Holding Court – The greatest players in NBA Finals history

Bert A. Ramirez
Holding Court – The greatest players in NBA Finals history
Columnist Bert Ramirez ranks the 30 greatest NBA finals performers of all-time, beginning with the first 20

There are quite a few “greatest” lists that have adorned the NBA’s proverbial Hall of Fame through the years, including the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, a selection of the league’s top 50 players made by a special panel during its 50th anniversary in 1996. There are also the top 10 coaches and top 10 teams picked during the same occasion, as well as such benchmark lists as the Greatest Moments in NBA History, a video collection of the most memorable and seminal moments in the league’s annals.

As this year’s finals are being played, it would perhaps be fitting to look at the men who have set the standards for today’s protagonists, the players who have validated their legendary status through their accomplishments at this stage that look even better with the passage of time.  They are the players whose greatness took centerstage in the world’s ultimate forum for the sport – the NBA finals.

They are, in short, the greatest players in the history of the series where the champion is determined.  They are those who consistently delivered in the clutch, played tough defense, and served as leader and, ultimately, the difference for their teams while leaving their mark for succeeding generations to see, admire and emulate.

Who are these players? We have compiled a list of 30 players whose greatness in the NBA finals – as opposed to greatness overall – have been validated by what they did during this most crucial stage.  For convenience, we have divided the list into two, starting with the last 20 and winding up in our next installment with the top 10.

The last 20:

1. Jerry West –Mr. Clutch wasn’t called such for nothing, nor was his image used by the league to serve as its logo simply because it was looking for the appropriate shot to use for its brand. Definitely, Mr. West’s greatness as a player, particularly in the clutch, served as an extra incentive to immortalize his image. The 6-foot-3 West averaged 30.5 points in the finals alone (only Michael Jordan had a higher average) and he punctuated that norm with astounding feats on basketball’s ultimate stage. In 1969, he became the first and only winner of the Finals MVP trophy (right in the beginning of this award) from a losing team as the LA Lakers fell to the Boston Celtics in seven games, averaging 38 points in the series and posting 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in the Lakers’ 108-106 Game 7 loss at home.  In 1962 against the same Celtics, West also repeatedly made clutch baskets but could not overcome Bill Russell and Sam Jones.  And who can forget Jerry’s 60-foot shot from the backcourt that sent Game 3 of the 1970 finals against New York into overtime? The Lakers again lost in seven games that year but would have won in six had there already been a three-point shot at the time.  West finally won his first and only title in nine appearances in the NBA finals in 1972, doing it with the Laker team that set an all-time record with 33 straight wins.

2. LeBron James – For all the flak that LeBron took for failing to finish Game 1 of this season’s finals because of cramps, there’s no denying that he has earned his place among the game’s best clutch players (in contrast to the player that wilted against San Antonio in its 4-0 sweep of Cleveland in the 2007 finals and the one that blew a 2-1 series lead against Dallas in 2011 after scoring just eight points in Game 4).  In the 2012 finals against Oklahoma City, he averaged 28.6 points and had a triple-double (26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists) in the Heat’s clinching 121-106 Game 5 victory. He again led Miami in a blistering seven-game victory over San Antonio last year, winning his second straight Finals MVP trophy as he scored 37 points in the clincher, which tied Tommy Heinsohn’s 1957 record for most points in a finals Game 7 win, and secured a close victory with a clutch 17-footer.

3. Dwyane Wade – Wade is known as James’ sidekick now, but make no mistake, there would be no title for LeBron without Wade, both having forged a Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen sort of partnership with The Decision they made with Chris Bosh back in 2010. Without James, however, Wade was already complete unto himself, leading the Heat to the 2006 championship with some help from an inspired Shaquille O’Neal, then still smarting from a forced departure from LA spurred by a conflict with Kobe Bryant. Wade was simply superb in that year’s finals against Dallas, earning for himself the Finals MVP award and Sports Illustrated‘s prestigious Sportsman of the Year honors as he averaged 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.7 steals and one block in six games. He almost singlehandedly brought the Heat back from a 2-0 series deficit, norming 39 points, eight boards, 3.5 dishoffs, 2.5 steals and a block in the last four games.

4. Wilt Chamberlain – This guy never seems to get the respect he deserves. Even when he is now gone (he died of a heart ailment in October 1999), he almost never gets recognized for his great play on the sport’s biggest stage. But The Stilt won the Finals MVP award in 1972 when the LA Lakers beat New York 4-1 to win their first title since moving from Minneapolis in 1960. He was also the de facto Finals MVP at a time when the award did not yet exist in 1967, when he led the Philadelphia 76ers over the then-San Francisco Warriors in six games. In that 1972 matchup against the Knicks, Chamberlain averaged 19.4 points and 23.2 rebounds. On the way to the 1967 finals, the Sixers snapped Boston’s eight-year reign as NBA champion with a 4-1 dismantling in the East finals as Wilt set an all-time playoff record with 41 rebounds in Game 3 and pulled off a quadruple-double in Game 1. But Wilt’s losing to his greatest rival, Bill Russell, in most of their playoff confrontations (7-1 in favor of Russ’ Celtic teams) and in their individual game battles (85-57 again for Russ) has tagged Chamberlain with the image of a less-than-clutch superstar, unfairly we’d say.

5. Sam Jones – Few know that besides Russell, the only player who can wear a championship ring on all his 10 fingers is the other of the Celtics’ Jones boys, Sam, who won 10 championships in 11 appearances in the finals after teaming up with Russ starting in the 1957-58 season, missing only Russell’s first title in 1957.  But lest one misconstrues this as riding on the great Bill’s coattails, Jones in fact served as one of Russell’s main spearcarriers, the Celtics’ chief offensive weapon along with John Havlicek during their dynasty years in the ’60s.  And “The Shooter” was never better than in the finals where he cemented his place as one of the toughest crunch time shooters in history. A master of the banked shot, the 6-foot-4 Jones scored five of the Celts’ 10 overtime points in Game 7 of the 1962 finals against the Lakers to secure the Celtics’ fourth straight championship. To get to the finals, the Celts also banked on Jones’ jumper with two seconds left that shattered a 107-all tie and snatched a Game 7 win in the East finals over the Philadelphia Warriors. In his last year with Boston in 1969 (he and Russell retired at the same time), he hit a difficult fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to bail the Celtics out 89-88 in the finals’ Game 4 and prevent them from falling into a 3-1 hole against the Lakers. 

6. Dennis Johnson – DJ.  One of the strongest defenders in NBA history, and also one of the toughest in the clutch, as partly borne out by his 18.3-point, 4.7-rebound, 6.2-assist average in the finals, which would be good enough as career averages for any other player. The late DJ (he died of a heart attack in February 2007 after a practice session with his D-League Austin Toros) was a prodigy early on, overcoming a Game 7 loss with Seattle in the 1978 finals against Washington where he missed all 14 of his shots and winning Finals MVP honors the following year. He exacted revenge against the same opponent in five games as he led the SuperSonics with averages of almost 23 points, six rebounds and six assists, scoring 32 points in a Game 4 overtime victory. But it was with Boston five years later in 1984 where Johnson cemented his legacy. With the Celtics having been blown out by 33 points in Game 3, Dennis asked Celtics coach K.C. Jones to let him guard Magic Johnson. Magic was never the same again and the Celts went on to win the title, beating LA for the eighth time in as many playoff meetings to that point.

Isiah Thomas led the ‘Bad Boy’ Detroit Pistons to two NBA titles in 88-89, 89-90. Photo by Jason Szenes/EPA

7. Isiah Thomas – Isiah could be the best small man ever to play the game alongside Bob Cousy, and he earned much of that reputation through his play in the finals, where he had career norms of 22.6 points, 7.9 assists and 4.2 rebounds and imposed himself in the clutches. The 6-1 playmaker set a single-quarter finals record with 25 points in Game 6 of the finals against LA in 1988 while playing on a severely sprained ankle, and though Detroit would go on to lose in seven games, Thomas would find vindication in the next two years when the Pistons essayed a twin-title triumph. He was named Finals MVP when Detroit beat Portland 4-1 in 1990, scoring 33, 23, 21, 32 and 29 points for a 27.6-ppg clip while also averaging 8.0 assists and 5.2 rebounds and shooting 11-of-16 from three-point range.  

8. Bob Pettit – One of the most overlooked old-time stars by followers of the game today, Pettit nevertheless makes a strong case as one of the top 10 power forwards in history, despite the latter-day Tim Duncans, Karl Malones, Kevin McHales and Charles Barkleys.  And he proved his worth especially on the biggest of stages. The 6-foot-9 Pettit averaged 29.8 points and 16.8 boards in the 1957 playoffs, punctuating that in the finals against Boston with 37 points in a Game 1 victory and 39 points and 19 boards in a clinching double-OT loss in Game 6 to Bill Russell’s club. Pettit gained revenge the following year with Russell limping badly after suffering a severe ankle sprain in the third game of their finals rematch, leadingthe Hawks to their only championship to this day with a then-playoff-record 50 points, including 18 of their last 21 points, to spark St. Louis to a 110-109 series-clinching Game 6 triumph.

9. Moses Malone – “Fo’, fo’ and fo’.”  That’s all one needs to remember to know this modern-day Moses’ dominant stature in the ’80s, when he led Philadelphia to the NBA title with a 4-0 sweep of the Lakers in the 1983 finals and the Sixers went 12-1, missing by just one victory Malone’s prediction of a sweep of all their three series after dropping one game to Milwaukee in the East finals. But Malone dominated Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with averages of 25.8 points and 18.0 caroms in the Laker sweep. Back in 1981, Malone led a rag-tag Houston team by norming 26.8 points and 14.5 rebounds in the playoffs to carry them all the way to the finals against Larry Bird and the Celtics. But the 40-42 Rockets lost in six games. 

10. Bill Walton – Big Bill had a rather limited career because of injuries but in the two championship series that he played, he made the most of it, winning both times.  He was named Finals MVP in 1977 when he powered an underdog Portland team to its one and, so far, only NBA championship, bringing the Trail Blazers back from an 0-2 hole by leading them to four straight victories.  Walton had 20 points, 18 rebounds and nine dimes in Portland’s 129-107 Game 3 victory, and posted 20 points, 23 boards, eight dish-offs and seven blocks in its title-clinching 109-107 Game 6 triumph. As the Sixth Man of the Year with Boston in 1986, Walton also helped the Celtics to a 16th title with averages of eight points and seven rebounds coming off the bench. 

11. Rick Barry – Barry, the original player-turned-broadcaster and the last of the underhanded free-throw shooters, left a lofty legacy with his 24.4-ppg, 10.3-rpg and 2.3-apg career averages in the finals, but the crowning glory to that legacy is no doubt the 1975 championship. His Golden State Warriors that year swept the heavily-favored Washington Wizards (then Bullets) with his leadership and superb play. He led the Warriors back from a 13-point deficit in Game 2 with 36 points and put in 38 more in Game 3 before helping them win the clinching fourth game 96-95 after enduring an early 14-point disadvantage and the ejection of coach Al Attles, who resented the roughhousing tactics employed against Rick by Washington, to no avail in the end.

12. Dirk Nowitzki – The German bomber also won in one of two final series he appeared in, and the victory of his team Dallas in the second in 2011 validated his stature as perhaps the greatest foreign-born player to play in the NBA. The seven-foot Nowitzki has finals averages of 24.4 scores, 10.3 boards and 2.3 dimes, but that 2011 victory against Miami (then with its newly-assembled Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh), puts him squarely in the vicinity of greatness.  In the crucial Game 2 where a loss would have put Miami two up, he led the Mavericks back from 15 points down, hitting two mid-range jumpers, a layup over Bosh and a three-point bomb and then capping it with a left-handed layup that won the contest 95-93. He then endured a mocking from James and Wade following his remarks about his sinus problems with a game-high 29 points in Game 5 to lead the Mavs to a 112-103 triumph. He averaged 26.5 markers and 9.7 boards for the series to earn MVP honors.

13. James Worthy – Big Game James.  He’s one of only a handful of players who played better the higher the stakes got, as attested to by his career finals numbers of 22.2 points, 5.1 rebs and 3.2 feeds, which are better than his regular-season career norms of 17.6, 5.1 and 3.0, respectively. Worthy was named Finals MVP in 1988 when the Lakers won a second straight championship, scoring 36 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and issuing 10 assists in a virtuoso performance in the clinching Game 7 against Detroit.  He also averaged a team-leading 24 points in the 1985 finals, when the Lakers defeated Boston in six games.

Robert Horry, seen here in a 2005 game with the Spurs, is one of two players to win at least 7 NBA titles. Photo by Gary C. Caskey/EPA

14. Robert Horry – Big Shot Bob, as this 6-10 forward is called, just has a career finals norm of 9.7 scores, 5.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists, but he is one of only two players (the other is John Salley) to win NBA titles with three different teams, doing it with Houston, the Lakers and San Antonio. He’s the only player, in fact, outside of Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics to win as many as seven titles, and he was not a freeloader by any means as he was very instrumental in many of those victories with his uncanny ability to hit the big shot at crunchtime. In a four-game sweep of Orlando in 1995, for instance, Horry hit a corner three with 14.1 seconds left in Game 3 that gave the Rockets a 104-100 lead and the eventual win.  In the 2001 finals against Philadelphia, he hit another crucial three in Game 3 that gave LA a four-point lead with 47 seconds left and eventually a 96-91 victory. In 2003, Horry hit a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to cap a Laker comeback from a 24-point hole in Sacramento that tied their West final series at 2-2, eventually winning it in seven games. That prompted the great Magic Johnson to call Horry “one of the 10 best clutch players in league history.”  With the Spurs, Big Shot Bob hit another game-winning three-pointer to give San Antonio a 96-95 victory in Game 5 of the 2005 finals, scoring 21 of the Spurs’ points in the fourth quarter and overtime and paving the way for a seven-game series victory.  His late-game heroics at 34 so moved basketball historian Bill Simmons that he said, “Horry’s Game 5 ranks alongside MJ’s Game 6 in 1998, Worthy’s Game 7 in 1988, Frazier’s Game 7 in 1970 and every other clutch finals performance over the years.”

15. George Mikan – The original Laker was the game’s first big star, although his feats are diminished somewhat with the lack of an equal during his time. But Big George, who stood at 6-10, has a place in the game’s annals, winning a title in all five of his finals appearances with the Minneapolis Lakers despite a dearth of competition at his position. He led Minneapolis to the NBA’s first-ever title in 1947 by averaging a then-unheard-of 30 points per game. Mikan was do dominant that rule changes – called “The Mikan Rule” – were instituted to reduce his advantage, including the widening of the lane from six to 12 feet in 1951.   

16. Walt Frazier – Clyde. The original stylist on and off the NBA courts, Frazier was perhaps the single biggest reason for the New York Knicks’ only two championships so far despite the Finals MVP award going to Willis Reed when they won in 1970 and 1973.  Frazier, after all, was the conductor of the orchestra that the Knicks were back in those days, when the Spurs-like halfcourt passing and ball movement first saw an incarnation. But when the game was on the line Frazier usually took over as well, as he did in that clinching seventh-game victory in the 1970 finals against the Lakers. Reed was the inspiration in that victory, but it was Clyde who put in the licks, compiling 22 points in the first half on the way to a 36-point, 19-assist, seven-rebound, five-steal performance that disheartened Jerry West and company. In the 1973 finals against the same Lakers, it was again Frazier who provided the heroics with his consistent play as floor leader, enabling New York to win four straight games and the title after losing the first contest.  Frazier has career finals norms of 18.9 points, 8.1 dimes and 7.5 rebounds.   

17. Derek Fisher – Don’t let Fisher’s stats of 9.1 points, 2.8 assists and 2.7 rebounds in eight finals appearances fool you. Like Robert Horry, Fisher, who was just named new Knicks coach after an 18-year playing career, shone brightest at crunch time. In the 2009 finals against Orlando, the 6-1 Fisher sent Game 4 into overtime with a three-pointer and then hit a game-clinching shot in the extra period. In the finals against Boston the next year, he scored 11 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter of Game 3 to spark the Lakers to a 91-84 victory en route to title No. 16.  And who could forget that classic jumper with 0.4 second left in Game 5 of the 2004 West semifinals against San Antonio that stunned the Spurs 74-73? Fisher was a part of five championship teams, all with the Lakers, and he had a vital contribution in all five.

18. Chauncey Billups – Mr. Big Shot. Another of those clutch shooters who feared nothing about taking the shot with the game on the line, nor showed any trepidation in taking on the opposing team’s top shotmaker, as he did against Kobe Bryant, Billups showed his toughness when he led Detroit to a five-game upset of the heavily-favored Lakers in the 2004 finals. He averaged 21 points and 5.2 assists in the series to earn Finals MVP honors. The Pistons returned to the finals the following year, but they lost to San Antonio in a tight seven-game series.  

19. Joe Dumars – Could have very well been the forerunner of Billups on those Bad Boys Detroit teams in the ’80s and ’90s. Dumars not only shone on defense, where he always drew the greatest at the time, Michael Jordan, but he also proved he was a reliable scorer and shooter even at crunch time, like he showed in winning Finals MVP honors in 1989. The 6-3 Dumars, who was the Pistons GM when Billups played for them, scored 22, 33, 31 and 23 points as he led the Pistons’ stunning four-game sweep of the Lakers that year. In that Game 2 victory, he scored 17 consecutive points in the third quarter, accounting for 21 in all in the period. The Pistons won a second straight championship against Portland the next year, with Joe firing 33 points in Detroit’s go-ahead 121-106 Game 3 victory despite his father Joe II’s death of heart failure shortly before game time.  

20. Cedric Maxwell – Cornbread, who won two titles in three finals appearances with Boston, averaged 11.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists in these three years, but his impact far goes beyond the numbers.  He provided the Celtics with a staunch defender against the likes of Julius Erving, Bernard King and Dominique Wilkins and he also created an inside presence that jibed perfectly with Larry Bird and Boston’s outside shooters. Max was named Finals MVP when the Celtics won the title against Houston in 1981, backstopping a cold-shooting Bird with 19 points in a Game 3 triumph, 24 points and 14 rebounds in a Game 4 loss, and 28 points and 15 boards in a Game 4 victory.  Against LA in the 1984 finals, Maxwell told his teammates to hop on his back before Game 7 as he would carry them to the championship.  He made true his word by collecting a game-high 24 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in the Celtics’ 111-102 title clincher.

Big bounce-back Part II

It was San Antonio’s turn to bounce back in a big way from a defeat when the Spurs blew out Miami 111-92 to take  2-1 lead in their series and regain homecourt advantage.

The Spurs set a finals record for field-goal shooting in a half by making 75.8 percent of their shots in the first half, burying the Heat by as many as 25 points as Kawhi Leonard scored a career-high 29 points while teammates like Danny Green (15 points, five steals) and Manu Ginobili (11 points) worked off him.  It’s rare to see somebody outplaying LeBorn James, particularly someone matched against him on defense, but the 6-7 Leonard, whose hands from tip to tip have been measured at 11 inches, did beat the Heat super forward in this game.

Leonard went 10-for-13 from the field, going 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, and he also had four rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocked shots while playing incredible defense against James, generally regarded as the best player in the game today notwithstanding Kevin Durant’s MVP season.  James, meanwhile, could only manage 22 points after going for 25 and 35 in the first two games, shooting 9-of-14 from the floor and collecting five rebounds, seven assists and five steals but committing seven turnovers and five fouls.  James was a team-worst minus 21 in a game-high 40 minutes of floor time.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich created a wrinkle in the Spurs’ rotation, starting Boris Diaw in place of Tiago Splitter. The ploy worked well as it created more spacing for San Antonio.

The Spurs now go for a commanding 3-1 advantage in Game 4 on Thursday (Friday in Manila).  It’s now up to the Heat to make their own adjustments if they hope to avoid that hole – Rappler.com

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drank and slept sports most of his life.

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