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.
These ten players gave NBA fans hundreds of breathless nights, but saved many of their best for the biggest stage of them all. This year, it’s up to the likes of LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki to fight their way into this illustrious club, or maybe to Dwyane Wade to see if he can approach his first performance the way Jordan did in 1993. Who’s got the best shot? Let’s find out.
1. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls 1991
Jordan still holds the record for highest scoring average in a Finals series with his 41-point-per-game outburst against the Phoenix Suns in 1993. The Bulls’ first championship, however, was Jordan demonstrating his staggering versatility and command of the entire game, not just Jordan strapping the team to his back and doing all the scoring himself.
This isn’t to say that Michael wasn’t already capable of doing it all himself, as he dropped 15 in the first quarter and 13 in the fourth quarter of Game 1 en route to a game-high 36. He also carded eight boards, 12 assists, and three steals, but Scottie Pippen was the only other Bull to score more than six in the 93-91 loss.
Game 2 was a slow one early on for Jordan, as he concentrated on his newly assigned defensive mismatch against Laker center Vlade Divac. 20 minutes into the game, MJ had only two points. From there, he was unstoppable, making 13 straight shots and 15-of-18 overall on the night. His final line read 33-7-13 as the Bulls rolled 107-86.
Jordan’s shooting was a bit rockier in Game 3, a meager 11-of-28, but the last eight of his 29 points came at the perfect time. Michael drained a jumpshot with 3.7 seconds left to force overtime and then scored six of Chicago’s 12 points in the bonus frame. Behind Michael’s 29-9-9, four steals, and two blocks, the Bulls won 104-96 to take a lead they would never give back.
Game 4 looked a little like the first two for His Airness as he dropped 13 dimes to go with his 28 points. The Bulls only committed five turnovers all night, never letting L.A. get back in the game after they led by a point after one quarter. James Worthy and Byron Scott left with injuries, and neither would return in Game 5.
The Lakers’ fate seemed to be sealed by those injuries until Elden Campbell and Tony Smith responded well to the extra playing time. Magic Johnson recorded his second triple-double of the series, including 20 assists, but Jordan just had more bullets in his gun. Michael helped Scottie Pippen lead all scorers on the night, and picked up 30 points, 10 assists, and five steals himself in the 108-101 win.
Jordan’s free distribution of the ball, and his teammates’ ability to convert when he did share, opened up a lot of great looks for a man who could usually hit on the bad looks as well. MJ shot 61.5 percent from the field, 28-of-33 from the line, and averaged over 11 assists to go with his 31 points per night. Did he light up Phoenix two years later? Absolutely. But for a pure display of basketball skill, leadership, and teamwork, that 1991 series set a nearly impossible standard.