In the past 10 years, a new wave of superstars has burst onto the scene.
This decade has seen its share of memorable postseason performances. This, in my own humble opinion, is the definitive list of the top playoff performances from 2002 to 2012.
Lists like these are always up for debate, but again, this is my opinion.
This game holds a special place in my heart. It was the first time I had seen the legendary Boston Celtics franchise in the playoffs on TV, and they were playing against one of my favorite players, Jason Kidd.
This entire series is memorable to me. After seeing New York, Philadelphia, Indiana, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami battle it out for the last few seasons, two teams I had grown up observing as perennial losers in the Eastern Conference had a chance to punch a ticket to the NBA Finals in 2002.
Jason Kidd had not tasted true playoff success until 2002, but after he was traded to the New Jersey Nets—a team Stephon Marbury led to the East's worst record just the year before—he began a renaissance campaign.
Reviving his career as well as the Nets' franchise, he led essentially the same team to the East's best record, was an MVP candidate and completed, at the time, the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history.
Paul Pierce—at the time the league's most unappreciated superstar—had suffered through several seasons of heartbreak, terrible head coaches and terrible teams. But in 2002 with partner-in-crime Antoine Walker, the Celtics had captured some of that old magic and were making a remarkable run of their own. With a bench of ragtag veterans, the Celtics were looking for their first Finals appearance in nearly two decades.
In Game 3, the Celtics came out playing undisciplined and uninspired basketball, and the New Jersey Nets led by double digits for a majority of the game—leading by as many as 21 points heading into a legendary fourth quarter.
Paul Pierce, coming off three quarters where he played some of the worst basketball of his career, attacked the basket relentlessly in the fourth. He scored19 of his 28 points in the final period, and outscored the entire New Jersey Nets team—19 to 16—to engineer (at that time) the greatest 4th quarter comeback in NBA playoff history.
Sure, it isn't Paul Pierce's greatest game from a statistical standpoint by a long shot. This was the defining moment of his career. He had suffered through years and years of futility from a franchise that was far from its glory days and a loyal fan base that longed for them.
This game is Paul Pierce's finest hour.
It was the most unexpected great performance in the history of the NBA playoffs.
A player that had constantly been under scrutiny due to his contrasting style of play as a backup to Steve Nash came of age and exploded onto the scene against one of the NBA's all-time great teams led by one of the greatest coaches ever.
Seriously—did anyone see this coming?
Goran Dragic didn't score a single point in the first half, and the Suns were down by as many as 18 at one point in the game. He seemed to be losing his edge heading into the fourth quarter, but Alvin Gentry—who had a great amount of trust in his bench—kept Dragic in the game. The rest is history.
Grant Hill said, "I think it's safe to say that may have been the best fourth-quarter performance I have ever seen in a playoff game."
When you consider the fact this kid wasn't a lottery pick or an All-Star and was a backup point guard, it has to be considered one of the greatest ever. Also take into account it was against the Spurs starters and Manu Ginobili. Phoenix's starters spent a majority of the quarter on the bench. Unbelievable.
Goran Dragic dominated the fourth quarter and was a one-man wrecking crew for 12 minutes. He penetrated the lane and got to the basket. He made three-pointers. His incredible four-point play off of a fling corner three was the dagger in the heart of the Suns' long-hated rival.
This, to me, is the definitive Dirk Nowitzki highlight. A legitimate sharp-shooting seven-footer with the footwork and handling skills of a guard, his complete inside-outside game is beautifully and intricately displayed here in all of its unique splendor—and it's the first of three Dirk Nowitzki games on this list.
After a disappointing 11-point outing in a Game 4 loss to the Phoenix Suns, Dirk Nowitzki played the game of his life, scoring a franchise playoff-high 50 points—33 of those in the second half.
There is nothing that Nowitzki does not do well in this game. He made five three-pointers. He dominated in the post. He got to the rim and went the free throw line. He displayed his trademarked mid-range game and also did work on the boards, grabbing 12 huge rebounds.
Nowitzki started out his career as a stretch center in Don Nelson's run-and-gun system, primarily shooting three-pointers. Being an international, perimeter-oriented big man, Nowitzki long carried the stigma of being "soft" which then spread to his respective Mavericks teams who looked to outscore their opponents rather than defend them.
We see nothing soft about Nowitzki in this video. Aggressive. Physical. Looking to draw contact.
If anyone doubted Dirk Nowitzki's evolution into one of the league's most versatile and complete players, their arguments were quickly put to rest here. As Marv Albert put it, "We've seen the entire arsenal."
The Mavericks would ride the wave of momentum into their first NBA Finals appearance and a 2-0 lead in that series until they eventually lost to the Miami Heat in six games.
Still, this is one of the all-time great individual performances of the modern NBA era.
Oh, what could have been.
Baron Davis, at one time, was the most complete point guard in the NBA.
He had the court vision. The physical strength and toughness. The leadership and will to win. The freakish athleticism. He could shoot with range, score with ease and defend both guard spots, all while keeping his teammates actively involved in the game.
Unfortunately, personal issues, lack of conditioning, and various injuries played a part in the demise of Baron Davis' once-bright future. He is now relegated to the roll of back-up in New York.
But when Baron Davis arrived in Oakland in 2005 via trade, the excitement could not be contained by a loyal fanbase that had been longing for a winner post-"Run T-M-C" and post-Latrell Sprewell/Chris Webber.
Although the Warriors would make the playoffs only one time during Davis' stint with Golden State, he made it one of the most memorable playoff runs of all time.
In 2007, the Dallas Mavericks were an unstoppable force of nature. Coming off a heartbreaking loss in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat the previous season, they had the best season in the history of the franchise under head coach Avery Johnson, winning 67 games.
They were, without a doubt, the best team in basketball.
The Golden State Warriors barely got into the playoffs. Baron Davis and Jason Richardson were both injured during the season, and Don Nelson's club was 26-35, out of playoff contention.
Miraculously—after injuries healed—the Warriors caught fire and finished 42-40, winning 16 of their final 21 games including a blowout of the Portland Trail Blazers in the final game of the season to clinch the eighth and final playoff spot.
Everyone was predicting a sweep. The Dallas Mavericks were the number one overall seed. They had the league's MVP in Dirk Nowitzki. But in this series, Baron Davis was the MVP.
Davis was the catalyst for the Warriors' offense, running Don Nelson's scheme with a controlled insanity and unique helter-skelter style. Davis took tough shots and made them, found his teammates in their comfort zones and attacked the rim with a tenacity that I have never seen before.
In this series, Baron Davis showed that on any given night,he could dominate from the point guard position. The Mavericks had no answer for him defensively.
The Golden State Warriors became the first and only No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed since the first-round format changed from five to seven games. It was one of the most disappointing moments in Mavericks history, and it would be another four years before they would finally hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy.
But this was Baron Davis' magnum opus. Everything you want in a point guard is displayed in this six-game series. Flaws and all.
The first of two Kobe Bryant games on this countdown, this recent game displays the veteran Black Mamba in all his greatness. The playmaking. The acrobatic finishes. The timely, clutch shot-making. Kobe Bryant just has an uncanny flair for the dramatic.
In a game in which Andrew Bynum was completely dominated by JaVale McGee on both ends of the floor after his controversial comments about closing series, Bryant almost single-handedly sent the Nuggets home. Still missing Metta World Peace due to his suspension after a vicious elbow to James Harden's head, Kobe Bryant was intent on meeting Oklahoma City in the second round—and almost completed a comeback for the ages.
Down 13 with less than five minutes to go, Kobe Bryant hit four clutch three-pointers, including an impossible shot over Danilo Gallinari at the one minute mark that cut the Denver lead to two. This is one of Bryant's most memorable playoff performances, barely topping his first-round, Game 4 performance against the Suns in 2008.
In this game, Bryant never seemed frustrated or rattled. He was in complete control, and every shot he took was spurred by the ultimate confidence. This game comes second to only one other Kobe Bryant game, in my opinion.
He may not be the young gun with the #8 on his back anymore, but this clip proves that Kobe has slowly refined his game, and he's only gotten better with age.
Amar'e Stoudemire has to be considered the second-best scoring big man in the NBA by a wide margin. The only guy you can put ahead of him is Dirk Nowitzki, and after him Stoudemire is miles ahead of the competition in terms of complete offensive game.
He can penetrate past bigger defenders with ease. He can post up smaller defenders at will. Stoudemire can run the floor, finish with authority at the rim, and he also can stretch opposing defenses with his ability to consistently hit the mid-range jump shot.
In 2005, Amar'e Stoudemire exploded onto the NBA scene and officially established himself as a bonafide superstar. He was tough but smooth. He was graceful but explosive. Along with league MVP Steve Nash, Amar'e Stoudemire proved not only to be part of the most exciting 1-2 punch in the league, but part of a major threat to the West crown.
And never was his complete game on better display than in the 2005 Western Conference Finals against their hated rival, the San Antonio Spurs.
Amar'e Stoudemire was unstoppable in this series.
He excelled at everything he did and was unguardable on offense against one of the greatest defensive teams of all time.
Stoudemire led the Suns in scoring in all five games, scored 40 or more points twice in the series, and never scored less than 30 in any game. He was exponential in the Suns' sole victory of the series, in which he made clutch play after clutch play down the stretch in the fourth quarter—including a now-legendary block of Tim Duncan's dunk attempt at the rim to win the game and stave off the sweep.
Stoudemire had long been criticized for his lack of effort on the defensive end, but—facing the eminent threat of elimination in Game 4— Stoudemire came up huge.
He proved that he can be a championship-caliber player when motivated and challenged. Too bad that horrible Knicks offense has J.R. Smith and Steve Novak take more shots than Amar'e. That's what he gets for making the Knicks relevant again. Only in New York.
Sure, Ray Allen is arguably the greatest shooter to ever live. But many doubts have always been levied on his inconsistent playoff performance. The 2010 NBA Finals is a perfect example of the duality of Jesus' play in the postseason.
He sets the NBA Finals record for three-pointers made in a game in Game 2 after a pedestrian performance in Game 1. Then he has the worst game of not only the playoffs, but of his career in Game 3, going 0-13 from the field, 0-8 from three-point territory and finishing with a pathetic two points in a game the Lakers won by seven.
How do people seem to get over the fact that Ray Allen is, and has always been, two different players in the playoffs? He is either incredibly terrific or incredibly terrible.
Here though, he's the former. This is, without a doubt, his most complete game in perhaps the greatest playoff series of the modern era.
Ray Allen does it all in this game. He hits clutch shot after clutch shot down the stretch. That cold-blooded shot over Joakim Noah in the second overtime? One of the great all-time playoff shots. Then he follows it up with a dagger three to tie the game and send it into a third overtime? Unconscious.
And his emotion afterwards? Just a beautiful thing to watch. He hit nine threes in this game, and the Celtics needed every one. Sure, they eventually lost this game, but this was one of the best shooting exhibitions of all time. The Bulls put everyone on him—Noah, Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich—none of them could stop Allen.
Ray Allen showed the dominance we are accustomed to seeing. It's just unfortunate that for as many great games he has had in the playoffs, he has had just as many games where he has been absolutely awful.
This is the game that turned Robert Horry into a legend. In one of the best Finals series ever played, Game 5 was going to go a long way into determining the victor between the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons.
Robert Horry had been silent the entire night and for a majority of the series. But as usual, Robert Horry saved his best for last and had one of the all-time great late-game performances of this era.
Horry hits several huge threes, all of them very well-contested and delivered a huge three-point play with an outstanding left-handed finish at the basket.
But he wasn't not done.
Hubie Brown accurately called the play before San Antonio brought the ball in-bounds with 9.4 seconds left, "The guy you have to account for is the man out-of-bounds."
Robert Horry inbounded the ball to Manu Ginobili. Ginobili executeed a tough bounce pass back to Horry. Horry nailed, in my opinion, the biggest shot of his career.
Robert Horry finished his NBA career with seven championship rings (two with Houston, three with LA, two with San Antonio), but this one had to have felt the sweetest as the Spurs went on to win the series in seven games.
As an old veteran, he delivered one of the most memorable and clutch postseason performances of all time, making every significant shot for his team down the stretch.
This is Kobe's best postseason game of this era.
The Denver Nuggets had stolen Game 2 in Los Angeles, splitting the series at one game a piece. They headed back to Denver with momentum on their side. Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups were hot. Chris Andersen and Kenyon Martin were patrolling the paint. They had the raucous fans at the Pepsi Center behind them.
In fact, the Denver Nuggets hadn't lost at home in the playoffs prior to this game. In six home games in the previous rounds against the New Orleans Hornets and the Dallas Mavericks, the Nuggets won by an average margin of 17.5 PPG.
But the Mamba was waiting in the bushes, ready to strike.
So what makes this game so special?
The fact that he thoroughly outplayed Carmelo Anthony. The fact that he oozed all of that classic veteran swagger in a do-or-die road game. The fact that once again, Kobe Bryant hit the shots when they mattered most against perhaps the hottest team in the playoffs.
Although Trevor Ariza played an outstanding series and Pau Gasol was having one of the best postseasons of his career, Kobe Bryant orchestrated Phil Jackson's offense to perfection in this game. He drove to the basket and got to the foul line. He killed the Nuggets' defense from mid-range, and he kept his teammates involved in the game.
Brilliant all-around performance.
Once again, Kobe Bryant left us with an amazing moment at the end of this game. Down by two with 1:06 remaining in the final period, he nailed a cold-blooded three to silence the Pepsi Center faithful and trotted back on defense with a now-famous scowl across his face.
Classic Kobe. The Lakers would hand the Nuggets their first home loss of the season and would win this hotly-contested series in six games.
It was that close.
The Dallas Mavericks had a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals after they took the first two games at the American Airlines Center. With six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, they had hit six consecutive shots to give themselves a 14-point lead and a chance to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.
But just like he would for the rest of the series, Dwyane Wade took over. I am aware that there is a controversy in this series about the officiating, but if Dallas had held onto this lead and taken a 3-0 lead, the series would have been over.
No team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series, and it's even less likely in the Finals. In fact, no team has ever won the NBA Finals after being down 3-1.
Just admit it. In this game, Dwyane Wade was spectacular. He was in complete control down the stretch, hitting every vital shot for Miami in the final minutes. The Dallas defense couldn't contain him, and they missed opportunities on the offensive end late in the game.
Let's not forget, Wade had 13 rebounds in this game. Those are all possessions. If you're the Dallas Mavericks, there's no way you let the opposing shooting guard dominate the boards like that.
Dwyane Wade made every big play on both ends including blocking the potential game-winning alley-oop to Josh Howard. Looking back on it, this game really had a snowball effect on all the other games. Dallas never truly recovered from this Game 3 collapse.
The Miami Heat rode the momentum of this win all the way to the first NBA championship in franchise history. Dwyane Wade had a series for the ages and one of the best Finals performances of all time.
Has there ever been a player in this era of basketball that has come close to how physically imposing, dominating and intimidating Shaquille O'Neal was in his prime? The latter parts of this era have seen many centers with limited offensive skills and basketball knowledge but freakish athleticism. They're basically "glorified" backups starting at center due to the lack of depth at the position.
The center's role in today's NBA is to simply dunk, block shots and play defense. Most centers aren't even consistent rebounders. The center position is all but dead—the Miami Heat won the NBA Finals this year without a legitimate starting center playing significant minutes.
Yet Shaq would dominate the thin and offensively incompetent front lines of today in his youth, with a dangerous combination of unrivaled power, uncanny athleticism and outstanding offensive skill.
Shaquille O'Neal has had many great playoff moments over the last decade, but never was he more dominant in the postseason than in the 2002 NBA Finals against the New Jersey Nets. The Lakers were on a tear, looking to become the first team since Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls to win three championships in a row.
Although Kobe Bryant had begun to emerge as a superstar in his own right, the Lakers were still running on "Diesel Power." The Lakers swept the Nets with relative ease, and Shaquille O'Neal would be the story of this series.
O'Neal averaged 36 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three blocks over the entire NBA Finals. No other power forward or center in the league today could average those numbers. Not Bynum. Not Dwight Howard. Not anyone.
In every game in this series, Shaquille O'Neal was the best player on the floor. He did whatever he wanted, however he wanted, whenever he wanted. "Wilt Chamberneezy" would win his third straight NBA Finals MVP and his third straight NBA Championship with the Los Angeles Lakers, completing the three-peat.
But this to me, this is the best performance Shaq has put on in the playoffs.
It was one of the most memorable games of this era and perhaps one of the greatest NBA games of all time.
A fierce, emotional and hotly contested Game 7 all-or-nothing showdown between two of the premier franchises in the Western Conference. The state of Texas' undisputed crown and Western Conference supremacy was on the line.
The Dallas Mavericks—who had a 3-1 lead in the semifinals only to squander it and head back to San Antonio for the final and deciding game—were looking to finally break past their much hated rival and establish themselves as a contender, not just a perennial playoff team.
The Spurs were looking to become only the ninth team in NBA playoff history to win a series after trailing 3-1 and were also looking to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the second straight year. Back-to-back titles would have solidified the Tim Duncan-era Spurs as an NBA dynasty with four championships in eight years and three championships in the last four seasons.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas' star player, was looking to shed the "soft" stigma once and for all, and his ruthless aggression and controlled rage were evident from the opening tip to the last tick of the clock.
The game's first half was entirely in favor of Dallas as Josh Howard, Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki all started hot, blowing the game wide open with three minutes to go in the half. Dirk Nowitzki's three-point play made the score 58-38, a point difference that shocked everyone, including the Mavericks themselves.
The Spurs would battle from behind for the entire game but never said die. It seemed that San Antonio's late-game surge would be enough to silence their in-state rival. Everything about this game was epic, including the franchise players.
Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki—each team's respective cornerstone—stole the show. Both men did everything they possibly could for their team on both ends of the floor, and neither man deserved to lose. Every time Duncan made a play, Nowitzki had an answer—and vice versa.
Duncan would finish the game with 41 points, 15 rebounds, and six huge assists. Nowitzki would match his brilliant performance with 15 rebounds of his own, 37 points and three helpers.
The end of this game was especially memorable given the circumstances. Dallas held a three-point lead with less than a minute remaining, and it was former Maverick Michael Finley who would hit the game-tying three off a beautiful pass from Tim Duncan.
On the next Spurs' possession, Manu Ginobili hit what looked like the dagger and gave San Antonio a 104-101 lead with a little more than 30 seconds left in the game.
In what has been defined as one of the greatest plays in NBA playoff history, Dirk Nowitzki would rise above the stigma he had carried his entire career in one glorious play: He finished a tough layup between Bruce Bowen and a swiping Manu Ginobili, drawing a foul for an opportunity to tie the game.
The game would go into overtime before the Mavericks and Nowitzki would finish their rivals off in dramatic fashion to win the Western Conference.
This is a definitive playoff duel, and the performances by both Duncan and Nowitzki are legendary. The suspense. The passion. The clutch plays. Everything about this game has the makings of an all-or-nothing struggle between two teams that hate but ultimately respect each other.
Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki are both in the prime of their respective careers, one battling for immortality, the other for respect.
Funny thing is, this is not the last time you will see either of these men on this list.
Rajon Rondo. Everyone seems to point to the fact he doesn't have a jump shot, and yes, it may be true for now. But no one...no one has the games he has had by accident.
When the only people you can mention in the same conversation are Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, you are in supreme company.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were the best team in basketball with the best player in basketball and were looking to take a 3-1 lead heading back to Cleveland for Game 5.
Doc Rivers and the Celtics had other plans.
In this game, Rajon Rondo proved when he's engaged, aggressive and is orchestrating the Celtics' offense, he's at a level of skill beyond comprehension.
Everything that occured in this game was a result of Rajon Rondo. His playmaking and court vision. His awareness on both ends of the court. His ability to finish in traffic. His athleticism and length allow him to be effective on the boards.
He is the epicenter of everything the Celtics do well in this game, and—considering he has three first-ballot Hall of Famers and one possible Hall of Famer on his team—that's saying a hell of a lot.
This is the Rajon Rondo I love to see. From the opening tip, he's aggressive in an extremely positive way. He scores 11 huge points in the first period and sets the tone for the rest of the game. Each significant run, each outstanding play is executed by Rondo either through a pass, a second-chance basket or a pull-up jump shot.
He makes the game so easy for his teammates that it's like Rondo only saw the four other Celtics on the floor. It's simply astonishing. He's the best point guard in basketball today. Yes, he has his flaws, but he ha also had three of the single greatest games a point guard, a Boston Celtic or an NBA player has had since the league came into existence. What more do you want?
This is the "Rajon Rondo Show." What doesn't he do in this game? Is there ever a moment when you feel he isn't putting his stamp on a Boston possession or defensive stand? Absolutely not.
It's an all-time great playoff performance, but unfortunately, one Rajon Rondo performance comes ahead of this one.
In 2007, the Boston Celtics made one of the best draft-day trades in history by trading the often-troubled Delonte West, the over-paid Wally Szczerbiak, and their first-round pick—Georgetown forward Jeff Green—to the then-Seattle Supersonics for Ray Allen and Glen "Big Baby" Davis.
After acquiring longtime Minnesota Timberwolves cornerstone Kevin Garnett via trade and managing to hold on to fan favorite Paul Pierce, the Celtics had formed yet another "Big 3." General Manager Danny Ainge still had enough money to build a very capable supporting cast around them consisting of seasoned veterans like P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell, while adding proven sharpshooters in Eddie House and James Posey.
The 2008 Boston Celtics completed the biggest single-season turnaround in NBA history, as they made a 42-game improvement from the 2007 season, shattering records and lifting expectations heading into the playoffs.
After a surprisingly disappointing performance in a series victory over the eighth seeded Atlanta Hawks, the Celtics headed into a second-round matchup with last year's Eastern Conference Champions, the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by the league MVP LeBron James.
The Celtics jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the series but would lose three of the next four games before heading back to Boston for a pivotal Game 7.
Many analysts were shocked as the Celtics were once again pushed to a Game 7. The Celtics had balanced scoring throughout the first six games, with every starter except Kendrick Perkins averaging double figures. The Cavaliers were the exact opposite, as LeBron James was averaging over 30 PPG, and, after Zydrunas Ilgauskas, no other Cavalier player was averaging double figures for the series.
But nonetheless, a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals was on the line as it was the MVP against the "Big 3."
On this night, two of the best small forwards to ever lace them up would exchange blows in a heavyweight fight of epic proportions.
From the opening tip, it seemed as if LeBron James and Paul Pierce were the only two guys on the floor. For every shot LeBron made, Pierce had an equally effective answer. For every big play "The Truth" made, "The King" followed it up with one of his own. It was truly a spectacular game to watch, as neither man wanted to lose.
Both of them wanted the ball in the closing seconds. Both men hit big shot after big shot and had the crowd on the edge of joyous jubilation or epic depression. It was absolute madness. Every point these two men provided made all the difference in the game.
LeBron James once again turned in one of the best individual performances of the postseason but failed to pull his team through in the final moments of this classic affair. Paul Pierce's late-game brilliance was uncanny, and the Celtics provided better support to their star.
LeBron James put in 45 points, along with five rebounds, six assists and two steals. Paul Pierce went tit-for-tat with James, with 41 points, along with four rebounds, five assists and two steals of his own.
Just an unbelievable performance from both men.
Jeff Van Gundy said it best: "This was a legendary performance."
It was a comeback for the ages and the performance of a lifetime. Dirk Nowitzki was already having the best postseason of his career, and this tremendous 40-point outing in an intense Game 4 was the cherry on the sundae.
Nowitzki shot the ball with amazing efficiency and abused every defender the Oklahoma City Thunder sent his way. From Thabo Sefolosha grabbing Nowitzki's wrist in an attempt to ice him, to the circus corner mid-range shot with a hand in his face, everything about this performance was legendary.
The Mavericks had trailed for almost the entire game as the Oklahoma City Thunder, led by the high octane trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, were looking to even the series at two games a piece.
Although the Thunder would pummel the Mavericks 55 to 33 on the boards, they would commit a pathetic 25 turnovers—nine alone by Kevin Durant—which cost them the game down the stretch. The Mavericks took advantage at the line as they made 34 of their attempted 39 free throws, and Jason Kidd would deliver the dagger three-pointer in overtime off a pass from who else but Dirk Nowitzki.
This game is the best game I've ever seen Dirk Nowitzki play and is the quintessential playoff game performance of this era considering all the dramatic obstacles: on the road in a hostile, loud arena; trailing for the majority of the game; down by a seemingly insurmountable deficit with only a handful of minutes to go.
And yet, Dirk Nowitzki calmly rose to the occasion. You want to talk about clutch performances? Here is the model. Every shot by Nowitzki here is a work of art and essential to the Mavericks pulling a victory from the jaws of defeat.
The former NBA MVP made some of the most mind-boggling plays and shots I've ever seen in a playoff game and did it all with the swagger of a fearless sheriff in an old Western movie. Yes, Dirk Nowitzki was John Wayne, and he was going to get his man.
Trailing by 15 with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Dirk Nowitzki turned it on late, delivering some of the most difficult and amazing shots I've ever seen. Shot fakes galore. Outstanding footwork. Uncanny improvisation. This is perhaps Dirk Nowitzki's crowning achievement.
This was Sacramento's series to win. They had come up short in the past two seasons and were poised to meet with their in-state rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, in a rematch of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals. Only one man stood in their way: the reigning NBA MVP Kevin Garnett.
In the most important game of his career to that point—and on his 28th birthday—Kevin Garnett would defy all odds and silence all skeptics, putting on a flawless display of grit, toughness, technical ability and heart.
His entire team was suffering from several significant injuries, and Garnett himself wasn't exactly 100 percent. Sacramento was definitely the deeper and more experienced team, and although Minnesota had the home court, there was a feeling that Sacramento was in the driver's seat and a banged up Minnesota team would only go as far as its best player could carry them.
Kevin Garnett had a game for the ages, chipping in a heroic 32 points, grabbing an astounding 21 rebounds and providing defensive toughness with four steals and five emphatic blocks. Garnett was never better than he was in this game. Everything about this performance is so pure and genuine.
He played like a man who was about to lose everything. In fact, this is one of the few games I've seen where a player did not take a play off. Garnett is actively involved in every aspect of this game, and his influence and passion infects the crowd to a point of absolute hysteria.
Every big play, every big moment and every critical shot were initiated and then delivered by the 2004 NBA MVP. From his killer crossover past Chris Webber and emphatic jam to his last-second fling three-pointer near the end of regulation that proved to be the dagger in the hearts of the Sacramento Kings, everything about this performance screams classic.
Rajon Rondo played each and every minute in a heartbreaking Game 2 overtime loss, in which he gave the Boston Celtics every chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
From the Celtics' first possession, it was evident that Rajon Rondo was intent on being offensively aggressive and putting his stamp on this game. He was in attack mode the entire game and looked for his shot more in this game than in any other game I have seen him perform—and he still finished the game with 10 assists and eight rebounds.
If this game is any indication of next season where Rondo can develop this sort of offensive efficiency with consistency, he may well be the 2013 NBA MVP.
Just observe how easy the game is for him, how patient he is and how he gets to whatever spot on the floor he wants. It is beyond description.
A little while ago, I did a list of the Top Five players in the NBA who needed to add a jump shot to their arsenal. Although Blake Griffin topped the list due to how much lacking a steady jumper limits his offensive game, Rajon Rondo came in at No. 2.
My brother, an avid NBA fan himself, rose to the defense of his favorite point guard, stating, as many Rondo supporters have, that he didn't need a jump shot because he effects so many other facets of the game.
I'm the biggest Rondo fan out there...but I couldn't deny that something was holding him back. Something was keeping him from having that consistent, steady effect on a basketball game. It was the ability to space the floor with his shooting.
Not in this game.
This game is the blueprint for Rajon Rondo going forward and the ultimate model of just how good he can be. I'm going to be perfectly honest—it's absolutely scary. Rajon Rondo armed with a consistent jump shot is indeed the NBA's worst nightmare because then he becomes literally unguardable.
The Miami Heat were one of the best defensive teams in the league this past season, and they could do nothing to stop Rondo from asserting his will on the game. It wasn't just the amount of jump shots Rondo took in this game that amazed me. It was how clutch and timely his buckets were. The Celtics would not have been in this game if Rajon Rondo had not made his jump shots.
Who would have thought we would ever utter that sentence?
And because of that, this is the fourth greatest performance in this era of the NBA postseason.
I couldn't pick just one game from LeBron James' epic 2012 campaign to his first ever NBA Championship, so I highlighted it all. Each and every moment. This was indeed one of the greatest stretches of games I've witnessed as a basketball fan.
Add the pressure. The fan and media scrutiny. The past failures. It all came to a head in this playoff run, and LeBron James rose above it all with the greatest playoff run in recent memory.
With every performance, the praises became louder, and the doubters became silent. No longer was James a prisoner of his own success. He played with a liberated, free aura but still brought the intensity we are used to seeing from "The King."
The Heat disposed of a New York Knicks team that posed an equally effective crop of stars in only five games, and LeBron took over in Game 3 in the fourth quarter. He was matched up with fellow 2003 draftee Carmelo Anthony, a person many believed would be LeBron's equal and rival for years to come.
But in this series, James showed that he is a far more capable leader on both ends of the floor than Carmelo. With the exception of Game 4, he took Anthony out of the series entirely.
In the next round, the Miami Heat faced a great challenge in the young and deep Indiana Pacers. They surprised Miami and took a 2-1 lead with a chance to take a 3-1 back to Miami, threatening to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2003.
The Heat were without Chris Bosh, who injured his abdomen in Game 1, and Dwyane Wade was coming off the single-worst performance of his career in Game 3.
But LeBron James would take the series by the horns. After Dwyane Wade struggled once again to get going early, LeBron began to dominate at the offensive end, aggressively looking for his shot but not settling for anything. As the game went on, LeBron got Wade back into the flow of things with a couple of beautiful passes, and the flood gates opened.
James and Wade would dominate the second half and win the game convincingly. They didn't allow Indiana to win another game, finishing the series in six. LeBron finished with 40 points, shooting a torrid 14-of-27 from the field, grabbing 18 huge rebounds and dishing a phenomenal nine assists in one of the great all-time playoff games of this era.
But LeBron was far from done. In a series that many analysts had predicted the Heat to win by a landslide, the Boston Celtics had taken a 3-2 lead after an amazing win in South Beach in a pivotal Game 5 and were looking to advance to the NBA Finals for the third time in six years.
All the doubters and cynics began to murmur, and many predicted that Boston was the favorite to win at home and send LeBron and the Heat home once again without a ring. What would transpire would be the exact opposite.
Paul Pierce picked a lovely time to have his worst game of the season, and the Celtics played like a team that had already won. LeBron James picked the Celtics' defense apart from start 'til finish, embarrassing Mickael Pietrus and Brandon Bass. Every time Boston made a run to close the gap, James had an answer. A crushing follow slam going into halftime silenced the crowd and afterwards they didn't really have the same intensity.
Rajon Rondo played a sloppy game riddled with turnovers, and it seemed to me after playing with such fervor and determination in the earlier games, the Boston Celtics just went through the motions, hoping the Heat would lay down.
Each time LeBron made a basket, you felt it. His 30-point outburst in the first half was simply incredible. The league MVP single-handedly beat a team into submission. The Celtics gave up.
Miami would win a dramatic series at home and go on to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games for the NBA Title.
And how does LeBron James close out the series? With a triple-double, of course. His only one of the postseason.
Most players couldn't put up these type of numbers for one game, let alone an entire playoff run. LeBron James is truly the best player in basketball today.
The poor New Jersey Nets.
They are on the wrong end of my list again, sorry to say. This time, it's another big man that destroys them in the NBA Finals, "The Big Fundamental" Tim Duncan.
I know it seems like forever ago, but it wasn't too long far back that many analysts and fans proclaimed Tim Duncan the best player in the NBA. Why?
His knack for just making plays, of course. On offense, he had the complete post-up game along with a steady jumper and his patented quick release bank shot from the corner. The ability to run the floor and finish in transition. The defensive prowess as an individual defender and a help defender. The toughness on the boards and versatility from the high post, making gorgeous pass after gorgeous pass.
Tim Duncan was perhaps the most complete big that the NBA has ever seen, and in this game, he makes his claim at being one of the greatest players to ever step on the basketball court.
His stat line in the Finals itself was astonishing (25 PPG, 16 RPG, 4 APG, 5 BPG) but to have the game he did in a do-or-die close-out game of the NBA Finals is just remarkable.
Tim Duncan has not only the best game of his career, but arguably, the greatest game of this era. Forget the stats and forget the numbers. Watch this game from start to finish. Tim Duncan plays basketball like nobody else can and honestly, I can't understand why people tend to forget just how great of a player Tim Duncan was and still is.
The beauty and skill of his game is remarkable. His versatility is unmatched, and the New Jersey Nets simply can't beat him.They could not stop him from winning this game. At one point in the game, Tim Duncan blocked so many attempts at the rim that the Nets simply started to take jump shots. Kenyon Martin was afraid to drive on Tim Duncan.
Tim Duncan methodically picked apart the New Jersey defense, whether he penetrated the lane for an easy layup or dunk, got to the foul line, made a jumper or set up a teammates for a wide-open three. Tim Duncan is omnipresent in this game. You simply cannot escape his impact on the court.
But honestly, it's on the defensive end where I have to praise Duncan the most. To average five blocked shots per game, shatter the NBA Finals total blocks record, and come two blocks away from a quadruple-double is just unbelievable. Duncan made the Nets earn each and every basket when he was on defense, and that is where San Antonio won this series.
I know I'm going to get a lot of flack for not putting this at No. 1, but it was definitely close. I just weighed in a couple factors that changed my mind. This performance can stand up to any individual performance in any era. Duncan is that great in this game.
This beats Timmy's near-quad.
No. 1 with a bullet. How could you possibly top this?
The greatest playoff performance of this era and arguably the greatest playoff performance of all time is LeBron James beating the Pistons single-handedly.
He had the final 25 Cavalier points, 29 of the their last 30 points and—get this—their last 11 field goals of the game. This was against the Detroit Pistons, who were in their sixth straight Eastern Conference Finals and were coming off back-to-back NBA Finals appearances—with one culminating in an NBA Title in 2004. This was one of the great teams in NBA history, and LeBron James torched them without any help whatsoever.
This performance was almost god-like. It was as close to Michael Jordan's 63 in the Boston Garden as it gets, and even Steve Kerr called LeBron's performance, "Jordan-esque."
After receiving harsh criticism in Game 2 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals by Charles Barkley and other analysts for passing up the final shot in favor of an open three-pointer by sharpshooter Donyell Marshall, LeBron James elevated his game to an all-time high.
The Cleveland Cavalier defense was playing the best it had played all season, and in order for the Cavaliers to have a chance to win this series, they would have to win at least one game in the Palace.
But as usual, the Cavaliers' offense couldn't provide any support to its All-Star forward. Late in the fourth quarter of Game 4, LeBron James must have decided that he wasn't going to trust his teammates anymore. And so it began—the greatest playoff performance of this era.
What people seem to forget about this game is that LeBron James shot 54 percent from the field. He made 18 of his 33 shot attempts. The rest of the Cavaliers were 19 of 49.
In a league where players like Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant are praised for playing "hero" ball and taking shots in volume, LeBron James shot over 50 percent from the field in a do-or-die Game 7 on the road against the premier franchise in the Eastern Conference with his team providing little to no support.
How is it possible that the Detroit Pistons—who were perhaps the deepest and most balanced team in the league at the time—could be defeated by one player? Everyone in the Pistons' starting lineup made at least four field goals in Game 5. No one on the Cavaliers outside of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and LeBron James could manage more than three.
To me, that alone puts this performance ahead of all the rest...but I'm not done by a long shot. If Dirk Nowitzki's game at No. 6 showcased some of the most difficult and clutch shots ever, LeBron James eclipsed that by a mile in this game. The shots made by LeBron James in this game are otherworldly.
The degree of difficulty on some of these shots are mind-bogging. Behind the back dribble into a three-pointer. Fading fall-away jumper from the wing. Last second fling three-pointer fading out-of-bounds. A huge three-pointer over two defenders to answer Chris Webber's excellent three-point play and tie the game. And to top it all of, the go-ahead bucket and game-winning shot to take a 3-2 series lead back to Cleveland.
That was all the Cavaliers needed. LeBron and company would close the series out in six, defeating the Detroit Pistons four consecutive times. The Pistons hadn't lost four consecutive games throughout the entire 2006-2007 season.
LeBron James took the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers. A franchise and city that had experienced an infinite amount of heartbreak in regards to professional sports was finally back in the championship picture on the heels of possibly the single greatest playoff performance of this era.
Number one with a bullet.