Editor's note: Read the intro and 1-5 for free. Join Insider to view the rest of the rankings. This list was originally published on June 7, 2011 and has been updated to take into account the 2012 playoffs.
1. 1981 EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS: 76ERS VS. CELTICS
The 1981 Eastern Conference finals between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers has to be the best of the post-merger era. This one had everything. For starters, both teams won 62 games, tying for the league's best regular-season record. It had the old rivalry between Boston and Philly, going back to the Russell-Chamberlain days. It had the Bird-era Celtics and the Erving-era Sixers, each yearning for their first championship.
And the games … oh, my. Not only was there the improbable rally from a 3-1 series deficit by the Celtics, one of only eight times in league history that's happened, but these were all white-knuckle games. Amazingly, five of the seven games were decided by two points or fewer, including each of the last four.
Boston trailed by double digits in each of the final three games, and was down by six with 1:51 left in Game 5, before rallying to win each. The key play of the series was Kevin McHale's block of an Andrew Toney drive at the end of Game 6, preserving the key road win for the Celtics.
The finale was an especially grueling battle that featured just one basket in the last three minutes. A crucial missed free throw by Mo Cheeks allowed Boston to escape, 91-90, bookending a series that began with the Sixers' one-point win thanks to Andrew Toney's free throws with two seconds left.
Photo credit: Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images
2. 1998 NBA FINALS: BULLS VS. JAZZ
This series featured perhaps the most memorable shot in NBA Finals history -- Michael Jordan taking a hard dribble right, pushing Bryon Russell aside with his off arm, and then hitting a series-clinching jumper while basically waving goodbye. This shot sent him off into his second retirement, but not before Utah gave his Bulls all they could handle in a six-game grinder in which five of the games were decided by five points or fewer. Jordan, in fact, had a chance to win Game 5 at the buzzer as well, but his desperation 3-pointer was off the mark and the series was sent back to Utah.
The Jazz won the opener in another thriller, this one in overtime, but the Bulls won the next three to assume command. Oddly, given that the other five games were so tight, the Bulls' 96-54 win in Game 3 was the biggest rout in Finals history, and the Jazz set a record (since broken) for the fewest points in the shot-clock era. While Utah scored more easily in other games, it didn't exceed 88 points in any contest in the series.
And finally, here's a trivia question: Who took the last shot of this series? Everyone thinks it was Jordan, but his shot came with 5.2 seconds left. The Bulls weren't champions until John Stockton's last-second 3-point try bounced off the rim.
Photo credit: Fernando Medina/Getty Images
3. 2006 WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS: MAVS VS. SPURS
Due to a quirk in seeding, Dallas and San Anotnio met each other in the second round in 2006 despite each winning 60 regular-season games. But even though it happened a little early, these Texas rivals gave us an absolute classic -- in fact, this series had the highest raw score of any series, at 34.4.
Five of the seven games were within two points at the end of regulation, including two that went to overtime. One of those OT games was the last one, with a Dirk Nowitzki and-1 basket, tying the game with 21 seconds left in regulation. That proved the difference, as the Mavs won in overtime on the road en route to their first Finals appearance.
But up until then it looked like the Mavs would be lamenting the one that got away. Dallas was up 3-1 in the series and led by 20 in the finale before falling behind. The Mavs also lost Game 6 in part because guard Jason Terry was suspended after punching Michael Finley in a scrum near the end of Game 5. That contest was another classic, with neither team scoring in the final 1:59, and Bruce Bowen's last-second block of Nowitzki's shot saving the 98-97 San Antonio win.
The opener wasn't too shabby either, with Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse memorably passing up an open 2-pointer to dribble out to the 3-point line on the last play -- even though his team was down only two points. His contested look missed badly.
Photo credit: Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
4. 1984 NBA FINALS: LAKERS VS. CELTICS
In terms of score, this one should be farther down the list. But the importance of this series to the league can't possibly be overstated. This is the series that made the NBA what it is today, drawing in young NBA fans and fueling the Bird-Magic and Boston-L.A. rivalries.
It wasn't bad on the court either, with overtime losses in Games 2 and 4 proving especially painful for the Lakers. Up 1-0 after a 115-109 win in Game 1, L.A. lost the second game at home with horrid execution at the end of regulation, as James Worthy threw a bad pass that Gerald Henderson stole and converted for a lay-up and then Magic Johnson inexplicably dribbled out the clock. Game 4 was a series-turning contest, one that also featured Kevin McHale's now-infamous clothesline of Kurt Rambis. Johnson again struggled in the clutch, missing two big free throws and making a key turnover as L.A. blew a five-point lead in the last minute of regulation.
Boston went on to win the "heat game" in Game 5 -- there was no air conditioning in Boston Garden, so the teams were forced to play in 97-degree heat -- and unlikely hero Cornbread Maxwell finally led the Celtics to the series victory in the seventh game.
Photo credit: Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images
5. 1997 NBA FINALS: JAZZ VS. BULLS
In terms of wins and losses, this was the second-best matchup in playoff history and the best of any on this list. The Bulls (69) and Jazz (64) combined for 133 wins in the 1996-97 regular season, and showed everyone why in a thrilling six-game series that included four games decided by five points or fewer and three that came down to the final shots.
Of course, Michael Jordan took center stage. He made a mid-range jumper at the buzzer to win Game 1 -- after Utah's Karl Malone bricked two free throws -- and the series would ultimately come full circle in the clinching Game 6. When Utah went to double-team Jordan to prevent the same shot, he dished to an open Steve Kerr for the game-winning points. Once Scottie Pippen deflected Utah's inbound pass, the celebration was on.
In between, an ill Jordan gave one of the greatest performances in playoff history in what's now referred to as "Flu Game." Barely able to stand up at timeouts, he nonetheless scored 38 points, including the game-winning 3, to rally Chicago from a 16-point deficit and win a pivotal Game 5 in Utah.
Utah had its moments too -- most notably the Stockton-to-Malone touchdown pass that gave Utah the lead in Game 4 and tied the series. But the series belonged to Jordan and the Bulls.
Photo credit: Andy Hayt/NBAE/Getty Images