NBA Playoffs 2011: 10 Greatest Playoff Performances of the Past Decade

Howard Ruben@howardrubenContributor IMay 23, 2011

NBA Playoffs 2011: 10 Greatest Playoff Performances of the Past Decade

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    With 30 NBA teams playing 82 regular season games, there certainly are a fair share of individual performances that could be classified as classic. 

    Two that immediately come to mind: Kobe Bryant’s remarkable 81 points against the Toronto Raptors (he actually sat out four minutes of the game) in January of 2006; and, April of that same year when LeBron James poured in 47 points on 16-25 shooting, with 12 rebounds, nine assists and two steals as Cleveland beat Miami by seven in a playground matchup with Dwayne Wade (44).

    Yet, as stellar as those performances were, there’s nothing like the stage of the NBA playoffs for players to really leave a lasting mark on their teams and fans. 

    Sure, there have been defining moments, big shots that win games; consider Robert Horry’s three pointer to beat Sacramento at the buzzer of their 2002 playoff game (thank you very much, Vlade Divac). 

    There have been some incredible “moments” in playoff games that suddenly tipped the scale one way or the other.  One play, one shot, one gesture (an injured Willis Reed walking onto the court for warm-ups before Game 7 in the Knicks-Lakers Finals of 1970 that inspired New York to a 14-point win and their first ever NBA championship).

    But, we are talking about total game performances that move the needle on a player’s career, turning them from hoop heroes into league legends.  These are the games you tell your kids about.  Or, the dog. 

    You’ll tell someone because the performances were that awe inspiring.  Here's 10 that qualify for the best of the past decade, with the first getting an asterisk for most dominant performance in a playoff series.

10. Shaquille O'Neal: Dominating Playoff Series V. Indiana Pacers 2000

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    This one deserves honorable mention for two reasons:

    First, it happened in 2000 so, technically, it's slightly longer than 10 years ago.

    Second, this was for an entire series and not just one game.  Shaquille O'Neal had been swept out of his first Finals appearance in 1995, and so this time around he was not to be denied.

    Now with the Los Angeles Lakers, O'Neal dominated play as the team grabbed the first of what would be three consecutive world titles.

    The 7'1", 325 pound Big Diesel averaged 38 points and 16.7 rebounds in the six game demolition of the Indiana Pacers.  He was the series MVP, a distinction he would repeat over two consecutive years.

    Not a single game highlight, but six games worth from Shaq.  He set the tone for the entire decade to follow and, as we play on into the new decade, we remember what a dominating force Shaquille O'Neal was.

9. Kevin Garnett, Minnesota, Game 7 of 2004 Western Semifinals

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    This marked a defining moment in the career of Kevin Garnett.  After seven straight first round losses, Garnett and the Timberwolves finally triumphed in a Game 7, enabling Minnesota to move on to the Western Conference Finals where they would meet the Lakers.

    KG was dominant from the start and he saved the best for last.  Garnett scored 32 and grabbed 21 rebounds as the Timberwolves dispatched of the Sacramento Kings. 

    13 of his points came in the decisive fourth quarter.  Garnett also had two assists, four steals and five blocks, including one that defied description.

    Garnett was on point in all facets of the game this night and showed the NBA world that he could carry his team and win a big playoff game.  The best was yet to come for Garnett—namely, his championship with the Boston Celtics several years later.

    But this one game established Garnett as more than a great scorer.  He became a winner.

8. Dirk Nowitzki, 2006 Western Conference Finals V. Phoenix Game 5

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    By now, it should come as no surprise when Dirk Nowitzki goes on a tear where he can't seem to miss.

    Five years ago, in a 2006 Western Conference playoff game against the Phoenix Suns, Nowitzki joined an elite group of NBA players who have scored 50 in a postseason contest. 

    His 22 fourth quarter points was more than the entire Suns team (20) and the Mavericks went on to a 117-101 victory that gave them a commanding 3-2 series lead.

    Nowitzki was always known as a great shooter who could score in bunches, but it was this game that placed him in the national basketball conversation as a winner.

    Since entering the league in 1998, Nowitzki showed the league that a seven-foot center could make shots from anywhere on the floor. 

    He's averaged at least 21 points or more per game for the past 11 years and he consistently hits three-pointers (38 percent for his career, 39 percent in postseason play, including 57 percent last year and 60 percent this year).

    As great and memorable as this performance was, there would be more—and better—a few years down the road.  Nowitzki was just beginning to shine and hone his game.

7. Kobe Bryant, 2009 Western Conference Quarterfinals V. Utah

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    The Black Mamba was coming off one of his worst playoff games when he found the magic touch that helped take his Los Angeles Lakers all the way to the NBA Finals.

    Kobe Bryant was held to 5-24 shooting in Game 3 of their playoff series with the Utah Jazz.  It did not take him long to get over the hump and end his shooting slump.

    Bryant went off for 38 points in Game 4, on a very efficient 16-24.  He scored the first 11 points of the game for the Lakers, who never looked back in a resounding 108-94 win at Salt Lake City.

    After that great win, the Lakers seemed to shift into another gear and were on their way to the NBA title, which came a few weeks later at the hands of the Orlando Magic.

    It would be the first of back-to-back championships for the Phil Jackson/Kobe Bryant-led Lakers.

6. Dwyane Wade, 2006 NBA Finals Game 3 V. Dallas

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    Dwyane Wade put the Miami Heat on his back and carried them to victory. 

    His performance in Game 3 of the NBA Finals against Dallas meant so much more because Dallas had been on the edge of taking a third consecutive game and a commanding lead in this first Finals meeting between these two powers.

    The Heat trailed by 13 points in the fourth quarter and saw their title hopes diminishing by the minute until Wade decided to take over.

    What a performance by the former Marquette University All-American point guard.  The Heat ultimately prevailed, 98-96, and would go on to win four straight and their first ever NBA world championship.

    The catalyst was D-Wade.

    He was 14-26 from the field and 13-18 from the free throw line as the Heat came back to outscore Dallas 30-19 over the final 12 minutes and bring life to a sold out American Airlines Arena in Miami.

    Head coach Pat Riley, speaking to an AP reporter, commented on the performance of Wade: "I'm absolutely without a doubt a true believer.  I've been around players 40 years.  I know when they look around and they look up and they say, 'This doesn't look very good.'  But you've just got to keep trying."

    And that is exactly what Wade did in this unforgettable performance.

5. Tim Duncan, 2003 NBA Finals Game 6 V. New Jersey Nets

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    Tim Duncan will be in the Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible.  He'll go down as one of the best power forwards in NBA history.

    But it was one defining performance in 2003 that many people will remember forever.  It all came together for Duncan in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the New Jersey Nets.  He was unstoppable.

    Down by six points to start the fourth quarter, the Spurs went on a scoring spree and simply outclassed and outplayed the Nets.  Duncan was two blocks short of a quadruple double: 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks.

    Coach Greg Popovich told at the time:  "I'm sure he (Duncan) had absolutely no clue what his stats were, what was going on statistically. He just knows what's going on in the game and what needs to be done."

    Duncan played 46 of the 48 minutes that night and was involved in at least half of the Spurs' 88 points in closing out New Jersey, 4-2.  He single-handedly sparked his team to a championship and, for that, was named MVP of the Finals.

4. Dirk Nowitzki, 48 Points, Mavs Beat Thunder, 2011 Game 1 Conference Finals

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    The only reason this performance is not higher on the list is because the outcome of the series between Oklahoma City and Dallas is still in doubt.  If the Mavericks go on to win the series, the remarkable play of the towering German forward has even more significance.

    Scoring is nothing new for Dirk Nowitzki.  He's averaged at least 21 points per game for 11 consecutive seasons and is a splendid outside shooter, especially from three-point range.

    But it's how Nowitzki scored in this first game of the Western Conference Semifinals that brought the hometown fans and vocal Mavs owner Mark Cuban to their feet.  He simply could not be stopped, no way, no how.  It was a performance for the ages.

    "I thought Dirk was pretty good tonight," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, laughing to a reporter from the Associated Press. "I thought we defended him as close as we can—obviously, too close."

    Nowitzki made 10 of his first 11 shots, and he made them from all distances and with big defenders and double teams on him every step of the way.  And he made them often going up on the wrong foot, falling backwards and putting tremendous arc on the ball.

    And then he went on to make all 24 of his free throw attempts, breaking the old record set by Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics.  Nowitzki finished 12-15 from the field and 24-24 from the charity stripe.  Throw in six rebounds, four assists and four blocks and you've got one of the all time amazing performances in NBA playoff history.

3. Shaquille O'Neal, 2001 Finals Game 2 Against Philadelphia

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    Yes, those were the days.  When Kobe and Shaq dominated the league and won championships playing under Phil Jackson. 

    This series against Philadelphia brought out the very best in O'Neal, showcasing his sheer strength, determination and will to score and win big playoff games.

    It was Game 2 against the 76ers, and it came on the heels of a stunning upset in Los Angeles in Game 1.

    O'Neal literally carried his team to victory and quelled any thoughts of a Philadelphia series upset by shifting momentum back to the Lakers. 

    Shaq showcased all of his all world talents that game, proving his worth as the league's most dominant big man and one of the best to ever play the pivotal position.  O'Neal scored 28 points on 12-19 shooting.  He also had 20 rebounds, nine assists and eight blocks. 

    The Lakers never looked back after this nine point win as they went on to take the next three and close out Philadelphia in five games for the second of their three consecutive championships.

    O'Neal was MVP of the Finals.  And, at that time, he was deserving of his self proclaimed status as "The Big Diesel."

2. Allen Iverson, 2001 NBA Finals, Philadelphia Shocks Lakers in Game 1

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    Allen Iverson relished his first game in his first NBA Finals.  So much so that he scored an incredible 48 points as the Lakers had no answer and lost the opening game on their home court, 107-101, in overtime.

    After the game, the always confident Iverson told a reporter for the Associated Press:  "Anybody that bet on it, some broke people out there. Some people got their feelings hurt. I'm glad nobody bet their life on it, because they definitely would be dead right now."

    For two and a half quarters Iverson was simply unstoppable.  He scored 38 points as Philadelphia took a commanding 73-58 lead over Los Angeles.

    The Lakers, who came into the game riding a 19-game winning streak, looked like they would make that 20 in a row when they scored the first five points of overtime.  But the 76ers scored 13 of the game's final 15 points, with Iverson accounting for seven straight.

    Iverson played 52 minutes in the OT game, going 18-41 from the field.  He made all nine of his free throws and six assists.  More importantly, he sparked his team to an enormous upset of a team that many were calling one of the greatest in NBA history at the time.

1. LeBron James, Game 5, 2007 Eastern Conference Finals at Detroit

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    There certainly will be those who may argue with this as the best performance of the past decade, but there is no arguing just how decisive, compelling and jaw dropping the performance by the Cavaliers' LeBron was in their Game 5 win over the Detroit Pistons.

    The line for King James on the double overtime 109-107 Cavs win that helped drive them to the NBA Finals for the first time reads as follows: 48 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, two steals.

    That doesn't begin to tell the story of how James simply dominated every square inch of the basketball court and took down the Pistons virtually by himself. 

    The Cavs trailed Detroit 88-81 with just over three minutes left in regulation and the Eastern Conference Finals series tied 2-2.  What happened next defied logic.

    James proceeded to score 29 of the Cavs final 30 points as Cleveland willed its way to victory and a 3-2 series lead.  That's not a typo:  LeBron scored all but one of his team's points through three minutes of regulation and two overtimes.

    With just 31.4 seconds to play in regulation, James scored on a layup, a three-pointer and two power slam dunks to force the game into overtime.  He was just as unstoppable in the two overtime periods, hitting long shots, slamming down thunderous dunks and making free throws. 

    LeBron's driving layup at the end of the second overtime ultimately proved the game winner.

    James had scored Cleveland's final 25 points!  The 22 year old phenom told ESPN he felt "terrible and beat up" after game.   You certainly could understand after the performance he just delivered.

    Chauncey Billups, the Pistons' All-Star guard, perhaps said it best when speaking to the Associated Press:  "It's frustrating.  He put on an unbelievable display out there. It's probably the best I have seen against us ever in the playoffs."

    One for the ages and definitely the best of the decade.