Ranking the 6 Best NBA Finals Performances

By David Kenyon

Consequent to a 40-point performance on Tuesday night, Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James broke a 48-year-old record for most points through three games of an NBA Finals series.

LeBron’s second free throw with 16 seconds remaining in the contest gave him 123 total points, which edged Golden State Warriors legend Rick Barry’s existing mark of 122 set in the 1967 championship round.

Since James is currently averaging 41.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 8.3 assists, it’s impossible—or not smart—to argue that he’s on track to record one of the greatest individual performances in NBA Finals history.

But who would LeBron have to pass in order to officially stake his claim to a spot in the top six?

Honorable Mentions

Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers, 1969: “The Logo” tallied 37.9 points, 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds. West is the only player in league history to be named MVP while on a team that lost the NBA Finals.


Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1991: It took MJ seven seasons to win his first championship, but the greatest player of all time registered 31.2 points, 11.4 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocks during a five-game series victory over the Lakers.

Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets, 1994: In a matchup against Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon torched the New York Knicks for 26.9 points, 9.1 boards, 3.9 blocks and 3.6 assists over seven hard-fought games.

6. Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers, 2000

The Indiana Pacers tried everything to stop Shaquille O’Neal during the 2000 NBA Finals. Long story short, none of it worked.

O’Neal never scored fewer than 33 points, and various single-game outputs were simply amazing. He smacked Indiana for 43 points and 19 rebounds in Game 1, 40 points and 24 rebounds in Game 2, then closed out the series with 41 points and 12 rebounds in Game 6.

“The Big Aristotle” finished the series averaging 38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 2.3 assists, and he boasted a 61.1 field-goal percentage.

Just imagine what numbers O’Neal, who hit a disgusting 36 of his 93 freebies, would’ve put up if he had any ability to make shots from the free-throw line.

5. Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers, 1987

Although Kareem Abdul-Jabbar perfected the skyhook, teammate Magic Johnson busted out a “junior” version of the patented shot to give Los Angeles a one-point victory in Game 4 of the 1987 Finals.

Johnson received an in-bounds pass, drove toward the rim and lofted the one-handed shot over Kevin McHale. According to the Los Angeles Times, Johnson’s skyhook was an instinctive reaction. He said:

“I didn’t know I would shoot a hook shot. That was the shot that was available to me. I’m just happy that God blessed me that it went in and that we ended up winning the series.”

The Lakers toppled the Boston Celtics in six games, and Johnson’s all-around output of 26.2 points, 13.0 assists, 8.0 boards and 2.3 steals has never been matched, per Basketball-Reference.com.

4. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs, 2003

The current Spurs are known for a team-oriented game with no stars, which makes it easy to forget just how dominant Tim Duncan was in his prime.

San Antonio squared off with the New Jersey Nets in the 2003 NBA Finals, and Duncan accounted for—at least compared to this list—a pedestrian 24.2 points per game. But he did everything else, too.

Duncan snatched a stunning 17.0 rebounds, dished 5.3 assists and swatted 5.3 shots. In the series-clinching Game 6, Duncan racked up 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks.

Read that again: He was two blocks shy of recording a quadruple-double during the NBA Finals.

Duncan accomplished this absurd stat-line with David Robinson in his final season, a young Tony Parker and a rookie in Manu Ginobili. San Antonio flaunts a team-first style now, but back in 2003, Duncan carried them to a championship.

3. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1997

Though basketball fans may remember the 1997 NBA Finals because of the “Flu Game,” that wasn’t Michael Jordan’s lone accomplishment during that championship run.

But it certainly was the most memorable part of Chicago’s title.

Jordan battled through sickness to tally 38 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals and give the Bulls a 3-2 series lead. NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner noted what Jordan said after the 90-88 victory:

“That was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I almost played myself into passing out just to win a basketball game. If we had lost, I would have been devastated.”

He nailed a buzzer-beater to win in Game 1 then assisted Steve Kerr’s series-clinching shot in Game 6. Jordan accumulated 32.3 points, 7.0 assists and 6.0 rebounds en route to earning his fifth ring.

2. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1998

Apparently, Jordan decided his 1997 showing wasn’t good enough, so he one-upped himself the following year. He netted 33.5 points, grabbed 4.0 boards and managed 1.8 steals per appearance in his final season with the Bulls.

Jordan shredded the Utah Jazz for 45 points and hit the series-clinching shot in Game 6. The memory of Jordan holding his form after the jumper is ingrained into basketball minds everywhere.

Yes, Jordan probably pushed off. But the history books don’t care about the missed call.

What we do remember, however, is Jordan winning his third straight championship—the second time he achieved that feat in his illustrious career.

1. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat, 2006

While three future Hall of Famers flanked Dwyane Wade on the 2006 Miami Heat, the youngest one, Shaq, was already 34 years old. Alonzo Mourning was 36, and Gary Payton was 37.

Wade had a tremendous burden to carry, especially when Miami fell behind the Dallas Mavericks two games to none. But the then-third-year pro stepped up and shouldered the load. The shooting guard propelled the Heat to four straight victories, racking up 39.3 points and 8.3 rebounds during that stretch.

His defining moment arrived in Game 3. The Mavs held a 13-point lead with 6:15 remaining in regulation, but Wade engineered a game-winning 22-7 that changed the whole series.

Wade ended the best NBA Finals performance ever with averages of 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists.

Photo: USA Today Sports