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Classic NBA Finals Performers and Their Best Series
Basketball is the most individualistic of team games, and one player’s performance in a championship series can carry his team to glory. A strong enough performance can also transform the player from a star into a legend.
The list of dominant NBA Finals performances reads like a Basketball Hall of Fame roll call, and the best of the best do it more than once. If we were simply recounting the best Finals performances ever, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain would leave little room for anyone else.
In the interest of equal time for others, though, this list will make room for ten players. Only the best of their best Finals exploits will be among the classics, so the floor is left open for debate even on which year is Jordan’s best, or Magic’s, never mind the order in which they’re presented here.
4. Larry Bird, Boston Celtics 1986
Larry Bird had pondered the idea of sitting out the 1986 season with recurring back pain. If his back bothered him in the regular season, his averages of 25.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists made it hard to tell. When the Houston Rockets reached the Finals instead of the Lakers, the Celtics’ stellar frontcourt found itself staring down the barrel of skilled seven-footers Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon.
In Game 1, the Celtics maintained a balanced attack, led by Bird stuffing the stat sheet like few others in the league. His 21 points, eight rebounds, 13 assists, and four steals led to a lot of easy baskets in a 112-100 Celtic win. Game 2 featured more of the same. Bird racked 31 points, eight boards, seven assists, and four steals, and the margin of victory expanded to 22.
In Game 3, a Bird triple-double (25 points, 15 rebounds, and 11 assists) looked great, but once Bill Fitch put Robert Reid onto Bird, his shooting went downhill and the Rockets escaped with a 106-104 win. Bird just missed another trip-dub in Game 4, with 21 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists, and he drained a three-pointer to put Boston up 104-101. The Celtics hung on for a 106-103 win.
Kevin McHale was the only Celtic to have a great game in Game 5, but Bird came back strong in Game 6. He had 16 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists at halftime, finishing with a 29-11-12 line. A couple of threes in the third quarter helped the Celtics put the game and the series on ice.
Bird’s near-triple-double averages of 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists made him an academic choice for Finals MVP.
3. Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers 2000
The Lakers hadn’t been to the Finals in almost a decade when they escaped a tough Western Conference Finals series against Portland. Their championship opponent, the Indiana Pacers, had a veteran team, led by Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, and Mark Jackson. There was also a familiar foe on the sideline in the person of Larry Bird, then the Pacers’ head coach. Unfortunately for the Pacers, Bird didn’t have a lot of answers for new Lakers coach Phil Jackson, and absolutely no one had any answers for a motivated, hungry Shaquille O’Neal.
By now calling himself “Superman,” among other names, Shaq was growing into the comparisons that many observers had made linking him with a young Wilt. Game 1 of the Finals looked like a vintage Chamberlain game, as O’Neal threw Smits, Dale Davis, and whoever else faced him all over the court. By the end of the 104-87 drubbing, Shaq had 43 points, 19 rebounds, and a nervous group of opponents.
The classic Hack-a-Shaq strategy was in full effect in Game 2, as the Pacers sent O’Neal to the line for a ludicrous 39 free-throw attempts. He made 18 of them. Despite Reggie Miller recovering from his 1-for-16 Game 1 nightmare with 21 points, the Pacers fell again, thanks to Shaq’s 40 points and 24 boards.
Kobe Bryant was unable to go in Game 3 after landing on Jalen Rose’s foot in the previous matchup, and the Pacers were able to score their first win despite 33 and 13 from the Big Nostradamus. Game 4 went to overtime, primarily because Shaq dropped 14 of his 36 in the fourth quarter. He fouled out halfway through overtime, though, and had to watch Kobe carry the team in the final 2:30.
Whether it was Kobe overworking himself, the Lakers putting Game 5 in cruise control, or just the Pacers being extremely motivated to protect their house from someone else’s celebration, L.A. absolutely crashed and burned in Game 5, falling 120-87. Shaq did his part with 35 points and 11 rebounds, but no one else scored more than 11. Kobe shot 4-for-20 for eight points.
Having coughed up a 3-1 advantage against Portland, the Lakers had to be conscious not to repeat the mistake. As the New York Knicks could attest, anything could happen with Reggie Miller on the court. Shaq roared for 15 in the second quarter, but the Pacers still led at halftime. By game’s end, Robert Horry and Kobe Bryant were the ones making the big shots, but thanks to Shaq, Rik Smits was never a factor in any quarter. Smits’ 1-8 shooting night may have made the difference in a 116-111 Lakers victory.
Only Elgin Baylor, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan, and Hakeem Olajuwon had scored 30 or more points in every game of a Finals series. Shaq equaled the feat, averaging 38 points, 16.7 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks while shooting 61 percent from the floor. He would record similarly dominant performances in the next two Finals, but 2000 was the year that Shaq proved he could finish in June.
2. Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers 1987
Magic began making his legend by filling in ably for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, and he had a great series overall that year. By 1987, though, Kareem was gliding toward the end and Showtime was in full effect. The Lakers were Magic’s team in ’87, and in the Finals against Boston, he led the team like a symphony conductor. Or, to use a comparison that a young Magic could allegedly appreciate, like George Clinton tearing it up with the P-Funk All-Stars.
Magic started off hot with 11 points in the first quarter of Game 1, and the Lakers never really let Boston into the game. Johnson racked 29 points, eight boards, 13 assists, and the Lakers’ humming offense shot over 55 percent in a 126-112 win. Game 2 was even better, as L.A. shot a Finals-record 61.5 percent. Five Lakers broke 20 points, mainly because Magic dropped 20 assists. He and Michael Cooper each tied the Finals record with eight assists in a quarter, Cooper in the second and Magic in the third. Johnson scored 24 himself, and the Lakers romped 141-122.
The Celtics were finally able to get on the board, winning Game 3 by a 109-103 count. James Worthy and Byron Scott struggled, but Magic kept the Lakers close with 32 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists, shooting 12-of-18 from the field and making all eight free throws. In Game 4, Magic was unable to find his teammates for assists as easily as he had before, so he took matters into his own hands. He scored 29, including the famous “junior, junior skyhook” over the entire Boston frontcourt with two seconds left. The 107-106 win gave L.A. a 3-1 series lead and a chance to finish the Celtics in Boston.
Bird, McHale and company were having none of that noise, though, stomping the Lakers 38-23 in the second quarter of Game 5 en route to a 123-108 win. Magic recorded 29 points, eight rebounds, 12 assists, and four steals, but he wasn’t helped by Kareem, Scott, and Worthy shooting a combined 17-for-50. This time, it was Boston’s turn to have five 20-point scorers, like the Lakers had done in Game 2.
So, it was back to the Forum for Game 6, and Magic was harassed most of the night, shooting 7-of-21. He was very able to help out Worthy and Kareem, however, as they shot a combined 23-of-34 for 54 points. Magic’s 19 assists and eight rebounds made up for a relatively subpar 16 points, and a 30-12 third quarter gave the Lakers the cushion they needed to win the title, 105-93.
For the series, Magic averaged 26.2 points, eight boards, 13 assists, and 2.3 steals per game. He shot nearly 55 percent from the floor, and missed only one of the 25 free throws he shot in the series. Thanks to his pinpoint court vision, he was able to get good looks for just about all of his Laker teammates, as five other players averaged over 10 points per game. Few players have made their entire teams operate as efficiently as Magic was able to in 1987.