The NBA Finals are set to tip off on Tuesday night and a new chapter of Finals history will be written. The battle between LeBron James for Miami and Kevin Durant for Oklahoma City is not only a highly appetizing storyline, with it being the league’s consensus best players going head-to-head. But it’s the two best players, each going for their first ring. While the NBA getting the two best players in its championship round is hardly unusual, this type of battle—each looking for a breakthrough title—is not the norm.
When Magic Johnson and Larry Bird met for the first time in 1984, Magic had two titles and Bird had one. From that point until the mid-1990s, the NBA was mostly about one entrenched dynasty giving away to an up-and-comer. So while you could see an Isaiah Thomas with the Pistons or Michael Jordan with the Bulls break through they were supplanting a team that had multiple titles not denying a fellow up-and-comer. LeBron vs. Durant is a special circumstance, so TheSportsNotebook starts it’s Finals hype by looking back on four different matchups in NBA Finals history in the modern age (1976 and later) that had two elite players looking for the first ring.
1977: Portland-Philadelphia—It was Julius Erving for the 76ers, the brightest star of the old ABA in the season that was the first after the merger. On the other side was Trail Blazer center Bill Walton, a college stud for John Wooden at UCLA. The 76ers hadn’t won the title in ten years, and never in the post-Wilt Chamberlain era. Portland had only been in existence seven years and that was their first playoff berth much less championship run.
The Blazers played like a team on center stage for the first time in committing 34 turnovers in a Game 1 loss in Philly and they lost again by eighteen points to go back home in an 0-2 hole. Then the series suddenly changed. If you’ve followed ESPN’s coverage of this year’s NBA playoffs, you may have heard pregame host Michael Wilbon compare this series to the recently completed Western Conference Final between Oklahoma City and San Antonio, for just how fast it seemed to cut on a dime. Maurice Lucas, the power forward Portland got from the ABA to help Walton, had 27 points/12 rebounds in Game 3 while Walton had 20 points/18 rebounds/9 assists and the team won Game 3, 129-107. Then they blew the Sixers out in Game 4, 130-98. Game 5 back in Philadelphia shows a close final score at 110-104, but Portland led 91-69 and it was never really a game. Finally, back with the home crowd (the Finals didn’t go to the 2-3-2 format until 1985), Walton put up a 20/23/7 game and added eight blocks for good measure. Philly’s George McGinnis missed a last-second jumper and the Blazers prevailed 109-107, setting off a celebration where Walton whipped his jersey into the crowd and celebrated shirtless with the fans.
Walton’s subsequent foot injuries denied Portland the chance to build a dynasty and underscore how important it is that the future never be taken for granted. Erving would be back for more.
1980: LA Lakers-Philadelphia—Now it was the Lakers’ rookie point guard Magic Johnson who stood as Dr.J’s nemesis in the quest for the first ring. The Lakers held homecourt advantage and were looking for their first championship since 1972 and first since acquiring Lew Alcindor (subsequently re-named Kareem Abdul-Jabaar) from Milwaukee, where Alcindor won a ring in 1974. The big center with the sweeping skyhook dominated the first game, with a 33/14. But while he played just as well in Game 2, Erving scored 23 and got help from power forward Darryl Dawkins, who had 25 and point guard Maurice Cheeks, who scored 23 and dished 10 assists. The Sixers’ 107-104 win took homecourt advantage.
Jabbar took it right back with another 33/14 game in Game 3 as the Lakers grabbed an early lead and kept Philly at arm’s length, 111-101. After the Sixers countered in Game 4 with a close win, Los Angeles moved to within a game of the ring with a 108-103 win. But it was a costly win—Jabbar, on his way to a 40/15, had injured his ankle. He returned in the fourth quarter and broke a 103-103 tie with a slam dunk and one, but postgame medical examination ruled him out of making the trip for Game 6. Magic Johnson, just 20 years old, now stood in the role of Linus Caldwell in Oceans 12. Like it or not, it was all the young kid to make it happen. And in a game that’s one of the most famous in NBA history, the 6’8” point guard jumped center and played Kareem’s spot, on his way to a 42/15/7. Overlooked is that silky smooth forward Jamaal Wilkes scored 37 and big man Jim Chones ably hit the glass and contained Dawkins. It’s also overlooked that even missing this game, Jabbar was clearly the series MVP. But there was no denying it was a transcendant moment for the rookie, who finally had his ring.
Magic went on and got eight more chances in the Finals, four of which ended with a ring. One of those wins came two years’ later at Dr. J’s expense. One of the losses came the year after that, when Erving, buttressed by the addition of Moses Malone at center, got his own championship. The city of Philadelphia would do pretty well in 1980 too—the Eagles made the Super Bowl, the Flyers made the Finals and while they lost, the Phillies won the World Series.
1994: Michael Jordan’s two-year sabbatical to play baseball opened up opportunity for others and Houston center Hakeem Olajuown and New York post man Patrick Ewing were the ones to step up and meet in the Finals. The two big men had gone head-to-head for a national title in college when Ewing’s Georgetown beat Olajuwon’s Houston in the 1984 NCAA final. Ewing had the better supporting cast then. Olajuown had it now, although the Knicks were able to split the first two on the road. Hakeem took over Game 3 with a 21/11/7 performance that eked out a four-point win. Knicks’ power forward Charles Oakley came back crashing the boards with a vengeance in Game 4 to tie the series. Ewing delivered a big 25/12 night in Game 5 that gave the Knicks the series lead heading back to Houston, although the most memorable part of the night was the interruption of the telecast to see O.J. Simpson trying to escape the police in his white Bronco. Back in Houston, the Knicks got what a visiting team wants—trailing 86-84, they got one possession to try and win the championship, but Olajuwon got a piece of John Starks’ three-point attempt. In a good final game, Houston had the lead most of the way, while New York stayed just close enough to keep it entertaining and the Rockets prevailed 90-84.
Houston won a repeat title in 1995, solidifying Olajuwon as the clear man of the hour with the Jordan-less NBA. New York lost in the second round that season and while they reached the Finals in 1999, they never won a title with Ewing and still are waiting for their first NBA crown since Willis Reed led the Knicks in 1970.
2006 & 2011: The Dallas-Miami Duo—The first time the Mavericks & Heat met in 2006 it was Dirk Nowitzki and Dwayne Wade looking to step onto the championship platform for the first time. Dallas won the first two at home behind outstanding performances from Nowitzki and guard Jason Terry. Wade took over the middle three games in Miami, scoring 42, 36 & 43 in succession as the Heat won all three. Game 5 was a controversial mess. First, Dallas made a dubious decision to foul Wade in a tie game and then blew a costly timeout at the free throw line. And Wade shot 25 free throws in one of the officiating displays that continues to damage the league’s credibility with average fans and even makes its own devoted backers snicker. If the purpose was to create a Game 7, based on Dallas defending its home floor, it failed. Wade knocked down 36 more in Game 6 and the Heat won the championship.
Fast forward five years later, to last spring. Dirk is still on the prowl, while now LeBron is looking for his first trip to the throne room. Miami won the first game at home and was in command with a 15-point lead in Game 2. I was ready to hit the remote and go to bed, before deciding, what the hell, let’s just watch to the end. I’m glad I did. Because the Heat collapsed, Nowitzki and Heat guard Mario Challmes hit big threes down the stretch, before Dirk drove the bucket one last time for the game-winner.
Miami went to Dallas and nearly blew Game 3 the same way, turning a 14-point lead into a 2-point lead and giving Nowitzki a shot at tying the game, but a fadeaway missed and the Heat at least clinched a return home. But they let a nine-point lead slip in the fourth quarter of Game 4 and let Dallas tie the series, and then the Mavs bagged 13 treys in Game 5 to get a series lead. And like 2006, the home team couldn’t rally on its home floor. Nowitzki overcame a poor shooting half to start Game 6 and scored 18 after intermission, as Dallas won a 105-95 decision that was competitive the whole way, but also had Dallas in control most of the second half.
Bill Walton broke through in 1977. Magic followed three years later and soon Hakeem Olajuown, Dwayne Wade and Dirk Nowitzki would follow suit. On the flip side, Julius Erving would have to jump through hoops for his first crown, while Patrick Ewing never got his. LeBron is ready to take another shot at climbing the mountaintop. Where will he and Kevin Durant fit in the league’s history once their careers are done. The next 1-2 weeks of basketball will write a big part of the story.