By Joe Boozell
Michael Jordan against the Jazz. Reggie Miller against the Knicks. Larry Bird against the Lakers. Magic Johnson against the Celtics.
The NBA playoffs are where legacies are formed. And while any true basketball fan enjoys a night of hoops in January, the playoffs are where the NBA lights shine brightest. Last year’s postseason was as entertaining as ever, as five of the eight first-round matchups went to a Game 7.
Those games — and others throughout the playoffs — featured their fair share of heroes.
As such, let’s look back on the 10 best individual performances from the 2014 playoffs.
10. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio spurs
Game 5, NBA Finals – 20 points, 14 rebounds, 3 blocks
VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard’s all-around play in Game 5 helps clinch the title for the Spurs
It’s almost as if the Spurs are above individual accolades, and by pure numbers alone, there were better postseason performances than Kawhi Leonard‘s Game 5 of The Finals. However, Leonard’s impact goes beyond the box score, as the rangy forward fits perfectly into San Antonio’s offense and happens to be one of the best guys in the league at stopping the best guy in the league, LeBron James. LeBron may have scored 28 points, but he was a team-worst minus -21 for Miami. Meanwhile, Leonard was a plus-23 for San Antonio and logged a team high 39 minutes.
9. Damian Lillard, Portland Trailblazers
Game 6, first round of the Western Conference playoffs – 25 points, 6 rebounds, 6-10 3FG
Damian Lillard posted a solid stat line of 25 points and six rebounds in the Blazers’ Game 6 clincher against the Rockets, but that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story. What the whole story would tell you, coincidentally, is that Lillard literally clinched the series for the Rockets with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. The shot was the first since 1997 to end a playoff series (John Stockton accomplished the feat then — ironically against Houston, too), and thanks to the clutch factor, Lillard lands on our list.
8. LeBron James, Miami Heat
Game 2, NBA Finals – 35 points, 10 rebounds, 14-22 FG
VIDEO: The Starters discuss LeBron James’ monstrous Game 2 in The Finals
The only thing more painful than a LeBron James cramp is, well, what the opposing team has to endure following a rough night from The King. After his Game 1 cramping episode, James erupted for 35 points and 10 boards in Game 2 of The Finals. This proved to be the only game the Heat would win in the series against the daunting San Antonio Spurs, as the former MVP sunk all three triples he attempted in a 98-96 Miami victory.
7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Game 7, first round of the Western Conference playoffs – 27 points, 10 rebounds, 16 assists
VIDEO: Russell Westbrook dominates the Grizzlies in Game 7 of the first round
Questions about Russell Westbrook’s ability as a facilitator were silenced momentarily after Game 7 of the Thunder’s first-round series against the Grizzlies. Westbrook’s 16 assists tied a franchise playoff record set during the team’s Seattle days by Nate McMillan in 1987. It was also Westbrook’s second triple-double in a three game span.
6. Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals – 39 points, 12 rebounds, 7-10 3FG
VIDEO: Paul George runs wild in Game 4 against the Wizards
After bursting onto the scene in the 2013 playoffs, Paul George flashed superstar potential in the 2014 playoffs. This was especially true in Game 4 against the Wizards, who watched George notch 39 points, 12 rebounds and sink seven 3-pointers. George also spent plenty of time guarding Washington speedster John Wall, holding him to a 4-for-11 shooting night.
5. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals – 39 points, 16 assists, 5 assists
No, Kevin, YOU are the real MVP. Although Kevin Durant had an up and down postseason, he certainly had moments when he proved why he captured his first MVP award in 2013-14. Durant was his usual efficient self as he sank more than half of his shot attempts, made all of his free throws and was 5-for-8 from long range. KD also posted a game-high 16 rebounds to go with his 39 points.
4. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trailblazers
Game 2, first round of the Western Conference playoffs – 43 points, 8 rebounds, 18-28 FG
VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge dominates the Rockets in Game 2 of the Portland-Houston series
Going into their series against the Rockets, the Blazers were intent on guarding LaMarcus Aldridge with Terrance Jones, not wanting to bring rim-protector Dwight Howard away from the cup. That strategy ultimately sold Aldridge short, who ran rampant the first two games of the series by turning in two consecutive 40-point performances. Aldridge became the first player with consecutive 43-point games in the playoffs since Tracy McGrady did it in April 2003.
3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Game 4 of the Western Conference finals – 40 points, 10 assists, 5 steals
VIDEO: Russell Westbrook does something that Michael Jordan last did in 1989
Perhaps he was rejuvenated by the improbable return of Serge Ibaka, or perhaps Russell Westbrook is simply one of the most talented players around. Either way, Westbrook had his way with Tony Parker in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, notching 40 points, 10 assists and five steals. He is the first player to accomplish that since Michael Jordan did it in the 1989 NBA playoffs as the Thunder cruised to a 105-92 win.
2. LeBron James, Miami Heat
Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals – 49 points, 6 rebounds, 16-24 FG
VIDEO: LeBron James drops a 49-point effort on the Nets in Game 4 of the East semis
In typical LeBron James fashion, The King added to his already stacked playoff resume with a 49-point effort against the Nets. Unfortunately for Lebron, he missed a meaningless free throw in the waning seconds of Game 4 that left him one point shy of notching his first playoff game of 50-plus points. Barring another return to Miami, this game would go down as the highest scoring effort of James’ playoff career with the Heat. LeBron matched his playoff career-high of 49 points that he set in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals as a Cavalier.
1. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trailblazers
Game 1, first round of the Western Conference playoffs – 46 points, 18 rebounds, 17-31 FG
VIDEO: LaMarcus Aldridge pouts in 46 points in Game 1 of the Blazers-Rockets series
Aldridge seemed determined to single-handedly stifle the notion that the mid-range jumper is dead in today’s NBA, terrorizing the Rockets in Game 1 of their first round series with a flurry of long deuces. He went off for a franchise playoff-high 46 points and added 18 rebounds to an already impressive night. It was a career-high for Aldridge, who scored 16 of his 46 points on post ups. That total almost doubled his season average of 8.3 in that department. Despite fouling out in the extra session, the Blazers held on to beat the Rockets in a 122-120 overtime thriller.