10) Dirk Nowitzki (forward, Dallas Mavericks), 2011
Dirk Nowitzki won his only championship playing against “the Heatles,” the Miami superteam formed when perennial All-Stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh took their talents to South Beach to join Dwyane Wade, but another one perennial All-Star. The first game of the series immediately raised concern among bettors. In a tense, low-scoring affair in Miami, Nowitzki used a brace to ignore an in-game torn tendon in his left hand before hitting the winner with the very hand he injured. He went on to win Game 4 despite a sinus infection and a fever of 101F, confirming his now undisputed ability to play flawlessly under difficult circumstances.
9) Jerry West (Guard, Los Angeles Lakers), 1969
1969 was West’s sixth Finals appearance – and he had lost all five previous encounters against the Bill Russell-managed Boston Celtics. Despite that record, West played incredibly, averaging 38 points per game throughout the series, including a 53-point performance in Game 1 and a 40-point triple-double in Game 7, which the Lakers lost to give Boston the title. West’s inspired performance was not lost on his opponents: Russell remarked that “Los Angeles didn’t win the championship, but Jerry West is a champion.” The powers that be also recognized the quality of West’s play, awarding him the first-ever Finals MVP award and the only one ever given to a player on the losing team.
8) Hakeem Olajuwon (Center, Houston Rockets), 1995
Sometimes lost in the mid-1990s, other superstars were two years of quiet dominance by the league’s first international superstar, Hakeem Olajuwon. One of many performances on this list that are defined by the exceptional quality of their opponent, Olajuwon’s Rockets swept away a Shaquille O’Neal-led Orlando Magic that had just knocked Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls out of the playoffs. (the only team to do so in the 90s). Olajuwon scored over 30 points in every game and knocked down the winner of the missed game from a teammate in Game 1.
7) Dwyane Wade (Guard, Miami Heat), 2006
Wade’s play in 2006 is, to date, the best Michael Jordan impression anyone has ever made in the finals. He was an unlikely candidate to be the series MVP – after all, his teammate was O’Neal, a three-time Finals MVP in his own right. Still, after losing the first two games, it was Wade who scored 42, 36, 43 and 36 points in four straight wins to give Miami its first championship. And, according to the (often controversial) composite statistic known as the Player Effectiveness Rating (PER), Wade’s 2006 streak was the best individual performance in more than 20 years.
6) Bill Russell (Center, Boston Celtics) 1962
OK, so this award didn’t exist until 1969, but Russell’s dominance was such that we’re giving him one anyway. During his 13 years in the league, the Russell Celtics won the championship 11 times, including eight consecutive titles.
Russell’s defense-oriented style never translated well to statistics but, as he noted, “The way I play, my team wins.” This was especially true during his dominant performance in 1962 against West’s Lakers. In a very different way than Bill Russell, he led his Celtics to score this series. He played all 53 minutes of Game 7, which went to overtime, racking up 30 points and 40 rebounds in the process.
5) Shaquille O’Neal (Center, Los Angeles Lakers), 2000
For a certain generation of fans, Shaq was a real superhero: he even played one in a movie (admittedly not great). His powers peaked at the turn of the millennium when he and Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to three straight titles. During the first of those races, in 2000, Shaq was nearly unstoppable. After being one voter away from unanimously winning the regular season MVP, Shaq topped the Indiana Pacers with an average of 38 points and 16.7 rebounds in six games. If possible, Shaq was even more dominant than the numbers suggest.
4) Magic Johnson (Guard, Los Angeles Lakers), 1980
In 1980, at just 20 years old, Johnson became the youngest player to be named Finals MVP. In the most famous moment of the series, Johnson started the deciding Game 6 as his team’s center (traditionally a team’s highest position) despite normally serving as the team’s playmaker. (traditionally the shortest position). Johnson would rotate playing in all five possible positions during the game to earn 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a title-winning performance.
3) Willis Reed (Center, New York Knicks), 1970
Willis Reed may be the least familiar name on this list to the casual fan, but Hall of Fame’s stoic leadership in Game 7 of the 1970 series is still regularly referenced by pundits to this day.
Reed averaged more than 31 points per game over the first four games, serving as the New York Knicks’ leading scorer. The Knicks led the series 3-2 after five games, but their victory in Game 5 came at a cost – Reed was injured, tearing a muscle in his right thigh. The injury caused him to miss Game 6, which the Knicks lost by more than 20 points.
To the surprise of Knicks fans, the injured Reed limped off for Game 7. He took and hit the Knicks’ first two shots and spent most of the first half defending Wilt Chamberlain before his injury took a hit. forces him out of the game. The Knicks would win both the game and the championship. Her presence that night inspired all who watched, leading legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell to tell Reed, “You exemplify the best that the human spirit has to offer.”
2) Michael Jordan (Guardian, Chicago Bulls), 1993
As anyone who has watched The Last Dance can confirm, Michael Jordan has a lot, many choice of final performances. His first championship, against Magic Johnson’s Lakers in 1991, gave us his “specificationsTAC-circular motion. Jordan’s second final, in 1992, introduced us to the nonchalance of the “shrug”. He clinched his fourth title in 1996 on Father’s Day, a coincidence that likely made it even worse Jordan’s raw and emotional response to his first title after his father’s murder. The list goes on – there’s “the flu match” in 1997, and his title-winning shot with five seconds to go in 1998.
However, Jordan’s best overall Finals performance on the court is also the hardest to sum up in a single sentence or moment. In 1993, Jordan’s Bulls won their third consecutive championship, a feat no team had achieved since Bill Russell’s Celtics. With an absurd 41 points per game, Jordan averaged the (still standing) record for most points per game in a series finale.
1) LeBron James (Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers), 2016
This is almost a mix between Jordan’s best scores in 1993 and LeBron James’ overall excellence in 2016. But, when examined closely, it’s clear that James’ achievement in 2016 is undeniably unique.
Let’s start with his opponent – James and the Cavaliers were facing the defending champion Golden State Warriors, a team led by Steph Curry in a season in which he became the first–already unanimously voted MVP. Curry’s Warriors had also won 73 games during the regular season, breaking the record previously held by Jordan’s Bulls.
James’ situation was grim. After Game 4, the Cavs were down 3-1, a deficit no team had ever overcome in the Finals. Yet in the last three games, James was unstoppable. He scored 41 points apiece in Games 5 and 6 before capping the series with a triple-double in Game 7. He led all major statistical categories in the series, something no other player has ever done in playoffs. And, on top of all the statistical excellence, James created his own signature game. “The Block” (it has its own Wikipedia entry) was a jaw-dropping pursuit of reigning Finals MVP Andre Iguodala who held a tied score in the dying moments of Game 7.
The win also ended Cleveland’s title drought in all major professional sports, which stretched back to 1964. Not bad for a kid from nearby Akron.