The 13 Best NBA Playoffs Performances of All Time

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The NBA has some of the fittest athletes in the world. 

Basketball players have to fly up and down the court, playing offense and defense almost simultaneously. Speed, size, and agility are all important skills for NBA players to have, especially when it comes to trying to win a championship. 

But while the NBA is filled with elite athletes who could easily flash talent in a dunk contest, only the best of the best make it to the playoffs. And when wins count more than ever, that’s when the greats prove they’re cut above the rest.

Here’s a look at the best performances in NBA playoff history:

LeBron James, Cavaliers vs. Warriors, 2016 Finals, Game 7

James cemented his status as one of the greatest players of all time with his performance against the Golden State Warriors in Game 7. “The King” put his team into the history books—helping the Cavaliers win their first title in franchise history, bringing the city of Cleveland its first championship since 1964, and making the Cavs the first team ever to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win the championship.

And oh yeah: James did all this against the team that set the record for most regular season wins in NBA history. He posted a triple-double in the game, scoring 27 points with 11 rebounds and 11 assists, and during the series he was simply unbelievable, averaging 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.3 blocks, and 2.6 steals per game. Making his performance even more impressive: James became the first player ever to lead all players in all five categories for an entire playoff series, according to ESPN.

Sure, James didn’t score as much as he did in Games 5 and 6—41 points in back-to-back games is an utterly gaudy statline, even for LeBron—but his impact was just as great in this final matchup of the series. James gave Cleveland an iconic play in “The Block,” which saw the All-NBA defensive star chase down an Andre Iguodala layup that would have given the Warriors a 91-89 lead with less than two minutes to play. Instead, James rejected the shot and helped set up a 3-pointer by Kyrie Irving on the other end of the floor. The point guard made the shot—right over MVP Steph Curry—and the Warriors did not score again for the rest of the game. History made.


LeBron James, Cavaliers vs. Warriors, 2016 Finals, Game 6

With his legacy on the line and his team facing elimination, LeBron James took matters into his own hands and completely dominated the Warriors.

“The King” put up an amazing stat line, scoring 41 points with 11 assists, eight rebounds, four steals, and three blocks to help his team secure a 115-101 victory. The performance put James and the Cavs in historic territory: For only the third time ever and the first time since 1966, a team forced Game 7 in the NBA Finals after going down 3-1 to an opponent. James has been criticized by some in the media for not showing up in past playoff games, but he put those comments to rest with his Game 6 performance.

The Akron, Ohio native put on a show for the hometown fans in the final game in Cleveland for the 2015-16 season with a ridiculous, gravity-defying alley-oop dunk that was set-up by a no-look pass from J.R. Smith. But that wasn’t the only highlight-reel worthy play from James—the Cavaliers star blocked one of Stephen Curry’s shots with authority in the fourth quarter and made sure that the Warriors guard knew about it afterwards.

Stephen Curry, Warriors vs. Blazers, 2016 Second Round, Game 4

The night before Curry won his second straight MVP award, he showed his true value to the Golden State Warriors. The guard missed the first three games of the playoff series against the Blazers due to an injury, but once he returned, he simply dominated. Curry scored 40 points in the Game 4 win against Portland, setting a record with his 17-point performance in the overtime period. Curry put the dagger in the Blazers with a deep three with just over a minute remaining, a shot that left Blazers owner Paul Allen dazed, confused, and the face of a new internet meme.

Shaquille O’Neal, Lakers vs. Pacers, 2000 Finals, Game 1

Shaq put up one of the most dominant performances of his career to start the Lakers off with a win against the Indiana Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals. The center scored 43 points while adding 19 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks while completely overpowering Indiana center Rik Smits. The Lakers went on to win the championship in six games, starting a run of three straight titles for O’Neal and LA.

Michael Jordan, Bulls vs. Celtics, 1986 First Round, Game 2

Even though the Bulls lost this series in a sweep to the Boston Celtics, Jordan turned in one of the best performances of his career. MJ scored 63 points, setting a new NBA record for scoring in a playoff game, while going 22-of-41 from the field. Even more impressive: Jordan only played 18 games during the 1985-86 season with a foot injury, meaning he was still shaking some rust off by the time the playoffs started. While Larry Bird and the Celtics won the series and eventually the NBA title, Jordan’s performance is still considered to be one of the best individual games in history. Larry Bird summed it up best after the game, saying: “I think it’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.”

James Worthy, Lakers vs. Pistons, 1988 Finals, Game 7

Game 7 is do-or-die in the NBA playoffs, and in this series the stakes were high: The Lakers were trying to win their third title over the last four years. Enter James Worthy. “Big Game” James lived up to his moniker against the Detroit Pistons in this series, scoring 36 points while missing just seven of his 22 shots from the field. Worthy added 16 rebounds, 10 assists and two steals in the game to record the first triple-double of his career. He earned the 1988 NBA Finals MVP award after leading the Lakers to the championship.

Hakeem Olajuwon, Rockets vs. Sonics, 1987 Semifinals, Game 6

Olajuwon had a “dream”-like performance against the Seattle SuperSonics, even though his Rockets lost 128-125 in double overtime. The center had 49 points, 25 rebounds, and six blocks in the loss, which knocked Houston from the playoffs. Even in defeat, Olajuwon proved that he was one of the best players in the league—and someone that defenses could not stop. 

Bill Russell, Celtics vs. Lakers, 1962 Finals, Game 7

Russell helped lead the Celtics to their fourth straight championship with his powerhouse performance against the Los Angeles Lakers. Russell put up 30 points and a whopping 40 rebounds to help defeat the Lakers—who were led by legendary players like Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. Russell won 11 championships in his 13 seasons in the NBA, and this was one of his most clutch performances. 

Charles Barkley, Suns vs. Warriors,1994 First Round, Game 3

Sir Charles was in charge against the Golden State Warriors, tying Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain for the third-most points scored in a playoff game in NBA history. Barkley was feeling it on this night. The Suns star scored 56 points and shot a whopping 74.2 percent overall from the field—including 75 percent from 3-point range—while adding four assists, three steals and one block in the 140-133 victory. 

LeBron James, Cavaliers vs. Pistons, 2007 Conference Finals, Game 5

Playing on the road in one of the toughest environments in the NBA—The Palace of Auburn Hills—King James took center stage against the Detroit Pistons to lead the Cavs to a thrilling double-overtime victory. James scored 48 points—including 29 out of the last 30 scored by Cleveland—to give his team a 3-2 lead in the series. James made 18-of-33 shots and added nine rebounds, seven assists and two steals against one of the best defensive teams in NBA history.

Michael Jordan, Bulls vs. Jazz, 1997 Finals, Game 5

Coming into Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls had no idea if their superstar would even be able to get on the court. With the championship series against the Utah Jazz tied at 2-2, the winner would take a huge advantage into Game 6. But on the night before the game, Jordan was suffering from serious flu symptoms, putting his ability to play very much in doubt.

But MJ gutted it out and played. Even though he was nowhere close to 100 percent healthy, he ended up scoring 38 points on 13-of-27 shooting with seven rebounds, five assists and three steals. This performance has gone down as one of the best in playoff history and will forever be known as the “Flu Game.”

Kobe Bryant, Lakers vs. Kings, 2001 Conference Semifinals, Game 4

Bryant helped seal a sweep of the Sacramento Kings in the second round of the playoffs with one of the most dominating performances in his lengthy career. The Lakers star scored 48 points while adding 16 rebounds and three assists to push the Lakers into the conference finals. LA ended up losing just one game in the 2001 postseason—a loss to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers—and won their second straight championship.

Magic Johnson, Lakers vs. 76ers, 1980 Finals, Game 6

In a “magical” performance—sorry, had to do it—Magic Johnson put the Lakers on his back to help clinch the NBA title. Johnson, who normally played at point guard for LA, stepped in for injured MVP center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—and didn’t miss a beat. The 20-year-old rookie scored 42 points while adding 15 rebounds and seven assists to help defeat the Philadelphia 76ers. Johnson gave in one of the best performances in NBA playoff history—some would say THE best because of his position change—and helped the Lakers clinch a championship. 

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