads in the third quarter. The Celtics were on the ropes as Tom Sanders and Jim Loscutoff both fouled out. But Frank Ramsey came off the bench and he and Bob Cousy rallied the Celtics to a 102-91 lead. When Chamberlain was called for goal-tending on Tommy Heinsohn, it was 107-102. Then Chamberlain hit 2 free throws and converted a 3-point play in the next possession to tie it with seconds remaining. But Sam Jones hit a jumper with two ticks left and then stole an inbound pass to clinch a 109-107 victory.

10. Indiana at Chicago, East finals, May 31, 1998
The Bulls had not been tested in a seventh game since 1992, when they drubbed a feisty New York team in the conference semis, 110-81. Now Jordan was in the middle of a 9-for-25 shooting night and Indiana, which had already stolen a game on a Reggie Miller 3-pointer as time expired, led by 3 points with less than 7 minutes to play. But then a Kerr 3, a Pippen jumper and a steal by Ron Harper locked it up for Chicago, 88-83. "This was probably the toughest series of my career," Pippen said. "There was the pressure, and being expected to win. They gave us everything we could ask for." Pippen had 12 rebounds to help Chicago to a 50-34 edge off the boards, including 22-4 on the offensive glass.

Who knows: maybe the Game 7s over the next two days will be good enough to squeeze in the top 10 list.

Ken Shouler is the editor and a writer for "Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia." Shouler has also written three baseball books and served as a panelist for the "DHL Presents Major League Baseball Hometown Heroes" project.