Top 10 Playoff Series of the Decade - Part II

January 5, 2010

Here is Part II of our top playoff series of the decade - the Top 5.

5. "Cursed Again" - Yankees defeat Red Sox, 4-3 (2003 ALCS)

In a classic series between the rivals, the teams split the first two games before going to Boston for Game 3. That game will always be remembered for the on-field brawl that occurred when Manny Ramirez charged the mound after Roger Clemens threw up and in. In the subsequent bench-clearing melee 72-year old Yankee pitching coach Don Zimmer appeared to swing at Pedro Martinez, who promptly tossed the old man to the ground. Clemens eventually got the win over Martinez in a 4-3 game.

The teams split the next two in Boston, leaving the Yankees with a 3-2 lead going home. Game 6 in New York saw the Red Sox use six pitchers and rally late to win 9-6, setting up a memorable Game 7.

In the finale, Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez controlled the Yankees hitters for seven innings and the Red Sox led 5-2 going into the bottom of the 8th inning. When Martinez began to struggle, Boston manager Grady Little infamously left him in the game only to watch the Yankees tie the score 5-5. Mariano Rivera pitched three scoreless innings before Aaron Boone hit a dramatic home run for the Yankees in the bottom of the 11th inning to dash Boston's hopes once again.

4. "Curse Reversed" - Red Sox defeat Yankees, 4-3(2004 ALCS)

After the shattering ALCS loss to the Yankees the year before, the Red Sox appeared both physically and psychologically overmatched by the Bronx Bombers in 2004. The Yankees quickly took a 3-0 lead in the series, outscoring the Red Sox 19-8 in the process, and everyone was openly discussing "the curse" that would destroy Boston once again.

However, a gutty Game 4 win revealed that this Red Sox team had more fire than some of the others. Down 4-3 in the 9th inning and facing postseason closing ace Mariano Rivera, the Red Sox rallied to tie the game. A home run by David Ortiz in the 12th inning allowed the Red Sox to avoid the sweep, but appeared at the time to be simply a "moral victory" for Boston.

In Game 5, the Red Sox trailed by two runs going into the 8th inning, but once again tied the game, in part thanks to another Ortiz home run, to force extra innings. This time the game went 14 innings and was at the time the longest ALCS game in history. Ortiz was once against the hero as he singled home the winning run for a 5-4 victory.

Game 6 featured Curt Schilling's "bloody sock" performance and a controversial interference call against Alex Rodriguez that provoked the angry New York fans to throw debris on to the field. Police were called and the Red Sox ultimately held on for a 4-2 victory to set up Game 7.

In the finale, the Red Sox completed the historic comeback with a surprisingly easy 10-3 victory over their hated rivals. The Red Sox then went on to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series, emphatically putting an end to the "Red Sox curse" mythology.

3. "Battle of Champions" - Spurs defeat Pistons, 4-3 (2005 NBA Finals)

In what is surely one of the most underrated playoff series of all time, the 2003 NBA Champion Spurs faced the 2004 NBA Champion Pistons in the 2005 Finals. The match up also pitted the top two defensive teams in the league, as San Antonio and Detroit were #1 and #2 in fewest points allowed that sesason. The game also pitted highly regarded coaches Greg Poppovich and Larry Brown against one another.

Manu Ginobili (the only player in history with an NBA Championship, EuroLeague Championship, and Olympic Gold Medal) starred in Game 1, scoring 26 points and leading San Antonio to an 84-69 victory. Game 2 was dominated by the Argenitinian guard once again, as his 27 points and 7 assists led San Antonio to an easy 97-76 victory that led many to believe that this would be short series as the teams headed for the next 3 games in Detroit.

Not so fast. The Pistons struck back at home in Game 3 with a 96-79 victory behind Richard Hamilton's 24 points and Ben Wallace's 5 blocks. Game 4 was an even bigger Piston blowout as seven Detroit players scored in double figures in a 102-71 domination of the Spurs.

However, the best game of the series took place in Game 5. The contest featured 12 lead changes and 18 ties and added another chapter in the playoff legend of Robert Horry.

Horry, who was scoreless until the final play of the 3rd quarter, went wild in the 4th quarter and overtime and finished with 21 points. His left-handed 4th quarter dunk in traffic was one of the two biggest highlights of the game. The other was Horry's 3-pointer with mere seconds remaining in overtime to give the Spurs the 96-95 victory. Tim Duncan added 26 points and 19 Rebounds for the Spurs while Chauncey Billups scored 34 in Detroit's losing effort.

However, the Pistons once again proved themselves true champions in Game 6, pulling out a solid road victory, 95-86, behind 23 points from Richard Hamilton and some stifling 4th quarter defense. That set up only the third Game 7 since the 2-3-2 format was adopted by the NBA in 1985, and the only NBA Finals Game 7 of the decade.

Game 7 was another close, defense-oriented game. However, the Spurs were able to make all the big plays early in the 4th quarter behind Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, who scored 25 and 23 points respectively. In the midst of a timeout during a last-ditch rally by the Pistons, coach Larry Brown tried to inspire his team and simply stated, "I love you guys." But the Pistons could not finish the comeback as the Spurs won, 91-84. Duncan also added 11 rebounds and was named NBA Finals MVP for the third time.

2. "November Classic" - Diamondbacks defeat Yankees, 4-3 (2001 World Series)

As a result of the postponement of games in September as a result of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City, the World Series actually went into the month of November for the first time ever. The Yankees and their fans were especially charged up going into the series after the 9/11 events, which made the series games in New York that much more dramatic. The Yankees were also seeking their fourth straight title.

However, Games 1 and 2 in Arizona were dominated by the Diamondbacks, who outscored the Yankees 13-1 in those games. The powerful pitching of starters Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling appeared too much for New York and it seemed the series would be over quickly.

Game 3 was a tight contest which the Yankees prevailed in 2-1 behind the strong pitching of Roger Clemens and closer Mariano Rivera. In Game 4, the Diamondbacks held a 3-1 lead with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th inning, but Arizona closer Byung-Hyun Kim gave up a two-run home run to Tino Martinez to tie the game. In the 10th, Derek Jeter hit an opposite field home run to secure the 4-3 victory.

The Diamondbacks led again going into the 9th inning of Game 5, this time 2-0. Once again Kim was called to close the game and again he failed, this time giving up a two-run homer to Scott Brosius and sending Yankee fans into a frenzy. The Yankees went on to win their 3rd one-run game in a row in 12 innings, 3-2. There was sense that the Yankees were simply destined to win this emotional series for the pride of New York.

Yet Arizona was still confident going home as they had Johnson and Schilling ready for Games 6 and 7. In Game 6, Johnson shut down the Yankees and the Arizona hitters set a World Series record with 22 hits to cruise to an easy 15-2 win. In the three games in Arizona, the Diamondbacks had outscored the Yankees 28-3, and it appeared with Schilling on the mound, Game 7 might be another blowout.

However, the 39-year old Roger Clemens was in command for the Yankees and held the Arizona hitters in check for 7 innings. With the Yankees leading 2-1 going into the 8th inning, Joe Torre turned to dominant closer Mariano Rivera who quickly struck out the side. In a highly intelligent move of his own, Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly wisely did not use closer Byung-Hyun Kim again but put in the previous night's starter, Randy Johnson, to finish the 8th and then pitch the 9th inning to keep it a one-run game.

In the bottom of the 9th, Rivera gave up a single and then made a poor throw to 2nd base, leaving two on. Tony Womack then doubled to score the tying run and Rivera hit the next batter to load the bases. With the infield in, Luis Gonzales blooped a single to score the winning run and the Diamondbacks pulled off the dramatic Game 7 victory.

1. "Dynasty Preserved" - Lakers defeat Kings, 4-3 (2002 Conference Finals)

The greatest playoff series of the decade was between two California rivals that had developed a genuine dislike for one another. Each of the previous two seasons the Lakers had eliminated the Kings from the playoffs, actually sweeping them in four games in 2001. The Los Angeles Lakers had gone on to win NBA Titles in 2000 and 2001, but this time they did not have the home court advantage against the up-tempo, upstart Sacramento Kings.

Additionally by 2002 the young Kings had reached their full potential and their was real anticipation about whether this exciting Sacramento team could dethrone the Lakers. Sacramento's passionate fans burned Laker jerseys and emitted an open hatred for Los Angeles, whom they viewed as being cocky, arrogant, and generally dismissive of their team. Comments by Lakers coach Phil Jackson deerisively describing Sacramento as a "cow town" didn't improve relations either.

However the Laker's struck first and behind Kobe's 30 and Shaq's 26, the Lakers took Game 1 in Sacramento, 106-99. The Kings responded in Game 2 by holding the Lakers to 40% shooting. Five Kings scored in double figures while going 7-12 on 3-point shots. O'Neal still scored 35 points for the Lakers in the losing effort.

Game 3 saw the series go to Los Angeles, where it was expected the two-time defending champions would take control of the series. Yet Game 3 saw the Kings utterly dominate the Lakers behind 26 from Chris Webber and 24 from Mike Bibby. The Kings led by 23 going into the 4th quarter and cruised to an easy 103-90 victory.

With the pressure on the Lakers to win Game 4, the defending champions came out remarkably flat and were down 20 points after the 1st period alone. The lead went as high as 24 points before the Lakers, with their season and their place in history on the line, began to make a frantic comeback in the 2nd half. Along the way Shaq kept the Lakers close by hitting 9 of his 13 free throws and grabbing 18 rebounds.

But Game 4 will forever be linked to the exploits of Robert Horry. Horry scored 11 points in the 4th quarter and ultimately finished 5-6 from 3-point land. His 4th 3-pointer reduced the Kings lead to 96-93 with 1:39 left in the game. The Laker's ultimately cut the lead to 98-96 and had the ball for a final possession. After successive misses by Bryant and O'Neal, Kings Center Vlade Divac attempted to tap a loose ball past halfcourt to end the game...only the ball went straight to Horry whose buzzer beating 3-pointer was the signature shot of the decade and gave the Lakers an improbable 100-99 victory.

What made this the greatest series of the decade however, was that even after the unforgettable Game 4, the teams played three more incredible games.

Game 5 in Sacramento was another nailbiter. Chris Webber scored 29 points and Mike Bibby hit a jump shot with with 8.2 seconds left to give the Kings a 92-91 lead. Kobe Bryant's missed a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer giving the Kings the one-point win. Laker fans complained that Bryant was fouled on the last play, citing the fact his jersey became untucked during the shot. Phil Jackson also openly complained about the free throw disparity in that game.

Game 6 was another tremendous contest, as O'Neal and Bryant combined for 72 points for a close Laker victory in Los Angeles, 106-102. Kings fans bitterly complained about the officiating in that game, as the Lakers held a significant free throw advantage, shooting 27 free throws in the 4th quarter alone. Some in the media even felt Bryant got away with an offensive foul when he elbowed Mike Bibby in the face late in the 4th quarter.

Against a very heated backdrop, the teams played a dramatic Game 7 in Sacramento. Many believed the Kings had outplayed the Lakers to this point in the series, and when they started strong in the 1st half, it appeared the deafening crowd noise and the energy of the younger team would be too much for them.

During a memorable timeout in the 1st half, Laker coach Phil Jackson stared down his beleagured team, looked each in the eye, and then, pointing first at Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, yelled loudly, "You! You! You!...get back on defense!" The angry and challenging tone directed at his superstar players seemed to energize all of the Lakers, who closed the 1st half strong.

In a see-saw 2nd half, the Kings had numerous chances to pull away. However, they went only 16-30 from the foul line in the game and went 2-20 from 3-point land. The Kings free throw line struggles were all the more glaring as O'Neal, a notoriously poor foul shooter, made 11 of 15 from the line.

Rick Fox (13 points), Derek Fisher (13 points), and Robert Horry (16 points) all made big 3-pointers for the Lakers in the 4th quarter and eventually the game went into overtime. Bryant finished with 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists while O'Neal scored 35 points and grabbed 13 rebounds as Los Angeles made the big plays in overtime to secure an impressive and gutty 112-106 victory on the road. It was the greatest triumph for the best team of the decade.

Manish Pandya
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.Com

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