The NBA is centered around its stars, and luckily for the league, we have a matchup in the Finals between two superstars in Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat and Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets.
Butler has led one of the most improbable postseason runs by the eighth-seeded Heat and has solidified his status as one of the most tenacious players in the league on both ends of the floor by averaging 27.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.9 steals and 0.6 blocks across 19 games.
Jokic has averaged a triple-double per game during Denver’s dominant playoff effort — 30.4 points, 12.9 boards, 10.1 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. These performances follow in the footsteps of plenty of other major stars who posted impressive lines of their own.
Let’s take a look at some of the best individual postseasons by players since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.
The Big Fundamental, 2003
Jokic has been compared to Tim Duncan by many — most recently by Finals opponent Kyle Lowry. The understated star of the San Antonio Spurs wasn’t the flashiest performer — particularly on offense — but he still deserves his due. In the 2003 playoffs, he averaged 24.7 points, 15.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 3.3 blocks per game, had double-digit rebounds in 22 of 24 games and had at least five blocks in six games, three of which in the Finals against the Nets.
Shaq Attack, 2001
Duncan is one example of how much the game has changed in the last 20 years, as his offensive style is now quite antiquated. The same can be said of Shaquille O’Neal, who dominated with brute force.
In 2001, Shaq averaged posted 30.4 points, 15.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game in one of the best combinations of offense and defense in playoff history. He started out slowly in the opening round, though he had a signature performance in every following matchup.
In the Western Conference semifinals, he pushed the Lakers past Duncan’s Spurs in four games while topping 40 points and 20 boards in the same series twice. In the Finals, he had eight, five and four blocks in three separate games. He formed a dynamic duo with Kobe Bryant, who was impressive in his own right but ultimately overshadowed by O’Neal.
D-Wade and Lebron, 2000s
While Jokic is compared to other big men, Butler can be compared to previous stars who have worn the Heat jersey. Both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James went on a tear to lead the team to championships in the 2000s.
Wade was named Finals MVP in 2006 after helping the Heat rebound from a 2-0 deficit against the Dallas Mavericks while averaging a whopping 34.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. While his assists ticked down in that specific series (3.8), he reached double-digit dimes in four of 17 games prior to the Finals.
James’ time in Miami came a bit later in 2012, when he was also named the NBA Finals MVP. However, his most impressive performances arguably came against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. In that series, he topped 30 points in all but one of seven games and he came down with double-digit rebounds on five occasions.
His Airness, 1991
We can’t go through a discussion of the best postseason performances without talking about the G.O.A.T. Michael Jordan delivered some of the most iconic moments in NBA history on his way to six NBA Championships.
MJ’s performance in 1991 stands out above the rest. That year marked his seventh postseason appearance, but first in the NBA Finals. Of course, the moment wasn’t too big for him, as he led the Bulls to a five-game series win. Across those five contests, Jordan reached 30 points three times and racked up double-digit assists four times. As if that wasn’t enough, he also had multiple steals on four occasions.
Bird and Magic, 1980s
We can dig a bit further back for the final two players in our overview, and we’ll start with the great Larry Bird. The 1984 NBA Finals marked the first of three matchups between the Celtics and Lakers and Bird against Magic Johnson.
Bird came out on top in that series and went on an impressive run spanning six games between the Eastern Conference Finals — during which the Celtics defeated the Pistons — and Finals. In that stretch, he scored at least 30 points on five occasions. Another indication of how much offense has changed — Bird hit just 0.6 three-pointers per game that postseason while averaging 27.0 points, a near unthinkable feat in today’s game.
If Bird gets his flowers, it’s only fair that Magic does as well. While leading the Lakers to a revenge victory over the Celtics in 1985, Johnson racked up double-digit assists in all 19 postseason games – 15.2 per game. He was also stout on defense when it mattered, recording at least one steal in all six games against Boston in the Finals.
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