The best players in the history of the NBA make a name for themselves in the Finals, as iconic performances in those games can ascend players to legendary status.
Bill Russell, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar are some of the best champion players in the history of the NBA.
Yet none of those Hall of Famers made this list for the best NBA Finals performances of all time.
20. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving 2017 NBA Finals
After losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors added Kevin Durant in free agency to put themselves over the top. It clearly worked, as the Warriors steamrolled through the Cavs in just five games despite a historic performance by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
James averaged a triple-double in the series with 33.6 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists per game. Meanwhile Irving averaged 29.4 points per game, in what was one of the greatest performances by any duo in the history of the Finals. Down two games in the series, Irving and James combined to score 77 points in Game 3 but they still lost. Then in Game 4 the Cavs earned their only win of the series as Irving scored 40 points and James had a 31-point triple-double.
The Cavaliers were completely outmatched in the series against Golden State, but Cleveland’s two superstars still put on a legendary performance in a losing effort.
19. Wilt Chamberlain – NBA Finals 1967
The Philadelphia 76ers were the best team in the NBA in 1967, as Wilt Chamberlain led them to a 68-13 regular season record. The best record in NBA history at the time.
The Sixers had their hands full in the NBA Finals against the San Francisco Warriors though, as future Hall of Famers Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond both played great. Barry led the series in total points, averaging over 40 points per game and Thurmond averaged 26.7 rebounds.
Unfortunately for the Warriors, Philadelphia had Wilt the Stilt and Chamberlain would not let his team lose the series. Chamberlain controlled the glass, averaging 28.5 rebounds per game. He also took on a distributor role, averaging a team-high 6.8 assists to go along with his 17.7 points per game.
18. Elgin Baylor – NBA Finals 1962
Elgin Baylor never won a championship during his NBA career, but he sure played like a champion in the 1962 NBA Finals. The Lakers were playing against the Boston Celtics and while the Celtics proved to be the better team, Baylor was the best player in the series.
Playing against Bill Russell on both ends of the floor, Baylor led the series in total points as he scored 284 points in the seven-game series. For the series, Baylor averaged 40.6 points, 17.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game.
17. Allen Iverson – 2001 NBA Finals
Allen Iverson led the Philadelphia 76ers to the 2001 NBA Finals, by leading all players in scoring throughout the postseason. The Sixers then squared off against the heavily-favored Shaq and Kobe-led Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. Iverson gave Philly an early series lead by putting up 48 points in Game 1 to stun the Lakers.
Unfortunately for Iverson, the Lakers had a future Hall of Famer of their own in Shaquille O’Neal and the big man took over the series from there to lead the Lakers to four-straight victories. Iverson still led all players in points, as he averaged 35.6 points per game.
16. LeBron James – 2015 NBA Finals
In LeBron James’ first season back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he led them to the NBA Finals where they took on an up-and-coming Golden State Warriors. The Cavaliers entered the series without All-Star Kevin Love who was out with a shoulder injury and then Kyrie Irving got hurt at the end of Game 1.
Although Matthew Delladova did have his moments, it was James that kept the Cavaliers in the series and pushed it to six games.
James led all players in points in five of the six games, as well as overall in the series. James averaged 35.8 points, 8.8 assists and 13.3 rebounds per game in the series, leading many people to advocate for his candidacy for being named the NBA Finals MVP despite losing.
15. Tim Duncan – 1999 NBA Finals
Tim Duncan won his first of five NBA Finals in 1999, when the San Antonio Spurs defeated the New York Knicks behind Duncan’s play. Playing against the top scorer in the playoffs that season, Latrell Sprewell, Duncan led all players in scoring in the Finals with 27.4 points per game while protecting the rim on defense.
Duncan had some help protecting the paint as the Spurs featured David Robinson as well to form one of the best twin towers we have ever seen. That duo averaged a combined 5.2 blocks per game, with Duncan leading the team in rebounding at 14 boards per game. Duncan was named the NBA Finals MVP for the first time following the victory.
14. Michael Jordan – 1998 NBA Finals
Michael Jordan is the G.O.A.T. because of his clutch performances in the NBA Finals, as he won an NBA-record six NBA Finals MVPs.
Now the subject of ESPN’s 10-part documentary series “The Last Dance”, Jordan’s last season with the Bulls was a culmination of his greatness as the best to ever play the game.
The 1998 NBA Finals was the last of Jordan’s career and he ended on a high note. In Game 6 of the series against the Utah Jazz, Jordan scored 45 of his team’s 87 points to led them to a narrow 87-86 victory.
The Bulls were down 86-83 in the game with 49.3 seconds left. Jordan was able to force his way into the paint to score a heavily-contested bucket to put his team within one point.
Then on the next possession, Jordan picked Karl Malone’s pocket in the post and drove to the other end of the floor where he made the go-ahead jumper with just 5.2 seconds left. On that last shot, Jordan controversially pushed off from Byron Scott during his crossover, but a foul was never called.
13. Kyrie Irving – 2016 NBA Finals
Spoiler alert! LeBron James was the best player in the 2016 NBA Finals and will be featured somewhere near the top of this list. But his sidekick in that series was pretty damn good too.
Kyrie Irving averaged just over 27 points per game and nearly four assists and four rebounds in the seven-game series. Still, his inclusion on this list really boils down to one shot.
To even force a Game 7 in Golden State, the Cavaliers had already mounted an unbelievable comeback, after starting the series down 3-1. When there was just a minute left in Game 7 and the offense having stalled for both teams, it started to feel like the next basket would win the game.
Cleveland ran an isolation play for Irving and he delivered, drilling a huge three-pointer over Stephen Curry to give the Cavaliers a 92-89 lead with 53 seconds remaining. While LeBron made most of the big plays to bring Cleveland a championship, it was Irving that delivered the shot when his team needed him most.
12. LeBron James – 2012 NBA Finals
After a decade of failing to reach the mountaintop, LeBron James won his first NBA Finals in 2012. James went head-to-head with budding superstar Kevin Durant and dominated the series. After losing Game 1, the Miami Heat won the last four games of the series and James would be named the 2012 NBA Finals MVP.
James led all players in total rebounds with 51 and averaged 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists in the series.
11. Michael Jordan – 1996 NBA Finals
The 1996 Chicago Bulls are the greatest team in NBA history. They went 72-10 in the regular season that year, which was an NBA-record until the Golden State Warriors won 73 games in 2016. The only difference between the two teams is that the Bulls finished the job by winning the 1996 NBA Finals.
Michael Jordan was named the Finals MVP for the series, as he led all players in scoring with an average of 27.3 points per game.
10. Shaquille O’Neal – 2002 NBA Finals
Shaquille O’Neal in his prime was the most dominant physical force that we have seen in the modern-day NBA. O’Neal led the Lakers to three consecutive Finals victories, with the 2002 NBA Finals being the last one.
O’Neil averaged 36.3 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.8 blocks per game in the four-game sweep of the New Jersey Nets.
9. Michael Jordan – 1997 NBA Finals
Michael Jordan was his usual exceptional-self during the 1997 NBA Finals, as he averaged 32.3 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game in the series. Still, Jordan’s 1997 NBA Finals is epitomized by just one performance.
The Flu Game.
The Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz entered Game 5 of the series tied up at two wins apiece, but the Bulls were reeling after dropping their last two games. Jordan played the game despite being dehydrated with a fever from a stomach virus. Jordan led all scorers with 38 points and hit the game-winning three with just 25 seconds left.
8. Hakeem Olajuwon – 1995 NBA Finals
The 1995 NBA Finals was billed as the old versus the new, as Hakeem Olajuwon had been the league’s best center for years but Shaquille O’Neal was angling to take his place. While Shaq held his own, it was still Olajuwon who proved to be the best center in the NBA as he led the Rockets to their second straight NBA Finals victory.
Olajuwon averaged 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals per game en route to his second NBA Finals MVP.
7. Kobe Bryant – 2009 NBA Finals
The 2009 NBA Finals was the greatest moment in Kobe Bryant’s career, as he finally proved that he could win it all without Shaquille O’Neal. Bryant carried the Lakers with 32.4 points per game, exerting tireless energy on both ends of the floor. Bryant set the tone by dropping 40 points in a Game 1 blowout victory and never let up in the “Gentleman’s Sweep” of the Orlando Magic.
6. Tim Duncan – 2003 NBA Finals
In a defensive series in which the New Jersey Nets never eclipsed 90 points in a single game, Tim Duncan was incredible for the San Antonio Spurs. Duncan was an absolute force defending the rim, blocking 32 shots in the six-game series and averaging 17 rebounds per game.
Duncan’s best two games book-ended the series, as he put up two 20 point-20 rebound efforts in Game 1 and in Game 6.
5. LeBron James – 2016 NBA Finals
While LeBron James won two Finals MVPs with the Miami Heat, the one he won with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 was worth 10 championships as he ended a 52-year championship drought in his hometown of Cleveland.
The Cavaliers trailed 3-1 in the series and became the first team to ever overcome that deficit in the Finals to win. James averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game, but what was even more impressive was James’ work on the defensive end of the floor.
James made the play of the series in Game 7, when he ran the length of the floor to block Andre Iguodala’s fast-break layup to keep the game tied at 89 apiece.
It is now known as “The Block” and may be the best play in the history of Cleveland sports. James averaged over two steals and two blocks per game in the series.
4. Shaquille O’Neal – 2001 NBA Finals
We already mentioned Allen Iverson’s legendary performance in a losing effort during the 2001 NBA Finals, but now it is time to look at the player that took home the Finals MVP trophy.
Shaquille O’Neal averaged 33 points, 15.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game as he dominated the Philadelphia 76ers to deliver the second-consecutive NBA Finals victory to L.A. O’Neal also out-blocked fellow Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo in the series as he rejected 17 shots, compared to Mutombo’s 11.
3. Shaquille O’Neal – 2000 NBA Finals
Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose did everything they could in the 2000 NBA Finals, as both players averaged over 23 points per game, but Shaquille O’Neal was just too dominant.
Without a premier center on the roster to slow down “The Diesel”, Shaq averaged 38 points and 16.7 rebounds per game, as the Lakers defeated the Pacers in six games. Shaq also blocked 16 shots and had six steals on defense and was the unquestioned NBA Finals MVP.
2. Michael Jordan – 1993 NBA Finals
Michael Jordan was at the height of his powers in the 1993 NBA Finals, as he won his third-straight Finals MVP delivering another championship to Chicago. Jordan scored 55 points in the pivotal Game 4 to give the Bulls a 3-1 series lead and averaged 41 points in the series.
By winning the Finals MVP, Jordan became the first player in NBA history to win the award in three straight years. Jordan’s third championship win capped off a seven-year stretch in which he led the league in scoring every single year.
1. Dwyane Wade – 2006 NBA Finals
On a list that includes the like of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal, one man’s heroics stand out above all the rest.
Dwyane Wade was in just his third season in the NBA and was 24 years old when he made it to his first NBA Finals. Heading into the series, Dallas looked to contain one of the most dominant forces in the history of the NBA Finals, as three-time Finals MVP O’Neal was Wade’s teammate.
Early on that strategy worked for Dallas as they looked well on their way to sweeping the Miami Heat out of the 2006 NBA Finals, as Dirk Nowitzki was knocking on the door of his first championship. The Dallas Mavericks won the first two games of the series and were up 89-76 in Game 3, with just under seven minutest remaining.
Wade famously said “I’m not going out like this.” and took over the series from there.
Wade scored 15 fourth quarter points and led a 22-7 run in the last 6:29 of the game, bringing the Heat a 98-96 victory.
Wade then scored 36, 43 and 36 points in the last three games of the series, leading the Heat to their first championship in franchise history. Wade’s player efficiency rating of 33.8 was the highest graded performance in the history of the NBA Finals since the NBA/ABA merger.
Damian Lillard Named Cover Athlete for NBA 2K21
There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as exciting to watch as Damian Lillard. The Portland Trail Blazers point guard can drop 50 points on any given night, putting up statistics only seen in video games.
Due to his gaudy play this year, Lillard has been announced as the first of three players that will grace the cover of the NBA’s premier video game franchise, NBA 2K.
Lillard was in the midst of a remarkable season prior to the league shutdown, as he averaged a career-high 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. If the season resumes next month, Lillard will look to close a 3.5 games gap across an eight-game schedule to get his Trail Blazers into playoff position.
Regardless of how this season ends for Lillard though, it will still go down as another incredible campaign for the five-team All-Star. One worthy of his first selection as the cover athlete on 2K.
Lillard will be on the cover of NBA 2K21 for all the current-gen gaming consoles including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC and Google Stadia systems. 2K still needs to announce another cover athlete for the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles.
For the 29-year-old point guard, this honor is very gratifying as it continues to solidify his status as one of the game’s most elite players.
Due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still unclear whether NBA 2K21 will be released at it’s regularly scheduled drop-date in September, or if it will be pushed back to accommodate the league’s changed schedule.
If the season is played in it’s entirety, many don’t expect the 2020-2021 NBA season to start until late November, if not some time in December.
Stephen Jackson: Journey Man
Nearly two months ago, when the NBA announced the 2020 Hall of Fame class, and in the midst of having no sports to televise, ESPN ran a series of important games from Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan’s careers. For Duncan, ESPN played his near quadruple-double to seal the 2003 NBA Finals. In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs needed buckets, the New Jersey defense collapsed in on Duncan, who kicked to a wide-open, third-year NBA player named Stephen Jackson. Jackson hit three big three-pointers, Spurs win. For many, some combination of that performance (being the secondary star in a non-primetime, 17-year-old basketball game) and his All The Smoke podcast with Matt Barnes was the most thought given to Stephen Jackson in quite some time. Jackson went on, after a brief stint in San Antonio, to play for six franchises in eleven years before retiring in 2015. Many would call him a journeyman for his travels in the NBA, and assumed his life would settle down after that.
Last week Stephen Jackson put himself, and his cause, in front of everyone. Following the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers, Jackson took to his Instagram to let the world see and hear the pain he had for his lost friend. Floyd grew up in Houston, Jackson in Port Arthur. For those not acquainted with Texas’ geography, the two went to high school just over an hour apart. Many in Port Arthur residents, like Jackson as a child, go into the city of Houston when they need things you’d find in the city. Port Arthur is a tough-minded oil town that functions as both a suburb of the city of Beaumont and the city of Houston. It’s produced the likes of Jimmy Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Pimp C, and Bun B… but Stephen Jackson is the only notable NBA alum that cites it as home. You can see Port Arthur’s toughness in Johnson, Charles, and Jackson. You can see its swagger in Pimp C, Bun B, and Jackson.
And now, you can see him representing Port Arthur, and making a difference.
Everyone ended their Memorial Day weekend watching the same horrifying viral video. It hit everyone differently. For some, it was a wake-up call to the deadly realities of police brutality. To others, it was an anger-inducing “another one?!” To still others, it was horrifyingly close to home, with a mirror-like reality. And to Jackson? It was his lifelong friend. His “twin.”
Jackson and Floyd have known each other since childhood. Both were active athletes from similar neighborhoods and backgrounds, but the “twin” moniker came not only because they were figuratively brothers, but because they look eerily similar to one another. The two played pick-up basketball in the Cuney Homes housing complex of Houston’s Third Ward. (Jackson has, in the last week, really done an intentional job of pointing out how talented of an athlete Floyd was. To be frank, it is very important. The difference in Floyd’s life cut short and Jackson’s life in the NBA can come down to a few breaks or ball bounces here and there.)
While much of the nation’s initial anger over George Floyd’s murder was in their own homes for the initial twenty-four hours, Stephen Jackson’s was cast for the world to see.
In the following days, Jackson continued to post homage to Floyd while he made his way to Minneapolis to lead protests. Once there, he made his message clear: no one was going to diminish Floyd’s name. No one was going to rest until action was taken. Change was coming, and Jackson was ready to work for it.
Jackson was surrounded by the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie, actor Jamie Foxx, Houston area rap artist Trae the Truth, amongst other protestors. After speaking to the crowd, Jackson and others went outside marched to the Hennepin County Government Center.
Protests and marches have been commonplace all over the United States of America this week. In an effort to combat police brutality, communities are banding together to have their voices heard. Both in-person and online, at the forefront of these protests continue to be high profile athletes and celebrities. In North Carolina, Dennis Smith Jr. and J. Cole were mixed into the marches like everyone else. Jaylen Brown did the same in Atlanta. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an op-ed for the LA Times. It clearly did not take being connected to the situation like Stephen Jackson to take the lead in the community.
In the week since publicly sharing his pain, Jackson has become the face of NBA players involved in the protests, and his movements are seeing results. Within hours of his statements in Minneapolis, the police officer who murdered Floyd was arrested. Protests have continued, calling for both the arrests of his three partners who watched him idly, and for their four convictions. Since Jackson spoke out, major shoe brands, EA Sports, and even Adam Silver have come out in support of the protests. Jackson, who made a career as a reserved tough guy, pushed much of the NBA world to the point of speaking up. While COVID quarantine certainly helped further the cause (everyone is stuck at home with little other distractions, searching social media), Jackson’s activism is the inspiration we look for.
What’s both fascinating and disturbing is George Floyd was not the first unarmed black man murdered on camera. He wasn’t even the first of such since the COVID quarantine started, and the violent reaction to the protests imply he won’t be the last victim of police brutality either. But, his name and case are pushing people to a protesting brink at a national level. There are several factors, but Jackson and the ensuing NBA involvement is certainly a big one.
The murder of an unarmed person at the hands of the police shouldn’t need celebrity grief to become a tragedy. NBA players shouldn’t have to remind the public they’ve been wearing “I CAN’T BREATHE” tee-shirts since 2014. The news should sting on its own and, if you’re paying attention, it always does.
However, in Jackson’s grief he helped elevate this particular case. The NBA, and pro sports, can humanize black people for many white audiences that otherwise don’t get to interact with people that don’t look like them. For decades neighborhoods, schools, and public spaces have been (intentionally or unintentionally) segregated through various means. As pointedly illustrated in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crowe, these systems can perpetuate cyclically and lock people into only being around folks that look like them. Humanized professional athletes can bring new faces into white neighborhoods, as they connect with and idolize people on their team. Jackson is one of those faces, and he isn’t just “involved” in the ongoing fight in Floyd’s name. In his own words, he’s “all in.”
Jackson’s activism can bring those conversations into white homes, neighborhoods, and families. It can help force the issue and conversation. Recent generations of NBA players have been very socially active, and time after time we see the issues they take up carry significant weight. It’s sad to admit, but in many ways it’s vital. It makes the stories human to more people, because Jackson is a human known by more people.
Jackson has spent the last week publicly riding an emotional roller coaster. He mourned the loss of his friend, was firm in pursuing justice, and was open in sharing his story. As we enter week two of Jackson’s journey, he has accepted being the leader of the current athlete activists.
“Like, I’m honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what’s the next move,” Jackson told ESPN. “Like, I didn’t ask to be in this position, but I’m embracing it. I’m embracing it.”
But what does that mean? What does embracing it look like for Journey Man Jackson?
“We got to vote,” Jackson continued. “I’m not just talking about the president. I’m talking about the local city council. I’m talking about your police chief, your fire chief. We need to vote for all that type of stuff because all that stuff’s going to matter at the end. And what we’re doing now as far as protesting everywhere around the world, we got to use that same energy when it’s time to vote.”
“Coming into this, I’ve seen so many situations not pan out right,” Jackson said. “I’ve seen the impossible happen also. And I think this is that situation. I think this [is] going to be the change. My brother’s death is going to be change. I think we’re going to get convictions for all of them. I think they’re drawing it out right now because this is the typical system. That’s why we got to change the rules — they look out for each other. They try their best to look out for each other. So this is expected by me.”
“But we’re going to fight. This is a marathon. And we’re going to continue this fight, and we’re going to outfight them. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep this thing going. They’re going to get tired of hearing about George Floyd. They’re going to get tired of hearing his name.”
The word “journey” carries a lot more positivity than “journeyman.” A journey can be life-changing, and it can be historically impactful. A journeyman is a wanderer; he’s lost or he has no home. A journey is going to be important. Calling someone a journeyman implies they weren’t important enough to stick in one place.
However, in the NBA journeymen are often beloved by other players because they have to be good teammates to survive. Journeymen change clubhouses frequently, and they’re more appealing to more teams if their past teammates can attest to their characters. But to fans, and outsiders, they tend to be the periphery of the storylines of the league. Sure, Stephen Jackson hit a barrage of three-pointers in the 2003 NBA Finals, but they were off of Tim Duncan’s assists. He’s an emblem of toughness, but Jackson never stayed in the same organization for more than two complete seasons (though he did have two separate two year periods in San Antonio).
Players love Jackson, that’s evident in his podcasting and TV appearances. But he was never integral to the NBA’s story throughout his journeyman-days. He was always going to be remembered as the guy who scored on Duncan’s kick out, or the teammate that got traded, or the veteran on a one-year deal. If you watched the NBA in his 14-year career, you knew who he was… but his playing days didn’t indicate he’d be an unforgettable piece of the story of the league.
But as the latest chapters of Jackson’s story is being written, he’s looking more like a man on a journey than a journeyman. If you persist he is a journeyman, he’s clearly chosen to focus on the breakdown of the word regardless of your perception.
And his leadership has proven far more than necessary in connection to the story of America in 2020 than it ever was in connection to the NBA.
If you have the means to, or would like to donate to help the cause Jackson is at the front of, please consider the following places to start:
#ThrowbackThursday: Game 6 Klay
Games in an NBA playoff series are interesting in how there seems to be something notable about each one. Game 1 is important because you’ve got to have a good start. The home teams need to protect, the visitor needs to split. Game 2? Well, you can’t go down 0-2. And if you’re up 1-0? You’ve got a chance to “take care of business” in Game 2. Game 3 comes with a change of scenery. The new home team needs to get that one. The now-visitor? If you’re up 2-0, you can put the nail in the coffin. Tied 1-1? Well, you have to get homecourt advantage back… and down 0-2? See up 2-0, then flip the script. Game 4 can literally be the last game in the series, or can be the vital chance to tie it up. Every game 5, you’re either looking at a team with a chance to win the whole series right then, or someone ready to split the tie. And we’ve all seen the ESPN stats about the winner of Game 5 in a 2-2 series…
And Game 7? Best two words in sports. It’s all the marbles, the entire series comes down to the final moments.
Game 6 gets kind of left behind. It’s inherently an elimination game for one team. It also is set in a different arena than Game 5 was or than Game 7 will be. And, if you can win a series in 4 or 5 games, you dominated it. If it goes 7 games? It was a close, or a competitive, or a great series. If it goes 6? Eh.
Game 6 gets left behind, it’s undervalued. Some of the best and most necessary performances in NBA history happened in Game 6 to allow for the Game 7s, or to cover up the blunder in Game 5.
One of those happened four years ago today: Game 6, 2016 Western Conference Finals. The performer: Klay Thompson.
Much like the underappreciated Game 6, Klay Thompson is synonymous with being the second or third fiddle. Klay has had some of his most historic playoff performances in Game 6s the last few seasons, as poetic as that may be. Last season, he tore his ACL in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to seal the Warriors fate. Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals a few weeks earlier? Klay had 21 in the first half to keep the game close while Steph Curry went scoreless, and hit the dagger three with 36.1 seconds to go to move past their rival Rockets in Houston. In 2018? Klay went 9-14 from the 3-point line in Game 6, racked up 35 points to avoid elimination survive Game 6 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals over the Rockets, who had a 3-2 lead and appeared to have figured the Warriors out.
But this connection started in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals. After a record 73-9 regular season, the Golden State Warriors were on the ropes. They were down 3-1 in the series to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Golden State won Game 5 at home to stay afloat, but had to travel to the Sooner State for a must-win Game 6.
Curry needed that second fiddle now more than ever. The two-headed monster in Oklahoma City necessitated multiple superstars to perform like superstars for Golden State to have a chance. Insert: quiet quirky Klay Thompson. It wasn’t that surprising. Thompson was the second-highest scorer on the team that historic season, was also on the All-NBA team and All-Star team. He hit 276 three-pointers that season… the most by anyone not name Steph Curry in NBA history to that point.
But the 11-18 three-point shooting barrage Thompson provided was more valuable than the 41 points Klay scored. Every time Oklahoma City’s crowd began to roar, Klay silenced it. He made them covered, he made them off screens, he made them on the fast break, he made them early, he made them late. It was as unconscious of a shooting performance in a playoff game as there’s ever been. His 10th three, to set the NBA playoff record, was off-balanced, covered, and with his heels at the midcourt logo. The 11th? Over the outstretched Kevin Durant, to give the Warriors the lead, with just over a minute and a half to go.
“I don’t know if I was born for it, but I definitely worked my butt off to get to this point… I guess you could say I was born for it.”
Thompson was born to be Game 6. Game 6 is Klay Thompson, just like Thompson is Game 6.
After his 2018 performance Curry and Durant, both Warriors at that point, shared a laugh when asked to compare Klay’s repeat Western Conference Finals Game 6 performance.
“I think we both blocked that whole year from our memory,” Curry answered.
The Warriors went on to win Game 7 in 2016’s Western Conference Finals, at home, and move on to the NBA Finals. Durant and Oklahoma City blew the 3-1 lead. A couple of weeks later, Curry and the Warriors would do the same to LeBron James and the Cavs.
Had Klay had even simply had an above-average game in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, all of NBA history could have been different. Durant, Westbrook, and the Thunder likely win the series that night. Klay’s 11th three made it 104-101, and only free throws were made for either team after that. If Oklahoma went back to the NBA Finals for the second time in four seasons, they may have had the experience needed to knock off LeBron James and Cleveland. After all, they did jump out 3-1 on the Warriors… who jumped out 3-1 on the Cavs. Clearly it wouldn’t have been inconceivable or impossible for the Thunder to win four out of seven games against Cleveland. If Durant and the Thunder win a title in 2016, does he sign with the Warriors, a team he just beat 4-2, that offseason? Does he even leave? Sure Kawhi just did it last season, but before Kawhi it was hard to imagine a superstar leaving less than a month after winning an NBA title.
And say the Thunder didn’t beat the Cavs. Sure, that makes it easier for Durant to feel comfortable about leaving the Thunder… But after hypothetically beating the Warriors 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals, is that where he thinks he has the best chance? San Antonio also took Oklahoma city to six games in this hypothetical, and Toronto had just taken Cleveland to six games as well. Regular season aside, wouldn’t those teams look like title contenders and favorites with Durant in town?
Who knows how the ball bounces is Klay Thompson even goes off for a thrilling nine made three-pointers. Who knows what happens that night, or in the coming weeks, or in the months after? The summer of 2016 forever changed the NBA, and who knows how much of that change never happens if Klay Thompson doesn’t catch fire on May 28th.
Truthfully that can all be set aside today. Game 6 Klay is a thing. Klay Thompson is the selfless superstar that can take over the moment without having his number called. He’s the same flamethrower that can score 60 points on 11 dribbles, only holding the ball 90 seconds, in less than three quarters of game action. He’s the NBA All-Star that has one supreme offensive skill, but is an unquestioned Hall of Famer. He’s the quiet voice in the huddle, but the reason Mike Breen emphatically exclaims “BANG!” throughout the last five NBA post-seasons.
He’s always been thought of as far from the Warrior’s MVP, but his injury and absence may have cost them a three-peat last summer.
Thompson doesn’t say much, but you cannot tell the story of the last decade in basketball history without saying Klay Thompson’s name many times. His skill set is both complimentary and suffocating. There is not a “superstar” or “alpha” in the NBA that Klay wouldn’t be a perfect fit for. He doesn’t require a lot of time with the ball in his hands, but his presence requires the defense’s attention for the entire forty-eight minutes. He guards the other teams star backcourt player to let Steph Curry or Kevin Durant focus on carrying the offensive workload, but was always running off screens to be their freed up safety valve.
It’s not that Thompson went under-appreciated in the last half-a-decade of Warrior dominance. It’s not that his quirks off the floor weren’t praised, or his stunts in China well documented. It’s that it may be impossible to ever really credit Thompson enough. Four years ago today, his performance will forever be written and appreciated in NBA history. It kept the Warriors alive against Durant and the Thunder, it led to the defeat of Durant and his exodus from Oklahoma City, and it led to the rematch with Cleveland in the Finals, setting up the most historic NBA Finals of a generation.
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