Breaking Down NBA Legends' Game 7 Performances
The mention of an NBA legend evokes memories of clutch shots, dramatic plays or championship triumph.
Nothing matches the grandeur of a Game 7—a single game that can define the career of the league’s all-time greats. It’s for all the marbles, and the pressure couldn’t be greater.
Legacies are built upon defining performances in these epic matchups.
Thursday's Game 7 between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs will be just the 18th Game 7 in NBA Finals history.
In the previous 17 Finals Game 7s, 11 have been won by either the Boston Celtics or the Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers. None have included Michael Jordan or the Chicago Bulls.
Jerry West did have 42 points in Game 7 against Boston in the 1969 Finals. However, this offensive explosion came in a loss. While it was certainly a legendary performance, this collection is comprised of Finals Game 7 winners.
The legacy of LeBron James will be greatly impacted by his individual performance and ability to lead the Heat to either a second consecutive title or his third failure in four Finals appearances. On the other side, Tim Duncan can earn the fifth championship of his Hall of Fame career and catapult his standing among the game’s elite.
To comprehend the full magnitude of Thursday’s Game 7, it’s essential to look back at what the game’s legends have accomplished in these situations.
Bill Russell, Boston Celtics
Bill Russell earned his legacy as a champion and an engineer of Finals Game 7 victories. The Boston Celtics legend played in 10 Game 7s in his career, five of which came in the NBA Finals.
Russell earned a Finals MVP in 1962 when he scored 30 points and grabbed an are-you-kidding-me 44 rebounds in the Celtics' 110-107 overtime victory. That was his best performance, but he had four others.
In Game 7 of the Finals in 1957 against the St. Louis Hawks, the team that drafted him in 1956 and immediately traded him, Russell had 19 points, 32 rebounds and a key block in the final minute of the game. Ken Shouler of ESPN did a fantastic job breaking down Russell’s play:
His first was against the St. Louis Hawks, a West powerhouse that competed in four finals in five years. The Hawks were ahead by a point in regulation with under a minute left. Jack Coleman drove in for a layup that would have upped the lead to three.
But Russell chased him down from behind and blocked his shot. Years later Tommy Heinsohn said it was "the greatest play I never saw in basketball. That sumbitch went by me like I was standing still, and I was near midcourt. He was the fastest man on the team."
Russell knocked out the Hawks again in a Game 7 win in the 1960 Finals with a 22-point, 35-rebound performance. Russell won another title with a Game 7 win in 1966 against the Los Angeles Lakers in which he scored 25 points and pulled down 32 rebounds.
The Celtics all-time great went out on top by way of another victorious Game 7, even though he tallied nowhere near his prior numbers.
In his final season, the 1969 Celtics beat the Lakers, 108-106, despite the 36-year-old Russell, the team's player-coach, being limited to six points (though he still had 21 rebounds). Wilt Chamberlain, the Lakers' starting center, scored 18 points and had 27 rebounds, but Russell was the one who earned an 11th championship trophy.
Simply put, Russell was the master of Game 7s.
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant has five NBA titles, yet he has played in just one Finals Game 7, in 2010, which also happened to be the last time the Finals has gone seven games.
Sometimes, the stat line doesn’t tell the full story.
The Los Angeles Lakers grinded out the deciding game over the Boston Celtics despite shooting just 32.5 percent as a team, highlighted by Bryant's ugly 6-of-24 shooting.
Still, Kobe was the hero and went on to win his second consecutive finals MVP by scoring a game-high 23 points and grabbing 15 rebounds.
With an injured index finger, Bryant forced his way to the basket and earned his points on 11-of-15 shooting from the free-throw line.
The win gave Kobe five rings, one more than Shaquille O'Neal, which meant a great deal to him. In a Slam magazine article in June 2010, Bryant was quoted as saying: "I just got one more than Shaq! You can take that to the bank...You guys know how I am. I don’t forget anything."
George Mikan, Minneapolis Lakers
George Mikan was the O.G. of Lakers legends—building his Hall of Fame resume in the franchise's Minneapolis years.
Wearing No. 99 and some slick glasses, Mikan won five titles with the Minneapolis Lakers in the course of six seasons from 1948 to 1954.
Mikan is more than the name attached to the monotonous drill your high school basketball coach put you through. The 6'10" center dominated the league's early days, doing most of his work in the post.
"Mr. Basketball" played in two Game 7s as he helped build the foundation for the Lakers' collection of championships. He scored 22 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in Minneapolis' championship win against the New York Knicks in 1952.
Mikan played his second Game 7 in the Lakers' 1954 title against the Syracuse Nationals, but he was quieter with just 11 points.
The original Lakers superstar is proud of the league's first dynasty, as he is quoted as saying in the NBA Encyclopedia:
You know, there were a lot of things that people don’t know about our old Lakers team. People like to think that Red Auerbach and the Celtics never lost, and they were the first dynasty.
Well, we beat ‘em 16 or 17 straight times, something like that. It’s only been recently, what with the NBA’s 50th Anniversary celebration, that we’ve started receiving some recognition for what we did. That makes me feel real good.
Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets
Hakeem Olajuwon was arguably the league's most dominant big man for well over a decade. He played 18 total seasons in the league, averaging a double-double of 21.8 points and 11.1 rebounds while winning two Defensive Player of the Year awards and one Most Valuable Player award for his excellence in the regular season.
The master of the "Dream Shake" was also a force in the postseason, winning back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 while taking home Finals MVP honors in both.
In 1994, the same year he won the league's MVP award, he led the Rockets in a Game 7 victory against Patrick Ewing's New York Knicks. On that night, under the pressure of the deciding game, Olajuwon outplayed Ewing, tallying 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
A year later, the Nigerian-born superstar bested Shaquille O'Neal in a four-game sweep of the Orlando Magic in the Finals, averaging 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds and two blocks.
Arnie Risen, Rochester Royals
Ever heard of Arnie Risen? He was the first ever Finals Game 7 hero in NBA history.
As a member of the Rochester Royals, the guy they called "Stilts" led the Royals to a 1951 championship in a Game 7 win against the New York Knicks.
Though he isn't considered a legend by standard definition, Risen must be included on this list for scoring a game-high 24 points and hauling in 13 rebounds in the first Finals Game 7 clincher.
The 6'9" Risen won two titles, the second with Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics in 1957, and was a four-time All-Star.
Larry Bird, Boston Celtics
"Larry Legend" played in just one NBA Finals Game 7, and he wasn’t spectacular.
Bird had 20 points on 6-of-18 shooting, but he was 8-of-8 from the free-throw line and added 12 rebounds in the Celtics' Game 7 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in 1984. It was Cedric Maxwell who was the team's high scorer with 24 points.
Bird was the Finals MVP, averaging 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.1 steals in the series. It's fascinating how a mediocre Game 7 performance from a legend is often forgotten so long as his team wins.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was on the other side of the Game 7 loss, scoring 29 points to lead the Lakers.
It’s an interesting parallel to think of Tim Duncan as Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James as Bird in this scenario. As Bird was in the '84 Finals Game 7, James can get away with being average in a win. A loss, though, well that would be a different story.
Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers
Magic Johnson would have dominated YouTube.
The Los Angeles Lakers' legendary point guard has more highlight moments than Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook and Ricky Rubio combined.
But for all the sweet passes and dynamic finishes, Johnson's ability to close the deal is often overlooked. As part of the Lakers dynasty in the ‘80s, Johnson collected five championships and won three Finals MVP awards.
Johnson didn't win the MVP of the 1988 NBA Finals—that award was given to James Worthy—but Magic's performance in Game 7 helped propel the Lakers to a 108-105 win against the Detroit Pistons.
Johnson’s stat line from that night wasn’t as impressive as Worthy’s triple-double, but Johnson tallied 19 points on just 6-of-9 shooting and 7-of-8 from the free-throw line along with 14 assists in closing out the Game 7 win.
James Worthy, Los Angeles Lakers
Sometimes, James Worthy can be lost in the Los Angeles Lakers' historic stack of superstars.
He’s a legend shuffled among so many top-tier Hall of Famers in Lakers history, but as Finals Game 7s go, none did it better than “Big Game James” in 1988.
Worthy has three NBA titles, and he won a Finals MVP in 1988 by averaging 22 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists in a seven-game-series victory against the Detroit Pistons.
It was his Game 7 that was so phenomenal, as Worthy notched a triple-double, scoring 36 points on 68.2-percent shooting while totaling 16 rebounds and 10 assists.
Big Game James earned his legacy in that Game 7 performance, which also happened to be the first triple-double of Worthy's career. According to the NBA Encyclopedia, the Lakers also became the first team to win three straight series in seven games that postseason.
Also of note: Worthy scored 28 points and added nine rebounds in Game 6 to push it to a Game 7.
Willis Reed, New York Knicks
In a move that Chicago Bulls fans waited for all postseason with Derrick Rose, New York Knicks superstar Willis Reed changed the momentum of Game 7 of the 1970 Finals when he limped onto the court minutes before tipoff.
With uncertainty of whether Reed would play—as noted in this 1970 newspaper clip—the Knicks’ star big man dramatically returned from a thigh injury that forced him to miss Game 6, a 135-113 blowout loss to the Lakers.
There was trepidation surrounding the likelihood of Reed suiting up for Game 7, and his mere presence provided an emotional lift that shifted the momentum to the Knicks and led to a 113-99 championship victory.
Reed recalls the needle used to numb his pain before the game, as recorded by NBA.com:
It was a big needle. I saw that needle, and I said, 'Holy cow.' And I just held on. I think I suffered more from the needle than the injury."
The doctors had to place the injections at various places and various depths across his thigh in an effort to numb the tear.
I wanted to play. That was the championship, the one great moment we had all played for since 1969. I didn't want to have to look at myself in the mirror 20 years later and say that I wished I had tried to play.
Reed only scored four points, the first two baskets of the night, but the emotional lift of his Game 7 return remains one of the most legendary moments in a Finals Game 7.