The NBA playoffs are where legacies are made.
With the spotlight on them, it's where superstars validate their reputation, leading their respective franchises to greater heights. Given the stakes, every performance in the postseason carries so much more value than a similar showcase in the regular season.
With that in mind and in light of a historic mind-boggling performance by 21-year-old Slovenian Luka Doncic in the first round of the 2020 playoffs, here's an attempt at listing the ten greatest single-game individual performances in NBA playoff history, in no particular order:
Note: This isn't a ranking, but a list considering the circumstances surrounding that specific game and what was at stake back then. Thus, these performances are just placed from the most recent to the oldest.
Luka Doncic's game-winner vs. Clippers
A game for the ages. Given the number of anecdotes from this great performance, it's arguably one of the greatest. The elite company that Doncic joined and the records he set or broke are just too many to list down, so, here's a snapshot:
» 3rd player ever with 40-15-10 in the playoffs (Oscar, Barkley)- Mavs PR (@MavsPR) August 24, 2020
» joined LeBron as only 21yo's to record a 30pt triple-double in playoffs
» only player with more than 1 triple-double in playoffs this year
» 2nd-longest postseason GW buzzer-beater (28ft), only behind Dame (37ft) pic.twitter.com/NVXQC8hOMk
A few points that were not mentioned above is the fact that Doncic's game-winner capped off the franchise's largest comeback (21 points) ever in the playoffs. Not to mention the fact that he carried them in a game, where the team was playing without their other young superstar in Kristaps Porzingis, while playing on a bad left ankle that he sprained only a couple of days earlier.
His monster triple-double made him the ninth player ever to record consecutive triple-doubles in the playoffs. He also became only the third player ever after Magic Johnson and LeBron James to have multiple playoff triple-doubles at the age of 21 or younger.
LeBron James' heroic Game 7 in 2016 Finals
Chasedown blocks are synonymous with LeBron James. This swat on Andre Iguodala in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals is the most iconic one of his career.
That block was a part of history. James went on to lead his team to victory in this game - making the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers the only team in NBA Finals history to overcome a 3-1 series deficit. That's not all, the enormity of the achievement is in the fact that they did it against a Golden State Warriors squad that had won an NBA record 73 games in the regular season and was led by the only unanimous league MVP ever in Stephen Curry.
Every game that Cleveland avoided elimination (Games 5, 6, 7), he absolutely stuffed the stat sheet. In Game 5, he finished with 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, and three blocks. He followed that up with 41 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals, and three blocks in Game 6.
Then, in the winner-take-all Game 7, he recorded a 27-11-11 triple-double, making him only the third player in NBA history, after Jerry West (1969) and James Worthy (1988), to record a triple-double in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
He finished this championship series as the Finals MVP, for the third time in his career, and the only player ever to average a triple-double in the Finals.
LeBron James' Game 6 vs. Boston in 2012
Nearly two years into the 'Big 3' era in Miami, the Heat hadn't achieved their target of a championship. Instead, after losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals, they were facing elimination to the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the Conference Finals.
A loss here and the mighty Heat would have nothing to show for two years after they had formed a team around three All-Stars in James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. But, the King wasn't going to let them lose.
"My mentality was like, if we lose, Pat Riley may break us all up," James said years later.
Taking matters into his own hands, he went off for 45 points on 19-of-26 shooting, 15 rebounds, and five assists, dominating the game wire-to-wire to force a Game 7 back in Miami. The Heat would go on to win that Game 7 and eventually the 2012 Championship - LeBron's 1st title.
It is still considered among the greatest games of James' career.
LeBron takes over Game 5 vs. Pistons in 2007
In just his second-ever trip to the postseason, at the age of 22, James led the Cavaliers to the Conference Finals. Against the mighty Detroit Pistons, who were in their fifth consecutive Conference Finals, the series was tied at two games apiece.
In Game 5, with 6:14 left in regulation, the Cavaliers were up 79-78. That's when James took over. He scored the team's last 25 points and 29 of the last 30 points, leading them to a 109-107 double-overtime victory. He would finish the game with 48 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, and two steals.
Although it would be a few more years before James would win a championship, he showed very early on in his career that he is capable of delivering in pressure situations against the contenders.
The Cavs would go on to win Game 6 and make it to their first Finals in franchise history, where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
AI leads 76ers to huge upset win in 2001 Finals
The only Finals performance on this list that didn't result in a championship. However, the grit and fight shown by Allen Iverson and the opponent it came against is what earns this game its spot here.
Iverson, then the reigning league MVP, played all but three seconds of this overtime game as he led the 76ers to an upset 107-101 victory over the defending champions - the Los Angeles Lakers.
It would be imperative to note that the Lakers had reached the Finals with a 11-0 record in that postseason, sweeping all three Western Conference teams - Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs - in their path.
AI finished with 48 points, six assists, five rebounds, five steals, and an iconic step-over.
Philadelphia handed the Lakers, led the dynamic duo of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, their only loss of the 2001 postseason. That's right, the Lakers would win the next four games and repeat as champions with a 15-1 postseason record. One game shy of a perfect record, thanks to AI.
MJ's 'Last Shot' in 1998
What a way to end your career with a franchise. A game-winning jumper that gives you your third straight championship and the sixth title in an eight-year span.
Battling a tough-and-gritty Utah Jazz while his All-Star teammate Scottie Pippen was dealing with a bad back to such an extent that he had difficulty running up-and-down the floor, Michael Jordan carried the Bulls to the 1998 championship with a masterful 45-point performance.
With 2:30 minutes to go in the game, the Bulls were down 83-79 and then, Jordan went on a personal 8-3 run to end the game, capped off by his iconic jumper over Bryon Russell. It's a testament to his greatness that Jordan, despite all the emotional and physical grind that he had been through during this second three-peat, could still will his team to a win.
MJ's 'Flu game'
Ever played through a basketball game with the Flu?
Well, Michael Jordan did more than just that. In Game 5 of an NBA Finals series that's all tied up, he played 44 minutes while battling flu-like symptoms and led the Bulls to a comeback victory that gave them a 3-2 series lead. He finished with 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and a block.
In the crucial fourth quarter, he scored 15 as the Bulls outscored the Jazz 23-16 to win the game 90-88. Just legendary stuff.
Larry Bird's - 'It's just God disguised as Michael Jordan'
"It's just God disguised as Michael Jordan," said Larry Bird after the second-year 6'6" guard dropped an NBA playoff single-game record of 63 points against the 1985-86 Boston Celtics, considered among the greatest teams of all-time.
The Celtics did end up winning the double-overtime game 135-131 but not before the 23-year-old had earned the respect of his opponents including Bird, who was at that time the league's reigning 3-time league MVP.
Magic Johnson - plays center in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals
Given what was achieved - a championship - this game by Magic Johnson must be the greatest Finals performance by a rookie ever.
With Lakers' superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ruled out of Game 6 of the 1980 Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers with an injured ankle, the 6'9" rookie Magic Johnson began the game at center but played every position to eventually finish the game with 42 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists.
His masterful performance led the Lakers to a 123-107 win, one that gave the Lakers their seventh title in franchise history. To date, Johnson remains the only rookie in NBA history to be named Finals MVP.
Bill Russell's 30-40
You can't discuss the greatest single-game individual playoff performances without mentioning the winningest player in NBA history!
In Game 7 of the 1962 Finals, Bill Russell came up huge for the Celtics against the Lakers. Playing every minute of this overtime game, he finished with 30 points, a Finals record 40 rebounds, and four assists in the 110-107 win.
Back in 1962, blocks weren't recorded but it's worth imagining how many Russell could have had if he pulled down 40 rebounds.
Winning this game, the Celtics clinched their fourth straight championship and the fifth in franchise history. It was the first of six times the Celtics and Lakers would meet in the NBA FInals during the 1960s. Boston won each time and Russell played a huge role in each including this one.
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