The 10 Best NBA Playoff Series of the 2010s
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Ray Allen
You know what you need? Another decade list. Surely you haven’t seen one of those lately. I was rattling around Twitter and posted about the best games of the decade when someone asked about the best series, which got me thinking.
Here’s a list of the best NBA playoff series of the decade based on the quality of basketball, memorable moments, the stakes, and what the series meant.
Best Playoff Series of 2010s
1. Heat-Spurs 2013
This was the best basketball series of all time. Now, LeBron James had already won a title, as had Dwyane Wade (2) and Chris Bosh. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker all had more than one. The stakes aren’t what put it here.
But the execution level of these two teams, the quality of the play was the highest you will ever see. They were so evenly matched, between the Heat’s athletic dynamicism and the Spurs’ foundational discipline, that neither team had actions or matchups that they could just turn to and tilt the thing.
I covered that series and asked the players in it if it was the highest level of basketball, execution-wise, they’d ever been in. Players always downplay the present to try and contain hype. They did not, in this instance. They all agreed this was the best they had ever been in. Every single possession meant you had to pass perfectly because the rotations defensively were so sharp, the two teams were anticipating the extra pass and rotating ahead of it.
It was before the 3-point revolution would warp score differentials based on hot shooting. There were blowouts in the series in Games 2 and 3, but the entire tone of the series was legends facing off against legends.
Future Hall of Famers in that series: James, Wade, Bosh, Ray Allen, Duncan, Ginobili, Parker, Kawhi Leonard.
You also had memorable, high-level role players like Boris Diaw, Danny Green, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, and Mario Chalmers.
Most memorable moment:
This is the only NBA playoffs moment I can recall where, collectively, the entirety of media row including some of the most stoic, hyper-professional writers you will ever find, collectively lost their minds. The entire row jumped up yelling expletives at how big a shot that was.
Everyone remembers Gregg Popovich subbing out Tim Duncan for inexplicable reasons, but I’ll always remember Popovich yelling on the sideline for them to push the ball. The Spurs were trying to catch the Heat off guard with a quick game-winner in that situation without a timeout, and the officials had to stop the game to confirm Allen was behind the line. Popovich was livid.
Underrated moment No. 1:
Parker stole homecourt and tilted the series with this incredible shot.
Underrated moment No. 2:
Danny Green seriously almost won Finals MVP. That’s a thing that happened. He went bonkers in Game 3 and was the leader in the clubhouse until at least Game 5.
Underrated moment No. 3:
Duncan had 25 first-half points to try and slam the door on Miami. He’d later miss this in Game 7:
How it will be remembered: A legendary series of the highest quality between two of the greatest teams in NBA history.
2. Warriors-Cavs 2016
The most legendary Finals series, ever. It featured the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history, the greatest collapse in NBA Finals history (of a team that set the record for wins in a season no less) three of the greatest Finals performances ever by LeBron James in the final three games and another three by Kyrie Irving, Draymond Green’s nutshot suspension (for flagrant foul points and not the nutshot, remember), Andrew Bogut’s forgotten injury, The Block, The Shot, The Turnover, and The Stop.
I will go to bat, however, for this not being No. 1. The basketball was really sloppy throughout. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson didn’t even really show up until Game 4; the Warriors bench won Game 1 in large part and the blowout was so huge in Game 2 thanks to the Cavs putting up just 77 points that they didn’t need to score more than 35.
Warriors fans and most objective observers know that Curry was simply not the same after his knee injury in Round 1. Now, lots of guys have had to play through injuries in the Finals. And Curry still made that behind the back turnover and got shutdown by Kevin Love. But it factors in. Draymond Green’s suspension was just; the man led an all-out assault on Steven Adams’ ability to procreate in the previous series and finally it caught up to him. However, Green’s absence has to be mentioned as well.
(I will say, however, that I do not just hand the Warriors Game 5 if Green plays. LeBron and Kyrie were so locked in I’m not sure Green was going to be able to stop them, as great as he is.)
Bogut’s injury is what gets overlooked most. Bogut was the team’s best primary rim protector. Without him, Steve Kerr turned to Festus Ezeli and Anderson Varejao in Game 7 and the results were disastrous.
And then there’s Game 7, which, like a lot of Game 7’s, was stilted, awkward, and ugly. It wasn’t high-level basketball, it was a rock fight.
Most memorable moment: Take your pick…
Most underrated moment: The Stop isn’t overrated at this point, and the behind-the-back turnover is a GIF. But this one gets forgotten as a sign of just how completely unraveled, unhinged and undone the Warriors became in that series:
How it will be remembered: The greatest shining moment of arguably the Greatest Of All Time’s career, the greatest comeback and collapse in NBA Finals history.
3. Spurs-Clippers 2015
A first-round series? Here?
Yes. It’s probably the best first-round playoff series of all time.
Seven games, between the defending champion Spurs (who were +350 to repeat in preseason), and Lob City at its height. Those Clippers will not be remembered fondly by history for a lot of reasons, but mostly chemistry; they didn’t like one another almost at all. But they were exceptional together.
Their starting unit of Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan held a +18.6 net rating, second-best in the league among heavy-minute lineups behind the Warriors’ starting group.
Both teams absolutely traded haymakers through this series. Both teams had size to counter the other. Duncan put up 28-11 in Game 2. Blake Griffin averaged 24-13-17 with 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, averaging 41 minutes in this series.
And in the biggest moment, Chris Paul, so often and cruelly defined by his playoff failures, did this…
Most memorable moment:
This series gets lost to history for a lot of reasons, but if you just love basketball, this was one of the best you’ll ever see. It wasn’t defined by failures, but by triumph of two evenly matched, great teams.
How it will be remembered: The one moment Chris Paul lived up to the moment and all expectations, the one moment the Lob City Clippers were as good as they were supposed to be.
4. Thunder-Warriors 2016
This would be the greatest collapse in NBA playoffs history if it weren’t for what happened in the Finals that year.
What’s wild is how shocking it was that the Thunder even reached that point. With first-year head coach Billy Donovan, the Thunder were largely underwhelming until about March when Donovan simplified their defensive schemes. But the Thunder absolutely took off in the playoffs, ending the Tim Duncan era (see below) and then stunning everyone by taking a 3-1 lead on the 73-win Warriors.
Basketball is about how well you play and if you make shots and the two aren’t necessarily tied. You can play badly and make shots and play great and miss them.
I say this to note that the Thunder outplayed the Warriors in that series. They were the better team in terms of how they played in those seven games.
Even with all the foibles and disasters that befell them, Game 6 came down to Klay Thompson, one of the best shooters ever, having the best performance of his career. It was a shooting performance that was so stunning I remember wandering around wide-eyed in the press room postgame, walking up to various media members who had seen a lot of games and just everyone shaking their heads and going “Man, I don’t know.”
It was shell shock.
But the Thunder took it to one of the greatest teams of all time. The Thunder flipped the script on the Warriors, taking one of the fastest teams in the league and beating them in transition by running the ball down their throat.
It’s proof of how we talk about sports that OKC is not remembered for having shoved one of the best teams of all time to the edge of the cliff but for their failures.
Most memorable moment:
Underrated moment: Westbrook’s Game 4…
Underrated moment No. 2: I think about this postgame sequence in the context of Durant’s decision all the time.
How it will be remembered: The end of one of the most fun teams ever. Kevin Durant entered free agency and left for Golden State a month later.
5. Thunder-Spurs 2016
Duncan’s last stand.
OKC appears regularly on this list; the Thunder were a huge part of the decade despite always being felled by fate or circumstance. This series pitted a Spurs team that won 67 games (!) (and still somehow finished second in the West to those legendary Warriors) against OKC, which rumbled in third in the conference.
The two teams had gone 1-1 against each other in previous series, with OKC winning in 2012 and the Spurs winning in 2014. This was the rubber match between two teams tied by their front office (Sam Presti had come up under RC Buford and Popovich in San Antonio), their approach to both the media and team building, and by the Thunder’s explosiveness vs. the Spurs’ discipline.
Westbrook and Durant would combine to average 53.7 points, 13.2 rebounds, 14.5 assists, and 2.7 steals. Durant shot 50-30-90 in that series.
It was the culmination of a rivalry, it was the end of an era. Duncan retired after this series.
Working on a thing about playoff series of the 2010’s, reminded of this photo, taken before Game 6 of Spurs-Thunder in OKC.
During the OKC intros, Duncan had been standing at the opposing free throw line, head bowed. This was his last game. pic.twitter.com/OWq90chuFf
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) January 1, 2020
San Antonio won by 32 in the first game, setting up a firestorm of narratives. The Thunder went on to win four of the next five, including three straight to end the series and, effectively, the Spurs’ dynasty.
Most memorable moment: Kevin Durant burning the dynasty down…
Underrated moment: This final sequence in San Antonio, when the Spurs, down 1, stole the ball with a chance to win was pure insanity. Not only that, but Dion Waiters, attempting to inbound, pushed Manu Ginobili back which should have been an offensive foul.
How it will be remembered: The last stand of the Spurs.
The rest of the top 10, in shorter format:
6. Thunder-Spurs 2012
The Thunder’s first and only Finals appearance came at the Spurs’ expense, as OKC rallied from down 0-2 to win the next four. Russell Westbrook started hitting the mid-range elbow jumper two dribbles off the pick as the Spurs dropped in coverage, and that dramatically shifted the series. Serge Ibaka was also huge in this series and his absence was felt big-time two years later when the Spurs would beat the Thunder as Ibaka missed the first two games.
7. Heat-Celtics 2012
Game 6. ‘Nuff said.
He burned the Garden down.
8. Spurs-Mavericks 2014
The “Beautiful Game” Spurs, who went on to win the title, were almost knocked out by a group of oddly collected veterans in the last great showdown of two rivals, highlighted by this:
9. Rockets-Clippers 2015
After knocking off San Antonio in the above series, the Clippers were on the verge of making the WCF to face the not-yet-unstoppable Warriors.
Then, Josh Smith happened.
10. Raptors-Sixers 2019
The Sixers were outmatched, the Raptors were, in retrospect, a team of destiny. But still the Sixers dragged them to seven games despite a lot of matchup disadvantages and it really looked like the Raptors might Raptor their way out of the playoffs again.
Then, four bounces.
Warriors-Rockets 2018: If only Chris Paul didn’t get hurt.
Celtics-Wizards 2017: This one goes forgotten, but it was a classic Game 7 affair that saw the Wizards largely outplay Boston throughout, only for Kelly Olynyk to go wild in Game 7 and put the Isaiah Thomas feel-good Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, where LeBron smacked them around for four games. I will always wonder what would have happened if Markieff Morris doesn’t turn an ankle in Game 1 with the Wizards up big in Boston.
Celtics-Lakers 2010: The two iconic franchises with their most recent entry in the storied rivalry. This game meant a lot, it was the Boston Big 3’s last real shot at a title before LeBron went to Miami, it was the last title for Kobe and Pau. This isn’t higher because, honestly, the basketball was two-blindmen-throwing-wrenches-at-each-other ugly. But it was legendary nonetheless.