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(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

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NBA Finals Vengeance

The NBA Finals are great, and revenge is sweet. When you can combine both, you are really onto something. Since 1980, there have been eight Revenge Champions — teams that were avenging a prior Finals loss to the same team. These are their stories.

Since the birth of the modern NBA in 1980, there have been eight Revenge Championships. (A Revenge Championship is one that a team wins by defeating the team they’d lost a prior championship to.) They are as follows:

  • The Sixers in 1983.
  • The Lakers in 1985.
  • The Pistons in 1989.
  • The Lakers in 2010.
  • The Mavericks in 2011.
  • The Spurs in 2014. (Hallelujah.)
  • The Cavs in 2016.
  • The Warriors in 2017.

Now, to be clear, a Revenge Championship doesn’t have to happen the year immediately following the initial loss. It can happen whenever, so long as the principal pieces of the team(s) are still involved. We’re going to talk about all of that, though, and about each of the ones listed above. First, though, a tiny story:

Sometime back in late 2002 or early 2003, I got into a version of a fight at a nightclub. I was in college at the time and a couple of friends and I were riding around not doing anything good or productive one night, and so we ended up at a place called the Jolly Fox, which was as terrible as the name implies.

A guy I’d seen on campus but never spoken to did a thing that I thought was disrespectful, I confronted him about it, we got into a shouting match, we got separated by people standing near us, and then a few minutes later I snuck up behind him while he was on the dance floor and punched him in the side of the head. He tumbled off to the side and I disappeared into the crowd before he could fully recover.

As far as matters like these are generally concerned, I understand that punching him when he wasn’t looking was a cowardly move, but he was a cowardly person and so I felt completely justified in my actions back then and still do today, obviously. (FYI: He found out shortly thereafter that it was me who punched him and for the rest of our time at school together, he never once tried to do anything about it. You might argue that his nonresponse was proof that he was the smarter, more respectful, more mature person. I would argue that his nonresponse was proof that he was as I’d assumed: a coward.)

Anyway, I tell this story to say: Delivering that Revenge Punch to him felt good. So good. So, so good. It filled my body with insta-light and insta-joy. And what’s wild — or, rather, what’s at least relevant here, is that, from the time of the initial altercation until the time he got revenge-punched, it was maybe only 10 minutes that had elapsed. That was the total amount of time that I had to live from the start of everything until the end. I can’t even imagine how good a Revenge Championship feels after living with that first loss for at least a full year.

The 1982–83 Philadelphia 76ers

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Scenario: The Sixers beat the Lakers in the 1983 Finals (4–0). It was revenge not only for the 1982 Finals (4–2, Lakers), but also the 1980 Finals (4–2, Lakers).

Some Stuff to Consider: Three big revenge things here:

1. This was an Extra Revenge Championship since the Lakers had beaten the Sixers twice before. It’s the only Extra Revenge Title that has ever happened. (I’m not counting the Lakers beating the Celtics after losing eight times to them because it was an entirely different Lakers team.)

2. The 1980 Finals were when Dr. J did his iconic up-and-under move that gets played endlessly during the clips of all-time great NBA plays. If they happen in the playoffs, you want those moments to come in the years you win a title because otherwise there will always be someone there ready to point out, "Yeah, but y’all lost that year, so." I’d guess there’s at least a tiny bit of Dr. J that, even today, when he sees that play, thinks about how it happened during a series his team lost. The 1983 title helps soften that.

3. The 1980 Finals was also the one when Magic, then a rookie, went bonkers in Game 6 to give the title to the Lakers (42–15–7, including a spell at center because Kareem was out with a sprained ankle). It was incredible, and I have to believe that it ate up Dr. J that he’d been outshined by Magic. The 1983 win helps soften that, too.

A thing that’s unrelated to revenge, but still something fun to think about: Dr. J was a mega-winner in the ABA. During his five seasons there, he won two championships, three league MVPs, and three scoring titles. When he showed up in the NBA, though, things didn’t go quite as smoothly. He was still obviously great (he was instantly one of the best players in the league, and he won NBA MVP in 1981), and he was still obviously transcendent (no player has ever exhibited more grace while playing basketball than him), but his Sixers teams just couldn’t win a championship. They made it to the Finals three times (1977, 1980, 1982) and lost in each trip. The Sixers brought in Moses Malone for the 1983 season (who, FYI, was already a two-time league MVP), and that’s when they finally got their title (Moses won the league MVP and Finals MVP that year).

Can you even imagine if something like that had happened today? Can you imagine if a very good team that had lost in the Finals responded by adding an MVP-level talent and then that team won the Finals that next season and the player they added won Finals MVP? Man. I can’t even imagine such a thing.

The 1984–85 Lakers

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Scenario: The Lakers beat the Celtics in the 1985 Finals (4–2). It was revenge for the 1984 Finals (4–3, Celtics).

Some Stuff to Consider: This was a very great Revenge Championship. Three things:

1. The Lakers weren’t just mad that they’d lost the 1984 title, they were mad at the way they’d lost it. Magic Johnson and James Worthy both had choke-type plays at the end of Game 2 that helped give the game to the Celtics. And Magic had another choke-type play at the end of Game 4 that helped give the game to the Celtics. If any of those mess-ups don’t happen, the Lakers win.

2. The 1984 title was the first time Larry Bird and Magic met in the Finals. Bird winning it gave him an edge on Magic, despite both of them having two rings at that point. Magic winning the 1985 title put him back ahead of Bird in that particular conversation.

3. 1985 was the first time the Lakers had ever beaten the Celtics in the Finals. (Here’s a crazy thing: From 1962 to 1970, the Lakers lost seven times in the Finals. SEVEN.)

The 1988–89 Detroit Pistons

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Scenario: The Pistons beat the Lakers in the 1989 Finals (4–0). It was revenge for the 1988 Finals (4–3, Lakers).

Some Stuff to Consider: The Pistons absolutely should’ve won the 1988 Finals. They were up 3–2 in the series and had a one-point lead in Game 6 with less than 20 seconds to go. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar caught the ball in the post, spun toward the baseline for a skyhook, missed it, then got rescued by a nearby ref, who’d called a foul on Bill Laimbeer. Here’s the play:

There’s very little contact, if any.* Kareem made the free throws, the Pistons botched the next play, and the Lakers won the series in seven. The whole "We Were Robbed" thing is always great accelerant for revenge dramas. Another thing, though, is that that same game was also the Isiah Thomas Sprained Ankle Game. And, yes, for sure it has a hallowed place in history already, but can you even imagine how much more cherished it would be if it had been a performance that resulted in a championship?

The main reason Willis Reed gets lifted up as this great hero for playing in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals with a torn muscle in his leg is because his Knicks won. Truth be told, he scored only four points that game and, beyond being an inspirational figure, was mostly useless. Isiah put up 25 in the third quarter alone, including 11 after severely spraining his ankle. If Detroit won the title that year, his spot in history becomes much bigger and much brighter. The Pistons sweeping the Lakers in 1989 included, in small measure, them grabbing back some of that lore that had been snatched away from Isiah.**

*Pat Riley, who was coaching the Lakers that year, talked about how it was a phantom foul at a press conference in 2014.

**It should probably be mentioned here that Byron Scott missed the entire 1989 Finals with a leg injury and also that Magic Johnson missed most of the series with a leg injury, too.

The 2009–10 Los Angeles Lakers

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Scenario: The Lakers beat the Celtics in the 2010 Finals (4–3). It was revenge for the 2008 Finals (4–2, Celtics).

Some Stuff to Consider: Four things for you:

1. The obvious revenge angle is that Kobe and his Lakers had lost in the Finals two years prior to the Celtics.

2. In that 2008 Finals, the Lakers were up 24 points in the second quarter of Game 4, with a chance to tie the series before everything turned to goop and poop in their hands. When they lost that game (and then eventually the series), it hurt Kobe’s legacy some. By the Lakers going back and getting revenge on the Celtics, it turned the story from "Kobe choked," which is how it would have stayed if he hadn’t gotten revenge, to "Kobe showed great resilience by going back and beating the team he’d faltered against," which not only cleaned up the part of his legacy that had been damaged, but also added greater magic to it.

3. The mystic revenge angle to this Finals was that it was the Lakers and Celtics.

4. The best revenge angle was that Kobe was still trying to outdo Shaq, his former teammate and longtime nemesis. After the Lakers had beaten the Celtics, a reporter asked Kobe what the title meant to him personally. His response was quick and perfect:

It remains an all-time great Kobe moment.

The 2010–11 Dallas Mavericks

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Scenario: The Mavericks beat the Heat in the 2011 Finals (4–2). It was revenge for the 2006 Finals (4–2, Heat).

Some Stuff to Think About: I’m probably cheating a little bit by including this one, what with Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry being the only members of the Mavericks who were there for the 2006 loss, but how could I resist, what with all of the tinier revenge angles tucked away inside the series. There was:

1. Revenge by Proxy: I’m certain there was no bigger Mavericks fan than Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, then-leader of the Down With LeBron coalition.

2. Immediate Revenge: The Heat, leading 1–0 in the series, went on a 13–0 run in the fourth quarter to push their lead to 15 with just over seven minutes to play. When Dwyane Wade hit the 3 to put them up 15, which felt a lot like a gut-shot death blow, he stood in front of the Mavericks bench and celebrated, and LeBron joined him, too, and it was all just way too much to handle if you were a Mavs fan or an anti-LeBron fan. The Mavs then went on a miraculous 22–5 run, including a Dirk Nowitzki layup to win the game, and it was all just way too much to handle if you were a Heat fan or a pro-LeBron fan.

3. Rich White Guy Revenge: Mark Cuban finally got his vindication.

4. Legacy Revenge: Dirk going Super Saiyan in the playoffs that year was officially the end of the "Dirk Can’t Win It" criticism (and you could possibly say the same for Jason Kidd, though he definitely never faced as heated a version of it as Dirk did).

The 2013–14 San Antonio Spurs

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Scenario: The Spurs beat the Heat in the 2014 Finals (4–1). It was revenge for the 2013 Finals (4–3, Heat).

Some Stuff to Think About: My beloved 2013 Spurs came maybe as close as you could possibly get to winning a championship without actually winning it. I remember hearing Chris Bosh talk about how, after the Spurs had grabbed a five-point lead with about 30 seconds to go in Game 6 of a series they led 3–2, he saw NBA officials beginning to rope off the court for the eventual celebration. He said it was at that moment that the Heat decided they absolutely were not losing that game. When I heard him say that I was like, "Come the fuck on. THAT’S what did it? THAT’S why y’all won? It wasn’t the fact that it was the NBA Finals? It was some rope?" It just sounded very ridiculous and very much like he was just trying to say something cool. (Of course, to be fair to Bosh, who I love and think is excellent, everything I heard from any Heat player regarding that championship elicited a super "Come the fuck on" response.) (I was just very sad and angry about the whole situation.) (You know how that goes.)

At any rate, given the crushing way that the Spurs lost the 2013 title, the 2014 title was a top-tier Revenge Championship. Three things to point out:

1. Tim Duncan was apparently so bothered by the 2013 loss that, after the Spurs had beaten the Thunder in the 2014 Western Conference finals to get back to the Finals to face the Heat, HE TALKED SHIT ON CAMERA to them, which had literally never happened in his entire career. Getting Tim Duncan emotional enough to say, "We got four more to win. We’ll do it this time" is like getting Michelle Obama mad enough that she tells you to eat [REDACTED]. It’s really just an unprecedented, unbelievable thing.

2. Not only did the Spurs get to stare down the team that had sliced their heads off the year before, they did so in an historically dominant fashion, outscoring the Heat by 14 points per game, the largest margin of victory in Finals history. They shot 75.8 percent for the first half of Game 3, which is also a Finals record.

3. The Kawhi Leonard Is the Future campaign was faced with a small amount of pushback when he missed a free throw at the end of Game 6 in 2013 that would’ve given the Spurs a four-point lead in the final seconds. Him winning Finals MVP was enough to squish those claims into nothingness.

The 2015–16 Cleveland Cavaliers

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Scenario: The Cavs beat the Warriors in the 2016 Finals (4–3). It was revenge for the 2015 Finals (4–2, Warriors).

Some Stuff to Think About: This one was more important from a historical standpoint than it was from a revenge standpoint, but you still had several key revenge parts to it:

1. Kyrie Irving was finally able to play in a Finals at full strength, and he sprinted into the fight with an almost unconscionable amount of anti-fear. As far as Cavs fans were concerned, Kyrie leading them to victory was proof enough that had he played in the 2015 Finals the Cavs would’ve won.

2. LeBron snatching the league back from Steph Curry, who had just turned in the most offensively charmed performance in league history.

3. J.R. Smith fire-swording everyone who said you’d never be able to count on him during the Highest of Stakes games.

4. LeBron not only beating the team that had beat his Cavs the year prior, but also stomping on history (defeating the winningest regular-season team of all time), and LeBron seems to love nothing more than Fast & Furious–ing into NBA lore whenever he can.

The 2016–17 Golden State Warriors

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Scenario: The Warriors beat the Cavs in the 2017 Finals (4–1). It was revenge for the 2016 Finals (4–3, Cavs).

Some Stuff to Think About: The great thing about the Warriors-Cavs trilogy is that, despite both teams earning wins, neither side seems to respect the other’s accomplishment. When the Warriors won in 2015, the cry was that the Cavs were hobbled by injuries and that they’d have won for sure if Kevin Love and Irving had played. When the Cavs won in 2016, the complaint was that Andrew Bogut was out and Draymond Green had been unfairly suspended for Game 5. And when the Warriors won again in 2017, the issue was that the Warriors had brought in Kevin Durant, a former league MVP and also the most devastating scorer in the NBA, to tilt things their way. There’s just always something to argue about. It’s excellent.

Regarding revenge …

1. The Warriors spent all of the 2017 season absorbing shots from LeBron et al. about having lost in the 2016 Finals despite holding a 3–1 lead four games into the series, like LeBron’s Halloween party that featured tombstone cookies with their names on it and a Steph Curry dummy, or whoever it was that taped a championship ring on a big poster of LeBron blocking Andre Iguodala in Game 7 that the Warriors had to walk past to get to their locker room for their Christmas Day game. Golden State winning in 2017 got rid of that. (Sort of.)

2. LeBron’s Heat beat Durant’s Thunder in the 2012 Finals. The Warriors beating the Cavs in 2017 was secretly Durant beating LeBron.

3. KD got secret revenge against everyone who fired arrows at him for leaving the Thunder.

4. KD got secret revenge on Russell Westbrook, who no doubt is plotting out his own version of revenge, be it secret or otherwise.

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