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November 09, 2022 6 min read

With the baseball season now behind us, it’s time to look ahead to the NBA season, which is already in full swing. As I look at the schedule for games to put on my radar, I started thinking about some great matchups of the past, particularly those that took place in the NBA finals. Here are a few worth revisiting:

LeBron vs. KD – LeBron James and Kevin Durant have faced off in the NBA Finals three times. KD made LeBron earn it in 2012, but LeBron had experience on his side in route to the Miami Heat winning the Championship. In 2017, KD had depth on his side as a member of the Golden State Warriors. Regardless, Durant was dominant:

“But the 2017 championship was absurd even by Durant’s standards. He averaged over 35 points in less than 40 minutes per game, with 47 percent of his threes landing and a staggering true shooting percentage of just under 70 percent. But he didn’t stop there. Durant’s other numbers, while generally lower than James’s, were outstanding as well. He recorded eight blocks in the series and just 11 turnovers. James, by contrast, turned the ball over 21 times.”

The Warriors were the better team and KD was better than LeBron.

In 2018, a Cavs/Warriors rematch… and again, the Warriors were dominant. Cleveland didn’t even manage a win in the Finals. While the teams were mis-matched, KD and LeBron were similar in terms of individual output. Overall, these two players have provided NBA fans with years of excitement and to this day, are a great duo on the court together.

Bird vs. Johnson – Ahhh, the 80s. What a decade in the NBA. Some of the greatest talent to ever play the game played in the 80s. As an LA native who grew up going to the Forum, it’s easy to guess where my allegiance lied. That meant I was not a fan of the goofy-looking Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. Disliking Bird made his matchups with Magic Johnson all the more exciting. It’s also why the Lakers loss to Boston in the 1984 NBA Finals stung so much.

Johnson and Bird had gone head-to-head for the NCAA Championship in 1979 with Johnson and his Michigan State Spartans coming out on top, but 1984 was the first time the two squared off in the NBA Finals. The Celtics and Lakers split the first four games, then in Game 5 at the Boston Garden, Bird put up 34 points to Magic’s 10. The Lakers bounced back in game 6, but ultimately the Championship went to the Celtics with a win in game 7. Sportscasting.com recalls a great story, as told by Boston sportswriter Jackie MacMullan:

“In the 1980s, NBA teams didn’t have private jets to whisk them home after a game. The players were at the mercy of commercial airline schedules back then, which meant the LA Lakers had to spend the night in Boston after the crushing loss. Longtime Boston-based sportswriter Jackie MacMullan reveals on her Icons Club podcast what that night and the following day were like for Magic Johnson. The reporter recounts how two of Johnson’s best friends, Dallas Mavericks guard Mark Aguirre and Detroit Pistons Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, spent the night with him in his Boston hotel suite. The two NBA players tried their best to console Johnson. They ordered the finest room service and blasted Motown to try and snap their buddy out of his funk. However, nothing worked. The next day, things got worse. Magic Johnson had a bird’s-eye view of the celebration from his high-rise hotel room overlooking the Boston Public Garden. And it was killing him. He sobbed as he watched delirious Celtics fans partying in the streets below, donning shamrock jerseys and waving garish green banners, changing the name of his arch-rival: Larry Bird.”

The upside to Magic’s front row parade seat was the motivation it provided when the two teams met again in the 1985 NBA Finals. After getting destroyed by the Celtics in Game 1, LA won four of the next five to take the title.

"Magic took note of the deflated look on Bird’s face as he walked off the hallowed parquet floor,” Jackie MacMullan notes in her podcast. “’Now he knows how I felt last season,’ Magic thought.”

Ewing vs. Olajuwon – You don’t get much more accomplished than these two were when the Knicks and Rockets paired up in the 1994 NBA Finals. Going into the Championship series, Ewing was an eight-time All-Star and All-Defensive Center. Olajuwon was the league MVP, nine-time All-Star and twice the Defensive Player of the Year.

Ewing went into the series having averaged 24. 5 points on 29.6 percent shooting that season, so while Olajuwon was a defensive beast, Ewing could find ways to score.

“…when Ewing did manage to create space turning over that right shoulder for the jumper, it was as pure as that of any mid-range shooter in the league. He had post moves and counters. He could finish with either hand. But it was that jumper he was able to utilize that made him so tough to guard.”

Ewing’s average and shooting percentage were down compared to the regular season (18.8 pts/366.2 percent shooting), but some drop off was to be expected with Olajuwon on his back.

The better big man won the Championship. As well as Ewing played, Olajuwon was dominant and overcame the constant double-team pressure the Knicks threw at him.

“None of it mattered. If he turned over his right shoulder for the fade away and you weren't in position to bother him, he was raining on your parade. If you guessed the right shoulder turn before he committed to it, you were left asking for directions to the nearest MVP center. His spin move out of the post was so quick that you were left guarding his shadow. The shoulder shakes were as hypnotic as Shakira's hips not lying. His positioning to seal off the defender and gain the advantage under the rim was impossible to recover from.”

When it was all said and done, Olajuwon averaged 26.8 points on 50.0 percent from the field, 9.1 rebounds, 3.5 assist, and 3.8 blocks in round to a Championship and being named Finals MVP. If your recall on this series is a little cloudy, maybe it’s because some of it was aired picture in picture as OJ Simpson made his way down the 405 Freeway.

Kobe vs. Iverson – From Philly vs. adopted by Philly. Kobe was among the stars on a star-studded LA Lakers team that rode in the NBA finals in 2001 having not lost a game in over two months. Iverson was an erratic, scrappy, spark-plug that lead a team Dikembe Mutombo and a band of nobodies into those same finals to face the Lakers. The Sixers weren’t supposed to win, and they didn’t, but Iverson made quite the show of it in a Game 1 win… a game that took overtime to be decided:

“The Sixers are clinging to a two-point lead with about a minute to go when Iverson receives a pass near the corner. He hesitates a half-beat, as if to assess his prey, before crossing over Lue and lofting a stepback jumper that hangs in the air for what seems like ages before ripping through the net, punctuating the coup de grâce with an exaggerated high-step over his fallen foil. Forty-eight points, five rebounds, six assists and five steals. Sixers take Game 1, 107-101.”

The Lakers woke up after that. In Game 2, Kobe Bryant scored 31 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocked shots. While it looked like the two teams might do battle the rest of the way, the Lakers cruised to the Championship, but Kobe and AI were sure fun to watch along the way. Here’s a look at how the two matched up over their careers: https://www.landofbasketball.com/games_between/kobe_bryant_vs_allen_iverson.htm

Looking ahead to the 2022-2023 season There are a number of great players in the league, but the first game that jumps out to me is on Nov 27 when the Bucks host the Mavericks. . Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic headline the must-see games for basketball fans this season.

With online betting exploding, early watch lists are monitored constantly. It’s now less about the matchup on the court and more about the matchup in the betting line. Antetokounmpo has taken the lead in the early MVP running, according to Draftkings.com. The Bucks are off to a 9-1 start, suffering their first loss of the season to the Atlanta Hawks on Nov 7. Antetokounmpo’s greatest MVP competition this year is Dallas Maverick’s star Luka Doncic. Doncic was the MVP favorite heading into the season.

Celtic’s forward Jayson Tatum and Grizzlies guard Ja Morant are currently 3-4 in the betting line, with two aging yet still dominant players, Warrior’s point guard Stephen Curry and Nets power forward Kevin Durant, rounding out the top six.

There is no guarantee for an epic head-to-head battle in the Finals, but watching so many exciting players battle for MVP this year should be a treat for any NBA fan.