Individual games are one thing, full series quite another.
Matthew Dellavedova discovered this truth in the 2015 NBA Finals. He had a moment in Game 2. He enjoyed a magnificent Game 3. The full series, however, caught up with him and the rest of a shorthanded Cleveland Cavalier crew. Andre Iguodala, on the other hand, delivered a full series of significance and sensational performances. He shouldn’t have been the MVP of the series (cough, LeBron, cough), but he WAS the MVP of the winning team, the main reason Golden State powered past Cleveland to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
With this prelude in mind, the ground rules are clear for today’s “Best of NBA Summer Tour” at Crossover Chronicles: When one speaks of the five best NBA Finals performances of all time, we’re referring to series, not games.
Isiah’s Game 6 against the Lakers in 1988 is one of the great single-game NBA Finals performances, but Mr. Thomas didn’t crack the top five in terms of full-series performances.
With that having been established, let’s open the envelope. For the purpose of easy digestion of stats, any stat line assumes a progression of points to rebounds to assists, with all numbers rounded to the nearest whole number. Added stats will be spelled out as needed.
5 – JOHN HAVLICEK, BOSTON CELTICS (1969)
The stat line: 28-11-4. By comparison to other greats, it’s not one of the most eye-popping stat lines in Finals history — not even close. However, stats don’t tell full stories, and since this particular Finals series is certainly one of the three or four most important in league history, Havlicek’s performance deserves to at least enter the conversation.
Let’s step back for a moment and acknowledge that just about any Michael Jordan performance could be on this list. LeBron James might surpass Jordan one day (some will say he already has) in terms of being able to do everything a basketball player can possibly do on a court. However, the one thing Jordan will always own over LeBron or any non-1950s/1960s Boston Celtic is that he always closed the sale in an NBA Finals. What Jordan will always own over almost every early-era Celtic is that he never event got taken to a Game 7 in a Finals — not once.
So, we could just make this a list of Jordan Finals appearances, but that seems to fail to honor the longer history of the league, the contexts provided by various eras, and the quality of Finals competition. When taking these other dimensions of historical measurement into account, it’s quite appropriate to recognize performances from a much earlier point in the NBA’s existence. Havlicek’s 1969 Finals is one foremost example.
So, about this series: It’s true that Jerry West averaged 38-5-7 in the 1969 NBA Finals, earning MVP honors, meaning that Havlicek wasn’t even the best player on the floor. Yet, just how much can history remember a given performance if it did not lead a team to victory? This is no knock on West; in many ways, Wilt Chamberlain’s failures — even more than Havlicek’s successes — enabled Boston to climb past the Lakers in seven games. However, Havlicek’s work in 1969 seems underappreciated today. (That’s a gut sense, not any sort of fact.)
When people talk about the 1969 Celtics, Bill Russell’s swan song as a player rushes to the surface of memory. In terms of images, Don Nelson’s shot bouncing high in the air and then through the hoop late in Game 7 comes to mind. So does the image of balloons being hung from the rafters of The Forum, something we wrote about weeks ago.
One should also point out that Havlicek is more remembered for the 1974 and 1976 NBA Finals by large numbers of fans and pundits. Without Russell on the Boston roster, Havlicek stood out more in the middle of the 1970s. The Celtics were not an imposing dynasty at the time; they were one of a few really good teams in the league which had a chance to win a championship. They pounced on two opportunities against a pair of expansion teams (the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns) that were not even 10 years old at the time of each new Boston title. As great as Havlicek might have been in those series, he did not face the only other franchise which has represented basketball royalty over the past 65 years.
In 1969, the Celtics and Lakers concluded a decade in which the two franchises produced a majority of the 10 Finals matchups: The Celtics missed the Finals only once in the 1960s, the Lakers only four times. This was and is a heavyweight clash. It’s the matchup which has receded in significance for various periods of time (the late 1970s, then 1992 through 2007, and the past three years), but has resurfaced and remained the central rivalry over the course of the league’s full history. Reputations have never been made or broken more than in a Laker-Celtic NBA Finals series.
With many of the Celtics getting on in years and the Lakers bringing in Wilt Chamberlain, this was supposed to be the year the Purple and Gold finally overcame their nemesis from New England. While Russell served as player-coach and thereby remained the soul of the Celtics, it was Havlicek who became the team’s beating heart in the 1969 Finals.
Yes, the stats aren’t otherwordly, but do look at that 11-rebounds-per-game average. Havlicek, on a floor populated by Russell and Wilt, found a way to average double-figure rebounds — this, from a 6-foot-5 tweener who alternated between shooting guard and small forward in his Hall of Fame career, but who played at the two spot in 1969.
There’s even more to say about Havlicek’s production in this series: He grabbed more than double the rebounds of almost every Celtic in that series. The one exception: Don Nelson, who was third on the Boston roster with 5.9 rebounds. Only one Celtic rebounded better or handed out more assists in that series: the man himself, player-coach Bill Russell (21 boards, 5 assists per game). If Havlicek hadn’t carried the team for important stretches in that series, the Celtics wouldn’t have kept pace.
Let’s also point out that Havlicek averaged 21.6 points and 7 rebounds per game during the 1969 regular season, so his output was substantially larger in the Finals. Without that increased production, Boston wouldn’t have pulled off the most significant upset in the history of the NBA Finals.
Does Havlicek’s performance belong on this list? The numbers say no, not quite. The historical context surrounding the 1969 NBA Finals and the history of the league as a whole both offer a resounding yes.
4 – WILLIS REED, NEW YORK KNICKS (1970)
The Game 7 entrance is one of the most iconic moments in the history of the NBA, and of all professional sports. It set the standard by which all “injured athlete dramatically re-enters the competition” moments are measured, 45 years later. It is documented here in one of our previous “Best of NBA Summer Tour” evaluations.
In Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, Reed did not post the statistics he averaged through the first five contests. He scored only 4 points on that night in Madison Square Garden. Yet, it’s a testament to Reed as a competitor that his presence alone meant so much to his teammates. They didn’t need him to score in that game, but they did need his belief, and his powerful yet wordless message that he was there for his basketball brothers. The Knicks routed the Lakers in that seventh game, fueled with confidence after Reed came through the tunnel in MSG. For that moment alone, Reed has gained a permanent place in the history of professional basketball.
What’s worth underscoring is that in order for the Knicks to get to a Game 7 against the last Laker team with Elgin Baylor on an active Finals roster, Reed had to produce.
Keeping in mind that Reed scored only four points in Game 7, what he did before that decisive moment grows in magnitude. Including that paltry stat line from Game 7, Reed averaged 23, 11 and 3 for the series. He was a centerpiece player who managed to keep the Lakers winless in NBA Finals since their move to Los Angeles. If the NBA had thought the Lakers were finally going to break through just because they were no longer facing the Celtics in the Finals, Willis Reed — more than anyone else — offered a stern rebuke.
3 – KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR, LOS ANGELES LAKERS (1980)
Much of the story of the 1980 NBA Finals — and the role Kareem played in lifting the Lakers back to the top of the NBA — was written earlier this week. Within this piece, you’ll find links to two other examinations of specific games from that series.
Kareem’s final stat line over five games: 33-14-3 with 5 blocked shots per game… and a Game 5-winning dunk in the final 40 seconds on a busted ankle.
The 1985 Finals might mean more to Kareem and to the Lakers in the larger course of basketball history, but by playing through pain in the fourth quarter of Game 5, Kareem brought to mind another Game 5 of a 2-2 Finals… one which is mentioned below in item No. 1.
2 – MICHAEL JORDAN, CHICAGO BULLS (1992)
The cover image for this story is “The Shrug Game.” No explanation needed.
After that game, though, Portland caught Chicago and tied the 1992 Finals at 2-2. Jordan had to be a beast on the road in Game 5 in Oregon in order to give the Bulls the edge in the series.
Jordan’s response: 46 points (and 5 rebounds and 4 assists, which he somehow found enough time to dish out).
Yep. That’s Jordan for ya. He averaged 36-5-7 with 2 steals per game… and it wasn’t even his greatest Finals series. That’s next:
1 – MICHAEL JORDAN (1997)
The Flu Game is the greatest single-game performance in NBA Finals history, but of course, Jordan had to back it up with a lot more at the beginning and end of this series against the Utah Jazz. We documented the Jazz’s “almost” history as a franchise, embodied in the 1997 and 1998 Finals against the Bulls. You’ll get more details about Jordan’s work here.
Two things beyond The Flu Game are worth noting in an appraisal of Jordan’s 1997 Finals performance over six games:
1) Jordan pulled a LeBron at the end of Game 6, serving as a decoy while Steve Kerr hit the big shot that sealed Chicago’s fifth title. Jordan did the same in 1993, enabling John Paxson to hit the shot which gave the Bulls the first of their two threepeats.
2) Jordan — in a series marked by the Bulls’ inability to consistently score more than 90 points in a game (they did so only twice, and one of those instances was a game in which they were handily defeated, Game 3) — carried the team on his back even more than in other Chicago Finals wins. Only one other Bull, Scottie Pippen, averaged more than eight points per game. Given that Chicago averaged 87.8 points per game for the series, Jordan’s 32.3-point average becomes that much more impressive. It was 8.5 points more than the second-highest scorer in the series, Karl Malone (23.8).
Simply the best. Better than all the rest. Shrug one more time for the camera, Michael.