Holding Court - The greatest players in NBA Finals history part II
Last week, we came up with the first batch of the greatest players in NBA finals history, covering 20 of the 30 we have picked as those who have made the greatest difference in winning NBA championships for their respective teams.
As expected, there were a few questions raised about those choices. A sportswriter friend, for instance, asked me, perhaps thinking that the list was complete, where was the great Bob Cousy, the pioneer of all those fancy moves now routinely made especially by point guards. Well, I told him while conceding that there must be a little oversight on our part that The Cooz isn’t on our list. I cited the fact that I didn’t even include two more great Celtics finals performers, Kevin McHale and Tom Heinsohn, whose 37-point record for a Game 7 finals clincher was tied by LeBron James last year, adding as some sort of a copout that I didn’t want the list to look like an All-Celtics selection.
But, really, how can one completely ignore the many great Celtics players who were responsible for all those championship victories for the legendary franchise? The Celtics have the most number of championships won with 17, and they’re rightfully joined by their arch-rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, in owning the distinction as the two flagship franchises in pro basketball, as both of them have accounted for a total of 33 NBA titles. That’s almost half of the 68 titles put up for grabs during the 68-year existence of the world’s top basketball league.
Logic thus dictates that the Celtics and the Lakers would have the most number of greatest players in the NBA finals, as indeed they do on our top 10 list. Seven of the 10 slots have been given to either a Laker (part-time or not) or a Celtic, with the three remaining slots having been cornered by three other transcendent stars who have led their team to multiple championships.
Below is our top 10, the best of the very best, without any apologies.
1A. Bill Russell – There’s a reason the NBA Finals MVP award was named the “Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.” The great Boston Celtics center is, quite simply, the greatest winner in all sports history, collaring 11 NBA championships in 13 years, a record that will probably be unmatched until the end of time, unless somebody with Russ’ toughness, character and heart, cerebral powers, athleticism and innovative skills comes along. Consider: He has career playoff averages of 16.2 points, 24.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists, and even if he was not that big a scorer, one just has to reverse those rebounding and scoring numbers to come up with, yes, an out-and-out dominant player whichever way one cuts it. He is a perfect 10-0 in Game 7s (1-0 in Game 5s) and led the Boston Celtics to eight straight championships (which could have been 10 straight had he not been injured in the 1958 finals, the only time he lost in the championship series) at a time when all teams in the NBA were loaded with two or three All-Stars each because expansion had not yet diluted it, battling the likes of Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, Walt Bellamy, Bob Pettit, Willis Reed, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Rick Barry, and, later, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. That undefeated record in deciding games has been extolled with the passage of time. “Of all the stats and numbers produced by Russell, one stands out as perhaps the greatest single numeric stat in Boston sports history (not counting of course Ted Williams' 39-0 record in the Korean War),” The Boston Globe noted. “Bill Russell was 10-0 in Game 7s. 10-0. LeBron, M.J., Kobe, Wilt, Larry, no one will ever match that Perfect 10. At least not in this time-space continuum.” Redefining the game with his defense, rebounding and shot blocking, the 6-foot-10, 220-pound Russell averaged 18 points and 29 rebounds in those 11 do-or-die games he all turned into wins. He holds the finals record for most rebounds in a game with 40, doing it twice, and also grabbed 30 rebounds in three straight games in the 1959 finals against the LA Lakers, in the process setting the record for highest rebounding average in a finals series with 29.5. He pulled down 30 boards in 15 straight finals games between 1960 and 1963 and would have also held all blocked-shots records had records been kept of that stat at the time. Could a greater performer possibly be there besides Russell? Only one player actually comes close to him, and that’s…
1B. Michael Jordan – And His Airness is ranked 1B simply because of the unmatched offensive game he had while leading those Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles between 1991 and 1998. If Russell was the defensive king, Jordan was the offensive ruler. The 6-foot-6 guard was 6-for-6 in finals appearances, and he is the only player to have won six Finals MVP trophies (though it’s safe to say that Russell himself would have won quite a few had the award been existing during Boston’s dynasty years). A few diehards say Chicago would have tied the Celtics’ streak of eight straight titles had Jordan not retired in 1994 and spent almost two seasons playing baseball instead of NBA ball. But they conveniently forget that Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets were inevitably due for a championship or two in 1994 and 1995 with The Dream at the peak of his powers, and it’s debatable if the Bulls could have beaten those Rocket teams given Jordan’s tired psyche at that point, kind of what LeBron James and company experienced this year after four straight finals. From this vantage point at least, that near-two-year break served Jordan and the Bulls in good stead, as they were renewed in 1998, setting the all-time regular-season record of 72-10 (against a watered-down field diluted by expansion of course). But Jordan’s 33.6-point average in the finals, which stands as the record that may last for the next century or so, makes him unquestionably the best offensive player in history, and downright the best clutch player in finals lore as well, and no amount of mid-streak break can change that reality.
3. Larry Bird – Larry Legend was slow and couldn’t jump, the antithesis of what present-day fans see of LeBron James. But the 6-9 forward overcame those athletic limitations to become one of the greatest players in history, whose toughness and will to win as well as smarts and savvy enabled Boston to beat such teams as the Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Philadelphia 76ers of Julius Erving, and the Houston Rockets once featuring Moses Malone and then the original Twin Towers of Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Bird led the Celtics to three titles and five finals appearances, winning the title in just his second year by grabbing 20-plus rebounds in Games 1 and 2 against the Rockets. He then won the Finals MVP in 1984 behind 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game, punctuating it with 34 points, 17 rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot in that famous “sauna” game that turned the series around against the Lakers in Game 5. Bird again took Finals MVP honors in leading the Celtics to the 1986 title against Houston, averaging 24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists and posting a triple-double in the clinching Game 6 with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Bird’s reputation as one of the greatest clutch performers in history whose brilliance shone especially in critical moments certainly earned the respect of the most discerning of his peers. Once asked who he would want to take the last shot with the game on the line, other than himself, Michael Jordan answered, even before the question could be finished, “Larry Bird.”
4. Magic Johnson – The Magicman, whose rivalry with Bird highlighting that Celtics-Lakers feud probably saved the NBA from bankruptcy and helped turn it into the multibillion dollar industry that it is now, authored perhaps the single most memorable performance in the finals. With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sidelined with a severe ankle sprain for Game 6 of the 1980 finals, Johnson jumped center and played all positions as he collected 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals to lead the Lakers to a clinching 123-107 win in Philadelphia. He in the process became the only rookie to win the Finals MVP award. The 6-9 Johnson won a second Finals MVP trophy, one of three he took in five championship victories and nine trips to the finals, in a 4-2 victory over Philly in 1982, averaging 16.2 points on .533 floor shooting, 10.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 2.5 steals. While he had to give way to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Lakers’ 4-2 win over the Celtics in 1985, Magic was nevertheless instrumental in that first-ever playoff victory of the Lakers over their green-clad rivals in nine tries as he normed 18.3 points, 14.0 assists and 6.8 rebounds. That third Finals MVP trophy came in the Lakers’ third meeting with Boston in the 1987 finals, where Magic averaged 26.2 scores on .541 shooting, 13.0 feeds, 8.0 caroms and 2.33 steals. He punctuated that 4-2 championship victory with his game-winning “junior, junior skyhook” over Robert Parish and Kevin McHale in a crucial 107-106 win in Game 4 after LA rallied from a 16-point deficit to take control of the series. Johnson had to defer again, this time to James Worthy, in the Lakers’ seven-game victory over Detroit in the 1988 finals, but his norms of 21.1 points on .550 shooting, 13.0 dishoffs and 5.7 boards were indispensable. Besides, by this time, Magic has established himself as one of the greatest on the big stage by leading perhaps the most dominant run of any team outside the Russell Celtics.
5. Kobe Bryant – The Assassin. This to our mind aptly describes this current-day superstar (no matter if he’s on the back side) who may be the closest in terms of a killer’s mindset and skills to Michael Jordan. In seven finals appearances where he won five titles, the 6-6 Bryant averaged 26.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists, and has earned a reputation as one of the game’s most clutch players. Kobe started his championship journey in 2000 in a guard-center team-up with Shaquille O’Neal. Although he played second-fiddle to Shaq, there was no question that there would be no three straight title victories for the Lakers without Bryant. In the 2000 finals against Indiana that LA won in six games, Bryant hurt his ankle in Game 2 and missed the next game but came back in Game 4 with 22 second-half points, hitting the game-winning shot in overtime with Shaq having fouled out. In the 2002 finals against New Jersey, Bryant averaged 26.8 points, 51.4 percent floor shooting, 5.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, becoming, at age 23, the youngest player to win three championships. Kobe finally earned the first of his two Finals MVP trophies in the 2009 finals against Orlando, norming 32.4 points, 7.4 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks in the 4-1 win. He became the first player since Jerry West in the 1969 finals to average at least 32.4 points and 7.4 assists and the first since Jordan to average 30 points, five rebounds and five assists for a title-winning team in the finals. Kobe avenged a 2008 finals loss to Boston and earned a second Finals MVP award by leading LA over the Celtics in the 2010 finals, scoring 10 of his game-high 23 points in the fourth quarter and grabbing 15 boards in Game 7 as LA came back from a 13-point deficit.
6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Often overlooked in terms of his place among the greats, Kareem nevertheless is a true great on the game’s biggest stage, having won six championships while earning two Finals MVP awards. As the Milwaukee Bucks’ franchise superstar in 1971, the 7-2 center, then still known as Lew Alcindor, led the team to its only NBA title, with Milwaukee posting a 12-2 playoff record and sweeping the Wes Unseld- and Earl Monroe-led Washington Bullets (now Wizards). He averaged 32.5 points and 18 rebounds per game in the four-game sweep of Washington, including an amazing triple-double (49 points, 13 boards and 12 dishoffs) in Game 2, and was fittingly named Finals MVP. He then adopted the Muslim name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after that, having converted to Islam while still at UCLA. He later teamed up with Magic Johnson as the biggest stars on those Laker teams that won five titles in the ‘80s. Abdul-Jabbar was on his way to winning MVP honors in the 1980 finals against Philadelphia, averaging 33 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks going into Game 5, but he sprained an ankle in this game and could not play in the next contest, where Magic had that 42-point, 15-rebound game of his to snatch that trophy. But Kareem had his day in 1985, when, for the first time in nine finals confrontations, the Lakers finally beat the Celtics in six games and the then-38-year-old Abdul-Jabbar became the oldest player to win Finals MVP honors. He compiled 32 points and 17 boards in a Game 2 victory that reversed a 34-point blowout in Game 1, scored 36 points in a crucial Game 5 win, and had 29 points in the Game 6 clincher. When the Lakers repeated in 1988, Abdul-Jabbar took the distinction of owning the longest span (17 years) between the first and last titles won by any player in league annals.
7. Hakeem Olajuwon – The Dream. And he was precisely that, particularly during that two-year championship run of the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995. In those championship victories, the seven-foot Olajuwon showed without a shadow of a doubt that he was the undisputed best big man, and, ergo, player in the game, outplaying his counterparts on both occasions. In the Rockets’ seven-game victory against New York in 1994, Hakeem thoroughly outplayed the Knicks’ Patrick Ewing, compiling averages of 26.9 points on 50.0 percent field-goal shooting, 9.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.9 blocked shots to Ewing’s 18.9 points on a 36.4 percent floor clip, 12.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 4.3 blocks. In the sixth game that tied the series, Olajuwon saved Houston’s season when he blocked a three-point attempt by the Knicks’ hot-shooting guard John Starks to preserve an 86-84 win. In the Game 7 clincher, a 90-84 triumph, Olajuwon had 25 points, 10 boards and seven assists to lead the Rockets. Hakeem became the sixth player to win Finals MVP honors multiple times the next year (joining Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan at that point) when he led the Rockets to a 4-0 finals sweep of Orlando, then led by Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway. He again beat O’Neal in their duel at center, outscoring him in all the games for a 32.8-28.0-ppg series edge. He had 35 points and 15 boards to Shaq’s 25 and 12 in Houston’s 113-101 clincher.
8. John Havlicek – Hondo. The 6-5 Havlicek was perhaps the second-most important player in the Celtics’ dynasty years, having been the team’s chief offensive weapon along with Sam Jones as he won six of the eight NBA championships he earned with the Russell teams. And one can make a strong case that Havlicek became one of the greatest clutch players in history after joining Boston in the middle of its string of eight consecutive titles. Armed with an ungodly low pulse rate of 50, Hondo befuddled rivals with his tireless ability to run up and down the floor, his tenacity on both offense and defense, and his endurance and constant motion that often forced them into submission. Havlicek became the Celtics’ undisputed leader when Bill Russell and Sam Jones retired in 1969, and he led the Celtics’ revival that saw them win two championships in the ‘70s. His ability to score in bunches and from long range particularly in clutch situations (which would have made him even more potent had there been a three-point shot at the time) helped Boston take Milwaukee in seven games in the 1974 finals, where he won MVP honors after averaging a team-high 26.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.9 steals. Havlicek set the record for most points in an overtime period (nine) in this series during a 102-101 double-OT loss that forced a deciding Game 7. Havlicek’s ability to hit the clutch shot again came to the fore in the Celtics’ 1976 finals victory over Phoenix, which featured probably the greatest game in history, that triple-overtime classic that set up Boston’s Game 6 clincher. In the second overtime of that fifth game, Havlicek made a leaning, running bank shot that served as a cushion before Gar Heard’s shot sent it to a third OT. While it was Jo Jo White who won MVP honors in this title run, Havlicek’s contributions (15.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.5 apg) were vital.
9. Shaquille O’Neal – Shaq. The Big Diesel. The Big Aristotle. Whichever way you want to call him, Shaquille O’Neal will go down as one of the most dominant physical specimens ever to roam a basketball court, that is, until injuries and poor physical conditioning did him in towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium. But for three straight years at least – or during the Lakers’ three-straight championship run from 2000-2002 – nobody could touch him, having established the highest scoring average for a center in finals history en route to being named Finals MVP on those occasions. The Lakers won the NBA title in 2000, their first since the last of those five titles in the Magic Johnson era, with the 7-1, 325-pound Shaq averaging 38.0 points and 16.7 rebounds. He in the process became just the third player to earn MVP honors for the regular season, the All-Star Game (he shared this with Tim Duncan) and the finals in the same year. O’Neal also led LA to two more championships in each of the next two seasons. In 2001, he averaged 33.0 points, 15.8 boards and 4.8 blocks to power LA to a second straight banner. In 2002, he normed 36.3 points, 12.3 caroms and 3.8 blocks as the Lakers took their third straight NBA title. Shaq thus became only the second player after Jordan (1991-93 and 1996-98) to win Finals MVP honors three consecutive years. O’Neal won a fourth title with Miami in a teamup with Dwyane Wade in 2006, and although he was nowhere near the dominant presence he was with the Lakers, he still was a significant contributor to the Heat’s first-ever title, averaging 13.7 points, a team-high 10.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
10. Tim Duncan – In looking at Duncan’s sustained excellence particularly on the biggest stage, one just has to look at the time span between the time he won his first title (1999) and his latest (2014) to know it would be the second-longest span (15 years) for any player in history, behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 17 years. The 6-11 Duncan is, quite simply, the best power forward in history, the best player of his generation (late ‘90s and first decade of the new millennium), and perhaps the best team man of all, somebody who approaches the likes of Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the way he makes the right play and in making the players around him better. Duncan first stood out on the big stage in 1999 during the Spurs’ first title run then with David Robinson, winning Finals MVP honors with stellar play against New York on both ends of the floor. He then earned a second MVP trophy in the 2003 finals against New Jersey, averaging 24 points, 17 caroms and more than five blocks, the most of any player since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. Tim joined Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Magic Johnson as the only players to win Finals MVP honors three times when he led San Antonio to a seven-game victory over Detroit in the 2005 finals, posting norms of 20.6 points, 14.1 boards, 2.1 assists and 2.1 blocks. It was Tony Parker who won the MVP trophy during a fourth title run in 2007, but there wouldn’t have been another banner without Tim’s 18.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.3 steals. Of course, the same can be said of the latest title, which wouldn’t have been won without Duncan’s leadership and series-long 15-point, 10-rebound contributions.
Spurs take fifth title in five
The San Antonio Spurs took their fifth NBA title by dethroning two-time defending champion Miami, closing out the Heat 104-87 at home to win their series in five games.
The championship victory avenged last year’s heartbreaking collapse to Miami, where the Spurs, leading 3-2 and on the verge of winning the title with a five-point lead with 28.2 seconds left in Game 6, allowed the Heat to send the game into overtime, eventually losing the game and the next contest to hand Miami its second straight championship victory.
“The San Antonio Spurs showed the world how beautiful this game is,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said as he probably provided the perfect description for the new champions.
The Spurs simply outplayed the Heat even in this crucial game where Miami had a great start, which saw the Heat racing to a 22-6 lead in contrast to the previous two contests at home where they fell behind early by a big margin. The crisp ball movement, the unyielding defense and the excellent outside shooting that have become the hallmark of these Spurs eventually wore down and demoralized the Heat even with James scoring 17 of his game-high 31 points in the first period.
It was as close as any final series could have come to a sweep. Perhaps it was fitting that San Antonio won Games 1, 3, 4 and 5 by 15, 19, 21 and 17 points while losing the second by just two to show how much better they are to this Heat squad.
Kawhi Leonard, the silent defensive bulwark of the Spurs against James, was named Finals MVP on the strength of the defensive work he did against what is acknowledged as the world’s best player today as well as his 17.8-point and 6.0-rebound averages.
More on this final series next issue. – 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, drunk and slept sports most of his life.