HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t even done coughing and sniffling into the microphone at the postgame interview session when the hyperbole machine was in overdrive. Some pundits were ready to put his hacking, wheezing, 21-point, 11-rebound effort in Game 4 on a par with the famous Michael Jordan “flu game” of 1997 in The Finals.
As gutty and impressive as Dirk was down the stretch … no, we’re not going there.
But the performance did get us to reflecting and pouring through the record books for remembrances of the greatest single games in the history of the NBA Finals.
Here’s our list. Give us yours.
No.1: Magic Johnson, 1980, Game 6 – He had already lit up the league with his smile and his style through an amazing rookie season. But nobody was prepared for the performance of the 20-year-old rookie on that night. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sitting a continent away back in Los Angeles with a sprained ankle, Johnson was simply electrifying. He walked to mid-court to take the center jump at the Spectrum in Philly and then owned the game with 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals as the Lakers clinched their first of five championships in the Showtime Era.
No. 2: Michael Jordan, 1997, Game 5 – The enduring image is of the final horn sounding and a thoroughly spent Jordan collapsing into the arms of teammate Scottie Pippen. The final line said 38 points, seven rebounds and five assists. But it was the image of Jordan having left everything on the court at the Delta Center (now EnergySolutions Arena) in Salt Lake City that brought together everything we had already known about him not only as a unique talent, but a relentless competitor who would never back down from the moment.
No. 3: Dwyane Wade, 2006, Game 3 – To borrow Charles Dickens’ description of Jacob Marley, the Heat were deader than a doornail when the Mavericks — already up 2-0 in the series — took a 13-point lead with 6:43 left in the game at Miami. Then Wade simply rose up to take over the night and the rest of the series. He finished with 42 points and 13 rebounds and simply made every big play that needed to be made. He scored 12 points in the final six minutes, making drive after drive to the rim, which resulted in 18 free throws in the game. He hit jumpers and he grabbed the clinching rebound after Nowitzki’s missed free throw. It was the game that began Miami’s run of four straight Finals wins that resulted in the Heat’s first championship.
No. 4: Walt Frazier, 1970, Game 7 – It is, of course, the game that lives on as NBA legend. Maybe for all the wrong reasons. It was the night that Willis Reed, with the torn muscle in his right thigh, hobbled out of the tunnel at Madison Square Garden and practically made the Lakers’ knees buckle at the mere sight of him. He dragged his bad leg out to jump center against Wilt Chamberlain and then scored New York’s first two buckets of the game. It was the emotional start that the Knicks needed. But it was the all-over-the-court, making-drives, hitting-jumpers, ball-hawking-on-defense performance of “Clyde” Frazier that truly carried the night. Frazier finished with 36 points and 19 assists in a Finals performance for the ages that too often is overlooked.
No. 5: Bill Russell, 1962, Game 7 – When you’re talking about The Finals, the center of every discussion must come back to Russell. He was 11-for-12 in collecting championship rings in the final round. He was the man who tormented Jerry West and the entire Lakers organization quite literally for decades. But maybe Russell’s most complete game and most thorough whipping of the Lakers came in his first try. With the series down to the final game, Russell left nothing to chance. He scored 30 points and grabbed 40 rebounds (!!) in the Celtics’ 110-107 overtime win at Boston Garden to begin a streak of six straight Finals wins over the Lakers. That’s 40 rebounds. If it happened today, Russell would have his own 24-hour ESPN channel.
No. 6: Larry Bird, 1984, Game 5 – There are always so many games and so many shots and so many plays you can pull out to demonstrate the greatness that was Bird. He had already won an NBA title in 1981 when the Celtics beat the Rockets. But this was the first of the epic showdowns against Magic and the Lakers. This was the game when the temperature outside Boston Garden on June 8 was 90 degrees and on the court it topped out at nearly 100. Bird made every play and seemingly every shot down the stretch, finishing with 34 points and 17 rebounds as the Celtics took the critical Game 5 and went on to “Beat L.A” in seven games.
No. 7: Elgin Baylor, 1962, Game 5 – Just because it happened nearly half a century ago doesn’t make it any less memorable. For all of the praise and accolades the Celtics received for their defense in the Russell Era, there was nothing they could do that night to stop Baylor, who scored a Finals record 61 points and also pulled down 22 rebounds. He is the tragic hero in the Lakers’ tale, this amazing game overshadowed by the fact that the Celtics came back to win the series in seven games. When the Lakers eventually went on their record 33-game winning streak and finally won a title in L.A. in the 1971-72 season, Baylor was sidelined by injury.
No. 8: Isiah Thomas, 1988, Game 6 – It’s another one of those efforts that sometimes gets short shrift because his team lost the series and even lost the specific game. But Thomas’ 43-point performance at The Forum was nothing short of spectacular and inspiring. He sprained his ankle early in the third period. But the best little man in the history of the game did not let that stop him from being huge. He hobbled and still raced. He limped and still drove. He hurt and yet he lifted to bury jumpers. His 25 points in the third quarter are a Finals record. Even though his Pistons lost the game, 103-102, and lost the series in seven games, Isiah delivered the message that night that the Lakers’ dynasty was living on borrowed time.
No. 9: Tim Duncan, 2003, Game 1 – The Big Fundamental has played in four Finals and won them all. He’s been named the MVP of the Finals three times. Yet he’s done it all with such an understated style, it’s easy to look back and look past individual brilliant games. The Nets won’t ever look past the opener of the 2003 Finals when Duncan was coldly efficient: 32 points (11-for-17 FGs), 20 rebounds, seven blocked shots and six assists to start off the Spurs’ run to their second title.
No. 10: Hakeem Olajuwon, 1994, Game 6 – “Hakeem the Dream” had bigger scoring and rebounding games during his playoff career. But this was the game when the Rockets returned home from Madison Square Garden trailing the Knicks 3-2 in the series and were dangling over the edge. Not only did he overcome the smothering, suffocating, physical defense of the Knicks, he shut down New York’s All-Star big man, Patrick Ewing (6-for-20), at the other end. Then to top it all off, with the final seconds running down and the Rockets clinging to a one-point lead, he rose up to get the tip of his finger on a wide open jumper by John Starks that saved the night. And the Rockets went on to win their first ever championship in Game 7.
Who’s on your list? Cast your vote below and have your say, too.