There have been plenty of memorable playoff matchups throughout the NBA’s existence mostly because of the grueling competitive basketball between two equally deserving clubs.
But in some cases, the ending is mired with controversy. Here are some of the five notable ones.
5. 1998 NBA Finals
Fresh off the unparalleled success of ESPN and Netflix’s “The Last Dance,” we just couldn’t afford not to put this one in here. What we’re talking about, of course, is Michael Jordan’s final shot for the Chicago Bulls, which ended up securing their dynasty’s sixth NBA championship in eight years.
“The Last Dance” already did a tremendous job of laying out the entire premise of “The Shot,” so we won’t go into much detail about that. Because honestly, who hasn’t seen the series yet at this point? Anyway, what may have been overshadowed by Jordan’s epic game-winning, championship-clinching jumper was how there was some controversy about that particular play. Bryon Russell, the man assigned to guard MJ on that play, was miles away when Jordan elevated for the open jumpshot, and there are some who believe to this very day that Jordan pushed him off.
Jordan himself claimed in the docuseries that he did not push off Russell, and that it was the latter’s momentum that caused the separation. Then again, Jordan’s open palm is clearly seen on Russell’s behind, so there’s no denying that at the very least, Jordan transferred some of his momentum to Russell. Now whether or not this was worthy of being called an offensive foul — clearly the referees at that time did not think so — is an altogether different matter.
Here is another look at that glorious moment:
4. 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals
The 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings will go down in history as one of, if not the most controversial playoff series in the history of the league. We have disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy to thank for that after his series of whistle-blowing allegations centered around this series — one that Donaghy revealed to have been “rigged.”
The most controversial moments of this series came in Game 6, so technically, the controversy did not transpire at the end of the series. Then again, the mere fact that the conspiracy theories point to the fact that the NBA wanted to stretch out this series to a Game 7 (the viewership ratings were through the roof) made it clear that this series deserves on our spot here today.
Entering Game 6, the Kings were up 3-2 in the series and were on the brink of setting up their first NBA Finals appearance since 1951 (they were still the Rochester Royals at that time). A series of bad calls — culminating with a non-call on Kobe Bryant who nailed Mike Bibby with an elbow square on the face — led to the Lakers winning Game 6, 106-102. L.A. also shot 40 free-throws that evening as opposed to Sacramento’s 25 shots from the line.
The Lakers went on to win Game 7 in Sacramento’s Arco Arena, and eventually swept the New Jersey Nets in the Finals, en route to their famous three-peat.
Below is a great compilation of all the bad calls from that infamous Game 6:
3. 1988 NBA Finals
Similar to the 2002 WCF detailed above, the controversy in the 1988 NBA Finals also did not take place in the deciding Game 7. The incident transpired in Game 6 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Detroit Pistons.
The Lakers were down by one point with 27 seconds remaining. They had the ball in their possession, and then-Lakers head coach Pat Riley drew up a play that would see the ball get to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the post. As the famed big man went up for his trademark hook-shot, a contentious foul was called on Bill Laimbeer of the Pistons, which has since been known as the “phantom foul.” Abdul-Jabbar calmly sank both free-throws which eventually led to the Lakers winning the pivotal game. L.A. went on to win Game 7, en route to their fifth and final title of the decade.
There’s no denying that Laimbeer made contact on the play, but to say that this was a soft foul call — at this crucial juncture in the game and in the series — would be an understatement. See for yourself:
2. 2000 NBA Western Conference Finals
Fast forward a decade or so and we have yet another controversial playoff series involving the Lakers in almost the same exact situation. This was during the Western Conference Finals yet again, but this time around, L.A. was pitted against a Rasheed Wallace-led Portland Trail Blazers side. It was a tremendous series that led to a winner-take-all Game 7 in Staples Center.
What makes this final game so contentious is how all the calls seemed to go in favor of the Purple & Gold — again. One would only need to look at the free-throw disparity to determine that something fishy may have been going on here. The Lakers took 37 free-throw attempts as compared to the Blazers’ 16 attempts. To make matters worse, both Arvydas Sabonis and Scottie Pippen — the two Portland players that were tasked to guard L.A.’s superstar duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant both fouled out. The Blazers gave up a 15-point lead in the fourth and final period, which is considered by many as one of the best comebacks in playoffs history, but as conspiracy theorists would have it, not without a little help from the officials.
Relive that amazing Game 7, including THAT iconic Kobe-Shaq alley-oop below:
1. 2006 NBA Finals
As far as terrible calls go, the foul called on Dirk Nowitzki in the dying moments of Game 6 of the 2006 NBA Finals has got to be way up there on the list.
Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat were up 3-2 in the series entering Game 6, and as it seemed, he and the rest of the Heat were “destined” to win the title on that fateful evening. Wade shot 21 free throws in this game alone (he shot close to a hundred throughout the series), and the most controversial pair came from a blocking foul called on Nowitzki with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth. The Heat were up just one point at that point, but Wade’s two free-throw makes gave them the separation they needed to eventually clinch Miami’s first ever title in franchise history.
Below is a video of the final six minutes of that game, and the extremely contentious foul on Nowitzki is at around the 12:16 mark: