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ESPN's Greatest NBA Playoff Series: Travesty!

File this under "old news", because I realize that the GOAT post by John Hollinger was posted June 7th and was only updated to include the Finals this season.

But, since I was recovering from surgery and likely wouldn't have believe what I saw anyway due to the heavy dosage of pain pills, I offer myself a belated opportunity to comment on theTop 50 All time NBA playoff series.



Look closely, if you can, to the painful click-every-ten-series-no-option-for-full-page rankings, done by magic formula explained by John in the "Intro" page. What you'll find there are many truly classic series that'll instantly snap you back to whatever couch you were sitting on when the series was going on. 

These aren't relegated to Finals only, either. Conference finals and semifinals are also, included, as well as the Dikembe Mutombo/Robert Pack led Nugget upset of the Sonics.

It's a good list, but one that ultimately has to be thrown out, due to an exclusion that, based on the series that make the mathematical and then later editorial Hollinger cut, wrecks the whole lists' credibility.

That exclusion? 

Oh, a little thing called the 1988 Eastern semifinals between your Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics.

Oh yeah, that's right, Atlanta's own John Hollinger leaves out the single greatest series in Atlanta Hawks' history and a battle that passes the national "yup, that was great" test and still haunts its participants to this day.

How did this happen? Sure, Games 1-4 didn't pass the close final score list with none of the four finishing with less than a nine point margin. But the top seeded Celtics, still firing on a ton of cylinders with Bird, McHale, Ainge, and Parish, won the first two games over the 4th seeded Hawks, but then the Hawks stormed back to win those next two games, evening the series at 2 games apiece.

Aside from the final score factor, the series had a lot of what Hollinger included as criteria for the list:

First of all, obviously, there has to be something important at stake. By definition, playoff series pass this test, but the deeper we go into the spring, the greater the magnitude of any given playoff series on the eventual championship. By this standard, the same result in an NBA Finals is of far greater significance than it is in the first round.

Second, we need to have good teams involved, or preferably great ones. A tight, seven-game series between 45-win teams is fun and all; but the same series between 60-win juggernauts leaves us breathless.

Third, the longer the better -- both because it indicates a more competitive series and because, as fans, we crave a lengthy battle. It goes without saying that seven games is better than six, which is better than five, and so on down the line. I also adjusted this parameter to allow for some of the old best-of-five and best-of-three first-round series.

Fourth, we want close games, and in particular the heart-stopping, white-knuckle, last-second variety. My formula accounts both for how close the games were and how many overtimes were played.


Something important at stake? The apex of a young, exciting Hawks team against a dynasty, a clash of two of the top 5 PER players of that season (Larry Bird-2nd, Dominique Wilkins-5th), in a classically tough Eastern Conference in the 1980's. Plus, the Hawks had never been past the second round of the playoffs since their 1968 move to Atlanta and were at the crossroad of greatness as a team.


Both the Hawks and Celtics won over 50 games and were in the top 4 in the NBA in Basketball Reference's in their Simple Rating System. These were regarded as two of the top teams in the league, even if it was a second round game.


Regarding points number 3 and 4, the series went all seven games, including three concluding games that didn't get any better as it pertained to even the casual NBA fan.

Game 5 was a shocker upset in the Garden and put the Hawks one win away from tossing out the C's and ending their dynasty. 

Game 6 was a classic at the Omni--the single greatest game in the city's history, and an unfortunate symbol of Hawks basketball to this day.

Game 7 was another classic--this time a duel between the two basketball giants, Bird and Nique, in the Garden with everything on the line. 

Sure the first four games threw off the scoring margin curve, but the Hawks storming back at home after dropping the first two games, setting up that Garden upset in Game 5 and serving to build the drama to a fevered pitch that was resolved magnificently in Game 6 and 7 should enhance, not destroy the legacy of this series.

I didn't go very far in looking, but Sports Illustrated featured both the Series and Game 7 in a recollection of great playoff moments, and I personally love Steve Holman's comments about the series--biased no doubt due to his Boston roots and Hawks legend status--when looking back on his career in 2006.

Face it, John, you blew it. This was an all-time great series and shouldn't take a back seat to some of the nice, but far from memorable series in this ESPN list of record---statistics be darned.

Finally, go check out all the video from this series---it's a classic, and hey, anytime you can check out Bird and Nique, you gotta do it. 

Enjoy one of the greatest playoffs of all time, even if ESPN didn't think so. Nyeah!