NBA Finals 2012: Where Does LeBron James' Finals Performance Rank All-Time?

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 22, 2012

NBA Finals 2012: Where Does LeBron James' Finals Performance Rank All-Time?

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    The monkey is off his back, and LeBron James is an NBA champion after leading the Miami Heat to a 4-1 series victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 NBA Finals

    Despite the burdensome expectations and the constant coverage, LeBron emerged with a ring and one of the best individual performances of all time. We all knew while we were watching him score, rebound, pass and defend that we were watching greatness personified.

    So, how does James' Finals performance stack up?

    Over the following 10 slides, you'll find the 10 best performances since the ABA-NBA merger before the 1976-77 season. 

    You won't find Jerry West's incredible scoring outbursts or Bill Russell's exploits en route to his 11 rings, but you will find plenty of modern performances. I don't mean to discount what happened in the past; as a student of NBA history, I have nothing but respect and admiration for the legendary feats of the earlier eras that the NBA had to offer.

    However, players then didn't face the same scrutiny that modern-day players have had to deal with, thanks to the 24/7 media coverage. They wanted to win just as badly, but it was a different time.

    Once more, I'm not discounting their exploits.

    So let's see where our reigning Finals MVP finds himself in the rankings. 

    *Note, some of the statistics used in the justifications come from John Hollinger's own set of rankings.

10. Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers, 1988

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    Against: Detroit Pistons

    Result: 4-3 victory

    Per-Game Stats: 21.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 13.0 assists

    After the Detroit Pistons shocked the defending champions by stealing an away win in Game 1 by a margin of 12 points, the Los Angeles Lakers and a flu-ridden Magic Johnson won the second game to set the tone for the series behind yet another double-double from the point guard. 

    He was still beset by the flu during Game 3 when he threw up 18 points, 14 assists and six rebounds, which astoundingly enough wasn't one of his best games in the series. 

    Magic's finest performance came in Game 6 when he recorded a sensational 22 points and 19 assists while turning the ball over only once. Because of Isiah Thomas' ankle injury and third-quarter performance, this game often gets overlooked when discussing the best showings of No. 32's storied career.

    Amazingly enough, he wasn't named Finals MVP, but only because voters got caught up in the recency effect and handed the trophy to James Worthy after his Game 7 triple-double. 

    Despite a whopping 67 attempts during the series, Magic only missed 10 charity shots to go with his 55 percent shooting from the field, as the Lakers repeated. 

9. Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets, 1994

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    Against: New York Knicks

    Result: 4-3 victory

    Per-Game Stats: 26.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists

    In addition to the numbers you can see up above, Hakeem Olajuwon averaged 3.9 blocks per game, as he went up against Patrick Ewing in this hard-fought seven-game series.

    The Dream completely shut down his opposition, as Ewing labored through the series to the tune of 36.3 percent shooting and a 15.5 PER. That's hardly a Hall of Fame performance. Credit for that rests in the shot-blocking hands of Olajuwon.

    As a result of his defense—and his scoring prowess—Olajuwon outscored Ewing in every single matchup to get revenge for the 1984 NCAA championship, in which the two centers squared off and Ewing got the better end of the deal. 

    Maybe it's the fact that Michael Jordan was elsewhere, maybe it was the O.J. Simpson car chase that distracted the nation, or maybe it was because of John Starks, who became a convenient scapegoat in the series after a 2-of-18 performance in Game 7.

    Whatever the reason, Olajuwon's performance often gets overlooked when discussing the best performances in playoff history. 

8. Shaquille O'Neal, Los Angeles Lakers, 2002

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    Against: New Jersey Nets

    Result: 4-0 victory

    Per-Game Stats: 36.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists

    Shaquille O'Neal didn't slow down after scoring 36 points in the first game of the 2002 NBA Finals. The New Jersey Nets couldn't stop him by playing defense, and the ensuing "Hack-a-Shaq" strategy didn't do much to shut him down, either.

    Thanks to his dominance and the annoying strategy, O'Neal actually averaged 17 free-throw attempts per game.

    The big man only got more efficient as the series went on and finished with a field-goal percentage of 59.5 percent to couple with his 66.2 percent shooting from the charity stripe. He was so effective against New Jersey's interior defense that double-teams were necessary, and his teammates capitalized on the ensuing open three-pointers. 

    This series was never even close, as the Los Angeles Lakers clearly established themselves as the superior team from start to finish.

    Shaq, meanwhile, set numerous Finals records: most points in a four-game Finals (145), most free-throw attempts (68) and most free-throws made (45).

7. Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers, 1987

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    Against: Boston Celtics

    Result: 4-2 victory

    Per-Game Stats: 26.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 13.0 assists

    Highlighted by the baby skyhook over Kevin McHale to finish a come-from-16-points-behind victory in Game 4 over the rival Boston Celtics, Magic Johnson was the best player on the court from start to finish during the 1987 NBA Finals.

    He began the series with a dominant performance, outrunning the tired C's to the tune of 29 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. Most impressively, he avoided turning the ball over even once, despite the fact that the Showtime Lakers loved picking up the pace. 

    A defensive switch that left Danny Ainge on Johnson wasn't able to help in Game 2, as the point guard tortured the defense for 22 points and 20 assists in a blowout victory. 

    Magic shot 54.1 percent from the field, made 24-of-25 free throws and only turned the ball over 13 times during the six-game series.

    Two quotes describing his performance, both uttered out of the trash-talking mouth of Larry Bird, stand out above all the rest: "Magic is a great, great basketball player. The best I've ever seen," and, "You expect to lose on a skyhook. You don't expect it to be from Magic."

6. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1997

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    Against: Utah Jazz

    Result: 4-2 victory

    Per-Game Stats: 32.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists

    Michael Jordan's 1997 NBA Finals performance would have been impressive enough without the heroics of Game 5. After all, he averaged 32.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game.

    In Game 1, he hit the game-winner over Bryon Russell to cap off a 31-point night. In the decisive Game 6, Jordan scored 39 points, but deferred properly at the end and found an open Steve Kerr to win the series.

    However, all anyone remembers—justifiably so—was his performance in Game 5. Stricken by the flu to the point that Scottie Pippen had to almost carry him off the court, Jordan put together one of the greatest individual performances of all time, scoring 38 points and leading a comeback from 16 points down to win the game.

    I recently had a chance to re-watch Jordan's Game 5 masterpiece on NBA TV and couldn't help but get goosebumps when he hit the crucial three-pointer at the end. If any game exemplified desire, this was it. 

    He never came out and said it, but something tells me the notoriously proud MJ was a little bit irked by the fact that Karl Malone had been named regular-season MVP. 

5. Shaquille O'Neal, Los Angeles Lakers, 2000

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    Against: Indiana Pacers

    Result: 4-2 victory

    Per-Game Stats: 38.0 points, 16.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists

    As you can see from the picture here, Shaquille O'Neal even paused to help out Kobe Bryant, making this performance all the more impressive. 

    The Indiana Pacers, predecessors to the New Jersey Nets in 2002, employed the Hack-a-Shaq tactic, and it was much more effective than it would be two years later, as O'Neal could only make 38.7 percent of his freebies, including the 18-of-39 performance in Game 2.

    No, Shaq, that was not over 50 percent.

    He did make up for it with his 61.1 percent shooting from the field, as he averaged 38.0 points per game and contributed in every other area as well.

    Shaq took over from Game 1, as he scored 43 points and grabbed 19 rebounds, while Reggie Miller put up a donut in the field-goal column during the fourth quarter. 

    Since I've already included a few Larry Bird quotes in this article, here's one more, this time as a coach: "He's the most dominating player in our league. He was phenomenal throughout the series."

    After the win, Shaq hugged Kobe—yes, this was before the feud—and then sobbed as his parents congratulated the first-time NBA champion. 

4. LeBron James, Miami Heat, 2012

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    Against: Oklahoma City Thunder

    Result: 4-1

    Per-Game Stats: 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists

    LeBron James may have been on the same statistical level as those around him in these rankings, even if he didn't have the same number of game-saving or game-winning plays. This series just didn't give him those opportunities because he was usually so good through the first three quarters that an outstanding stretch run wasn't necessary.

    The small forward may not have had a "Flu Game," and shame on anyone who puts the "Cramp Game" in the same echelon. However, he did shoulder the burden and overcome all of the hatred and negativity that had been piling up on him.

    With a triple-double in the clinching game, James proved once and for all that he was the best player in the world during the 2011-12 season and fully deserved to get a ring.

    No one else on this list dealt with the hate that LeBron suffered through. Being mentally tough and overcoming that automatically gives him a boost, even if he did average spectacular numbers throughout the five-game victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

3. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat, 2006

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    Against: Dallas Mavericks

    Result: 4-2 victory

    Per-Game Stats: 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists

    Gripe all you want about the referees giving Dwyane Wade the superstar treatment. Just don't deny that the shooting guard's performance was still otherworldly.

    The Dallas Mavericks won the first two games of the series, but Wade scored 12 points down the stretch in Game 3 to help bring the Miami Heat back from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

    He got to the line all series long thanks to his aggression and completely destroyed the interior of the Mavs' defense. Wade finished with the best PER of anybody: 33.8.

    In Game 5, he worked his way into the lane and drew enough contact to shoot 25 controversial free throws—as many as the entire Mavericks team. None were bigger than his 20th and record-setting 21st makes of the game, which came in overtime with 1.9 seconds left. The first tied the game and the second propelled the Heat to victory. 

    All it took was a 36-point performance from Wade in Game 6 and the Heat had their championship. 

2. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs, 2003

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    Against: New Jersey Nets

    Result: 4-2 victory

    Per-Game Stats: 24.2 points, 17.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists

    It's easy to think this San Antonio Spurs team was stacked, but they weren't to the extent that some might believe. David Robinson was on the decline, while Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were still young players adjusting to the rigors of the NBA.

    Robinson retired after the series, choosing to go out on top, while Manu and Parker are still excelling today. That should speak volumes about their status in the league during 2003. 

    Tim Duncan carried this team against Kenyon Martin, Dikembe Mutombo and the rest of the New Jersey Nets, averaging the numbers you can find above in addition to 5.3 blocks per game.

    In the clinching Game 6, Duncan had 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks to fall just shy of a quadruple-double. He also held Martin to just 3-of-23 shooting to ensure the victory.

1. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1998

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    Against: Utah Jazz

    Result: 4-2 victory

    Per-Game Stats: 33.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists

    Is there really any doubt that a Michael Jordan performance would land at No. 1? After all, he is the greatest and most consistent Finals performer of all time.

    With 37 points in the Game 2 win to wrestle home-court advantage away from the Utah Jazz, and with the iconic shot over Bryon Russell to win the series and make his last shot as a member of the Chicago Bulls, it really shouldn't be too surprising that this is considered MJ's best NBA Finals performance.

    Jordan would not be denied his second "three-peat" in this series. He didn't involve his teammates much, but he didn't need to, as he proved fully capable of shouldering the scoring load.

    It's easy to forget just how impressive Jordan's performance was in Game 6. Scottie Pippen was injured and only added eight points to the total, which put the pressure squarely on MJ's shoulders. Not even that pressure was enough to keep him from defying gravity over and over. 

    When John Stockton hit a three-pointer with 41.9 seconds left to break a tie, things didn't look good for the Bulls. Then, Jordan made a layup, stole the ball away from Karl Malone on the ensuing possession and drilled the iconic shot over Bryon Russell. 

    The rest is history.