Comparisons are a vital part of sports. We can't set our eyes on a new talent without immediately pointing to who that player reminds us of, like the Leonardo Di Caprio meme from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I do it too, so I wish I had an answer for why we can't escape the jaws of a player-comp,...
The 15 Best NBA Finals Single Game Performances of All Time
Giannis Antetokounmpo gave us one of the greatest finals performances in NBA history a little over 24 hours ago, scoring a playoff career-high 50 points while looking impenetrable defensively. Once the dust settled, debates began on where that single game would rank all-time in NBA Finals history. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I went to work designing a mathematical equation that would tell me what NBA Finals single-game performances are the best of all time.
Similar to the work we did on documenting the 5 best NBA Playoff buzzer beaters of all time, this also has multiple factors that come into play.
Points, assists, defensive rebounds, offensive rebounds, steals, blocks, turnovers, shooting percentage from the field, shooting percentage from the free-throw line, the importance of the game, margin of victory or loss, what percentage of a team's points the player scored, and whether the performance was at home or an away arena.
These factors were assigned a numerical value and boiled down into a single number to give me what I think are the 15 best playoff performances in NBA history.
And as usual, any performance before the 1976 ABA-NBA merger is automatically excluded from my considerations. With that said, here are the top 15.
15. Larry Bird, Game 6, 1986 Finals vs. Rockets
29 points, 11 rebounds (2 offensive), 12 assists, 3 steals. A triple-double in a closeout NBA finals game is legendary stuff. Had the game been closer (Celtics won by 17), this game would have been more elite. Nonetheless, Bird helped carry the Celtics to a championship in 6 games thanks to this performance.
14. Michael Jordan, Game 6, 1998 Finals vs. Jazz
45 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 4 steals in a one-point Game 6 victory in Utah. This game will forever be famous for the alleged push-off and how this was Jordan's last game for the Chicago Bulls. This game would have ranked much higher, but the truth is, Jordan did little more than score in this performance. A common theme in the games that rank highest is just how much the players contributed on both ends of the court. Jordan didn't do much more than score, but to be fair, he scored 51 percent of his team's points in this game, the highest of anyone on the list.
13. Dwayne Wade, Game 3, 2006 Finals vs. Mavericks
42 points, 13 rebounds (2 offensive), 2 assists, 2 steals in a two-point victory. This spot is not the only time you'll see Wade on this list, and rightfully so, this entire series is one of the best performances in NBA history. In this particular game, down 2-0, the Heat needed every bit of his 42 points to stand a chance.
12. Tim Duncan, Game 6, 2003 Finals vs. Nets
21 points, 20 rebounds (4 offensive), 10 assists, 8 blocks. The man almost put up a quadruple-double in the NBA Finals. Wow. This performance would have ranked higher, but Duncan shot 12 for 24 from the field and the free-throw line. Fifty percent is not awful, but when you're splitting the difference between all-time great performances, every ounce matters.
11. LeBron James, Game 7, 2013 Finals vs. Spurs
37 points, 12 rebounds (3 offensive), 4 assists, 2 steals, in a Game 7 victory. There's no denying it, Game Sevens are about as pressured as games get, and LeBron put the Heat on his back in this game. He scored close to 40% of the team's points, all while going 20 for 31 from the field and the free-throw line.
10. Jimmy Butler, Game 3, 2020 Finals vs. Heat
40 points, 11 rebounds (1 offensive), 13 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks. It was always going to take something special to have a Game Three performance enter the greats. So how about a 40 point triple-double? Not good enough? How about shooting 70% from the field and 85% from the free-throw line, and the only 40 point triple-double in finals history? Yeah ...
9. LeBron James, Game 2, 2015 Finals vs. Warriors
39 points, 16 rebounds (4 offensive), 11 assists, 1 steal, 1 block. No Kevin Love, no Kyrie Irving, Timofey Mozgov was the team's second top scorer. And somehow, someway, LeBron and the Cavs walked out of Oracle Arena with a two-point Game Two victory. There really is no explaining how exactly the Cavs pulled this off, but LeBron was just that dominant on the night.
8. LeBron James, Game 6, 2016 Finals vs. Warriors
41 points, 8 rebounds (2 offensive), 11 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks. Win or go home, and LeBron put together a near 40 point triple-double. This game forced a Game Seven in Golden State, and the rest is history.
7. LeBron James, Game 5, 2016 Finals vs. Warriors
41 points, 16 rebounds (4 offensive), 7 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks, in Golden State. If you thought Game 6 in Cleveland was impressive, what about game 5 in Golden State. The Warriors had a chance to end the series at 4-1 at home, and LeBron led the Cavs to a victory.
6. Bill Walton, Game 6, 1977 Finals vs. 76ers
20 points, 23 rebounds (3 offensive), 7 assists, 8 blocks, 2 steals. This performance is eerily similar to Duncan's game which came in 12th place. So why does this come in higher? For one, turnovers were not counted, so Walton technically played a turnover-free game. In addition, this was a two-point game, making every point, rebound, and assist extra important.
5. Dwayne Wade, Game 6, 2006 Finals vs. Mavs
36 points, 10 rebounds (3 offensive), 5 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks, in Dallas. This performance slightly edges into the top 5 because of the efficiency Wade had in what was at the time the most important game of his career. Wade in this game registered 26 for 39 from the field and the line for 67 percent. For some reason, it seems like NBA history has forgotten about this series, but it is statistically some of the best basketball anyone has ever played in the finals.
4. LeBron James, Game 7, 2016 Finals vs. Warriors
27 points, 11 rebounds (1 offensive), 11 assists, 2 steals, 3 blocks in Golden State. A 27 point triple-double in Game Seven of the NBA finals in a hostile arena? That is simply ridiculous, and the fact that this game only comes in at fourth lets you know how dominant the rest of the list must be.
3. James Worthy, Game 7, 1988 Finals vs. Pistons
36 points, 16 rebounds (5 offensive), 10 assists, 2 steals in a 2 point victory. Game 7, winner takes all, and this man submits a 36 point triple-double to outshine Isiah Thomas, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Magic Johnson. And while recording five offensive rebounds, the most of anyone that makes this list? All in a game that came down to 2 points ... Yeah, this is a worthy (😉) finals performance.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Game 6, 2021 Finals vs. Suns
50 points, 14 rebounds (4 offensive), 2 assists, 5 blocks in a closeout victory. What a game. As much as I wanted to slide this in the first place, I couldn't force it in. A 50 point closeout game performance is ridiculous. As is the fact that he ran the longest con in NBA history by pretending he couldn't shoot free throws his entire career, only to go 17 for 19 from the line in the most important game of his life so far. How is this only second again?
1. Magic Johnson, Game 6, 1980 Finals vs. 76ers
42 points, 15 rebounds (3 offensive), 7 assists, 3 steals, 1 block, in a closeout victory in Philadelphia. This game is most famous for being the game where Magic Johnson stepped into center because Kareem couldn't play. Magic Johnson basically had the Giannis game 41 years before Giannis did. The only difference is that Magic did this in one of the most hostile arenas in NBA history, while Giannis benefitted from playing in front of his home crowd. Giannis shot 16 for 25 from the field; Magic shot 14 for 23. Giannis shot 17 for 19 from the line; Magic shot 14 for 14. And while Giannis was more intimidating defensively, Magic contributed more offensively with five more assists than Giannis had. Oh, and did I mention this was in Magic Johnson's rookie year? Yeah ...
LeBron's 2018 Game 1 Performance would have made the top 5 if they could have won. An uber-efficient 51-8-8, but a JR Smith decision ruined what would have been an all-time finals victory. Allen Iverson's game 1 in the 2001 NBA finals also narrowly misses out mostly become the game didn't mean anything; it was game one of a finals the team lost 4-1. Shaq had about five games miss out, mostly down to the inefficiency he had from the free-throw line. Jordan was also a victim of his success; it's hard to play vital games when you win every series within 5 or 6 games.
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