What time is it? Game time! With the NBA coming back over the weekend and the start of the playoffs imminent, I thought it is as good a time as any to look back at some of the best playoff performances in NBA history.
Winning the tip to start this list is Earvin “Magic” Johnson, with arguably the greatest playoff performance ever, in his rookie season no less. Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who was injured in the previous game and the centrepiece (literally) for the Lakers, but “have no fear, Magic is here”, were Magic’s famous words on the team plane of which his teammates looked at him as if he were silly. Magic went on to score 42 points to go along with 15 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals and win the title for the Lakers.
We all love a “David vs Goliath” battle and game 1 of the 2001 finals served us up one of the best examples. Coming off his MVP season, Allen Iverson was the David to Shaquille O’Neal’s Goliath. Shaq is an imposing figure and the Lakers were the clear favourite heading into this series having steamrolled everyone through the playoffs so far, but the diminutive AI had an answer. Iverson dropped 48 points, including the most memorable step-over on Tyronn Lue, en route to a victory which “shocked the world” in game 1.
Those who know me know my love for the San Antonio Spurs and especially Tim Duncan, and here is Timmy with probably the most understated insane playoff performance of all time. The Spurs clinched the 2003 title behind Duncan’s incredible 21-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist and 8-block near quadruple double (some claim that he was robbed of 2 blocks and should have had 10). TD won the league and finals MVP that year in what turned out to be the best season for the “Big Fundamental”, as Shaq nicknamed him.
When you think of 90’s basketball, obviously MJ is the first thing that springs to mind, but Reggie Miller vs The Knicks is up there. Those Indiana vs New York battles were fiercely competitive and generated many great contests, none more famous than the commonly named “Spike Lee game”, game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. With the series tied at 2-2 going back to “the world’s most famous arena”, New York’s Madison Square Garden, for the pivotal game 5, Reggie Miller erupted for 39 points. The Pacers looked dead in the water, trailing by double digits, before Reggie’s 25 fourth quarter points led a miraculous come from behind win with a well-documented back-and-forth with ardent Knick fan, Spike Lee. The now infamous “choke sign” Reggie gestured towards Spike is forever etched into NBA folklore.
LeBron’s coming out party was game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals vs Detroit, where he scored 25 straight points (including 29 of the last 30) for Cleveland in a double-OT win over the Pistons. However, my favourite playoff performance by LeBron came more than a decade later in game 1 of the 2018 finals vs Warriors. Sadly, this game is remembered as the “JR Smith game”, where he forgot how to play basketball and cost them a chance at winning the first game of the series. This moment overshadowed, to me, LeBron’s greatest game. Picture this, game 1, on the road against the defending champs with Curry, Thompson, Green and Durant and you come out and play faultlessly for 51 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists and there was nothing they could do to stop you, but in the end it was a teammate who did. LeBron deserved to win that game, a shot at it at least, except JR Smith had other ideas.
Wait…what?! No Jordan in your five? Hold the boat.
Of course, no playoff performance list would be complete without “His Royal Airness”, and what better way to cap it off with the game which consummated “The Last Dance”, game 6 of the 1998 finals. Jordan would have 45 in a title-clinching decider on the road vs Utah. With Pippen ailing with a bad back for practically the entire game, Jordan took over the load for the Bulls as he so often did. Down one, Jordan got the crucial steal by doubling Malone and then it was “17 seconds from game 7 or from championship number six”, as Bob Costas would call it. “Michael against Russell. 12 seconds…11…10. Jordan a drive…hangs…fires…scores!”, the words of Bulls broadcaster Neil Funk etched into my memory, it feels just like the other day and I still get goosebumps. Arguably the most iconic shot in NBA history and a great way finish off this week’s entry.