NBA: Ranking the 10 most important games from the last 10 years

NBA former Heat forward LeBron James (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
NBA former Heat forward LeBron James (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images) /
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1. 2012 Eastern Conference Finals – Game 6: Heat vs. Celtics

This is a pretty memorable game, although admittedly not even close to as memorable as the second and third games on this list. That being said, this game has more “what if?” potential and legacy impact than arguably any game in NBA history, not just the last decade.

To set the stage for those who may not remember: The Heat were in their second season of their “Big 3” era and coming off of a disappointing NBA Finals loss the year before (refer to No. 6). They found themselves down 3-2 against the Celtics, a team they were expected to beat, and had to go on the road in Boston and win to keep their season alive.

I said in the intro that players’ legacies are often evaluated over just a handful of games throughout their career. For example – Bill Russell in the 1969 Finals, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game, Magic Johnson playing center in the 1980 Finals, and pretty much any Michael Jordan Game 6.

Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals was one of those games for LeBron James. His entire legacy was on the line. If he loses, the noise about him not winning a championship and the Celtics breaking him becomes deafening. The Heat’s roster is likely dramatically changed after another disappointing season, and the stain from the 2011 Finals becomes even harder to get out.

If he wins, he adds a clutch performance to his resumé, he keeps the season alive and the roster together, and takes a big step towards erasing the bad memories from 2011 that had been chasing him all year.

LeBron responded with one of the best games of his career. He dropped 45-15-5 on an absurd 73 percent shooting, leading the Heat to a 19 point win in Boston Garden. He was dominant again in the fourth quarter of Game 7 and led the Heat to the 2012 NBA Finals where they discarded the Thunder in five games.

LeBron would go on to win three NBA Finals, but if that Game 6 in Boston goes the other way and they lose, the ripple effect would have changed the rest of the NBA landscape for the remainder of the decade.

For starters, 2012 would have had a different champion. The Finals would have been Celtics vs. Thunder in what would have been a very competitive series.

And if the Thunder win? If the Thunder win there is no way they trade James Harden after that season. No chance. The core of Durant, Westbrook, and Harden would have remained together for years and likely would have continued rattling off championships. NBA supremacy in the latter half of the decade would have likely been determined by the winner of the Thunder vs. Warriors battles that would have resembled the Lakers vs. Spurs rivalry of the early 2000s.

For LeBron and the Heat, we probably never see them play together again. LeBron himself said earlier this month on Instagram Live that he didn’t think Pat Riley would keep them together with a loss:

"“My mentality was if we lose, [Heat president] Pat Riley may break us all up. And I [didn’t] want that,” James said. “It might be the quickest breakup in basketball history.”"

Assuming Pat Riley breaks up the team and they never in a title with that group, where does LeBron go? He probably continues to chase rings around the league and might never go back to Cleveland to win in 2016.

His legacy would have been irreversibly damaged. Instead of being at the table with Jordan, Kareem, and Russell as one of the best players in NBA history, LeBron would have likely been in the conversation with Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson as one of the best players to never win the big one.

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If this one game goes differently, it’s possible that every game on this list after 2012 never exists. The final seven years of the decade would have been re-written and everyone’s legacy is changed, for better or worse.