This list is for the greatest playoff series in NBA history, it will not include NBA Finals series.
5) 1998 Eastern Conference Finals Chicago Bulls over the Indiana Pacers 4-3
During the two repeats by Michael Jordans Chicago Bulls this is the closest they ever came to losing a series. The Pacers were loaded and led by Reggie Miller maybe the greatest clutch shooter in NBA history. The Bulls won the first two games in Chicago as expected but then Reggie Miller would assert himself in Indianapolis.
The Pacers would escape with a two-point win in Game 3; in Game 4, Reggie Miller did his best MJ impression, hitting a jumper at the buzzer to tie the series at 2–2. Game 5 was a dominant Chicago win, which brings us to yet another classic as in game 6 92-89.
Back to Chicago game 7 and Jordan guaranteed a game 7 win, but the Pacers were unfazed as game 7 would be a battle to the end. Indiana raced off to a 20–7 lead and was still ahead 79–77 with less than six minutes left. The Bulls would pull out an 88-83 win.
4) 1987 Eastern Conference Finals Boston Celtics over the Detroit Pistons 4-3
This series started as expected with the young Pistons getting beat down in the first two games at the Boston Garden. A sweep looked eminent that is until Bill Laimbeer decided to take matters into his own hands. Laimbeer decided to set the tone by taking a shot at the legendary Larry bird in the second quarter and Bird exploded in rage firing the ball at Laimbeer, from there the Pistons seemed to awaken and blew out Boston in games 3 and 4 sending the game back to the Boston Garden for the pivotal game 5.
In what is arguably the greatest play in NBA playoff history, Bird, with the Celtics trailing in the waning seconds, stole Isiah Thomas’ inbounds pass, threw it underneath to Dennis Johnson, and, just like that, the Pistons had choked, and the Celtics escaped with an unfathomable win. Game 6 was a close hard-fought battle won by the Pistons to send the series to the decisive game 7 in Boston.
Danny Ainge 3-pointer with 3 minutes left put Boston ahead for good, but it was clear during this series that the Pistons had arrived as a serious title contender and the next year they would take out Boston in 6 games to claim the first Eastern Conference Title in franchise history.
3) 1995 Eastern Conference Finals Pacers over the Knicks 4-3
Reggie Miller really burst into national conscience with his game 5 performance in Madison Square Garden as he abused the Knicks and their superfan Spike Lee. But of course, that was in 1994, now we have moved to 1995 and the stage was set for an epic rematch. Game 1 set the tone as the Knicks outplayed the Pacers, but Reggie Miller came to the rescue with perhaps the most improbable ending to a playoff game ever. Reggie would score 8 points in the last 9 seconds as Lee and all the fans at MSG sat in shocked silence.
The Pacers took a 3–1 series lead, But Ewing helped the Knicks stave off elimination with a buzzer-beater in Game 5, before dropping 25 and 15 on the road in Game 6 to send the series back to the Garden. Game 7 was another classic down to the buzzer game which ended with Ewing missing a layup as time expired to send the Pacers on to the Conference Finals.
2) 2002 Western Conference Finals Lakers over the Kings 4-3
The Lakers were trying to 3-peat and it would not be easy for Shaq and Kobe as they did battle with a very good Sacramento Kings team. The Kings were good and if they would have won the series it would not have been a huge upset as they had the league’s best offense, the deepest bench, and the game’s best power-forward, Chris Webber.
To make matters worse for the lakers, well they looked tired, Shaq and Kobe were feuding and they were thin on the bench, plus the Kings were better in the regular season than the Lakers and because of that, they had home-court advantage.
The Kings entered game 4 with a 2-1 series lead and had a 24-point lead in Los Angels and the Lakers looked all but done, but the Lakers managed to erase the deficit, setting up Robert Horry’s greatest hit, a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give the Lakers a win and new life, tying the series at 2–2.
Game 5 was capped off by a game-winner from Mike Bibby before the Lakers forced a seventh game. In-game 7 Kobe and Shaq put differences aside and combined for 65 points and an overtime win to advance to another Finals.
1) 1981 Eastern Conference Finals Boston over Philly 4-3
To me this is the greatest series in NBA history even if you include finals, it had everything from a classic game 7 ending at the famed Boston Graden and a team overcoming 3 games to 1 deficit. What also made it great is that it is maybe the greatest rivalry in NBA history, plus Bird vs Julius Erving.
Larry Bird hit the game-winning jumper with 1:03 left. Maurice Cheeks had a chance to tie it at the free-throw line with 29 seconds left, but he missed 1 of 2 free-throw attempts, and the Celtics hung on for the win. Then Dr.J missed a shot as time ran out. A total of 10 hall of famers played in this series and the Celtics would go on to win their first NBA title while being led by Larry Bird. The Sixers would finally get the Doctor a ring two years later in 1983. All games in the series were close except for a 20 point Celtics win in game 2. 5 of the games were decided by a total of 8 points.