Western Conference Finals
By Jon Carlos Rodriguez
History—and a quick Google search—tell us that 12 NBA Champions in the past 18 years came from the big, bad teams in the Western Conference. This year, two monsters from another mother—top-seed Golden State Warriors and second-seed San Antonio Spurs—are facing off in what is expected to be another entertaining series filled with great moments that will one day serve as amazing stories to tell the kids. For now, here are eight greatest moments from past duels in the Western Conference Finals. Not included in this list: anything about the LA Clippers nor Zaza Pachulia’s closeout D.
THE ROBERT HORRY GAME
Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings should’ve been “The Shaq Game” or “The Kobe Game.” Shaquille O’Neal was his usual dominant self against the Kings (27 points, 18 rebounds) and Kobe Bryant was doing Kobe Bryant things (25 points, 2 assists). Yet in the dying seconds, it was Robert Horry who hit the biggest shot of the game, stealing the show like Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.
DAVID VS THE DREAM
Hakeem Olajuwon is a 7-foot athletic specimen who plays for the Houston Rockets. He is not a butcher, but in the 1995 Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, he professionally made minced meat out of David Robinson. Olajuwon unveiled “The Dream Shake” in its peak form during this series, and Robinson—the season MVP, no less—could do nothing but shake play along. Olajuwon put up per game averages of 35 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks while Robinson showed up with a respectable 24 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game average. What the numbers didn’t show though, was how Robinson was utterly duped by Olajuwon’s pump fakes countless times.
John Stockton was known for his passing skills: setting up his teammates, particularly Karl Malone, every chance he gets. If Malone was “The Mailman,” then Stockton most definitely was “The Dispatcher.” During the course of his 19-year career, “Stockton to Malone” was uttered a million times. In Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals, Stockton flipped the script and went beyond his passing role, knocking down a game-winner that sent the Utah Jazz to the NBA Finals. The Rockets were pushing, desperately, for a Game 7, but Stockton was like, “Nah, let’s just end it here.”
MEMORIAL DAY MIRACLE
It was Memorial Day that fateful Monday in May 1999, but fans of the Portland Trail Blazers will forever remember it as the day when Sean Elliott made a miracle happen. No, the San Antonio forward didn’t walk on water—what he did, was tip toe on the sideline and hit a game-winning 3 over the swatting reach of Rasheed Wallace. It was a miracle of sorts in NBA terms considering that the Spurs trailed for nearly the whole game, with the Blazers’ lead ballooning to as much as 18 points in the third quarter. The Spurs would never lose a game in the 1999 Western Conference Finals and they would go on to win the title against the New York Knicks.
The Dallas Mavericks cracked the basketball code in 2011 and it resulted to an NBA Championship at the expense of the newly-formed Heatles. Before they trampled on the title hopes of the Miami Heat, the Mavericks tested their championship caliber on the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that then had (still feels weird to type this) Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka. In the first game of the series, Dirk Nowitzki made a case for why he is one of the all-time greats, scoring 48 points on 12 of 15 shooting and a perfect 24 of 24 from the foul line. If you’re clueless as to how Dallas managed to win a title in the LeBron-Wade-Bosh era, Game 1 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals would be a good place to start.
KLAY’S HISTORIC GAME
Down 1-3 in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, the Warriors looked no different from past one-an-done NBA champion teams. They were done. The asterisk on their 2015 title won’t be lifted. The historic run was about to end. In Game 5 of the series, the Warriors notched a victory, perhaps as a proper goodbye to the Oracle crowd. OKC should win at home in Game 6. The Finals slot was theirs. But then Klay Thompson happened. Shooting like a cyborg on a mission to burn Chesapeake Energy Arena to the ground, Thompson hit a playoff-record-setting 11 threes to carry the Warriors to a 108-101 win. When the smoked cleared, Thompson had 41 points and the series tied 3-3. Thompson’s Game 6 performance was too damn hot, OKC reeled from severe burn injuries in Game 7.
RALPH SAMPSON OUSTS THE LAKERS
The Los Angeles Lakers ended the run to defend their title in 1986 in the most shocking and heartbreaking way possible. With the score tied at 112 in Game 5 of the 1986 Western Conference Finals, Ralph Sampson caught an inbounds pass and spun for an awkward-looking jumper that bounced off, then on the rim before going in at the buzzer. It looked like a lucky shot, but when the clock hits zero and your team has more points than the opponent, then luck won’t matter.
THE KOBE AND SHAQ CONNECTION
There was a time, in the year 2000, when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal—two of the biggest NBA superstars—aligned to form a cosmic pair. The pairing led to a title run that was both deserving and inevitable. But in the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the destined duo were threatened by the Portland Trailblazers in a Game 7 that appeared to be over. Down 15 points in the fourth quarter, the Lakers clawed their way back and took the lead late in the game. The exclamation point came in the form of an alley-oop from Kobe to Shaq, which gave the Lakers a comfortable lead with only 40 seconds left. The play was everything the Lakers’ successes symbolized: Bryant breaking down the defense, penetrating the lane, drawing the defense, throwing the perfect lob to Shaq, and sending he purple and gold crowd to a frenzy. The Kobe and Shaq connection was cut a few years after this play because nothing good lasts forever. Even in basketball.
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