For once the NBA Playoffs produced the NBA Finals matchup everybody wanted all along: Steph Curry and the Warriors vs. LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Now it’s time to see if this matchup lives up to the hype and produces some of the greatest NBA Finals performances anyone’s ever seen.
What would it take to make history? That’s the question we’re going to ask today with this list.
Of course, everybody has their own idea of what qualifies as a great performance, so we should probably clarify that we’re talking about sustainedgreatness here. This isn’t a list of the top single-game performances in Finals history, but of the top series performances. And while most of the ones on our list came from players on the winning team who won the Finals MVP award, that’s not the case with all of them. Sometimes even the greatest performances aren’t enough.
Got it? Good. Then lets our list of greatest NBA Finals performances by going all the way back to 1950…
Minneapolis Lakers center George Mikan averaged 32.2 points per game in the 1950 NBA Finals against the Syracuse Nationals. That included a 37-point performance in Game 1, when the Lakers only scored 68 points in total, and a 40-point performance in series-clinching Game 6, which made the Lakers the first team in NBA history to win back-to-back titles.
No wonder Mikan is widely regarded as the NBA's first superstar.
15. George Mikan – Lakers vs. Nationals, 1950
Larry Legend won three NBA titles. His first came in 1981 and his last came in 1986, both against the Rockets. But his best? That came in 1984 against Magic, Kareem, and the Showtime Lakers. In that thrilling seven-game series, Bird averaged 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 2.1 steals, giving the Celtics their first Finals win over their arch rivals since 1969.
14. Larry Bird – Celtics vs. Lakers, 1984
In 2004 and 2005, the Pistons and Spurs proved you could win championships with strong team systems that didn't rely in incredible individual performances. In 2006, Dwyane Wade was like, meh, strong team systems are overrated. So he put the Heat on his back—including ring-less Hall of Famers Alonzo Mourning and Gary Payton—and carried them to their first championship, averaging 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game in a 4-2 series win over the Mavericks. Nobody else on the team averaged more than 13.8 per game.
13. Dwyane Wade – Heat vs. Mavericks, 2006
Hakeem Olajuwan's showdown with Patrick Ewing in the 1994 NBA Finals was good. His showdown with Shaquille O'Neal in the 1995 NBA Finals was better. Hakeem the Dream took the Big Aristotle to school, averaging 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in a masterful four-game sweep of the Magic.
12. Hakeem Olajuwan – Rockets vs. Magic, 1995
Bob Pettit's greatness was largely overshadowed by some guy named Bill Russell and his stupid 11 championship rings. However, in the late 50s, with the Hawks still roosted in St. Louis, Pettit turned in two incredible NBA Finals performances in back-to-back years.
In 1957, Pettit averaged 30.1 points, 18.3 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. However, his Hawks suffered a heartbreaking Game 7 double-overtime loss at the hands of the aforementioned Celtics.
In 1958, facing the Celtics again, Pettit again played brilliantly, averaging 29.3 points, 17.0 rebounds, and 2.2 assists. However, this time he capped the series with a monster 50-point performance in the decisive Game 6.
11. Bob Pettit – Hawks vs. Celtics, 1958
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made 10 NBA Finals appearances and won six championship. And while many of them were great, none were greater than his first in 1971. That year he averaged 27.0 points, 18.5 rebounds, and 2.8, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a four-game sweep over the Baltimore Bullets. It was a performance that earned him his first of two Finals MVP Awards and, more importantly, established the second-year center as an NBA superstar.
10. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Bucks vs. Bullets, 1971
Everybody knows the '80s were dominated by the Lakers and Celtics, who combined to win eight championships in 10 years. And that's what makes the 76ers championship in 1983 all the more impressive. In 1982 they lost to L.A. in six games. But next year, led by an other-worldly Moses Malone, who averaged 25.8 points, 18.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks, the Sixers swept the mighty Showtime Lakers right out of the Finals.
9. Moses Malone – 76ers vs. Lakers, 1983
Tim Duncan's line of 24.2 points, 17.0, rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 5.3 blocks per game was damn good. In fact, those 5.3 blocks per game was downright historic. The all-time record for blocks per game for a season is 5.56. It was set by Mark Eaton in 1984-85. So for Duncan to average 5.3 blocks per game over a seven-game championship series? That's insane.
Still, to understand Duncan's greatness in the 2003 Finals, you have to go beyond the numbers. This was the first Spurs championship in which Duncan was the guy. David Robinson was still there, but he was 37 and in major decline. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were there, too, but they were not yet established stars. And Kawhi Leonard was 12 years old.
To beat the defensively gifted Nets, who had Dikembe Mutombo and Kenyon Martin guarding the post, they needed a transcendent performance from Tim Duncan. And that's exactly what they got.
8. Tim Duncan – Spurs vs. Nets, 2003
Wilt Chamberlain and the San Francisco Warriors didn't beat the Boston Celtics in the 1964 NBA Finals. Nobody beat the Celtics back in those days. However, with an average of 29.2 points, 27.6 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game, Wilt the Stilt did outplay everyone, including Bill Russell, the guy they named the NBA Finals MVP Award. And that's saying something.
7. Wilt Chamberlain – Warriors vs. Celtics, 1964
Lots of points and lots of rebounds go hand-in-hand. But lots of points and lots of assists? That's a much rarer combination. And it's that combination that makes Magic Johnson's performance in the 1987 NBA Finals against Larry Bird and the Celtics so impressive.
Magic averaged 26.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, and a whopping 13.0 assists in the '87 Finals, good for an average Game Score of 28.3. And as if that weren't enough, there was also that little buzzer-beating sky hook that stole a victory of the Lakers in Game 4.
No wonder this series "only" went six games.
6. Magic Johnson – Lakers vs. Celtics, 1987
Bill Russell averaged16.2 points and 24.9 rebounds per game in the playoffs for his career. However, his best Finals performance came in 1962 against the Lakers. That year, in addition to the 27.0 rebounds per game, Russell also contributed 22.9 and 5.7, leading Boston to a seven-game win Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and company.
5. Bill Russell – Celtics vs. Lakers, 1962
Michael Jordan is the only player to appear on this list twice. It's not because he's the greatest. It's why he's the greatest.
The second-best MJ Finals performance? That came in the '93 Finals against Charles Barkley and the Suns. In six games, Jordan scored 31, 42, 44, 55, 41, and 33 points, for a per game average of 41. He also threw in 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, compiling an average Game Score of 29.6.
Pretty good, right?
4. Michael Jordan – Bulls vs. Suns, 1993
Jordan's best NBA Finals performance? A lot of people say it was his last in 1998, and as proof those people usually cite the closing moments of Game 6, when Jordan put the dagger in the Jazz with a layup, a steal off Karl Malone, and a jumper over Bryon Russell with 5.2 seconds left.
However, while Jordan was sublime in 1998, his firstNBA Finals performance in 1991 was his best. That year he recorded 31.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 11.4 assists per game in a 4-1 thrashing of Magic Johnson and the Lakers. It was the only time MJ averaged a double-double in the Finals, and of course it gave the Bulls their first of six championships.
Honestly, it wasn't so much a passing of the torch from Magic to MJ as it was an armed robbery of the torch.
3. Michael Jordan – Bulls vs. Lakers, 1991
The second-greatest NBA Finals performance of all-time belongs to Lakers great Elgin Baylor. He averaged 40.6 points, 17.9 rebounds, and 3.7 assists against the Celtics in 1962. In Game 5 alone he poured in 61 points, a Finals record that stands to this day. Then, in Game 7, Baylor scored another 41.
Unfortunately, it just wasn't enough. The Celtics starting five of Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, and Tom Sanders were unbeatable in those days, and Boston won its fourth championship in a row.
2. Elgin Baylor – Lakers vs. Celtics, 1962
The greatest NBA Finals performance of all time? Shaquille O'Neal in 2000 against the Indianapolis Pacers. The NBA, All-Star Game, and NBA Finals MVP was absolutely unstoppable, averaging 38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists over six games, with an average Game Score of 30.6.
Of course, Shaq and the Lakers were just getting started. They went on to win three titles in a row under Phil Jackson, with Shaq earning Finals MVP honors all three times.
1. Shaquille O’Neal – Lakers vs. Pacers, 2000
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