With this year’s NBA Finals approaching, there are still many questions as to who will be playing in the championship series. From the East, will Giannis Antetokounmpo lead the Milwaukee Bucks to their first Finals appearance since 1974? Or will Kawhi Leonard take Toronto to the championship in just his first season as a Raptor? Although the Golden State Warriors have already cemented their place in the Finals from the West, their fifth in as many years, which superstar will lead their team? Will Kevin Durant return for a shot at his third straight Finals MVP trophy? Or will Steph Curry finally get his first? One thing that’s certain is, no matter what superstars are playing in the series, we’re guaranteed to see some big performances from these great players.
In anticipation for this season’s final series, I decided to take a look at some of the historically great NBA Finals performances. This article will simply provide the statistics, and some context, of what I believe to be the top five most dominating individual Finals performances in NBA history.
The Stats, Without Player Bias
Before scrolling down or reading any further, I encourage readers to analyze the following chart by itself. The table incudes the stat lines of what I believe to be the top five best statistical NBA Finals performances in history. The table excludes the names, and any other information about the series, in hopes of providing purely statistical evidence for these amazing performances. This allows you, as readers, to form unbiased conclusions as to who you think had the best championship series ever.
Now, let’s look at who these superstars are who put up these incredible numbers on the biggest stage in basketball.
Lebron James’s 2016 NBA Finals
In the 2016 NBA Finals, Lebron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first ever NBA championship. More impressively, they did so over the Golden State Warriors who had just completed the best regular season record of all time, going 73-9 that season. Lebron James absolutely dominated the series, in all facets of the game, by being the first player ever to lead both teams in the Finals in all five major statistical categories: points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. If that wasn’t enough, Lebron and the Cavs also made NBA history by becoming the first team ever to overcome a 3-1 series deficit, while winning the championship in Game 7 at Oracle Arena.
Tim Duncan’s 2003 NBA Finals
In 2003, Tim Duncan, and the San Antonio Spurs, defeated the New Jersey Nets in six games to bring home his, and their, second of five championships. Duncan led all players, from both teams, in the series in points, rebounds, and blocks. He also led his own team in assists throughout the series. What makes Duncan’s series so remarkable is the amazing numbers he put up on both ends of the floor. In a six game series where only one team scored over 100 points once (the Spurs with 101 in Game 1), rebounding and defense were critical. Duncan tallied the most rebounds for either team in all 6 games, with 20, 12, 16, 17, 17, and 20. He also recorded the most blocks ever in an NBA Finals series with 32.
Shaquille O’Neal’s 2001 NBA Finals
In the 2001 Finals, Shaquille O’Neal led the Lakers to the second championship of their 3-peat from years 2000-2002. Shaq was a beast down low, leading both teams in total rebounds and blocks. He also led his team with 33 points per game, while only Allen Iverson scored more in the series with 35.6 points per game. Shaq corralled the most rebounds for either team in each of the five games with 20, 20, 12, 14, and 13. He also led his team in field goal percentage shooting an outstanding 57.3% for the series. His incredible stats in the paint (rebounds, blocks, and shooting percentage) are even more remarkable because he was going up against all-time great defender Dikembe Mutombo.
Shaquille O’Neal’s 2000 NBA Finals
That’s right, Shaq again! Shaq won his first championship with the Lakers in 2000 against the Indiana Pacers in six games. This Finals performance from Shaq should go down, in my opinion, as the best series ever by a center. O’Neal dominated the paint, leading both teams in the series in scoring, rebounding, and blocks. He was the high scorer for both teams in all six games with 43, 40, 33, 36, 35, and 41. He also led both teams in rebounding in five of the six games with 19, 24, 13, 21, and 11, while still grabbing 12 in Game 6 (Dale Davis of Indiana had 14 that game). Once again, these statistics are even more impressive when considering his competition. He was practically unstoppable down low, even when facing 7-foot 4-inch center Rik Smits.
Michael Jordan’s 1993 NBA Finals
Of course, I couldn’t forget about Michael Jordan. In 1993, Michael led the Bulls to his, and their, third straight championship ring. While points per game was the only category in which Michael led his team, his offensive genius was all the Bulls needed. He averaged a jaw-dropping 41 points per game and was the leading scorer for either team in all six contests, posting totals of 31, 42, 44, 55, 41, and 33. Jordan’s 55-point Game 4 performance ranks the second highest of all time in a Finals game, following only Elgin Baylor’s 61-point game in 1962. What’s even more incredible is that his Game 4 performance was not his most important of the series. In a tight Game 6, where a loss for the Bulls would mean having to travel back to Phoenix for a tough Game 7, Michael took over when it mattered most. He scored 16 of Chicago’s 19 points in the fourth quarter, leading them to a 99-98 victory over the Suns.
The Greatest Finals Performance Ever
Now that you have the stats and context of each series, you can draw your own conclusions about who you think had the best Finals performance ever. Whether you go with Lebron’s historic comeback, Duncan’s incredible defense, Shaq’s pure dominance in the paint, or Jordan’s video-game like offense, each of these Hall-of-Famers showed why they are considered all-time greats in NBA history. All these superstars were virtually unstoppable on the biggest stage in basketball.
About the Author
Connor just completed his sophomore year at Purdue University, where he is pursuing a double major in actuarial sciences and applied statistics, with a minor in management. He has had a passion for both sports and statistics since a very young age, and enjoys discovering all the new information statistics can give us about sports.