Counting Down The 20 Best Games Of The NBA Season

The All-Star break has come and gone, which means there's not really much point in doing NBA Power Rankings. Teams only played one or two games since last week's edition, and with the trade deadline coming up this week, it's possible there will be major changes that could swing the rankings. 

So, let's do something different this week. Rather than take a look forward, let's take one more look back at the first half that was. 

As an NBA fan, I often ask myself what stands out about a particular season. Sometimes, it's a player, like Kevin Durant coming into his own for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sometimes, it's a trend, like the rise of young teams like Portland, Oklahoma City, Sacramento (for a time) and Memphis. Sometimes, it's the way an offseason dramatically affects a season, like how so many teams that made big moves this summer struggled out of the gate. Sometimes, it can be something depressing, like the Gilbert Arenas/Javaris Crittenton gun saga.

But when I think back to the first half of the year, the one thing that keeps coming back to me is this: there were a hell of a lot of great games. Maybe I'm just saying that because this is the first year I've been all over NBA League Pass, but I feel like there were more memorable games in the first half of this season than in any season I can remember. For example, after being tasked to write this column, I brainstormed for an hour or so and came up with 69 games that could make this list. Sixty-nine! Maybe I stretched it on some of my initial choices, but the fact that I could come up with that many games for consideration should tell you something. 

Eventually, I narrowed it down to 20, and I'll present those 20 to you now in reverse order, with highlights and relevant links to help you feel like you're experiencing that game all over again. 

Honorable mention: Denver 90, Chicago 89 (November 10, 2009); Charlotte 89, Memphis 87 (January 9, 2010); Washington 92, Orlando 91 (February 5, 2010); Atlanta 105, Houston 103 (November 20, 2009); Miami 99, Orlando 98 (November 25, 2009); Dallas 115, Milwaukee 113 (November 16, 2009); Memphis 111, Cleveland 109(December 8, 2009); LA Clippers 92, Boston 90 (December 27, 2009); Orlando 96, Boston 94 (January 28, 2010); Memphis 95, LA Lakers 93 (February 1, 2010).

20.  Los Angeles Lakers 101, Oklahoma City Thunder 98 (OT): November 3, 2009

 


 

You probably don't remember this game, because it happened very early in the season and both teams have played some thrillers since. But it belongs on this list because it was an early indication that the Thunder were indeed for real. We saw glimpses of their stifling defense, particularly on Kobe Bryant, who did score 31 points, but needed 24 shots to do it and also committed seven turnovers. The Lakers shot 52 percent from the field, but committed a whopping 25 turnovers to do it. We saw key plays made by supporting guys like Thabo Sefolosha, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook

The only thing we didn't see was a Thunder win. But seriously, take a look at that highlight clip. The Lakers escaped a Durant air-balled buzzer-beating three, a wide open miss by Sefolosha to tie the game and a good last-gasp look by Russell Westbrook. They didn't win; they escaped. As SB Nation's Thunder blog Welcome To Loud City wrote at the time:

What else is there to say? It was a great, tightly contested game. Lots of good shots, lots of good defense, lots of ticky tack fouls, and lots of great dunks. A perfect game for the fans. And, a near perfect game for the Thunder.    

In other words, it was a moral victory because it was a sign of things to come, as we've now seen.

19.  Houston Rockets 116, Dallas Mavericks 108 (OT): December 18, 2009 

 

 

 

This game is probably better known for the extracurricular stuff than the actual game. This was the game where Dirk Nowitzki got several of Carl Landry's teeth lodged into him, and it was also the game the Mavericks filed some lame protest about that predictably got overturned. However, it was also a wild, intense game, with fights, technical fouls, an improbable game-tying shot by Tim Thomas and some incredible emotional swings. If anything, the ending was a bit of a letdown after how we got there, but it still belongs on this list.

18.  Sacramento Kings 102, Chicago Bulls 98: December 21, 2009

 

 

If you missed this game the first time, you're probably not alone. The Bulls amassed a 35-point lead with 8:50 to go in the third quarter, so you, as I did, probably turned this one off, figuring the outcome was well in hand. You, like I, then missed an improbable Kings comeback, helped in large part by an epic Bulls collapse. Tom Ziller at SB Nation's Sactown Royalty was in disbelief after it happened.

I continue to have real trouble believing that happened. I saw it, watching the game in real time (a rarity for me), and I figured the resilient Kings would get it down to, say, 15 or so. A silver lining of sorts. When the deficit shrunk to 12 and 13, but stuck there most of the fourth quarter, I figured that'd be the end, that the runs had been exhausted and we'd have to be content with a strong second half effort that came up 50 percent short.

But the Bulls continued to have disastrous possession after disastrous possession. The shot clock violation which preceded Ime Udoka's first three-pointer -- the one whereKirk Hinrich basically dribbled around the perimeter for a while -- was amazingly bad. And the Kings cut it down to six ... and the Bulls continued to have no luck, no composure on offense. All the shot Chicago made early bounced off. All the shots the Kings missed early started to fall.

The long-term ramifications of the game have faded over time. The Kings have fallen way off, while the Bulls have pulled it somewhat together to save coach Vinny Del Negro's job. Still, you have to include a 35-point comeback on this list.

17.  Portland Trail Blazers 114, Dallas Mavericks 112 (OT): January 30, 2010

 

 

This will hereby be known as the Andre Miller game, or the game when the guy you probably least expected to drop 52 points dropped 52 points. Let's experience all 52 of those points together.

 

 

 

16.  Sacramento Kings 96, Milwaukee Bucks 95: December 19, 2009

 

 

 

Up until this game, there was a legitimate debate about whether Brandon Jennings or Tyreke Evans was the NBA's top rookie. That debate ended right around the time this game happened. Jennings played well, with 15 points and nine assists, but it was Evans who came up with the incredible play when it mattered most. Sactown Royalty's headline on their game recap was, appropriately, "Bailed Out By A Star." That alone was the difference between Evans and Jennings, and everyone learned that for good in this game.

It was also a fun game between two teams that, at the time, were squeezing the most out of their limited talent. Both teams played extremely hard and the game was tight throughout. It might not have been the most exciting game ever, but it had it's fair share of drama even if you eliminate the Jennings-Evans symbolism. 

15.  Cleveland Cavaliers 106, Atlanta Hawks 101: December 30, 2009

 

 

One night before, the Cavaliers had blown out the Hawks, but LeBron James had only 14 points. You therefore had the ultimate settle-the-score setup, with the Hawks geared up to make a statement after failing the first time and LeBron smelling blood after a terrible first game. What resulted was this thriller, where LeBron scored 48 points (on his birthday no less) even as the Hawks put forth an absolutely outstanding effort to maintain the lead for most of the night. The game had playoff intensity, some incredible highlight moments, tough shots by LeBron and Joe Johnson and a wild finish.

Actually, the wild finish is probably what puts this game down a couple notches. You want endings to be improbable, but do you really want to see someone win because Anderson Varejao of all people hits a go-ahead three-pointer? It's so improbable that it leaves you walking away with an odd taste in your mouth. Still, for the drama that ensued in the first 47:30 of this game, it belongs on this list.

14.  Los Angeles Lakers 108, Miami Heat 107: December 4, 2009

 

 

Nobody expected this to be much of a game. Miami got blown out in Denver the night before, and playing in Denver takes a lot out of you. In fact, I explicitly remember skipping this game to go out because I figured it would be a blowout. 

Boy was I wrong. Instead of rolling over, the Heat played an incredible game against a fully-healthy Lakers club (though they didn't have Lamar Odom after he got thrown out), and should have escaped with the win. That is, until Kobe Bryant struck. Let's look at that buzzer-beater again.

 

 

I think it's safe to say nobody will top that buzzer beater this season.

13.  Milwaukee Bucks 129, Golden State Warriors 125: November 14, 2009

 


 

This is also known as the "Brandon Jennings Double Nickel game." Here's hoping that Jennings' career isn't all downhill from there, as his current season has been.

 

 

 

12.  Boston Celtics 112, Miami Heat 106 (OT): January 9, 2010

 

 

I'll admit it: some of the games above this one are above it for their symbolism rather than because they were necessarily better individual games. In fact, I originally had this game in my honorable mention category. But then I went back and watched the highlights and remembered just how incredible a game it actually was.

In terms of best pure games, no strings attached, this one has to be right at the top. It featured a great comeback by the cagey, veteran Celtics, a great counter-run by the Heat that featured a breathtaking sequence by arguably the most exciting player in the game (Dwyane Wade) and possibly the best out-of-bounds play of the season that resulted in a Rajon Rondo game-tying alleyoop. Alas, the Celtics showed their age in the coming weeks and the Heat continue to be inconsistent, but we'll always have this game.

11.  Phoenix Suns 109, Los Angeles Clippers 107: October 28, 2009

 

 

A forgotten classic, because it was one of the many great opening-night games on the slate. By this point, even the most ardent NBA fans were overwhelmed. But those that did catch this one missed a vintage performance by Steve Nash. With the Clippers winning the whole way through, Nash scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, including that ridiculous dipsy-doo layup to give the Suns the win. 

Admittedly, this game is up here as much for its symbolism as for the actual game. Don't get me wrong: it was a great game and a great candidate for this list. But consider the context for a second. The Suns came into the year as a falling power, with Nash doomed to decline as the rest of the Suns roster couldn't pick up the slack. The Clippers, meanwhile, came into the season with a ton of optimism, even if Blake Griffin was already hurt. In one fell swoop, Nash proved that he not only has aged like fine whine, but that he can also carry his team to victory even now. Nash, and the Suns, have had a superlative season since, while the Clippers continue to underachieve and experience terrible disappointment with injuries, bad trades and coaching issues. 

Is it fair to say Nash's fourth quarter on opening night singlehandily elevated the Suns and killed the Clippers? Probably not. But if you believe in karma, this was good karma for the Suns.

10.  Houston Rockets 120, Minnesota Timberwolves 114 (3OT): January 13, 2010

 

 

Seeing as this is the only triple-overtime game of the season, it has to be in the top 10, even if it was between two nondescript teams. It also featured a half-court shot, which is always exciting.

Here's an interesting debate: which buzzer-beater was better? Corey Brewer's half-court shot, or Kobe's fadeaway three against Miami? 

9.  Cleveland Cavaliers 92, Miami Heat 91: January 25, 2010

 

 

This is where I throw a nod to casual fans. This game wasn't the most well played, nor did it feature the most electric atmosphere. However, it was LeBron James vs. Dwyane Wade, with both playing at an extremely high level (until Wade's strange turnovers down the stretch). That alone makes it one of the best games of the season. Even the most avid NBA fans, who prefer watching a great game between two unknown teams instead of a bad game featuring two stars, have to admit that this LeBron/Wade duel was fun.

8.  Utah Jazz 97, Cleveland Cavaliers 96: January 14, 2010

 

 

This game is best known as the "Sundiata Gaines Game." The unknown former D-League player, in his first fifth game since being called up from the D-League's Utah Flash Idaho Stampede, hit an improbable buzzer beater to beat the best team in the NBA. There's a lot of symbolism to the shot itself, because while D-League players have made their mark on the league, they still were doing so on the fringes. Gaines' shot gave some much-needed publicity to the league and to the players that come through it. Here's what SB Nation's D-League blog Ridiculous Upside wrote the day after the shot:

Gaines, essentially, summed up everything that I love about the D-League last night.  He didn't get anything handed to him growing up, he realized the D-League gave him a unique opportunity, and then, when he got that opportunity, he took advantage of it.

Opportunity is essentially all one needs, and to see Gaines get it, then dominate it, was amazing.  Seriously, it inspired me.

However, there was also some symbolism for the Jazz. Since that game, the Jazz have emerged as a genuine threat in the Western Conference. I'd argue that few teams are playing as well as they are right now. Sure, it started before that game, but they had to have received a ton of confidence for beating the best team in the league, even though their star player didn't finish the game. Utah's rise was one of the big stories of January, and I don't think it happens if they don't win this game.

7.  Los Angeles Lakers 107, Milwaukee Bucks 106 (OT): December 16, 2009

 

 

This game is best-known for featuring another Kobe buzzer-beater, and that was an incredible shot (though, ironically, it was basically the same shot he missed in regulation). But this was also an incredible game.

The Bucks really should have won this game. They deserved it for the way they fought and I can't really imagine them playing any better under the circumstances. But they got victimized by a couple questionable calls down the stretch (the Bogut play was clearly a charge), and that's all Kobe needed to win it for the Lakers. SB Nation's Bucks blog Brew Hoop took the high road at the time, blaming the Bucks for not closing the Lakers out, but the Bucks kind of got screwed. All that, of course, added to the intrigue of the game, which explains why it's higher than the Lakers-Heat game that featured a different Kobe buzzer beater. 

6.  Oklahoma City Thunder 94, Atlanta Hawks 91: January 18, 2010

 

 

 

Why is this game so high? Simply put, it was the best display of pure athletic talent that we've seen all season. It's only fitting that the game ended on a spectacular Jeff Green dunk, which of course came on the supremely athletic Josh Smith. One of my favorite pieces of NBA writing came following this game, when Bethlehem Shoals of Fanhouse postulated that this game represented a changing of the guard in terms of optimal team-building. His argument: the Hawks and Thunder, both filled with athletic do-everything swingmen, are the new model.

Fine, point guards are routinely projected to play well with others, and centers, anchors of winning teams for years to come. And come on, LeBron is so good, the Cavs can be as unimaginative as they want and still contend. Yet herein lies the beauty of Kevin Durant, and to some degree, Josh Smith. When you get uber-talented, versatile players who defy position, they practically demand a team reconsider its structure and strategy. And with that, comes freedom, the freedom to throw out the blueprint, smush lottery picks together and try to make sense of it all. After all, it would be nuts to waste either of them at their best or force them into a slot they don't fit. 

That's not to say the Durant or Smith is better than LeBron. They're not. But to get the most out of them, and thus give a team the best shot at winning, front offices and coaches might need to rip up the standard operating procedure and go all rogue on the NBA's conventional wisdom.    

I think even Shoals would say he went a bit over-the-top with the conclusion. But the fact that the thought is even logical is a testament to how great this Hawks-Thunder game was. It was good enough that it forced us to rethink the dominant big man/dominant point guard team-building paradigm.

5.  Orlando Magic 123, New Orleans Hornets 117: February 8, 2010

 

 

This is commonly known as the "Vince Carter Game," but to me, this game was also about the Orlando Magic as a whole. By that, I mean that it was a microcosm of their season. One half of apathy, followed by one half of brilliance. It's Orlando in a nutshell. They can be so incredibly good, better than anyone in basketball, but they can also be so bad that they're beaten by anyone.

Actually, this was all about Vince. It characterizes him perfectly. Here's a guy who can put together stretches where he's unstoppable, but he can't do it consistently. It's odd to think this, but I actually came away somewhat disappointed by Carter's performance. He score 48 points, but he did it so effortlessly in the second half that I actually got mad that he doesn't do it more often, because it just seemed so easy. That, right there, is the Vince Carter conundrum.

4.  Cleveland Cavaliers 93, Los Angeles Lakers 87: January 21, 2010

 

The game was a bit ragged at times, but it was also insanely competitive and lived up to its hype. I'd say more, but instead, I'll just direct you to this live-blog of the game.

3.  Atlanta Hawks 102, Boston Celtics 96: January 11, 2010

 

You might say that this is a bit high for a game that wasn't decided by a single basket and didn't go into overtime, but I would argue with you to the death. The bottom line for me? This game had it all. Playoff intensity? Check. Dramatic shots in the fourth quarter? Check. Tempers flaring? Check. Was it an upset? At the time, yes, so check. Big-time players making big-time plays? Check. Losing fans complaining about the officiating? Check.

Most importantly, this game had symbolism. Sure, the Hawks had beaten the Celtics twice already, but this was the game in which Boston took their best shot at Atlanta. The Hawks took it and fired back with their own best shot, and it was enough to beat the Celtics. This game confirmed that these were not your same Hawks from 2008, who bothered the Celtics before ultimately falling. No, these Hawks were better than the Celtics, and the ensuing month only further proved that.  

2.  Memphis Grizzlies 86, Oklahoma City Thunder 84: January 22, 2010

 

 

I can't tell you how badly I wanted to rank this game first. Seriously. This was the ultimate showcase of the two most promising young teams in the league, and it ended in a perfect way with Rudy Gay's buzzer beater. All the key players starred, particularly Kevin Durant. Both teams played great defense all night, showing the type of effort you don't usually see from young teams. Both teams played together and didn't beat themselves. It was a great showcase of the future of this league.

Alas, I couldn't do it. I just couldn't. 

1.  Los Angeles Lakers 90, Boston Celtics 89: January 31, 2010

 

 

This game kind of just speaks for itself. You saw a fading great team give their best shot, only to come up short in the end because of Kobe Bryant. For the Celtics, this was their Microcosm Game. What's a Microcosm Game? It's a game where you work as hard as possible and overcome adversity, only to have the game snatched from your fingers in the end. It's the game where you realize you just aren't as good as you thought you were, because you played as hard as possible and still came up short. The Wizards' Microcosm Game, for example, was in mid-December against Toronto, when they made a furious rally against a bad team, only to blow it when Hedo Turkoglu hit an impossible fadeaway in the corner and Gilbert Arenas missed a layup to tie it again. That was when I knew the Wizards' ship wasn't turning around.

This January 31 game was when we realized the Celtics were not the Celtics of old. Now, only a trade will revive them. That's why this game is the best game of the year.

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