Article: The 25 Greatest Individual Performances Ever in the NBA Playoffs: Howstuffworks
The 25 Greatest Individual Performances Ever in the NBA Playoffs
Image: Tim Shelby via Wikimedia Commons
About This Article
Ever since the NBL and BAA merged in the late 1940s to become the NBA, it has been the preeminent professional basketball association in the world. The NBA has stood apart from many American sports in its wholehearted embrace of its global audience. Its level of ethnic diversity puts many other sports to shame. NBA players come from all four corners of the globe and in every shade. The NBA passed through historical eras emphasizing certain styles of play or players. There was a time when so-called "big men," players standing over 6 feet, 10 inches or so, were the holy grail of the game. Scouts searched the deepest, darkest corners of the undeveloped world for undeveloped talent. Today, as with many sports, basketball is dominated by plays determined by statistics, with the 2-point shot quickly becoming a distant memory.
The NBA playoffs also stand unique among annual rituals in sports. Of the 30 NBA teams, 16 of them, more than half, end up in the playoffs. This means that middling teams still have the opportunity to prove themselves against the greatest in the game. Teams with one star player get to show off the abilities of their star on the biggest stage, even if they are destined to lose. In this crucible, greatness is forged, and legendary games are played. Read on to find out more about the 25 greatest individual performances in the NBA playoffs.
1992: Jordan Just Shrugs
Some NBA Finals are exciting because they are so close the entire way through. Others are exciting because they involve watching an athlete show just how much better they are than everyone else. In 1992, Michael Jordan made just about everyone look silly, and in the first half of Game 1 of the Bulls' finals series with the Portland Trail Blazers, Jordan set an all-time record for points scored in the first half (35), at one point so perplexed by his dominance that he simply turned to the official scorers and shrugged.
2018: LeBron James' Last Stand
Of 510 field goal attempts in the 2018 playoffs, "King James" made 275, carrying his otherwise unremarkable Cleveland Cavaliers through tight spots, narrowly missing total victory. His focus was incredible, with a .539 field goal percentage. For comparison, in the 1993 playoffs, Michael Jordan had a .475 field goal percentage. What makes LeBron's performance so memorable is that, although his team did not win the championship, his performance made the Golden State Warriors look clinical and bloodless. Sometimes, even when you lose, you win.
1976: Glenn McDonald Demands To Win
If your response to the name Glenn McDonald is "Who?" then you've got some catching up to do. Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals saw the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics fight into triple overtime for the win. The game was littered with controversial decisions and mistakes by the refs, the players, and the fans, who charged the court when they thought Boston had won in double overtime and attacked a ref. In the end, it was Celtics' bit player Glenn McDonald who scored eight points to put Boston ahead long enough to hold onto the win.
1958: Bob Pettit Breaks Basketball
The NBA Finals in 1958 saw the Boston Celtics face the St. Louis Hawks. The Hawks were used to two things: playing basketball and losing to the Celtics. They were off to a great start to both until Bob Pettit turned into LeBron James in Game 7. The Celtics were one win away from consigning the Hawks to the dustbin of history when Pettit exploded for 50 points in Game 7. Of the last 21 points scored by the Hawks that game, Pettit scored 19. If Pettit didn't know the game was over, he'd probably still be on the court today, scoring like a boss.
2006: Dwyane Wade Will Not Be Shut Down
The 2006 NBA Finals saw the familiar matchup of the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat. It was the era before LeBron James came to Miami, and Shaq was their big man. In Game 3, the Heat were feeling a chill, as the Mavericks romped to a 13-point lead. In the fourth quarter of the game, Wade said "no more" and demanded the attention of the world, stomping on the Mavericks to the tune of 15 points, leading Miami to victory then, and in the series, for their very first championship.
1970: Willis Reed Gives The Knicks Their First Title
In the 1970 playoffs, Willis Reed of the Knicks had a field goal percentage of .471, but he also tore a thigh muscle, and no one expected he would be able to play in Game 7 of the finals, meaning LA would win. Reed got a cortisone shot (something you didn't hear about back then) and took the court with his team, which included Walt "Clyde" Frazier and Bill Bradley. Reed scored only four points that game, but by dragging himself onto the court and getting the crowd irreversibly on his side, he gave the Knicks the psychological edge they needed to win.
1984: Bird Is The Word
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson comprised one of the hottest rivalries in the history of sports, clashing again and again throughout their careers. These titans of the game had their first major battle in the 1984 Finals when the Los Angeles Lakers faced the Boston Celtics in Game 7. Magic and his teammates pushed hard to win, but it wasn't enough. Larry Bird led his team to victory, coming out on top of the rivalry, at least for that year.
1986: Michael Jordan Overcomes Injury & His Own Team
In 1986, the player who made his name synonymous with shoes was laid low with a foot injury. He only played in 18 games that season, and when the Bulls made it to the playoffs, they lost to the surging Celtics. Still, when Michael Jordan played in the playoffs, he put on quite a show. Jordan set a record for points scored in a playoff game with 63, passing the record of 61 scored in 1962. He did this while playing for a Bulls team that set a record for having a terrible season, even though they qualified for the playoffs. It's further proof that with more than half the NBA teams participating in the playoffs, anything can happen.
2000: Shaquille O’Neal Shows He's More Than A Big Man
When NBA big men face off, it comes down to talent. Shaquille O’Neal is one of the most famous of the big men, but in 2000, he faced off against Rik Smits and the Pacers, an excellent team with a talented big man of their own. Shaq dominated, scoring an average of 38 points per game. Keep in mind, this is before the statistics nerds convinced everyone in the NBA to go for 3 pointers, and Shaq was playing against a team with guys who could easily dislodge a poorly placed shot. Shaq's abilities were finally given a chance to shine, showing he was more than just a big dude.
2016: Stephen Curry's Surgical Precision Makes Its Mark
The 2016 NBA playoffs produced a lot of great performances, and Stephen Curry was certainly among them. He was the regular season's MVP, and in the playoffs, the Baby Faced Assassin made the 3 pointer his weapon of choice and achieved an "effective" field goal percentage of .556, which was nearly as high as LeBron's .564. This performance, along with Curry's teammates, is how they kept the championship within reach.
1993: Michael Jordan Lights the Afterburners
What happens with the irresistible force meets the immovable object? Charles Barkley, the regular season MVP and one of the greatest players of all time, faced Michael Jordan in his prime. Jordan would win the playoffs MVP award and cement his legend. He was called "His Airness" and "Mr. June." But his detractors could have easily called him the devil because, in the 1993 playoffs, he scored 666 points, thrashing the Suns with an average 41 points per game. There's a reason he's also called the GOAT.
2016: LeBron James Drags the Cavs to Victory
In 2012, 2013 and 2016, LeBron James was the NBA Finals MVP. Seeing him in the finals is like seeing the Yankees in the playoffs. If LeBron is the Yankees, then 2016 was his 2000. He led the Cavaliers to victory against, among other challenging teams, the Golden State Warriors, who would go on to dominate the playoffs with the addition of more champion caliber players. 2016 belonged to LeBron James and the Cavs, with James earning 4.7 win shares in the finals, even though he didn't score the most points. If 2018 showed that LeBron could win on his own, 2016 showed he was also a team player.
1988: Isiah Thomas Leaves It All On The Court
There's winning the game, and then there's winning. Facing Isiah Thomas was a nightmare, and in the 1988 playoffs, it was no different. He executed 66 steals and 85 turnovers and made 490 field goal attempts, which is impressive, considering that in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, he injured his ankle but just kept playing. Through the obvious pain, Thomas played hard, for which he is remembered and appreciated, but his Detroit Pistons did not win the series.
2013: Ray Allen Slams The Door
In Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, it looked like the San Antonio Spurs were well on their way to a title. In order to win the championship, the Miami Heat would have to turn around Game 6 and win Game 7. Ray Allen decided that's what they would do. In those playoffs, Allen sported a .430 field goal percentage, but all his numbers belie his contribution: a 3-point shot with seconds left on the clock, sending the game into overtime. With the wind taken out of their sails, the Spurs didn't have enough left, and the Heat won the game in OT, going on to take Game 7 and the title.
1980: Magic Johnson Conjures A Miracle
Filling in for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar should be an impossible job, but in 1980, Magic Johnson did it in Game 6 between his Los Angeles Lakers and the Philadelphia 76ers. A rookie at the time, the 20-year-old Johnson scored a monster 42 points, seven assists, and 15 rebounds, informing the NBA that he wasn't content to live in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's shadow. Even though Johnson was covering as a center despite spending most of his playing time as a point guard, he helped lead the Lakers to victory and earned his nickname.
1987: Magic Johnson Hooks The Celtics
In Johnson vs. Bird: Chapter III, Magic Johnson executed a move for which he will be forever remembered. It was Game 4 of the NBA Finals, and the Lakers once again faced the Celtics, trailing Boston by one point. Magic Johnson managed to get the better of fellow future Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, got in front of the basket and executed a hook shot, putting the Lakers ahead. The Lakers would go on to win this series in six games, 4 to 2.
2011: Dirk Nowitzki Wakes Up
In Game 2 of the 2011 NBA Finals, it looked like Miami was going to win, extending the Heat's playoff lead to two wins to nothing. Then, Dirk Nowitzki awoke to the realization that he was playing in the NBA Finals and losing. In the fourth quarter, with the Heat's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade racking up points like they were on sale, Nowitzki, finger injury and all, broke out, scoring, again and again, to bring the Mavericks ahead, taking the game, and eventually the series.
2010: Metta World Peace of Mind
Toward the end of the 2010 NBA Finals, at the very end of Game 7, an ugly playoff series came to its close. No one had played as well as they could have, and everyone was frustrated. The Lakers faced their old rivals, the Celtics, but in the 21st century, and with different faces on the court. Despite the presence of many a superstar, the deciding point was scored by Ron Artest, a player better known today as (and we're not kidding about this) his legally changed name: Metta World Peace.
2005: Big Shot Rob's Big Shot
Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals was a turning point. Each team had two wins under their belts, and whoever took Game 5 would have the momentum in the series. The Spurs and Pistons duked it out into overtime, and that's when Robert Horry made his name. With less than six seconds left in overtime, Horry nailed a 3 pointer that put the Spurs ahead by one point. This was enough, and the Spurs held off the Pistons for the win, going on to take the series.
2000: Kobe Bryant's Gritty Fury
The LA Lakers of 2000 were a frightening team, with Shaq and Kobe Bryant playing together. So imagine Game 4 of the NBA finals with the Indiana Pacers, when Shaq fouled out of the game in overtime. For most teams, losing one of their pillars would shake them psychologically, but in this case, it made Kobe Bryant double down. He attacked the basket, dragging the Lakers to victory, scoring a total of 28 points in the game.
Tim Duncan wasn't born in the 1999 NBA Playoffs, but he was made in them. In 1999, Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs would win their first NBA Championship, and the young superstar measured up, scoring an average of almost 25 points per game in the series. Duncan, at 22 years old, was named the playoffs' MVP, and to the fans in San Antonio, a hero for all time.
1988: James Shows He Is Worthy
James Worthy made 204 field goals in the 1988 playoffs, scoring 506 points. But of all the numbers he put up in those playoffs, the best-remembered figure is his triple-double in Game 7 of the finals, which contributed 10 assists, 16 rebounds, and 36 points to the Lakers' win. All of this is impressive, but it's especially important given how Game 7 played out: the Lakers barely won the game, and if it weren't for Worthy's outstanding play, they would have lost, having let a 15 point lead evaporate.
2001: Allen Iverson Steps Over And Into Legend
The Philadelphia 76ers did not win the NBA Finals in 2001, but that does not mean they didn't give the Lakers a run for their money. In fact, it was 76ers star Allen Iverson who can lay claim to the standout moments during those games. In those playoffs, Iverson played for well over 1,000 minutes, scoring 723 points. But in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, he added some style to his substance, shooting past Laker Tyronn Lue, and then stepping over Lue like he was wasn't even there when Lue fell to the floor after the play.
1998: MJ Goes Out With A Bang
Every career ends, and when the GOAT made his swan song, he did it with style. Michael Jordan's Bulls were on a tear, facing the Utah Jazz in what could be the deciding Game 6, just behind by a couple of points. With only 5.2 seconds left on the clock, Jordan used his astonishing instincts to fake out Byron Russell and shoot a 2-pointer, giving the Bulls a one-point lead, which was enough to win them the championship. While this wasn't the most dramatic play in history, considering that it was MJ's last, and capped the Bulls' run of eight seasons with six championships, it was legendary.
1978: Charles Johnson Shoots Down The Supersonics
The 1978 NBA Finals saw two players named Johnson playing for two teams that clashed in a series that went the distance. Game 4 saw both players perform well, but in Game 7, Charles Johnson scored 19 points to help the Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) take the series and win. Dennis "DJ" Johnson, however, came up empty, not scoring a single point for the Washington Supersonics (which, while still known as the "Supersonics" are generally called the "Sonics" theses days).
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