The 15 Top NBA Playoff Closers of All Time

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2012

The 15 Top NBA Playoff Closers of All Time

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    Who are the top 15 closers in NBA postseason history?

    That's a tough question to answer, and it largely depends on how you define a closer.

    Is a closer the guy who gets the ball with the game on the line to take that final shot in the NBA Finals? If so, we're talking about an extremely small sample size that would include names like Steve Kerr, while omitting names like Reggie Miller.

    Winning the finals shouldn't be a prerequisite to being a closer.

    So what about, "Who does the best in 'clutch-time' scenarios?"

    The problem there is we are limited by available data, or lack thereof. What about Mr. Clutch himself, Jerry West? How did he do in the clutch? We don't know.

    Do we exclude a player for a single bad series? Does Dwyane Wade not get counted because of his poor series against Chicago last year?

    Furthermore, what counts and what doesn't? Does hitting a game-winning shot in the waning moments of Game 1 of a first-round series mean more than the first 46 minutes of a Game 7 in the Finals?

    Moreover, do close-out games carry more weight than closing minutes, or vice versa?

    These 15 players meet, to varying degrees, one or more of these criteria. Rather than try to define "closer," here are 15 players who were big postseason finishers in one way or another in their day. 

15. Walt Frazier

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    Walt Frazier averaged 20.7 points, 7.2 boards and 6.4 assists per game over his postseason career. He also won two NBA titles in 1970 and in 1973.

    He gets in here at the bottom of the list because of a singular performance that is one of the greatest sports moments in all of history.

    With the Knicks being without their star center, Willis Reed, Frazier had a game for the ages when he scored 36 points and had 19 assists to seal the championship for the Knicks.

    It is widely regarded as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—Game 7 finals performances ever. 

14. Reggie Miller

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    Reggie Miller nearly drove Spike Lee to suicide when he sent the Knicks packing twice in consecutive years.

    Miller accomplished perhaps the single most amazing clutch performance in the history of all of professional sports.

    With the Pacers down 105-99 with 18.7 seconds left, Miller drained a three, intercepted the ensuing pass and drained another three, scoring eight points in nine seconds to lead the Pacers back to beat the Knicks.

    Over the course of his career, Miller hit at least five shots to win playoff games. He is one of the most clutch playoff performers of all time, even if he doesn't have a ring. 

13. Chris Paul

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    Chris Paul is rapidly developing a reputation as a huge closer, an absolute sniper and an on-the-court coach during the waning moments of the game.

    This year in the clutch (defined as the score being within five points and five minutes or less remaining in the game), he's scoring 41.1 points per 48 minutes to go along with 5.5 assists. 

    Last year with the Hornets, those numbers were even more ridiculous, when Paul averaged 61.7 points and 10.3 assists in crunch time.

    Over the last two seasons, that comes out to about 45 points and seven assists in the clutch. With Paul, one gets the sense that there is more history to be written, but what he's done in the last two years earns him a place on this list. 

12. Chauncey Billups

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    Chauncey Billups is the only player in NBA history—apart from players involved with the Magic Johnson-led Lakers or the Bills Russell-era Celtics—to reach the conference finals seven consecutive seasons.  

    Billups is 11 points away from becoming the 10th player to score 2,500 points and have 800 assists in the playoffs (seven of those are on this list). He has hit four game-winning or game-tying shots in his postseason career, including two in one series against the Philadelphia 76ers in 2005.

    In 2004, Billups led the Pistons to a dominant five-game win over the Los Angeles Lakers, who were heavily favored. He also won the NBA Finals MVP.

    "Mr. Big Shot" is easily the "worst" regular-season performer on this list, but he really steps up his game in the big moments, and that’s why he's on the list. 

11. Karl Malone

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    Karl Malone has a reputation of choking in the clutch.

    Ironically, a large part of this reputation comes as a result of his failure to score in the last six minutes of a finals contest against the Bulls—a game in which Malone actually scored 39 points on 63 percent shooting and added 13 boards and five assists.

    I found some interesting research on Malone during close-out games, and there are some intriguing facts. Malone averaged 27.7 points in close-out games, compared to Kobe Bryant's 22.4 points. That’s not a knock on Kobe; it's just an eye-opener in regard to Malone.

    His finals performance against the Bulls knocks him down on the list, but doesn't remove him from it entirely. 

10. Dwyane Wade

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    Dwyane Wade had one of the single greatest NBA Finals performances in league history: his PER of 33.8 in the 2006 finals, when he led the Miami Heat to the championship and won the Finals MVP in doing so.

    Certainly, Wade has had some great playoff performances, and 2006 is something few have even approached. His entire career hasn't matched that level of play, but that's not to say it's not admirable.

    There are three players in NBA history who won a Finals MVP and have career averages of 25 points, five boards and five assists: Wade, Michael Jordan and Jerry West. 

9. Hakeem Olajuwon

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    Hakeem Olajuwon was one of the greatest postseason performers of all time and arguably the greatest clutch postseason center on offense.

    What sets him apart from most of the other great centers is that Olajuwon was a respectable free-throw shooter.

    For example, Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal aren't on here because the other team's strategy was to put them on the line. When the opponent wants you shooting, that says something. Teams had to adjust their offenses in the final minutes, and that made a difference.

    Olajuwon was a different animal, though. He could be depended on late in games and earned a reputation as being one of the game's great clutch players.

    He was also a great postseason performer. Even when he got to the finals against the '86 Celtics, Olajuwon scored 25.2 points per game.

    In 1994 and 1995, though, is where he really established himself as one of the greatest clutch performers ever. In those two series, Olajuwon outplayed two Hall of Fame centers in Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O'Neal, respectively, in addition to outplaying another to get there in David Robinson.

    In both years, Olajuwon was named the Finals MVP. Against Ewing, he averaged 26.9 points and 9.1 rebounds. He had a spectacular 25-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist and three-block close-out game.

    Against the Magic and O'Neal, Olajuwon averaged 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists to go with two blocks and two steals per game. He scored 35 points and grabbed 15 boards in the close-out game. 

8. John Havlicek

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    John Havlicek, aka "Hondo" (which is much easier to spell), is perhaps the biggest overachiever in league history. The degree of success he attained with the degree of talent he had was due to one of the greatest work ethics the game has ever seen.

    I often say that there is a difference between skill and talent. Talent is what you inherit; skill is what you learn.

    Hondo was 95 percent skill and five percent talent, according to everything I've ever read about him. He's really one player I wish I could have watched, as YouTube highlights don't do him justice.

    Hondo had game-winning plays, such as when he stole the inbounds pass for the famous "Havlicek steals the ball!" play in 1965. He had career playoff success, with 22.0 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, and he was the Finals MVP in 1974.

    Oh yeah, and he won the third-most NBA championships of any player in NBA history, behind Sam Jones and Bill Russell. 

7. Jerry West

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    Some consider Jerry West to be a "choker" because he only won one ring. 

    But that is being overly simplistic.

    Take, for example, 1965, when he set the single-series record for points per game in a series with 46.3 points.

    Then, against the vaunted Boston Celtics, West averaged 34.6 points per game in the finals. The series went to seven games, and in the seventh game, West scored 38, as the Lakers lost by just two points. West's 40.6 points per game over the course of the playoffs that year stood as a record for 21 years, until someone named Michael Jordan broke it.

    Yet because of the loss, West is a "choker"?

    How can you attribute that much value to two points? Aren't some of his 11 teammates accountable, too?

    Do I ask too many rhetorical questions?

6. Magic Johnson

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    Magic Johnson had his ups and downs, and that's what makes part of this list so difficult to construct.

    Magic's highlights range from the unreal Game 6, where he started at center in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and scored 42 points and added 15 rebounds and seven assists.

    Then, he entered the "Tragic Johnson" years, when he missed some key shots in clutch moments during the playoffs that sent the Lakers home without a championship. He received a huge amount of criticism, similar to what LeBron James is encountering now.

    On the contrary, in 1985, Magic was huge in the finals, scoring 23.9 points to go with 12.6 assists. In 1986, he had another huge finals performance and hit the championship-clinching shot over both Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to win the title again.

    In all, Magic won three Finals MVPs, making it hard to deny him a place on this list. You can't single out the bad; he grew into one of the great clutch performers in finals history. 

    Read this, LeBron James. 

5. Kobe Bryant

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    Kobe Bryant has won or tied four games in the postseason in the last 10 seconds of the game, but on the flip side, he's missed 12 of those shots.

    He's averaged 25.5 points per game in his postseason career, which is good for ninth best in postseason history, and his 5,436 points are good for third all-time.

    Kobe is eighth all-time in postseason total win shares and third all-time in postseason scoring.

    Put that all together, and the inevitable conclusion is that Kobe is probably better than where some would want to place him and not as good as where others would want to place him. 

4. Larry Bird

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    Larry Bird was one of the greatest clutch performers of all time at any level, and he stepped up his game even more in the postseason.

    Bird is 10th all-time in postseason rebounds, fourth in postseason assists and eighth in postseason points.

    That makes Bird the only player in NBA history who is in the top 10 in all three categories in postseason history.

    And if that's not enough for you, he's also sixth in steals. (He's "only" 33rd in blocks, though.)

    In the 1987 finals, Bird nearly averaged a triple-double for the series, putting up 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game. He was a three-time NBA champion and twice a Finals MVP. 

3. Bill Russell

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    Bill Russell has to be in this conversation.

    I can't tell you what his clutch-time stats were, as those stats aren't available, and I didn't watch his games because I wasn't born yet.

    So, why is Russell so high on this list?

    Well, for starters, there's the fact that he won 11 championships, and reason dictates that you don't win 11 rings without being a pretty clutch performer in the postseason.

    Second, there's a general agreement that, while the Celtics were stocked with talent, Russell was their anchor. His defense and leadership were the reasons the Celtics were able to win. 

    Third, and most telling, is the award for Finals MVP is called the "Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award."

2. George Mikan

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    George Mikan was the original Lakers big man during a time when the name made sense—he was a Minneapolis Laker.

    Mikan was the original superstar of the league and easily the best postseason player of his era as well. In five of his first six years as a pro, he led the NBA in postseason scoring.

    What really earns him a high spot on this list is a tidbit from the year he didn’t lead the league in total postseason points. In 1951, while he didn't score the most points, Mikan did sink a league-leading 24.0 points per game in the playoffs.

    And that's still not the special part.

    Unbelievably, Mikan did it on a broken leg.

    I'm just saying, when a dude takes you to the conference finals and scores 24.0 points per game on a busted stem, he deserves to be on this list.

1. Michael Jordan

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    Michael Jordan is, simply put, the greatest playoff performer in the history of the game—closing, opening and the minutes in between.

    You want stats?

    He's the NBA's all-time leader in postseason scoring, PER and win shares.

    You want clutch play?

    Jordan had two championship-winning assists and one championship-winning shot. He is also renowned for "The Shot"—the jumper responsible for destroying the hopes of Jazz fans everywhere that was so great, it is simply referred to as the shot.

    When Jordan played in the regular season, he played big. When the playoffs started, he played bigger. When the finals started, he was a man amongst boys.

    And when the finals games were on the line, Jordan was a titan.