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. 7, 6 and 5. (Nos. 4-2 on June 6 and No. 1 on June 7) Nos. 10-8.
7. Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia 76ers 1967
Before he was dealt to the Lakers, Wilt the Stilt had already gotten a chance to shed his “can’t win the big one” reputation. He’d finally realized that averaging 50 points per game, as he’d done in 1962, wasn’t going to get him as far as he wanted. The fact that the likes of Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker, and Wali Jones surrounded him in 1967 certainly helped, but this is not to say that Wilt couldn’t still dominate games in other ways.
San Francisco Warriors center Nate Thurmond was establishing himself as a big dog in the Western Conference, and his battle with Wilt was an interesting subplot to the ’67 Finals. In Game 1, Thurmond went for 24 points and 31 rebounds, but Wilt went one better. Chamberlain went off for 16 points, 33 rebounds, 10 assists, and stuffed Thurmond on a shot that would have ended the game in regulation. The 76ers won 141-135 in overtime.
Wilt became the first player to ever record two triple-doubles in the same Finals, let alone in back-to-back games, when he recorded 10, 38 and 10 in Game 2, a 126-95 Philly blowout. The scoring output wasn’t great, but it was better than Thurmond, who only managed seven points on 3-of-14 shooting. The Warriors won Game 3 130-124, but it took a 55-point explosion from Rick Barry to do so. Wilt went for 26 and 26, outdueling Thurmond (17 and 25) once again.
Chamberlain again took the back seat offensively in Game 4, taking only six shots en route to 10 points, but his 27 rebounds and eight assists helped the Sixers take a 3-1 series lead. Thurmond pulled 25 boards, but shot an ugly 4-for-18 for eight points. Blocks were not an official statistic in ’67, but Wilt is said to have recorded 15 of them in this game, which would have been his third triple-double of the series.
Game 5 was a more typical Chamberlain game for this period, with 20 points and 24 boards. The Sixers lost by eight, and Wilt’s equally typical 2-for-12 night at the foul line may have been a large cause. In Game 6, however, Wilt finished the series in style with another 20-20 night, 24 points and 23 boards, to be exact. He shot 8-of-16 from the line, a torrid pace for him. He again held Thurmond in check (4-of-13 field goals) and forced Rick Barry to carry the entire load for the Warriors in a 125-122 Philly win, capping a 4-2 series victory.
Wilt’s 29.5 rebounds-per-game average is still third all-time for a Finals series behind Bill Russell’s 1959 and 1961 efforts. He and Thurmond became only the fifth and sixth players to grab 20-plus rebounds in every game of a Finals series, and no one else has done it since. Wilt decisively won the individual battle, though. He outscored Thurmond 106 to 85, and his .560 field-goal percentage dwarfed Nate the Great’s .343. Chamberlain served notice that the court was still his yard.
6. Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers 1969
West averaged 35 points per game in the 1965 Finals, operating as essentially a one-man team without an injured Elgin Baylor. In 1969, though, he did have an active Baylor on his team as well as the later-years, team-focused Wilt Chamberlain. So, why is this performance against the Celtics rated higher than the one from four years prior? Read on.
West exploded out of the gate with 53 points and 10 assists, dragging the Lakers to a two-point win in Game 1. The Lakers won again in Game 2 as West recorded another 41, nearly matching the output (43) of the equally sizzling John Havlicek.
In Game 3, the Lakers ate up Boston’s 17-point halftime lead and went into the fourth tied. This was West’s lone black mark of the series, as he and Baylor combined to shoot 1-of-14 in the final period, wasting the advantage gained when Havlicek took a finger to the eye from Laker guard Keith Erickson. West still finished with 24 points.
The Logo endured no such funk in Game 4, getting his output back up to 40. The same could not be said for Baylor, however, who managed only five points. The always-risky free-throw shooting of Wilt Chamberlain was a hindrance, too, as he went 2-for-11 at the line. Still, it took a play that Havlicek and Larry Siegfried used to run at Ohio State to get Sam Jones open for an 18-foot game-winner over Chamberlain. The final was 89-88, and the Celtics had tied the series.
Like Mikan in ’49, West was forced to endure an injury in his quest for the title, and it didn’t stop him personally. He poured in 39 in Game 5 despite incurring a hamstring injury, and the Lakers took a 117-104 win. In Game 6, though, it was a different story. West and Baylor both racked up 26, but West’s most reliable help in the series, backcourt mate Johnny Egan, was held to seven points after recording 20-plus in three of the first five games.
So, it was on to Game 7, where West was left annoyed at both his owner and coach by night’s end. Owner Jack Kent Cooke ordered hundreds of balloons to be suspended from the Forum rafters, planning for a victory celebration. The motivation spurred Boston to a 91-76 lead going into the fourth quarter. With Havlicek and Bill Russell each saddled with five fouls, the Lakers were able to cut the lead to 103-94 with six minutes left.
Chamberlain came down awkwardly on a rebound and left the game with a knee injury with five minutes to go, but the Lakers kept coming, and a basket by Wilt’s backup Mel Counts made the score 103-102 inside of three minutes. Chamberlain was anxious to return, but coach Butch van Breda Kolff refused, a move that infuriated West when he was told of it after the game.
The Lakers could never quite get over the edge and fell 108-106, but little of that blame could be laid on West. He recorded 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists, the first-ever triple-double in a Finals Game 7 and still one of only five in the seventh game of any playoff round. With his 37.9 scoring average, West was named the Finals MVP, and he remains the only Finals MVP to have played for the losing team.
5. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat 2006
Like West, Wade was charging into the Finals supported by a center whose free-throw form could charitably be described as awkward. In Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, the Heat had their West and their Chamberlain, but sadly lacked their Elgin Baylor. Luckily for them, Wade was able to pick up all the slack against the Dallas Mavericks.
The Heat slouched through the first two games, dropping both. Wade recorded 28 points, six rebounds, six assists, and four steals in Game 1, but he went 6-of-10 from the foul line, Shaq went 1-for-9, and the rest of the team never even toed the stripe at all. This easily explained the 90-80 final score. Wade went 6-of-19 in the Game 2 loss, and wasn’t looking like an all-time great in any sense of the term.
Then came the next four games.
The Mavs led 83-71 with 8:33 to play in Game 3, but Wade took charge and scored 12 points from there, despite committing his fifth foul with 11 minutes left. His 42 points and 13 rebounds, plus his steal of a last-second lob pass, propelled the Heat to a 98-96 win.
Game 4 needed no such drama, as the Heat smoked Dallas 98-74 behind Wade’s 36 points. However, Wade did suffer a strained knee, forcing him to play in pain just like West had been in 1969. In Game 5, overtime was needed, and Wade dropped a free throw with 1.9 seconds remaining. The referees then dealt with a dispute over whether or not Josh Howard had foolishly burned Dallas’s last timeout. They ruled that he had and the timeout was taken, but rather than being iced, Wade coolly drilled the second to give Miami the 101-100 win. That capped off a 43-point night, by the way.
Wade’s icy foul-line demeanor deserted him in the closing seconds of Game 6, as he blew a pair that would have put the game out of reach, but Jason Terry missed a tying 3-pointer, and who should be there to rebound but Wade himself. 36 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals, and three blocks made for a satisfyingly stuffed stat sheet as D-Wade and Shaq succeeded where West and Wilt could not back in ’69.
Wade attempted an insane 97 free throws in the six games, making 75 of them. He shot 37-of-46 in the last two games alone. All told, “Flash” averaged 34.7 points per game in the Finals. Not quite Logo level, but at least Wade got the ring.