The NBA Finals is where legends are born. They’re where a player can truly make his mark on NBA history and solidify his greatness, or show the world that they can’t perform where it truly matters, when the NBA Championship is at stake. We will be looking at the best performances in the championship series, but it is important that the criteria is clear. Putting up big numbers is great, but it only matters when looked at with context: the amount of help they had, level of competition, and their defensive impact will also be taken into account.
5. Hakeem Olajuwon – 1994
At first glance it might not seem like Hakeem’s 1994 Finals should make the list. Hakeem had 27-9-4-2-4 (points – rebounds – assists – steals – blocks) on 56% TS, which is great, but doesn’t seem like a top 5 Finals performance ever. In fact, some might even say his 1995 Finals performance was better, as Hakeem put up 33-12-6-2-2 on 51% TS in the series. However, there are a few reasons why I consider the 1994 performance to be a top 5 Finals performance.
First off, Hakeem put on one of the greatest defensive performances of all-time, both in terms of his man to man coverage and his team defensive impact with his rim protection. He was challenged to guard Hall Of Fame center Patrick Ewing in this series, who had 23-11-3 on 47% FG for the first 3 rounds of the postseason, all against top 10 defensive teams. Ewing was the best player on the Knicks on both ends of the floor, so it would be a deciding factor in the series which center had the bigger impact.
Hakeem answered the call, locking down Ewing, who’s production dropped significantly to 19-12 on a dreadful 36% FG. Considering every game was decided by single digits, shutting down Ewing was a huge factor in the Rockets pulling off the victory.
Hakeem also had a huge defensive impact on the Knicks as a whole. In the 1993-94 season, the Rockets were the second ranked defense in the league, but this was mainly due to Hakeem’s presence, as he was given very mediocre help on the perimeter defensively. The Knicks never scored more than 91 points over the 7 Finals games, averaging 86.9 ppg in the series, after averaging 98.5 ppg in the regular season and 89.6 ppg through the first 3 rounds.
They also shot 40.7% from the field, their worst shooting series of the playoffs by a substantial margin (next worse was 42.7% FG vs. Indiana), and down from 46% in the regular season. Hakeem had a solid defensive performance in the 1995 Finals, but Shaquille O’Neal still had a productive series, putting up 28-13-6 with 2.5 bpg on near 60% FG. Hakeem did outscore him in every game, but his defensive job on Ewing was much more impressive.
Hakeem also had very little help in this series, just like he did the entire 1994 playoffs.
Maxwell: 13 ppg on 44% TS
Horry: 10 ppg on 43% TS
Cassell: 10 ppg on 62% TS
Hakeem’s teammates shot a combined 39.7% from the field.
Not only did Hakeem’s next second option have a a mediocre 13 ppg, both his second and third options shot below 45% TS, very poor efficiency. Compare this with LeBron’s help in the 2007 Finals:
Gooden: 13 ppg on 54% TS
Gibson: 11 ppg on 52% TS
Pavlovic: 10 ppg on 42% TS
LeBron’s teammates shot a combined 41.1% from the field.
It says a lot when another all time great cannot even win a game with better help against an equally great team, while Hakeem won the series with this terrible help, while still leading his team on the defensive end to a great degree. As another example of how little help Hakeem had in this series, the Rockets only led in two of the four factors, FG% and free throws, and only led in FG% due to Hakeem, as the rest of his team shot sub 40% compared to the Knicks’ 40.7%. The Rockets were outrebounded and committed more turnovers than the Knicks did, making it even more difficult on Hakeem to lead his team to victory.
Also, Hakeem’s numbers look a little less impressive when you consider the pace of these Finals. Hakeem averaged 27-12-4-2-4 in the regular season, where the Rockets’ average pace was 95. In the Finals, the pace was at a sluggish 86, which is a big reason for Hakeem’s slight dip in his stats.
4. Shaquille O’Neal – 2001
Shaquille O’Neal’s dominance in the early 2000s cannot be understated, as he averaged 33+ ppg in each of his three Finals to start the new millennium. No other player in NBA history has done this three consecutive times (Jordan did it three times but not consecutively). He had the lowest scoring average of his three Finals MVP series in 2001, but there are a few things to take into consideration. First off, Shaq benefitted from very easy competition in his other two Finals performances during the three-peat.
The 2000 Pacers were a solid 56-26 team, but they had an average defense, ranked 13th in the league. Indiana had no notable inside defensive presence to even bother a top 5 center of all-time. They also ranked poorly in rebounding (24th in total rebounding percentage), allowing Shaq to grab the 16.7 rpg he did in the Finals rather easily.
The 2002 Nets were also a pretty poor team for a Finals matchup, with Jason Kidd being the only reason the team was even in the playoffs, let alone a contender. They were actually the best defensive team in the league, but again, this was mainly due to Jason Kidd’s presence on the perimeter.
105.5 DRtg (23rd in the league)
97.1 Opponent ppg (22nd in the league)
45.5% Opponent FG% (24th in the league)
2001-2002 Nets (first year Kidd was on the Nets, only notable addition)
99.5 DRtg (1st in the league)
92.1 Opponent ppg (5th in the league)
42.9% Opponent FG% (6th in the league)
Clearly, it was Kidd, an all-time great perimeter defender, that made the team into an elite defensive team, not any elite defensive big men. They were also an average rebounding team, coming in 13th in TRB%. The Nets had Tod MacColluch at center to play against Shaq, and he was ill equipped for the challenge, as Shaq averaged a monster 36-12-4 on 64% TS vs. the Nets in 2002.
Shaq clearly benefitted from beating up on inferior big men in his two other Finals in the three-peat, but he proved he could perform against an elite defensive big man in 2001. Many people seem to think that because Mutumbo was 34 years old that he was no longer effective, but this is a farcical claim. Mutumbo won DPOY in 2001, and helped lead the Sixers to a top 5 defense in the league.
Mutumbo was the best the league had to offer on the defensive end, and O’Neal still destroyed him, averaging 33-16-5 on 58% TS. The Sixers were also coached by defensive mastermind Larry Brown, who also coached the 2004 Pistons, the greatest defensive team of all time. That team owns or co-owns several playoff records for defense, and allowed just 79.7 ppg after they traded for Rasheed Wallace mid season. This would be the best defensive season in terms of ppg allowed by about 4 points. Brown clearly knew how to run a very effective team defense, and did his best to slow down Shaq.
O’Neal posted a ridiclous 44-20 game 1, the Lakers’ only loss of the series, as Allen Iverson posted one of the greatest playoff games of the post-Jordan era (48 points). Kobe Bryant also played terribly this game, getting torched by Iverson (his primary defensive assignment), and shooting 7/22 for 15 points. The rest of the series, however, he played much better, putting up 27-9-6 on 54% TS, where the Lakers took the next four games and their second consecutive championship.
O’Neal scored less than his other two Finals MVP performances, but showcased his great vision and playmaking skills from the center position. He averaged 4.8 apg for the series, the most of any of his Finals in the three-peat, most of these coming off of doubles when he was in the post. No data is available for how many points he generated through assists, but with long range weapons like Rick Fox and Derek Fisher at his disposal, it is likely it was much more than 2 points per assist.
The only gripe people may have with this Finals was that O’Neal’s defense was sub-par at best. His rim protection was lackluster, allowing several easy buckets at the rim, especially for Iverson. His man to man on Mutumbo was also not great, as he increased his scoring output and efficiency from the field against Shaq. Mutumbo averaged 10 ppg on 48% FG in the regular season and 13 ppg on 45% FG through the first three rounds, and then averaged 16 ppg on 60% FG against Shaq in the Finals. Shaq was pretty reluctant to leave the lane, allowing Mutumbo to convert on several mid range jumpers. However, this doesn’t really disqualify his performance as being all time great.
In the NBA, individual offensive brilliance goes a long way, even if it is coupled with poor or average defense. There are several NBA stars who are one way talents, but still lead teams to deep playoff runs and had a lot of success throughout their careers. Steve Nash, Stephen Curry, Magic Johnson, Dirk Nowitzki, Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson, just to name a few. Due to this, O’Neal’s mediocre defense cannot be used to discredit his otherwise excellent Finals Performance.
3. Dwyane Wade – 2006
Dwyane Wade’s 2006 Finals is a popular choice for the greatest ever, and for good reason. Though it does not top my personal ranking, there is no denying Wade’s greatness in this Finals series. Of course, there are those that say that he and the Heat as a whole benefitted from the refs, but the Heat only converted on 3 more free throws the entire series than the Mavericks did, so this was not an unfair advantage.
Wade had a slow start to the series, as in the first two games he shot a poor 46.7% TS to get his 28 and 23 point games. After going down 2-0 and heading back to Miami though, Dwyane Wade absolutely put on a show for the next four games, putting up a ridiculous 39-8-4-3 on 58% TS in the final four games to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy to South Beach for the first time.
What makes this performance amazing, past the incredible scoring, was the lack of help he had on the offensive end. Most people think that since Wade had Shaq for this championship that they were co-stars, like Shaq was with Kobe. However, this wasn’t 100% true, and certainly wasn’t in the Finals.
O’Neal actually got outscored by Antoine Walker in this series, who was the number 2 option, with 13.8 ppg on a terrible 46% TS especially for a power forward. O’Neal had 13.7 ppg on a better, but still bad 53% TS. Nobody else on Miami reached double digits in scoring.
The Mavericks were also a superior team to the Heat in just about every way:
#1 ranked offense in the Regular season
#11 ranked defense in the Regular season
Shot a combined 51.3% TS in the Finals
87 TO in the Finals
#7 ranked offense in the Regular season
#9 ranked defense in the Regular season
Shot a combined 50.3% TS outside of Wade in the Finals
96 TO in the Finals
For Wade to have pulled this off with his team playing so poorly against a better opponent is simply incredible. He led the Heat to an upset over the Mavericks nearly single handedly, as his second and third options were shooting and scoring pretty poorly.
The only sort of help he got was on the boards, where Shaq averaged 10.2 rpg, but even then Wade stepped up his rebounding to 7.8 rpg, which was second on the team. Wade’s defense was great as it always was in his athletic prime, but he was tasked with covering Jerry Stackhouse for this series so I can’t give him too much credit for playing good D on someone who isn’t a star (though he did shoot a bad 35.5% FG for the series in part due to Wade’s defense).
2. Michael Jordan – 1993 Finals
With 6 championships and a Finals MVP to go along with each, it was expected for the greatest of all time to make the list somewhere. His 1993 Finals performance stands as his most impressive Finals, for several reasons.
First, Jordan carried the teams offensive load in a way rarely seen. He scored or assisted on 50% of his teams total points, a mark which has only been equaled or surpassed by Jordan in two other finals (1991, 1997), LeBron James in 2015, and number one on this list. This is also before our capability to track how many points he generated from assists, so the number is likely even higher than 50%.
Jordan needed to carry such a huge offensive load in this series because of his lack of offensive help. Pippen had a good 21-9-8 for the series, but his efficiency was horrendous. He shot a 46% TS, with shooting splits of 44/0/54. Pippen was the only other Bull to reach the 15 ppg mark, and he did it on very poor efficiency. Jordan had to shoulder a very large offensive load, and needed to against the league’s top offensive team, the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns were co-led by MVP Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson, an extremely underrated point guard who doesn’t get enough recognition. Johnson actually led two Suns teams to the WCF, once eliminating Magic’s showtime Lakers, as the clear number one option before Barkley’s arrival. He was injured for a good amount of the 1993 season, but when healthy was an all time great. This was one of the best teams Jordan played in the Finals, and he played a spectacular series accordingly.
Jordan averaged a ridiculous 41-8-6-2 on 56% TS for the series, carrying the Bulls to a six game win over the 62 win Suns, even without home court advantage. This was highlighted by a huge 55 point game 4 performance in a 7 point win. Even in the two losses, Jordan played incredible, with two 40 point performances.
In game 3, Jordan completely locked down Kevin Johnson in the clutch. Johnson scored 23 points in the first 41 minutes of the game, but after that Jordan guarded him, and he only scored two more points the entire rest of the game. This was a triple OT game too, so Jordan really limited him despite the loss. Pippen had a good 26-10-9, but took 35 shots to do so. The bench also scored a grand total of 9 points in a combined 124 minutes of play on 4/12 (33% FG) shooting, so Jordan was ill equipped to deal with the Suns, despite dropping 44-9-6-2.
In game 5, Jordan again had a huge performance, putting up 44-7-7 with two blocks while the rest of his team shot 21/50 (42% FG) and lost by 10. In the losses, Jordan’s teammates really underperformed, which makes those close losses understandable.
1. LeBron James – 2016
Call it recency bias, being prisoner of the moment, whatever you want, but there has never been a performance in the Finals like this one, and it isn’t even close.
Before we address the GOAT Finals performance, we must address a few misconceptions. First off, yes, Steph Curry was playing injured, and yes, Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5.
However, Curry was still playing at a very high level in the WCSF and WCF, where he posted 32-7-8 in the final three games vs OKC. He also showed he was capable of having a big game in the Finals in Game 4, when he dropped 38 points in the victory. Draymond was suspended for Game 5, but LeBron and company still blew the Warriors out in Game 6 when he did play, so it isn’t likely he would have had a huge impact on the Game 5 blowout.
The 2015-16 season was a first for many things. Stephen Curry and the Warriors made the season historic nearly by themselves. Curry was the first player to ever his 400 threes, first to lead the league in scoring and TS%, and the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. He also lead the Warriors to the greatest regular season in history, winning 73 games.
When the playoffs came around, a lot of people thought of it as a formality, and that the outcome was simple: the Golden State Warriors would easily go through the postseason and capture their second straight championship. Some even predicted them to break the 2001 Lakers Record for the best playoff record of all time. Nobody stood a chance.
It certainly looked that way after the Conference Finals. Though the Warriors looked human when they went down 3-1 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, they quickly returned to untouchable status, winning three straight games to send them to the Finals. In the East, the only hope left, the Cleveland Cavaliers, were struggling to put away a Raptors team many predicted would be swept by LeBron James and company.
It continued to look this way through four games of the championship series. The unanimous MVP barely even had to perform to the ridiculous standard he set for himself during the regular season, as the Warriors won games 1 and 2 with Curry putting up 11 and 18 points respectively. Then, once Curry performed to his capability in a Game 4 that put the Warriors up 3-1, everybody counted the Cavaliers out, and were ready to crown the Warriors champions yet again.
Even the game’s biggest superstar, LeBron James, looked more concerned with putting up good looking numbers in a losing effort at the end of game 4, making several layups in the last minute or so when his team desperately needed a 3. Then, he reminded us who he is: LeBron James, one of the greatest players to ever grace a basketball court.
He went into Game 5 at Oracle Arena, known as Roar-acle for the absurd volume of the fans, and showed why he is still the best player in the NBA. He dropped 41-16-7-3-3 to co-lead a Cavaliers blowout in what many thought would be the end of the series. He got help in the form of Kyrie Irving, who also dropped 41 points, but James was the true driving force behind the Cavaliers triumph.
He then came back to Cleveland, just to do it all over again. 41-8-11-4-3 in a 14 point victory for the Cavs. He was making the number 5 defense in the league look like a high school team, and the “death lineup” of Curry, Barnes, Green, Thompson and Iguodala look like the starters for the Nets. The numbers don’t even describe his impact, which is crazy to think about given his statline. His block and trash talking to Steph Curry was a momentum swing for the Cavs, as was his running of the Cavs fast break.
Then, he came back for a Game 7 at Oracle, where he had the chance to bring the city of Cleveland its first championship since the 60s. He did just that, registering only the third triple double in Finals Game 7 history, and with one of the most iconic plays in NBA history. With just over a minute remaining, and both teams struggling to get any sort of offense for minutes now, Curry and Iguodala went down on a fast break that seemed like it would break the tie, and the drought. LeBron had other ideas though, and we all know what happens next.
This all capped off what was the greatest three game stretch in NBA history, where he averaged 36-12-10-3-3 on 59% TS to lead the greatest comeback of all time.
Speaking of firsts, this was also the first time a team ever came back from 3-1 down in the Finals, and the first time any of the top 4 all time regular season records lost in the playoffs. Also, LeBron became the first player to lead both teams in all 5 major statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks) in a series of any length. It’s hard to quantify how historically great LeBron James was in this series.
Looking a bit deeper into the stats, LeBron also posted only the fifth Finals performance to score or assist on more than 50% of all points, which he averaged 50.6 points created per game, or 50.3% of all of his team’s scoring. This isn’t even mentioning the fact that he also contributed another secondary assist per game, and was second in the series in FT assists. LeBron’s impact on offense this series might’ve been the greatest in any Finals series ever.
All of the aforementioned, against one of the greatest teams of all time, and under arguably more pressure than any of his previous Finals performances. This is the team LeBron constructed nearly by himself, and gave up playing for one of the best franchises in basketball in the Miami Heat for a notoriously poorly run one. He promised he would come home and deliver a ring for the city which he had once betrayed, and under the scrutiny of all of the media and pressure of every basketball fan in the world, he delivered, in the greatest fashion we have ever witnessed.
Prisoner of the moment? Nope. Just the truth.