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Ranking the 5 best NBA Finals performances of all-time

Ranking the 5 best NBA Finals performances of all-time

In 75 years of NBA Finals history, there have been only seven 50-point games. In those seven games, the team with the 50-point scorer went 6-1. Further, there have been just 19 30-rebound games, only one of which was done by someone other than Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain (Nate Thurmond), and only 15 15-assist games, 10 of which belong to Magic Johnson.

There have been some truly great Finals performances over the years, so let’s identify the five best single-game showings in NBA Finals history:

5. Michael Jordan – Game 4, 1993 NBA Finals: 55 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists

Let’s kick things off with the GOAT. Jordan’s 55-point performance in Game 4 of the 1993 NBA Finals is still tied for the second-highest point total in Finals history. Jordan’s NBA Finals dominance is noteworthy, as he is undefeated in the championship series with a career scoring average of 33.6 points per game in his six appearances. But this is easily the most impressive of the bunch. He shot 21-for-37 from the field, failing to connect on just one three-pointer. That didn’t slow him down though. In addition to 55 points, Jordan also tallied 8 rebounds and 4 assists in this win.

4. LeBron James – Game 1, 2018 NBA Finals: 51 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists

James’ 51-point, 8-rebound, 8-assist game is the most controversial on this list, but it absolutely belongs. Yes, James’ Cavaliers lost the game in overtime, which makes this the lone loss among 50-point NBA Finals performances. The thing is, the odds were stacked against James in this series. First, former teammate Kyrie Irving requested a trade prior to the season, leaving James with less firepower to combat the star-studded Golden State Warriors. Furthermore, this game was the first one back for Kevin Love, who had suffered a concussion late in the Eastern Conference Finals. Still, James willed the Cavaliers into a prime position to go up 1-0 on Golden State shooting 19-for-32 from the floor, dishing out 8 assists and grabbing 8 rebounds. Had it not been for a meme-worthy blunder by JR Smith at the end of regulation, Cleveland would have gotten the win too. The Warriors outscored the Cavaliers by 10 in overtime. Still, win or lose, this was one hell of a performance.

3. Walt "Clyde" Frazier – Game 7, 1970 NBA Finals: 36 points, 19 assists, 7 rebounds

Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals is better known as "The Willis Reed Game" because Reed limped to the court during warm-ups and scored the first two baskets of the game. The fact of the matter is that Reed ended the game with only those four points, but someone else really did put the Knicks on their shoulders: Walt Frazier. Frazier’s Game 7 performance was the stuff of legends, as he recorded 36 points, 19 assists and 7 rebounds. 1970 pre-dates recorded steals, but Frazier recorded a number of those as well. In total, Frazier scored or assisted on 31 of the Knicks’ 46 baskets, a preposterous number for a championship-deciding game. Best of all, this game resulted in one of only two Knicks championships, making this one of the most legendary performances ever.

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Game 7, 2021 NBA Finals: 50 points, 14 rebounds, 5 blocks

If you like what James did in 2018, you’re going to love this. Antetokounmpo put Milwaukee on his back in the decisive game of the 2021 NBA Finals. He did a little bit of everything, beginning with scoring the basketball. He shot 16-for-25 from the field and 17-for-19 from the free-throw line. He racked up loads of rebounds and blocks too, and he impacted the game in a way I literally haven’t seen in my adult life. Say what you will about Antetokounmpo’s inability to stretch the floor, but when it clicks for him, he is easily the most dangerous player in the game today.

1. Earvin "Magic" Johnson – Game 6, 1980 NBA Finals: 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists

This one is more famous than Frazier’s legendary performance, thanks in part to the work of HBO’s Winning Time. Regardless of fame, Johnson’s performance in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals is wildly impressive. Johnson, the Lakers’ point guard, was the team’s second-tallest starter for this game. With his teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out due to injury, Johnson played power forward and center for much of the game, even taking a page out of Abdul-Jabbar’s book in connecting on a championship-securing sky hook. In total, Johnson scored 42 points on 14-for-23 shooting. He also made up for Abdul-Jabbar’s absence by recording 15 rebounds and 7 assists in this all-around show of dominance. Johnson really did a bit of everything in this game, proving that he was an absolute force to be reckoned with... as a rookie.

Honorable Mention: Elgin Baylor - Game 5, 1962 NBA Finals: 61 points, 22 rebounds

Baylor holds the record for most points scored in a finals game (61), and if this were at top-10 list, he'd be on it, but he fails to make this list. Yes, scoring 61 points and grabbing 22 rebounds in a Finals game is notable. The thing is, leading rebounders regularly snagged 20 or more rebounds in a game in the 1960s, cheapening that statistic. Case in point, Bill Russell amassed 29 boards in the same game. So, while this was clearly an all-time great performance, it doesn’t quite make the cut as Baylor’s overall impact wasn’t quite on par with the five players listed above him.

Legacies are made in the NBA Finals. Players can cement themselves among the all-time greats with one overwhelmingly impressive showing. But one game only gets you so far.

Ultimately, careers are judged in terms of championships. So, while an exceptionally impressive performance gets a player remembered, it doesn’t garner the same level of respect as an all-time great performance that results in a title.

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