Magic, Bird, Isiah, Jordan, Hakeem, Shaq, Duncan, Kobe, Wade and LeBron: since 1980, the NBA finals have featured at least one of these legendary NBA champions stomping all over the hopes of lesser ballers. The skills, athleticism and drive necessary to rise to the top of any professional sport lives deep within these ten future and current hall-of-famers. A total of 37 rings have been made for these megastars; Magic, Kobe, Duncan and Jordan can fill an entire hand with their championship bling. None of them won as much as Bill Russell, who can fill both his hands with NBA championship rings.
Despite the fact that the balance of power tends to shift back and forth from the East to the West during the history of the NBA, the association's finals typically presents the best players on the best teams, playing at the peak of their skills. Making it to the NBA is a rare dream possible for only a select few, representing a tiny fraction of humans. Performing in the NBA finals is an opportunity that even fewer have experienced. Considering the domination of the ten elite players listed in the opening paragraph, owning a ring is more rare than a bloody steak.
Hanging with the true elites of the NBA requires focus that never wavers and the ability to perform at a high level when it counts the most. The NBA finals are a proving ground for the greats, many of whom make names for themselves through clutch performances etched into the history of the sport.
While greatness is never completely forgotten, those who fail on the big stage face a type of infamy that cannot be erased. Nearly all of the biggest stars in the NBA, including championship winners, have at one time or another choked under pressure. But when these terrible performances take place during the NBA finals, the drama of the championships magnify the disappointment of what could have been.
15 Karl Malone
The duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone tore through the association for well over a decade, making it to the finals in consecutive years against Jordan's Bulls for the 1997 and 1998 championships. At that time, no one was beating MJ, hence the Jazz lost in both series.
Malone had another chance to reach for a ring during the 2004 NBA finals against the Pistons, riding shotgun with Kobe and Shaq for an attempt at a fourth straight Lakers title. He set the tone for his involvement in the series by having his worst finals game ever during the first contest, where he shot 2-9 in 44 minutes of playing time, notching only four points. This was a harbinger of the end of the dynasty, as the Lakers fell to Detroit after a tidy, gentleman's sweep.
14 Paul Pierce
The Truth taught an absurd clinic of clutch shot-making during the 2015 NBA playoffs, nearly lifting the Wizards all the way to an unlikely Conference Finals birth while hilariously shaming the Toronto Raptors out of the first round for the second consecutive year. More important was his performance during the 2008 Finals series that helped secure another championship banner for the legendary Celtics franchise.
That 2008 championship win almost didn't happen, especially after a terrible game three that saw Pierce shoot 2-14 for only six points in an awful 32 minutes that included five personal fouls. He turned it around for the rest of the series, average 25 PPG and 8.3 APG over the last three games.
13 Russell Westbrook
Nobody disagrees with the mantra of 'let Westbrook be Westbrook', but the uncontrolled release of thermonuclear fusion that forms the backbone of this All Star's game leads to the occasional disaster for the point guard.
He's dragged the Oklahoma City Thunder to victory on numerous occasions with clutch plays, but his first and only trip to the championship round featured an all-time worst performance during game five against LeBron's Heat. Russell shot only 4-20 for 19 points, dishing only six assists while grabbing four rebounds. Miami finished the Thunder off that game, overshadowing Russell's immense game four performance in which he dropped 43 points on 20-32 shooting from the field.
12 Kobe Bryant
Kobe cemented his legend with numerous clutch shots and championship performances, especially during his three-peat with Shaq at the beginning of the century. However, like nearly every superstar, there arrived a moment where his mortality reared its ugly head.
During the 2008 finals against the Celtics, Kobe gave his all in game six in an attempt to push the series to the limit, but ended up empty against the big three of Garnett, Pierce and Allen. Bryant went 7-22 with only three rebounds, a single assist and four turnovers as Boston went on to completely dominate the Lakers and clinch the championship.
11 Larry Bird
One of the most feared competitors during the 1980s was Larry Bird, who won three championships with the Celtics during the decade, destroying teams through his versatile style and killer, lights-out shooting.
One of his worst performances in the NBA Finals took place during game six of the 1987 finals against the Lakers. He put together a rancid shooting night by going 6-16 from the floor in 41 minutes, scoring 16 points, grabbing 9 boards and dishing 5 assists – all of which were below his playoff career average of 23.8 PPG, 6.5 APG and 10.3 RPG.
The Lakers clinched the finals and this was the last time his Celtic teams would contend for the championship.
10 Dirk Nowitzki
Disco Dirk is probably the best non-U.S. player in the history of the game, bombing jumpers over helpless defenders as one of the most unguardable players of his era. Historically, Nowitzki steps up in the playoffs, averaging 25.4 PPG and 10.2 RPG, a notable increase on his regular season career averages of 22.2 PPG and 7.9 RPG.
Dirk choked along with the 2006 Mavericks, in particular during game four of the series, when he shot 2-14 for a paltry 16 points. The Heat would go on to win the championship, coming back from a 2-0 deficit to sweep the rest of the series.
Nowitzki learned from his 2006 failure, averaging 27.7 points during the Mavs 2011 title run, hitting almost 49% of his shots, including an amazing 46% from three on the way to deposing LeBron's Heat.
9 Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson teamed up with Charles Barkley to create one of the deadliest teams to threaten the dynasty of Jordan and the Bulls, facing Chicago during the 1993 finals. Despite his status as one of the shiftiest point guards in the league at the time, the three-time all-star simply didn't show up for the first two games at home in Phoenix, choking away the Championship series before the Suns could even recover.
Game two was particularly egregious, as KJ shot 2-8 from the field, notching only six assists while turning the ball over four times, eventually fouling out of the game. Despite a terrific game three performance to steal a win in Chicago, Jordan dusted off the Suns in six games, winning the championship in Phoenix.
8 Tim Duncan
Criticizing The Big Fundamental for any reason is a borderline sacrilegious affront to the basketball gods, but even Tim Duncan has choked away victory during the NBA finals.
After taking control of the legendary 2013 NBA championship series against the Miami Heat by winning game one in Miami, Tim Duncan had the worst NBA finals game of his career in game two, shooting 3-13 for only nine points. To be fair, the entire Spurs team was terrible, allowing Miami to claw back into and eventually win the series, which would eventually feature one of the most amazing finishes in Championship history, including Ray Allen's miracle three in game 6.
7 Reggie Miller
Up until Stephen Curry smashed the record, Reggie Miller hit the most threes in a single playoffs season by nailing 58 of them in the year 2000. He was also responsible for the most incredible burst of scoring in the history of the playoffs during his unrepeatable “eight points in nine seconds” while he dismantled the 1995 New York Knicks.
Reggie only made it to the finals once with the Pacers during his career, facing the Lakers for the championship in 2000. In the first game of the series, he put up an awful 1-16 during his 41 minutes on the floor, including a baffling 0-3 from deep. He recovered to play fantastic ball for the rest of the finals, but the Lakers would prove to be too much to handle and Reggie would never get another shot at glory.
6 Kenyon Martin
Kenyon Martin was second to Mike Miller for 2000-2001 Rookie of the Year, making first-team all-rookie and eventually the All Star team in 2004. However, during the New Jersey Nets' consecutive finals appearances in 2002-2003, he completely disappeared from the radar during the last two games that he would ever appear in the final round.
During the sixth and final game of the 2003 series against the Spurs, Kenyon Martin shot 3-23 to finish with only six points while San Antonio clinched yet another NBA championship. After he was traded to the Denver Nuggets, injuries started to derail his career as his explosive skills and physical gifts eroded into mediocrity.
5 Stephen Curry
The most recent example of a superstar experiencing a bout of choking during the NBA Finals is Stephen Curry, arguably the best shooter in history. In game five of the 2015 Western Semi-Finals against the Grizzlies, he broke Ray Allen's record for the quickest to make 100 career threes in the playoffs by notching them in 28 games, seven games faster than Allen. Ten days later, he broke the single season playoff record by making his 59th three in 13 games, topping Reggie Miller, who made 58 threes in 22 games during the 2000 playoffs.
During the Finals, he somehow managed to set a record in futility by missing 13 threes during game 2 against LeBron's Cavaliers – the worst performance by an MVP in the NBA Finals in 28 years.
4 Ray Allen
His legendary work ethic and OCD-inspired game preparation routines have prepared him to step up and hit huge shots in clutch moments – like the miraculous, season-saving three that sent game six into overtime during the 2013 finals against the Spurs.
The game after setting an NBA finals record for made threes with eight in game 2 against the Lakers in 2010, Ray Allen nearly set the record for most shots taken in the finals without a make, going 0-13, including 0-8 from deep. He hit a pair of foul shots to avoid going scoreless in his 42:09 on the court, which included a paltry four rebounds and two assists.
3 John Starks
An All Star on one of the best Knicks teams to never win the championship, John Starks was a deadly long-range threat next to the overwhelming post presence of Patrick Ewing. The two of them helped lead the New York Knicks to a 3-2 series lead during the 1994 finals against Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets.
That would be the closest the Knicks would get to their first Larry O'Brien championship trophy since 1973. After a terrible game six in which Starks shot 9-18, he somehow managed to choke even harder during game seven, resulting in one of the worst performances in Finals history. John Stark threw up eleven missed three pointers, going 2-18 on the way to eight points, two assists and two rebounds in 42 minutes played.
2 Dennis Johnson
One of the first truly horrendous chokes in the NBA Finals took place during the 1978 Championships that pitted the Seattle Supersonics against the Washington Bullets. The Sonics entered game seven on the wings of future Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson's game six performance in which he set the record for most blocks by a guard with seven rejections.
In game seven, he would set another record, this time for the worst shooting night in NBA Finals history, going 0-14 at the worst time possible. The Sonics lost by only six points. Johnson would redeem himself the next year, as the Sonics would go on to win the 1979 NBA championship with Dennis named as the MVP of the finals.
1 LeBron James
The King's first stint in the playoffs with Cleveland started and ended with a whimper. His debut in the 2007 NBA championships against the San Antonio Spurs was his worst Finals performance ever, as Coach Popovich, Bruce Bowen and Tim Duncan would hold LeBron James to only 14 points on 4-16 shooting with seven rebounds and four assists added. The Spurs would sweep a shell-shocked LeBron, teaching him a lesson about what it takes to win at the highest level of basketball.
Of course, LeBron learned his lesson and shook off this disappointment to confirm his status as the greatest of this generation, winning two rings while appearing in five consecutive finals.
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