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.
Here are Nos. 10, 9 and 8. (Nos. 7-5 on June 3, Nos. 4-2 on June 6 and No. 1 on June 7)
10. John Havlicek, Boston Celtics 1974
The Celtics had not been back to the Finals since Bill Russell’s retirement after the 1969 championship season. Five years later, Havlicek and role players Don Nelson and Don Chaney were the only links to that team. The Milwaukee Bucks had taken over since then, winning the 1971 championship behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor). This Russell-less Celtics team had to rely on quickness and shooting ability to counteract Jabbar’s size. Even on 34-year-old legs, Havlicek still had both.
It was vital for Boston to make Abdul-Jabbar carry the load by himself, and in Game 1, they managed to do just that. Hondo helped hold Bobby Dandridge to 12 points, seven off his regular season average. Kareem went for 35, but Dandridge and Oscar Robertson shot 8-for-30 between them, and the Celtics won 98-83 in Milwaukee. Havlicek led the Celtics with 26 points, and added eight rebounds.
Hondo went cold in Game 2, shooting only 7-of-21, and also struggled with fouls. He was, however, able to take over in the fourth, scoring 10 of his 18 points in leading Boston back from 11 down to force overtime. The Bucks managed to survive 105-96.
In Game 3, Havlicek and Dave Cowens carried the load, combining for all but two of the Celtics’ points in the third quarter. Hondo accounted for 28 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, and six steals as Boston took a 2-1 lead. At halftime in Game 4, the Bucks led by 10, but Havlicek scored 16 in the third quarter to cut that lead in half. The Celtics got no closer, however, and the Bucks regained homecourt advantage despite Havlicek’s 33 points.
Game 5 followed a similar script to Game 1, as Havlicek scored 28 points, pulled nine boards, and helped hold down Bobby Dandridge. Dandridge shot 4-of-17, aiding Boston’s 96-87 win. Game 6 lasted 58 minutes instead of the usual 48, but Havlicek never left the court. His 36 points and nine rebounds helped pull the Celtics back from a 12-point deficit to force two overtimes, but Kareem’s skyhook with three seconds left sent the series back to Wisconsin for Game 7.
Hondo had a difficult shooting night in the decider, but he and Cowens combined for 10 of Boston’s 11 straight points in a run that put the game on ice. His 16 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and three steals did just enough to help him clinch the Finals MVP award. Havlicek’s final averages were 26.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.7 assists.
9. George Mikan, Minneapolis Lakers, 1949
In the early days of the NBA, so early that the league was actually called the Basketball Association of America, entire teams averaged between 70 and 80 points per game. With that in mind, Mikan’s 27.5-per-game average in the ’49 Finals against the Washington Capitols (who were led by a clever young coach named Arnold “Red” Auerbach) is much more impressive than it sounds by today’s standards.
In the Lakers’ first-ever Finals game, “Mr. Basketball” dropped 42 of his team’s 88 points, dragging the Lakers to a four-point win. In Game 3, he recorded 35, despite fouling out with nine minutes to go.
Game 4, however, was the one where the legend of Mikan’s 1949 Finals was made. He was charging down the court on a fast break when Capitols forward Kleggie Hermsen shoved him from behind into the first row of seats. Mikan played on, but due to his grotesquely swollen right wrist, he missed his final 13 shots from the floor and Washington avoided elimination with an 83-71 victory.
The wrist injury was diagnosed as a fracture the following day, and a hard cast was placed on Mikan’s arm. That failed to stop him from taking the court for Game 5. He struggled to adapt to the cast, but still managed 22 points in the Lakers’ second straight loss.
When Game 6 rolled around, however, Mikan bludgeoned Capitols center Bones McKinney into submission, scoring 29 points and helping the Lakers finish off the pesky Caps 77-56. His 165 total points were more than any other two players on either team. Not bad for a guy with a busted shooting hand.
8. Julius Erving, Philadelphia 76ers, 1977
Dr. J had one of the rare transcendent Finals performances that simply fell short, as the Sixers lost to Bill Walton’s Portland Trail Blazers in six games.
The Finals got off to a great start for Philly when it took the first two games of the series. Erving shot almost 60 percent from the field and racked 53 points in the two wins. In addition, he harassed second-year forward Bob Gross into committing 10 personal fouls in a frantic struggle to contain the Doc.
In the final five minutes of Game 2, however, the pivotal moment came when Gross and Darryl Dawkins were battling for a loose ball. Tempers flared, and Dawkins threw a punch. He missed Gross, accidentally hit his own teammate Doug Collins, and then Portland’s enforcer Maurice Lucas entered the fray. Few were anxious to get between Lucas and Dawkins, and it took 10 minutes before the situation was calmed. Lucas and Dawkins were both ejected, but escaped suspension. That development proved unfortunate for Philadelphia.
Erving kept performing, racking 28 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists in Game 3, but Lucas matched him with 29 and 12 as Portland won by 22 points. The Doctor racked 24 in Game 4, but his usually reliable sidekick George McGinnis was held to five points and four fouls on 2-of-8 shooting in only 19 minutes. Portland smoked the Sixers 130-98.
Philly needed more, so Erving obliged in Game 5 with 37 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Doug Collins chipped in 23, but the Sixers couldn’t hang with Portland’s balanced attack. The Blazers did lead by 22 with only 8:30 to play, until the Sixers resorted to a full-court press. Five minutes later, the lead was trimmed to five, thanks to 13 points from Erving and 10 more from Collins. The SIxers fell just short, 110-104.
The Blazers once again came close to losing a sizeable lead in Game 6, up by 12 with six minutes remaining. Erving and McGinnis, who finally came to play, recording 28 points, pulled it back to a one-possession game in the final minute. Both men, along with noted gunner World B. Free, missed looks that would have forced overtime, and the Blazers escaped 109-107 to win the title. The Doctor recorded 40 points, but Bill Walton’s 20 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists, and eight blocks were just enough to put Philly away.
Dr. J averaged over 30 points per game, along with 6.8 rebounds and five assists, but he got little help from McGinnis, who had only carded 50 points in the first five games.