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The 15 Greatest Individual Performances in NBA Playoff History

Kelly ScalettaFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2013

The 15 Greatest Individual Performances in NBA Playoff History

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    There have been some pretty spectacular performances this postseason, such as Kevin Durant’s 36-point, 11-rebound, nine-assist game on May 7, but even that pales in comparison to some of the greatest games in postseason history.

    In compiling this list, I leaned heavily on the Basketball-Reference.com play index, but it is limited in what stats are available and how far they go back—only to 1985. A Wikipedia listing of 50-point games made reference to some earlier performances. Research provided a few others.

    If there is a specific game omitted, feel free to suggest it in the comment section.

    Games are ranked primarily according to statistical impact, but factors such as game importance and winning and losing are also considered.

    To avoid having Michael Jordan dominate the list (he had six of the 11 highest-scoring games in postseason history), I capped appearances on here at two games by any one person. 

15. John Stockton: 24 Assists, 23 Points

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    Magic Johnson and John Stockton are first and second, respectively, in assists in NBA postseason history. It’s no surprise that of the five games in history in which a player had 20 points and 20 assists in the playoffs, they have four of them, each with a pair.

    But of those 20/20 games, the most remarkable belongs to Stockton, with 24 assists and 23 points, which tied Johnson’s postseason record for dimes in one game. (Johnson's 24-assist game was not one of his 20/20 games; he recorded just six points). 

    Stockton went wire to wire, scoring or assisting on a minimum of 71 (at most 73, depending on if he assisted on the two threes Utah made) of the Jazz’s 109 points.

14. Charles Barkley: 56 Points on 74.2-Percent Shooting

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    There have been 33 postseason games of 50 or more points. In 28 of them, the scorer notched a field-goal percentage of at least 50 percent. However, only one time did he top 70 percent, and that distinction goes to Charles Barkley.

    There are some days where you’re just feeling it, and that was clearly the case when he came out smoking, notching 38 points in the first half alone as the Phoenix Suns closed out their series against the Golden State Warriors.

    By the end of the game, he tallied 56, a career high, and he did so shooting a whopping 74.2 percent from the field, a full 50 points better than anyone else who has scored 50 in a playoff game.

    In fact, only two players in the history of the league scored more points in a single playoff game: Elgin Baylor (61) and Michael Jordan (63). 

13. Tim Duncan: Near Quadruple-Double

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    Tim Duncan is arguably the greatest player of his era, even greater than Kobe Bryant. He hasn’t had quite the same kind of following as Bryant, though. In part, it’s because he plays for a small-market team that doesn't have a massive fanbase. The fact that his greatest postseason performance came in one of the least-watched Finals games in history is evidence of this.

    Squaring off against two of the premier defensive centers in the league at the time in the New Jersey Nets' Dikembe Mutombo and Jason Collins, Duncan scored 21 points, grabbed 20 boards, tallied 10 assists and blocked eight shots, coming as close as anyone in history to a postseason quadruple-double in Game 6 of the 2003 NBA Finals.

    In Game 1 of that series, Duncan had another game that could qualify for this list as well, when he totaled 32 points, 20 rebounds, six assists, seven blocks and three steals, barely missing a postseason five-by-five, which has also never been accomplished.

    But since it was the second-lowest-rated Finals ever, according to Nielsen ratings (h/t TVbytheNumbers), no one watched it, so it didn’t really happen. 

12. Bob Cousy: 50 Points, 32 Free Throws, 66 Minutes

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    Bob Cousy put the work in on March 21, 1953. In a quadruple-overtime game in which he played 66 minutes (almost two games' worth!), he scored 50 points. That’s not the most remarkable thing, though.  

    He also set the still-standing record for free throws made (30), though his record total of 32 free-throw attempts in that game has since been broken.

    For a man the size and stature of Cousy (a mere 175 pounds) to play 66 minutes and go to the line 32 times is just unfathomable. The beating his body must have taken during that game is probably not something the average human being would want to experience. 

11. LeBron James: 25-Point Closing Outburst

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    Before "LeBorg" was "LeChoke," he was just LeBron James, and all this muckity-muck about him being clutch was not something anyone paid attention to. In Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Detroit Pistons, LeBron let his inner cyborg shine for the first time.

    With his Cleveland Cavaliers trailing, James took over a game like no one else before or since, scoring 25 consecutive points for his team and 29 of the last 30 points. At the 7:48 mark of the fourth quarter, Zydrunas Ilgauskas was the last Cavalier not named LeBron James to make a field goal for the remainder of the game.

    Through the rest of regulation, then through the first overtime, then through a second overtime, LeBron literally carried the team by himself. And at the end, it was the King who was standing and the Pistons who were at his feet, as Cleveland won the game in a manner which was only fitting—with James making a layup to go up by two with two seconds left.

    It was arguably the greatest clutch performance in postseason history. 

10. Elgin Baylor: 61 Points, 21 Rebounds

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    There are certain legendary players I truly wish I could have seen play live and in their prime. Low-grade YouTube clips just don’t do some players justice. Among those whom I most wish I could have seen is Elgin Baylor.

    By all accounts, the high-flying, super-athletic, aerial-assaulting wing predecessor to David Thompson, Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was Baylor, who was the first player to play “above the rim.”

    He was also the first player to ever break 60 points in a postseason game. In Game 5 of the 1962 NBA Finals, against the vaunted Boston Celtics defense, he dropped a sterling 61 points while hauling in 22 rebounds in a game for the ages.

    Sure, he took 46 shots to do it, but he shot 47.8 percent from the field, which was almost 50 points above the league average of 42.6 percent.  

9. Charles Barkley: 40-Point Triple-Double

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    Charles Barkley had some amazing postseason games, but since he never won a ring and wasn’t a “role model,” people tend to overlook him in history.

    One of the greatest games in postseason history came on June 1, 1993, when he set the record for most points scored in a triple-double, amassing 43 points, 15 rebounds and 10 dimes to lead the Phoenix Suns over the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.

    Four days later, he scored 44 points and grabbed 24 rebounds in Game 7, securing the series. 

8. Walt 'Clyde' Frazier: 36 Points, 19 Assists, 7 Rebounds

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    Game 7 of the 1970 Finals is a game best known for Willis Reed’s courageous start, but the most outstanding performance actually belongs to Walt “Clyde" Frazier.

    Reed, the New York Knicks' best player, was only able to play the opening minutes of that game, and that was through sheer fortitude and courage, as he had a torn muscle in his right thigh. After scoring the first two buckets for the Knicks, though, Reed had to leave the game, and Frazier took up the mantle.

    He has always been known for his smooth style of dress and even smoother vernacular, but nothing was smoother that evening than his game, as Frazier scored 36 points and distributed 19 dimes. Today, he would call that “swishing and dishing.”

    Because of his outstanding performance, the Knicks toppled the Wilt Chamberlain-led Los Angeles Lakers.

7. Shaquille O’Neal: 44 Points, 21 Rebounds, 7 Blocks

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    Since 1986, there have only been eight 40-point, 20-rebound games in the postseason. Four of those have been recorded by Shaquille O’Neal.

    The most prodigious among them is the 44-point, 21-rebound, seven-block game (one of only two 40/20/5 games in that span) in which the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Sacramento Kings in Game 1 of the second round of the 2001 playoffs. 

    While he’s “Shaqtin' a Fool" on TNT now and ended his career a couple of seasons too late, O’Neal—for a half-decade—was the most dominant player in the game. Sadly, we don’t always remember how great he was. Between 2000 and 2004, he had 50 percent more postseason win shares than any other player, including Kobe Bryant.

    He scored 2,532 points, hauled in 1,310 boards and blocked 236 shots in that span. All, by far, led the NBA.

    This game exemplified O’Neal at his best, and it was the Lakers at their finest. That postseason, they lost only one game in arguably the greatest playoff run of all time. 

6. Michael Jordan: 63-Point Game

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    Where do you rank a game where one of the greatest players in NBA history accuses God of playing for the other team?

    Larry Bird, after witnessing Jordan’s 63-point outburst—which was just 20 games into Jordan’s own “#return”—said, "I didn't think anyone was capable of doing what Michael has done to us. He is the most exciting, awesome player in the game today. I think it's just God disguised as Michael Jordan."

    The Bulls lost that game, and lost the series, but the total of 63 stands as the most points ever scored in a postseason game. 

5. Bill Russell: 30 Points, 40 Rebounds

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    When you see “30 and 40,” you think the numbers are backward, because it’s hard to make rational sense of it otherwise. You're inclined to say the “30” in Russell’s massive performance is the rebounding total, and the “40” is the point total. Wrong answer.

    Russell scored 30 points and grabbed 40 rebounds. Forty! Rebounds!

    That’s a Finals record that hasn't been toppled. It came just two games after Elgin Baylor scored his still-standing Finals record of 61 points.

    If it’s drama you want, then drama you will get. Russell’s performance came in Game 7 of the 1962 Finals against the Lakers, which the Celtics went on to win by three in overtime.

4. Hakeem Olajuwon: 49 Points, 25 Rebounds, 6 Blocks

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    On May 14, 1987, Hakeem Olajuwon may have had the most discouraging game in NBA postseason history. He scored 49 points, grabbed 25 rebounds and blocked six shots, while chipping in two steals and two assists in 53 minutes. And he lost. 

    He was 19-of-33 from the field and 11-of-13 from the stripe. The game went to double overtime, only to see the Seattle SuperSonics take Game 6 of the second-round series, 128-125.

    When you factor in Olajuwon’s gargantuan production, that no one else on his team scored 20 points, the length of the game and that it ended the Houston Rockets' season, it’s hard to imagine a more heartbreaking loss. 

3. Wilt Chamberlain: 92 in Total Stats

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    “Total stats,” tracked by NBA.com/stats, are points, rebounds and assists combined. Using that measure, the biggest game in NBA playoff history is Wilt Chamberlain's colossal 56-point, 35-rebound effort. Chamberlain also had one assist, raising his grand total to 92.

    The record was set on March 22, 1962 against the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers).

    The total exceeded the previous record sum of 87, set exactly two years earlier by Chamberlain.

    Ranking games that occurred prior to the widening of the lanes can be a challenge, but this was the most impressive display of dominance from that era. 

2. Michael Jordan: Flu Game

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    On a personal level, this is the most inspiring performance I have ever witnessed in sports. It is impossible to grade this game on mere statistics.

    To understand why this game was so inspirational to me, I need to share a little personal history. In March 1997, it was determined that I had a carcinoid tumor in my right lung. In June, I had my lung removed. Needless to say, this was a trying time for me.

    I was released from the hospital on June 9, and two days later, I was watching the “Flu Game,” trying to find the courage to fight, and silly as it sounds, I found it in that game. I literally wept as Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen's arms after making the final shot.

    His 38 points were not spectacular (for him). He also had a mediocre seven rebounds and five assists. But the actual heart and determination he displayed in that game make for one of the most iconic moments in sports history. My story may be unique, but there are countless people who have been motivated after watching Jordan throw every smidgen of energy and perseverance into that game.

    It is the quintessential example of playing hurt and making the body obey the mind. 

1. Magic Johnson: Plays Center and Has 42 Points, 15 Rebounds and 7 Assists

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    Magic Johnson is the only player on this list who was playing out of position in his “Magical” performance. Not only was he playing out of position, but he was playing as far out of position as he could possibly be, going from point guard to center to start Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals.

    He was filling in for future Hall of Famer and eventual all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. No pressure, right?

    Over the course of the game, he spent time at literally every position.  

    And, the icing on the cake is he was only a 20-year-old rookie.

    And the strawberries on top of the icing: It was a closeout game.

    And the powdered sugar on the strawberries on the icing on the cake is that it was on the road, in Philadelphia—one of the toughest places to play.

    The assignment was ridiculous, but nothing is too ridiculous if you believe in Magic. Johnson went off, scoring 42 points, nabbing 15 boards and dishing seven dimes en route to winning NBA Finals MVP and clinching the series.

    It is little wonder that many consider this to be the greatest postseason performance in NBA history, and I’m inclined to agree.

    Why am I craving sweets?

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