To both players and fans, the NBA's regular season is about making the playoffs.
The postseason, by contrast, is about making it as far as possible, making a name for yourself, making your place in history.
In doing so, it's also an opportunity for a player to rewrite his professional story.
What kind of playoff performances can transform a solid player toiling in obscurity into an enduring legend? Or turn a star into a superstar?
Play sick or injured
As a kid, I was awed by the spectacle of Isiah Thomas scoring 25 points in one quarter of the 1988 NBA Finals—while hopping on one foot because of a sprained ankle.
Derrick Rose, I love you man, but let me just say this: You ain't no Isiah Thomas.
If you were too young to see Michael Jordan's "flu game," in which he scored 38 points in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals while also racking up seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block, don't just read about it here. Do yourself a favor and watch at least some of it here.
The video edits out the sight of Jordan virtually fainting in Scottie Pippin's arms after the victory, clutching him like a child clutches his mother, so if you can find a more complete version, seek it out.
That moment—a stunning juxtaposition with the assassin who had just eviscerated the Utah Jazz—helped bring home exactly what kind of pain Jordan willed into his emotional sidelines for 48 magical minutes.
The performance inspired me, amazed me, humbled me and literally moved me to tears.
Whether you loved MJ or hated him (Jazz fans, I'm talking to you), you absolutely had to admire and respect what he did. Jordan had far better contests statistically, but simply by virtue of what he had to overcome—whether it was flu or pizza poisoning—I am among the many who consider this the finest game of his career.
But Jordan at least played 44 minutes in that game. Ask someone who's seen the 1970 NBA Finals to tell you who the MVP was. You'll only get one answer: Willis Reed.
Yet Reed scored just four points on 2-of-5 shooting in a mere 27 minutes.
How could he have been the hero?
Because Reed walked out onto the court with a torn thigh muscle.
Do you fully understand the gravity of that sentence? There was a muscle flipping and flopping inside his thigh. I cannot even imagine how badly it must have hurt for Willis to simply sit there, let alone walk.
Yet Reed took an injection to dull the pain, limped out of the tunnel to the shock of the broadcasters and the delight of the crowd and scored the first two New York Knicks baskets of the game.
Statistically, Reed's teammate Walt Frazier was the hero of that game, scoring 36 points on 12-of-17 shooting, going a perfect 12-of-12 from the line and handing out 19 assists.
Yet his stat line has faded for most who watched the classic contest. All they remember is Willis Reed.
The moral of the story: Doctors can measure a man's vital signs. But nothing can measure a man's determination and will—and displaying them will win you admiration the sports world over.
Take over for a fallen teammate
The next-best thing to playing injured is willing your team to victory when your teammate cannot play injured.
Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson had this opportunity foisted upon him in 1980, his rookie season.
The Finals through five games had been a back-and-forth affair, with teams trading victories every other game. By that measure, Game 6, to be played in Philadelphia, seemed to be the 76ers' turn. Adding credence to this theory was the fact that Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, that season's MVP and the hero of Game 5, was out with a severely sprained ankle.
Johnson, putting the team on his shoulders at all of 20 years old, had the finest game of his career. Magic started at point-center, played every position on the court during the game and went off for 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block. He even offered a tribute to his ailing teammate by putting up a skyhook, Jabbar's signature shot, as his first attempt.
Despite Johnson's heroics, the Lakers were leading by just two points with five minutes left. That's when Johnson sealed the deal, scoring nine points in that final stretch to give the Lakers a 16-point victory and the championship.
At game's end, Johnson looked into the TV cameras and sent a message to Jabbar, whose ankle was so badly injured he couldn't even make the trip, saying, "Big fella, we love you...we did it for you!"
It was a moment, and a game, that was pure Magic…and made a rookie into a legend.
Have one insanely great game
If you haven't heard the name Sleepy Floyd, you likely don't live in Oakland or San Francisco...or Los Angeles, for that matter.
Because Sleepy Floyd will never have to pay for a beer in the Bay Area for the rest of his natural-born life.
Eric "Sleepy" Floyd played 13 seasons in the NBA, averaging 12.8 points and 5.4 assists per game. He made one All-Star game. He was Player of the Week one time.
In other words, other than his nickname, he was a competent but completely unremarkable player.
Ah, but then there was The Sleepy Floyd Game.
In the 1987 Western Conference Finals, versus the mighty Magic-and-Kareem Los Angeles Lakers, Eric "Sleepy" Floyd—who had previously scored 19, 11 and 14 points in the first three games of the series—suddenly became otherworldly in Game 4.
Floyd set NBA playoff records for most points in a quarter (29) and most points in a half (39) en route to 51 points, boggling minds across the nation while leading his team to a most improbable victory, staving off a sweep.
It was the Warriors' lone win of the series, and the Lakers would go on to win the NBA championship that year. But for one glorious night, Floyd was anything but sleepy.
You can watch a 14-minute video of the game here.
A member of the San Francisco media said watching Sleepy Floyd score 29 points in a quarter against the Laker was "the most incredible feeling I've ever had at a sporting event…I was a member of the media, trying to stay cool at the press table. But the hair on my neck was standing. I was holding my head in disbelief. Incredible. Electric."
Floyd himself describes the game as "an amazing time. It just seemed like everything came together. Everything slowed down for me. It felt like I was wide open.''
The season after The Game, Floyd was traded; he played for three more teams before retiring without fanfare.
But he'll never be forgotten because of his solid-gold night in a Golden State uniform.
Make a clutch shot
It was 1989, and Jordan, while a great player, was still an ancillary superstar in the NBA. The team of destiny that year was the Detroit Pistons; franchises like the Lakers and the Boston Celtics were the class of the league.
Jordan was still on par with guys like Dominique Wilkins, a breathtaking player who never won a gosh-darn thing except individual accolades. Though MJ had won an MVP award the previous season, the Pistons had gone through his Chicago Bulls like a hot knife through butter in the playoffs.
As the Bulls entered the 1989 playoffs, the Bulls seemed likely to take a step backwards: They were rematched with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team they had crushed three games to one in the previous year's first round. But this year the Cavs had come back stronger, beating the Bulls in all four regular-season games.
Sure enough, the Cavs tied the five-game series up at two apiece, and in the fifth and deciding game, they had matched Jordan's jumper with six seconds remaining with a jumper of their own. The score was 100-99 in favor of the Cavs, with just three seconds remaining.
Jordan took the inbounds pass (those from Cleveland will say he pushed off Larry Nance), shot from the free-throw line and, with all the pressure on him, sunk the shot—eliciting an iconic celebration by MJ.
Even though the Bulls would fall to the Pistons once again in the next round, notice had been served: Michael Jordan would not rest until he was on top. This play, more than any other, cemented Jordan's reputation both within the league and with fans.
But Jordan was a megastar. Can a mere mortal secure his place with clutch shooting?
Let me answer the question with a question: Do the names Robert Horry and Derek Fisher mean anything to you?
Sure, Horry has seven rings and Fisher five. That's mostly a product of them being in the right place at the right time: after all, Horry has a pedestrian career average of 10.3 points and seven rebounds per 36 minutes, while Fisher's stat line is an unextraordinary 11.8 points and 4.2 assists per 36 minutes.
Their playoff per-36 averages are right around the same: Horry at 10.2 points and 7.2 rebounds; Fisher at 11.3 points and 3.3 assists.
But when it comes to clutch shots in the playoffs, these journeymen rise to a level higher than most superstars.
Without Horry's buzzer-beating, game-winning three in Game 4 of the 2002 Lakers-Sacramento Kings series, the Kings, not the Lakers, would likely have won the title that year. As a member of the San Antonio Spurs, Horry's three in Game 5 of the 2007 NBA Finals literally wrenched a second straight title from the hands of the Detroit Pistons. And those are just two of his big-time shots and rebounds on the game's biggest stage.
In the 2004 Western Conference semifinals against the Spurs, Fisher caught an inbounds pass and, in the same motion, whirled and fired, hitting an 18-footer for the win that most of us thought there literally was not time enough on the clock to even launch.
He's hit other pressure-defying shots for the Lakers, like tying the score of Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals versus the Orlando Magic with a trey with 4.6 seconds remaining, then winning the game with another long bomb with 31.3 seconds remaining in overtime. There was also his three with 28 seconds on the clock to set up a win against the Utah Jazz in the 2010 Western Conference semifinals.
Horry and Fisher are not mythical figures for their overall play. It's the clutch shots that cleared them a permanent place in our memory banks.
Elevate your game
Sometimes, when a great player hits the playoffs, he takes his game not to another level, but to another dimension.
I can still remember a palpable feeling I can only describe as the creeps while watching LeBron James score 29 of his Cav's final 30 points in the 2007 Eastern Conference finals. LeBron may have been in the zone, but watching him was like being in the Twilight Zone.
No matter what his Pistons opponents—whom I believe would have won it all had they gotten past Cleveland—threw at him, James counter-punched with accuracy that was cold, deadly and, more than anything, relentless. The bar at which I was watching the game fell silent. The crowd in attendance, on Detroit's home court, fell silent.
What James did was impossible—impossible, I tell you.
Yet I sat slack-jawed, watching it happen.
Interestingly, former Piston Vinnie Johnson—a playoff legend for both elevating his game (22 fourth-quarter points in a 1984 first-round game against the Celtics) and hitting a clutch shot (a jumper with 00.7 seconds remaining to win the 1990 championship)—was at the wine bar watching with me. I asked him about James' performance.
Johnson said, "When you get locked in like that, you forget that there's any chance you can miss. You start to believe everything you throw up will go in. And it does."
Rajon Rondo got locked in like that just last year. In an overtime game, Rondo played all 53 minutes and scored 44 points with 10 assists, including every single Boston point in overtime—12 in all. Amazingly, his Celtics still lost the game—in large part because of a Dwyane Wade non-call with 1:30 to play that knocked Rondo to the ground.
But Rondo in that game was a sight to behold.
It isn't always winning the ring that wins you favor with fans or teammates. It isn't even always about winning the game.
It's about winning respect, by the ways you contribute which go above and beyond reasonable expectations, or even unreasonable ones.
Saying the playoffs are where legends are made may be trite. But when we tell our progeny about the astonishing feats we've witnessed on a basketball court, chances are we're not talking about regular-season games. No.
We remember, and relate, and reminisce about, and ruminate upon, what our heroes did when the championship was on the line.
What becomes a legend more than that?
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