Greatest Performances in NBA Finals History (Part 4, 10-6)
10. Elgin Baylor, Game 5, 1962 NBA Finals
61 Points, 22 rebounds (Video)
Once again, there is limited statistical information provided due to the era in which this performance happened. That, however, does not diminish the greatness that occurred here. Boston was at the apex of its dynasty, and the Lakers were ascending behind one of the most under-rated duos in NBA history of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. It is important to remember the style that Baylor played: we has an attacking showman. In fact, he was the first to really incorporate creativity into his game, even before Dr. J. Now think back to what was the heart and soul of the Celtics: It was Bill Russell. His rebounding and defense (particularly at the front of the rim) anchored perhaps the greatest dynasty in any team sport the world has ever seen. Now for Baylor to put up 61 points in a pivotal game 5, in Boston, where the Celtics strength really countered his strengths, was absolutely incredible. A great player that is totally overlooked and forgotten, his performance is not disregarded here. The 61 points is a record that stands to this day, 52 years on.
9. Larry Bird, Game 6, 1986 NBA Finals
29 Points, 12 Assists, 11 Rebounds, 3 Steals (video)
After losing to The Lakers for the first time in the NBA Finals in 1985, The Celtics were on a mission to establish dominance in 1986. They were virtually unbeatable at home, and boasted the best front court the game has ever seen. They were led by Larry Bird, who won his 3rd straight MVP award and capped off perhaps the best 3 year run by any single player (yes, including Jordan) in league history with a monster triple double against The Houston Rockets, a team that was now coached by Bill Fitch (Bird’s first coach when he arrived in the NBA).
8. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Game 6, 1974 NBA Finals
34 Points (video)
Once again, limited stats available, but that doesn’t discount from the intensity of this game and the performance by Kareem. Milwaukee were searching for their second title with Kareem and Oscar Robertson, whilst Boston were looking to get their first in the post- Russell era. The Celtics incorporated a swarming defense that attempted to get the ball out of Kareem’s hands. This resulted in double and triple teaming of him, despite being matched up against one of the better defenders in the league in Dave Cowens. Whilst this slowed down Kareem, it certainly did not contain him. In game 6, he was brilliant, scoring 34 points, and the iconic 20 foot skyhook from the baseline (whilst being double teamed) to win the game. The Celtics regrouped and won game 7 in Milwaukee to get the ring, but Kareem’s game 6 performance was legendary.
7. Michael Jordan, Game 5, 1997 NBA Finals
38 Points, 7 Rebounds, 5 Assists, 3 Steals, 1 Block (Video)
Chicago opened the series by winning the first 2 games (one a buzzer beater by MJ in game 1, then a blowout in game 2) before Utah responded by blowing them out in game 3 and a come from behind victory in game 4. The Jazz were surging at this stage, having won 10 straight games at home in the playoffs and on the verge of taking a 3-2 series lead back to Chicago. The Bulls had an added problem because Jordan had the flu. In an absolute classic performance showcasing will, determination and guts, Jordan came out and delivered one of his most unforgettable games: scoring 38 points in 44 minutes and carrying the Bulls to a crucial victory. No Bull came close to stepping up in this game. Pippen scored 17 points but was 5 for 17 from the field, and admitted after the game that “the effort [Jordan] gave today was unbelievable and as teammates we should have stepped up and played much better basketball but we really appreciate the way that he steps up and shows leadership to this ball club.” Keep in mind that Pippen had seen everything from Jordan: From the 69 point game in Cleveland, to both series winning shots in Cleveland (89 and 93), to “the shrug game”, to the 55 point performance and averaging over 40 points in the NBA finals (!), to switching hands mid-air against The Lakers in game 1 of the 91 finals, to the game winning shot in game 1 of this series… really I could go on and on here, but Pippen had seen it all, and he was as lost for words after this performance as I have ever seen him. Remember, Scottie Pippen is an all-time great player, and is unquestionably one of the top 50 players to have ever played. And here he is, totally grateful and appreciative for the effort and performance Jordan provided. That says a lot.
Former championship winning teammate, John Paxson, added that “There’s something inside of him that allowed him to compete when he probably shouldn’t have. That’s a game where a lot of guys probably would have bailed on it. And he was able to rise above how he felt and accept what he had to do and he did it.”
In many ways the flu became his biggest obstacle in this game and overshadowed the Jazz. I don’t know if that’s fair, but I will say this: Had he not been sick, this game by Jordan still would have made the list (although probably 10 spots lower), and the fact that he carried his teammates to the victory in an absolutely critical game against the best team, in my opinion, that Chicago faced in the finals, only sweetened the deal.
6. Magic Johnson, Game 4, 1987 NBA Finals
29 Points, 8 Rebounds, 5 Assists (Video)
A lot had changed since the 1985 series where the Lakers final broke through and defeated the Celtics for a championship. Boston responded by having one the greatest seasons of all time in 1986, whilst the Lakers failed to make the finals (this might sound absurd, but remember they made the finals 9 out of 11 years with Magic there, so this was actually news in of itself). Pat Riley and The Lakers changed philosophies, and Magic became the leader as Kareem entered the twilight of his career. The Lakers and Celtics would meet in the 1987 finals, with Boston as the defending champions. The Lakers jumped out to a 2-0 series with two blowouts lead before Boston won game 3 at home. Game 4 turned into an absolute classic, with both teams playing beautiful basketball. The Lakers found themselves down by one when Magic who had been killed for his tendency to choke in late game situations, especially in Boston (sound familiar?) drove the lane and drilled a sky hook over Bird, McHale and Parish. The shot emphatically ended any debate over Magic’s ability to make big plays in tough situations and the series established Magic as the best player in the world (a title bird held only one year earlier). Bird was lost for words after the game, saying “Magic’s the best I’ve ever seen. And I don’t know what else to say.”
Next: Number 5 Isiah Thomas game 6 1988 NBA Finals