The NBA Finals have produced a ton of incredible performances in the last three decades starting with Bill Walton’s supreme effort against the Sixers in 1977 and going all the way through to Dirk’s heroics against the Heat in this year’s series. But inevitably some of them made more of an impact than others both on the stats sheets and in other subjective terms. For that reason, some resonate much more than others when we talk about the great moments in the history of NBA Finals. And it is these performances that make the finals worth remembering. Below we discuss the performers who have given the world the memorable finals.
10. Chicago vs Portland, *ing Michael Jordan, Chicago, 1992
We remember it now simply as The Shrug. In the first half of Game 1, a highly-charged Michael Jordan hit his sixth 3-pointer and then looked over to the broadcast table and gave a disbelieving palms-up shrug. As good as he was, not even Jordan could believe how hot he’d become – he had a Finals record 35 points in the first half. The rest of his series wasn’t quite as good. In fact, a silly fourth-quarter tech on Jordan helped Portland rally from 10 down to steal Game 2 in overtime. But in the end, Jordan managed to produce one of the classic NBA Finals. He pumped in 35.8 points per game, handed out 6.5 assists, shot 52.5 percent of the time from the floor and posted an insane 61.7 True Shooting Percentage. Forget that it was Jordan for a second, and his PER of 29.2 for the series looks pretty amazing, too, given that the Blazers were an elite defensive team that year. Jordan also came up big when needed most. He scored 46 points in Game 5 as Chicago’s 119-106 win snapped a 2-2 series tie, and he picked Buck Williams clean under the basket to get a key dunk as the Bulls rallied from 14 down in the fourth to win Game 6 and claim the title.
Results: Chicago 4 – Portland 2
(img source: wn.com)
9. Los Angeles vs New Jersey, *ing Shaquille O’Neal, L.A. Lakers, 2002
This one didn’t exactly set hearts racing, not with the Lakers entering as an overwhelming favorite for a third straight title before cruising to a four-game sweep. Still, what Shaquille O’Neal accomplished was noteworthy. The Nets weren’t much to look at offensively but they made it to the finals with an elite defensive squad. Yet O’Neal obliterated them in the four games, earning a whopping 17 free-throw attempts per contest while averaging 36.3 points and 12.3 rebounds and shooting 59.5 percent from the floor. He even made his foul shots this time, converting 66.2 percent. Shaq had his opponents demoralized by Game 2, when he scored 36 points in the first three quarters in a 106-83 rout, and he set records for points and free throw attempts in a four-game series. Amazingly, he was whistled for only seven fouls in the four games.
Results: Los Angeles 4 – New Jersey 0
(img source: lakersuniverse.com)
8. Los Angeles vs Indiana, *ing Shaquille O’Neal, L.A. Lakers, 2000
The Diesel was at the top of his powers in 2000, dominating the Pacers in the paint to help L.A. claim the first of three straight titles. Shaquille O’Neal had 43 in the opener and 41 in the clincher, and he wasn’t too shabby in between. Thanks to Indiana’s Hack-a-Shaq strategy, O’Neal took an absurd 39 free throws in Game 2 – even more absurd, he made only 18 – on his way to a 40-point night in a Lakers win. For the series, Shaquille O’Neal shot 61.1 percent from the floor but only 38.7 percent from the line. Despite the missed freebies, his averages were superhuman – Shaq’s 38.0 points were the second-most ever by a player on a winning team. He also netted 16.7 boards and 2.7 blocks – and he played more than 45 minutes a game in the series, an insane total for a low-post player. O’Neal did miss out on one key moment, as he fouled out with 2:33 minutes left in overtime in the pivotal Game 4. But the Lakers prevailed with another playmaker in Kobe Bryant to go up 3-1. Two games later, they had the series.
Result: Los Angeles 4 – Indiana 2
(img source: fuckyeahlakers.tumblr.com)
7. Chicago vs Los Angeles, *ing Michael Jordan, Chicago, 1991
We remember Michael Jordan‘s first championship as much for the crying jig that followed as for what he did on the court, but he was at the peak of his powers and produced an impressive effort. He pumped in 31.2 points per game for the series, but he was a more active passer than usual: He averaged 11.4 assists, including several dishes to John Paxson down the stretch of Game 5, when Jordan took a rare backseat to a hot teammate. Nonetheless, His Airness dominated throughout. His 31.5 PER for the series was the third-best since the merger, and he practically won Game 3 by himself – he played all but one minute, hit the equalizer at the end of regulation and scored six points in the overtime. Game 2 was highlighted by “Oh, a spectacular move … by Michael Jordan!” as he drove down the middle and went up with the right hand, then brought the ball down and finished with the left, all at his usual cruising altitude.
Results: Chicago 4 – Los Angeles 1
(img source: mymj.nl)
6. Los Angeles vs Boston, *ing Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers, 1987
Quick: Name another point guard whose most famous shot is a sky hook in the lane over a 6-11 Hall of Famer? Magic Johnson. Sky Hook is the shot Magic Johnson made to win Game 4 in Boston Garden, nailing a 10-foot flip over Kevin McHale to cap a rally from 16 points down that crushed Boston’s hopes of reigning as champions. He wasn’t too shabby the rest of the series, either. Johnson had 29 points, 13 assists, eight rebounds and no turnovers in the opener and, in the clincher, fell two rebounds shy of a triple-double. For the series, he averaged 26.2 points, 13 assists, eight boards and 2.3 steals, with a Game 4 shot spiked by journeyman backup center Greg Kite the only indignity in an otherwise masterful performance. Johnson also was remarkably ‘mistake-proof’ with only 13 turnovers in the six games, a 24-for-25 effort from the free-throw line and a 54.1 percent shooting mark.
Results: Los Angeles 4 – Boston 2
(img source: beyondbadminton.com)
5. Houston vs New York, *ing Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston, 1994
This series didn’t strike a chord with die-hard fans except when the O.J. Simpson car chase interrupted Game 5. But Olajuwon’s performance was unquestionably historic. The 1993-94 Knicks were one of the best defensive teams of all time; you could argue, in fact, that no team has ever defended better than those Riley-era Knicks. Furthermore, Olajuwon was going up against not only a great D, but also its linchpin in fellow 2008 Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing. Their matchup was one of the few times in recent history that two all-timers went head-to-head in finals and guarded each other nearly the entire time. And Olajuwon absolutely crushed Ewing. The Dream hardly came off the floor, averaging 43.1 minutes per game for the series, and his freakish stat line included 26.9 points, 9.1 boards, 3.9 blocks and 3.6 assists. Included in those numbers were a game-saving block of a John Starks jumper in Game 6, and an assist on the series-clinching 3-pointer by Vernon Maxwell in Game 7. Given the level of the competition and the defensive nature of the series, Olajuwon produced an amazing effort that transcended his 27.1 PER. As for Ewing, he shot 36.9 percent with a 15.5 PER, and Olajuwon outscored him in all seven games. If not for such total domination in the battle of Hall of Fame centers, Houston wouldn’t have come close to the title.
Results: Houston 4 – New York 3
(img source: bleacherreport.com)
4. Chicago vs Utah, *ing Michael Jordan, Chicago, 1997
Yes, Jordan produced another strong series overall but the reason this one resonates is because of the Flu Game. With the series tied at 2 and Utah looking to steal the momentum, Jordan was weak and nauseated and in no shape to play Game 5. But somehow, he did. And man, did he play well. Fighting exhaustion and dehydration and practically needing to be carried to the bench during timeouts in the fourth quarter, Jordan led the Bulls back from an early 16-point deficit by scoring 38 points in a 90-88 victory that gave them the upper hand. He surrounded that heroic Game 5 effort with two game-winning plays. In the opener, he hit a game-winning jumper at the buzzer over Bryon Russell and finished with 31. And in the clincher, during a 39-point, 11-rebound effort, he waited for a double-team and found a wide-open Steve Kerr for the series-winning jumper. For the series, Jordan had another amazing line – 32.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and a 29.5 PER. But it was the clutch plays and the Flu Game that put this one so high in the stratosphere.
Results: Chicago 4 – Utah 2
(img source: inhistoric.com)
3. San Antonio vs New Jersey, *ing Tim Duncan, San Antonio, 2003
The single most underrated NBA Finals performance of all time belongs to Duncan in 2003. Relatively few viewers saw it because of the Spurs-Nets pairing, and because of the general consensus that the East was something of a minor league. But Duncan was unbelievable. Despite going up against two top-notch defensive players in Kenyon Martin and Dikembe Mutombo, and despite lacking a superstar teammate to deflect attention (Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were just getting their feet wet, while David Robinson was on his way out), Duncan completely dominated. His averages of 24.2 points, 17.0 boards and 5.3 assists were impressive enough, but what really sealed the deal was his defense. Duncan averaged 5.3 blocks per game for the series, the most of any player since the merger, and was at his best in the clinching Game 6 as San Antonio rallied from an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit. He fell two blocks shy of a quadruple-double and forced the Nets’ Martin into a 3-for-23 disaster from the floor. Overall his 32.0 PER in the series is the second-best since the merger.
Results: San Antonio 4 – New Jersey 2
(img source: basketballforum.com)
2. Chicago vs Utah, *ing Michael Jordan, Chicago, 1998
If any NBA Finals performance can be defined by a single image, it’s this one: Michael Jordan at the free-throw line in Salt Lake City, simultaneously holding his form on the game-winning basket in the clinching Game 6 and waving goodbye to the game of basketball … at least for a while. This would be his final effort in a Bulls uniform as well as his last championship. Jordan was huge in both of Chicago’s road wins – victories the Bulls needed, since Utah had home-court advantage – with 37 points in a 93-88 Game 2 win and 45 in the clincher. That included the final two baskets, bracketing a strip of the ball from Karl Malone and helping Chicago overcome a debilitating back injury of Scottie Pippen. Jordan’s numbers in the other games weren’t too shabby, either, as he averaged 33.5 points and nearly 12 free-throw attempts per game overall. His 30.8 PER in the series is superhuman by anyone else’s standards, especially in the Finals. And because of how good he was in the most important moments, his performance earns the No. 2 spot on the list.
Results: Chicago 4 – Utah 2
(img source: sbnation.com)
1. Miami vs Dallas, *ing Dwyane Wade, Miami, 2006
It’s hard to overstate how awesome Dwyane Wade was in leading the Heat to their lone championship, particularly in the final four games when Miami rallied from a 2-0 deficit to stun the Mavs. Wade started the comeback by leading the Heat back from a 13-point fourth quarter deficit in Game 3, scoring 12 points in the final 6½ minutes to send the game to OT. He also made the biggest play of the series with his crazy dribbling foray to the rim at the end of overtime in Game 5 that – controversially – earned a whistle from referee Bennett Salvatore and a trip to the line for the winning free throws. For the series, Wade averaged 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.7 steals – and this in a slow-paced series (neither team cleared the century mark in regulation in any of the six games). His basket attacks were so deadly because the Mavs couldn’t stop fouling him. Wade shot a whopping 97 free throws in the six games – the most of any player since the merger – including 25 in Game 5. Overall, Wade’s 33.8 PER is easily the best of any Finals performer since the merger. While it seems strange to have somebody besides Michael Jordan in the top spot, the truth is Jordan never dominated a Finals to this extent. At the time, many called Wade’s performance Jordanesque. It turns out they might have been selling him short.
Results: Miami 4 – Dallas 2
(img source: bleacherreport.com)
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