Ranking the 10 Best NBA Playoff Performances of the Last 20 Years

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJune 5, 2021

Ranking the 10 Best NBA Playoff Performances of the Last 20 Years

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    Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors to the 2019 title.
    Kawhi Leonard led the Raptors to the 2019 title.Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Remembering the champion is usually the easiest way to recall an NBA season, but an individual's total performance can also be the defining memory of the playoffs.

    Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan had legendary runs in the early 2000s. In 2006, a young Dwyane Wade propelled the Miami Heat to a title. LeBron James has put together some of the strongest recent postseasons, along with Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard.

    Ranking the best playoff showings is certainly subjective, since no postseason or team is ever identical. Still, key factors are overall production and clutch moments.

    Length of playoff run and result are also considered. Any playoff run since the 2000-01 season is eligible for inclusion.

10. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors, 2017

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Although he didn't win Finals MVPthat honor went to teammate Kevin DurantStephen Curry excelled in the 2017 postseason.

    As the Golden State Warriors swept all three Western Conference opponents, he notched 28.6 points and 5.6 assists per night. In the conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs, Curry set a record for most three-pointers (21) in a four-game series.

    In the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Curry averaged 26.8 points and 9.4 assists. He only missed on the Finals MVP because Kevin Durant scorched the Cavs for 35.2 points per game.

    Curry drilled 41.9 percent of his three-pointers and registered a 65.9 true shooting percentage in the postseason.

9. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers, 2009

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Since 2000, only 11 players that advanced past the first round have averaged 30 points, five rebounds and five assists. Kobe Bryant accomplished that in the 2003, 2008 and 2009 postseasons.

    And in 2009, it finally coincided with a championship.

    Most impressively, Kobe saved his best for the later rounds. He averaged 34.0 points and 5.8 assists to take the Los Angeles Lakers past the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals. Bryant then amassed 32.4 points and 7.4 assists per game against the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.

    Overall, the Black Mamba racked up 30.2 points, 5.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game and shot 34.9 percent from three.

8. LeBron James, Miami Heat, 2013

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    The 2013 postseason is littered with key moments from LeBron James.

    In the Eastern Conference Finals, he banked in a Game 1 buzzer-beater to stun the Indiana Pacers. He made a pivotal three to help save the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs and provided the dagger in Game 7.

    The clutch shots were a fitting complement to James' typically elite production. He recorded 25.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists per game in Miami's run to a second straight title.

    James ranked first in win shares (5.2), Box Plus/Minus (10.4) and Value Over Replacement Player (3.0) in this postseason.

7. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016

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    Three seasons later, James did the impossible: brought a championship to the city of Cleveland.

    The 52-year drought ended as he collected 26.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 2.3 steals per game. Along with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, LeBron led the Cavaliers on a 3-1 series comeback to stun the record-setting, 73-win Warriors in the NBA Finals.

    And his Finals performance has a special place in history.

    LeBron totaled 208 points, 79 rebounds, 62 assists, 18 steals and 16 blocks against the Warriors. He became the first ever to lead all players in all five categories for an entire series.

    Factor in his iconic chasedown block in Game 7 of the Finals, and it's LeBron's second-best postseason ever.

6. Shaquille O'Neal, Los Angeles Lakers, 2002

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    Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
    Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'NealMARK J. TERRILL/Associated Press

    Few players have a more impressive six-game stretch than Shaquille O'Neal and his finish to the 2002 postseason.

    Los Angeles swept the Portland Trail Blazers, eliminated the Spurs and fell behind the Sacramento Kings 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals. During that time, Shaq powered his way to 24.6 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.4 blocks per game.

    Pretty good! But then his scoring exploded.

    O'Neal netted no fewer than 34 points over the next six games, averaging 36.8 points with 13.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.8 blocks. Los Angeles recovered from its 3-2 deficit to beat Sacramento and swept the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals.

5. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors, 2019

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    After forcing a trade from San Antonio, Kawhi Leonard immediately validated what he could accomplish away from the Spurs.

    Leonard guided the Toronto Raptors past the Orlando Magic in the opening round of the playoffs. Then, he capped a seven-game seriesin which he had five 30-point outingsagainst the Philadelphia 76ers with a buzzer-beating jumper in Game 7.

    During the Eastern Conference Finals, the Leonard-led Raptors recover from a 2-0 series deficit to eliminate the Milwaukee Bucks. Lastly, he averaged 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists while propelling Toronto past Golden State in the NBA Finals.

    Leonardwhose 191 made free throws is the third-highest total in a single postseasonregistered 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game in the 2019 playoffs.

4. Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat, 2006

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    DAVID J. PHILLIP/Associated Press

    Through the Eastern Conference portion of the 2006 postseason, Dwyane Wade had merely assembled a fantastic run. To that point, he'd averaged 26.2 points, 6.4 assists and 5.2 rebounds.

    What makes this legendary, however, is D-Wade's dominance in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.

    After the Heat dropped Games 1 and 2, the third-year guard responded with an absurd four-game stretch. Wade tallied 39.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals to help Miami win four straight and secure its first-ever NBA title.

    Wade connected on just 14 threes but could not be contained when attacking the rim. Wade made 202 free throws during the playoffswhich would've set a record had Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki not made 205 in the same postseason.

3. Shaquille O'Neal, Los Angeles Lakers, 2001

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    MARK TERRILL/Associated Press

    Because of the 20-year cutoff, Shaq's supreme postseason in 2000 is not eligible. Good thing he practically repeated his 30.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.4 blocks per game, huh?

    The similarity is incredible, really.

    O'Neal averaged 30.4 points, 15.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.4 blocks in the 2001 playoffs.

    Most notably, Shaq posted back-to-back 40-point, 20-rebound days against Sacramento in the Western Conference semifinals. He added a third 40-20 performance against the 76ers in the NBA Finals.

    O'Neal flirted with a quadruple-double in Game 2 of the Finals, too. He finished with 28 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists an eight blocks, sparking the Lakers in what would be the first of four consecutive victoriesfor the second of three straight NBA titles.

2. LeBron James, Miami Heat, 2012

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Otherwise known as "The Year LeBron Finally Won A Title," 2012 is also his most iconic postseason run. In both the Eastern Conference semifinals and Finals, James sparked the Heat at the perfect moment.

    James amassed 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists in a pivotal Game 4 victory over Indiana, ultimately bringing the Heat back from a 2-1 series deficit. While trailing the Boston Celtics 3-2, he tallied 45 points and 15 rebounds in Game 6.

    Given that he connected on just 22 threes in 23 games, James' scoring output is only more impressive. He wrapped up the postseason with 30.3 points per contest.

    As he would again do in 2013, James paced all players in win shares (5.8), Box Plus/Minus (10.5) and VORP (3.1).

1. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs, 2003

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    Tim Duncan followed up his 2002-03 regular-season MVP with a comically overwhelming postseason run.

    San Antonio had 24 playoff games, and Duncan notched a 20-10-5 line in exactly half of them. Overall, he provided 24.9 points, 15.2 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 3.1 blocks per game, earning Finals MVP as the Spurs won their second title in five seasons.

    In the last 20 years, nobody has grabbed more rebounds (369) or blocked more shots (79) than Duncan in 2003.

    Duncan posted two triple-doubles, including a near-quadruple-double in the Finals-clinching victory over New Jersey. He collected 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and eight blocks.

    The future Hall of Famer won his second ring and would add three more to his collection in 2005, 2007 and 2014.

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