Players from the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors will try to add their names to the list of great performances in NBA Finals history. And as the NBA concludes its 75th anniversary season, it’s an ideal time to look back on the best individual efforts we’ve ever seen in the league’s championship round.
We’ll be doing so on a game-by-game basis throughout the 2022 Finals, choosing a six-player team — all five positions plus a sixth man — from each game during the series (Game 1s, Game 2s and so on).
There’s no specific formula for what constitutes Finals greatness, though I will be leaning on the game score metric developed by John Hollinger for games for which it’s available from Basketball-Reference.com since player turnovers were first tracked in the 1977-78 season.
The all-time great Game 5s feature Kyrie Irving kickstarting a historic comeback from a 3-1 Finals deficit, one of Michael Jordan’s signature games and the highest-scoring performance in Finals history.
Let’s take a look back.
Point guard: Kyrie Irving | 2016 Cavaliers vs. Warriors
Stats: 41 points, 17-24 FGs, 5-7 3s
A coronation awaited Golden State with a win in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. After taking Game 4 in Cleveland, the Warriors were one win away from capping their record-setting 73-win season with a title. The Cavaliers, and in particular their star duo of Irving and LeBron James, had other ideas.
My ESPN colleague Dave McMenamin reported that James told Irving before the game, “Be special.” He was just that.
Golden State was without defensive stalwart Draymond Green, who was suspended for flagrant foul point accumulation in the playoffs, and then lost center Andrew Bogut to injury at the start of the second half.
In the second half alone, Irving scored 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting as Cleveland turned a halftime tie into a 112-97 win to extend the series.
For the game, Irving’s 41 points were a postseason career high, topped only once (Irving scored 42 against Boston in the 2017 conference finals). Irving’s 81% effective field goal percentage, accounting for the additional value of his five 3s, also remains his second-best playoff performance in a game with more than two shot attempts.
“It’s probably one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen live,” James said postgame.
Shooting guard: Jimmy Butler | 2020 Heat vs. Lakers
Stats: 35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists, 5 steals
Butler’s Game 5 performance in the 2020 Finals gave birth to a meme: an exhausted Butler catching his breath on the scorers table before heading to the line for the go-ahead free throws with 46.7 seconds remaining.
Butler gave Miami the lead at the line with 16.0 seconds left before Danny Green missed the potential winner on the Lakers’ final full possession.
“I left it all out there on the court,” Butler said postgame.
Butler’s tank was empty. He played more than 47 minutes while recording his second 30-point triple-double of the series. Butler went a perfect 12-for-12 from the foul line and came up with a game-high five steals, matching his career high in the playoffs. Although the Heat’s run came to an end with a Game 6 loss, Butler’s performance is worth celebrating.
Small forward: LeBron James | 2016 Cavaliers vs. Warriors
Stats: 41 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks
Irving didn’t do it alone back in 2016 Game 5. James matched him point for point in his third-best Finals game ever and the first time a pair of teammates topped 40 points in the Finals.
Before deferring to Irving down the stretch, James scored at least 10 points in each of the first three quarters, racking up 25 by halftime. But the third quarter was James’ masterpiece. He either scored or assisted on nine of Cleveland’s 11 field goals in the period as the Cavaliers opened up a nine-point lead heading to the fourth.
Together, James and Irving scored 82 of the Cavaliers’ 112 points. JR Smith, with 10, was the only other Cleveland player to reach double-figures, as Kevin Love had just two points on 1-of-5 shooting in his return from a concussion. James’ 16 rebounds also tied his second most in a Finals game.
Power forward: Elgin Baylor | 1962 Lakers vs. Celtics
Stats: 61 points, 22 rebounds, 17-19 free throws
Out of the 437 Finals games in NBA history entering Monday’s Game 5, only one player has ever topped 60 points: Baylor in Game 5 in 1962. (He’s the only player to ever surpass 55, for that matter.)
Boston’s defense had predictably led the NBA in points allowed and defensive rating, but Baylor still attempted an incredible 46 shots and 19 free throw attempts while playing the full 48 minutes.
The Lakers won 126-121, coming back from down six entering the fourth quarter to take a 3-2 lead in the series, and needed every point and team-high 22 boards from Baylor to do it.
“All I remember is that we won the game,” Baylor said later. “I never thought about how many points I had.”
Center: Bill Russell | 1961 Celtics vs. Hawks
Stats: 30 points, 38 rebounds
Russell was everywhere in Game 5 as Boston closed out St. Louis for the third of what would eventually be eight consecutive championships. Russell played the full 48 minutes and pulled down 38 boards to lead the Celtics to a preposterous 81-52 advantage on the glass.
Russell also scored a team-high 30 points, one of just three times in his Finals career he had that many. No other player besides Russell has had a 30-30 game in the Finals.
Sixth man: Michael Jordan | 1997 Bulls vs. Jazz
Stats: 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists
You need only two words to immediately remember this Jordan performance: “Flu game.”
Never mind that it’s well documented by now Jordan didn’t actually have the flu the day of Game 5 of the 1997 Finals in Salt Lake City with the series tied 2-2. During “The Last Dance,” Jordan attributed his flu-like symptoms (including sweats and vomiting) to food poisoning from a pizza delivery the night before.
Chicago fell behind 29-16 after one quarter, but Jordan found his legs to score 17 points in the second quarter — making nine of 10 free throw attempts — to get the Bulls back into it. Jordan summoned that same strength in the fourth quarter, when his 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting nearly matched Utah’s total in the period (16).
After splitting two free throws with 46 seconds left to tie the game at 85, Jordan made the winning 3-pointer in the final 30 seconds, then relied on support from teammate Scottie Pippen to get back to the bench.
There have been better Jordan efforts than the flu game. He had higher game scores in Game 5 of both the 1992 and 1993 Finals. Nonetheless, the flu game remains iconic 25 years later.