Conventional wisdom says that Game 5s are crucial to the outcome of a series, and that's certainly what Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson are telling their teams right now. But I was surprised to discover how many teams did win the championship despite losing Game 5.
Several of those occurred in Celtics-Lakers Finals, though that is probably inevitable given that they've played each other for the championship 12 times. In 1962, '63, '66, '69, and, as you should recall, 2008, the Lakers beat the C's in Game 5 only to lose the series. The only time the Lakers reversed that was in 1987 when they lost Game 5 in Boston but came back to take the title with a Game 6 win in L.A.
That kind of ancient history has limited value, though. I can imagine Jackson telling his team, "Guys, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West had the Celtics on the ropes when they won Game 5, but let them off," and half the team is thinking, "Baylor and West? Aren't they a law firm on Santa Monica Boulevard?"
Anyway, herewith a list of one man's opinion of the best Game 5s in the Finals. Note that closeout Game 5 wins are not included because Sunday's game is not in that category.
(1962, Lakers Beat Celtics 126-121)
The Lakers had moved to L.A. only one season earlier and this represented one of their finest moments at Boston Garden. With the series tied 2-2, Baylor (get out your history books, fellas) scored a Finals-record 61 points. And Baylor did it while being tailed by an outstanding defender, Satch Sanders, and, presumably, double-teamed from time to time by immortal defensive presence Bill Russell. Sadly for the Lakers, the C's won Game 6 on the road and Game 7 at home.
(1970, Knicks Beat Lakers 107-100)
This game is most notable for what it set up -- the dramatic Game 7 entrance of Willis Reed into Madison Square Garden four days later. It was in this Game 5 that Reed came down awkwardly while attempting a shot and left the game with a leg injury in the first quarter. The Knicks rallied with strong defense (they forced 19 L.A. turnovers in the second half) to take a 3-2 series lead. L.A. won Game 6 at home but you know what happened in Game 7 at the Garden: Reed limped onto the court just before tipoff, hit two early jumpers and the Knicks went on to win the title.
(1993, Phoenix Beats Chicago 108-98)
It was certainly not the last famous pronouncement of Charles Barkley, but it was one of the first great ones -- he announced that the Suns needed to win Game 5 to "save the city," a snide reference to the Windy City's proclivity for postgame celebratory mayhem. The Suns did just that, getting 24 points from Barkley and 25 each from Kevin Johnson and Richard Dumas to overcome 41 from Jordan. But the famous John Paxson jumper, off a feed from Horace Grant, gave Chicago a series-clinching Game 6 win back in Phoenix.
(1968, Celtics Beat Lakers 120-117 In Overtime)
This was not the season for the famous Don Nelson jumper, which hit the heel of the basket, bounced straight up and went through -- that happened in Game 7 of the following year's Finals. But the often underappreciated Nelson scored five points in overtime and finished with 25 to overcome a combined 59 points by --you know by now what's coming -- Baylor and West for the dramatic win at Boston Garden. The Shamrocks then closed out the series in L.A. in Game 6.
(2006, Miami Beats Dallas 101-100 In Overtime)
This one still gives Avery Johnson nightmares. (On the positive side, he's now coaching the Nets, where new nightmares may drive this one away.) Heat star Dwyane Wade, conjuring up the best of a one-man Jordan show from days gone by, shot as many free throws (25) as the entire Dallas team, including the two clinchers with 1.9 seconds left in OT. Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki and owner Mark Cuban were both eventually fined, the former for kicking a ball in the stands in disgust, the latter for suggesting that the officiating was not, well, superb.
(1977, Portland Beats Philadelphia 110-104)
The Julius Erving-George McGinnis-World B. Free 76ers were supposed to have buried the Trail Blazers, led by that hippie center named Bill Walton, but the series was 2-2 coming back to the Spectrum in Philly. Surely, Game 5 would be where the 76ers demonstrated their dominance.
It didn't happen. Portland played smart, its M.O., and Philly played dumb, its M.O., and Walton grabbed 20 defensive rebounds as the Blazers, playing team ball, overcame the brilliance of Erving (37 points). Portland took the title with a Game 6 win back in Portland, and Walton took off his shirt and celebrated with the crowd, an oft-played NBA moment.
(1980, Lakers Beat Philadelphia 108-103)
As with the 1970 game, an injury foretold all. This Game 5 was the one in which Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stepped on the foot of Sixers guard Lionel Hollins as he was running upcourt. Kareem left the game, returned heroically and scored 14 points down the stretch, including a three-point play that clinched the game. But Abdul-Jabbar couldn't play in Game 6, the one in which a rookie named Magic Johnson, playing mostly center, had 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals and led the Lakers to the championship.
(2005, San Antonio Beats Detroit 96-95 In Overtime)
"Don't leave Robert Horry." That was the admonition that Pistons coach Larry Brown gave Rasheed Wallace, who may have that in mind on Sunday if Kobe Bryant lines up a potential game-winning shot. With Detroit leading by two in overtime, Wallace, a help defender by nature, left Horry to attend to Manu Ginobili in the corner. Ginobili passed it back to Horry, Big Shot Rob, who drained a three-pointer for the win that gave the Spurs a 3-2 series edge heading back to San Antonio. Against long odds, Detroit won Game 6, but the Spurs prevailed in the clincher.
(1997, Chicago Beats Utah 90-88)
Sick in Salt Lake. That described Jordan's condition the day before Game 5 when he was diagnosed with a stomach virus, food poisoning or the flu, the latter being the condition that stuck. And he wasn't feeling that much better the next day, getting up from a sweat-soaked bed just three hours before tipoff. Nevertheless, in an extremely weakened condition, he poured in 38 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter, and played 44 minutes, collapsing in exhaustion after the final buzzer. If one man ever demonstrated his will over an entire team, this was the game.
(1976, Boston Beats Phoenix 128-126 in Triple Overtime)
Not even a contest. It's maybe the best single game ever. The only way to fully grasp what happened in this frantically-played classic is to go to YouTube -- it's all there in various bits and pieces. If you don't do that, then try to get your mind around these final 20 seconds of the second overtime. John Havlicek makes a leaning in-traffic jumper to give Boston a seeming 111-110 win. Fans rush the court. Fans called back off the court and one second is put back on the clock. Referee Ricky Powers is attacked by a fan. Phoenix's Paul Westphal deliberately calls a timeout the Suns did not have to earn a technical foul that, under the rules at the time, gives Phoenix the ball at halfcourt instead of at the opposite end. The T is good. But, because he was able to receive an inbounds pass in shooting range, Garfield Heard makes a turnaround jumper to send the game into a third overtime.
Got all that?
Anyway, the Celtics ultimately prevailed and won a series-clinching Game 6 in Phoenix that seemed like an anticlimax.
If Sunday's Game 5 has half that excitement, we'll be getting a good deal.