As this year’s Finals take place with the Miami Heat facing the Denver Nuggets, we’re looking back at legendary performances from superstars such as LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Michael Jordan, with the help of Basketball-Reference.com’s game score archive.
Game score, pioneered by John Hollinger, is a measure of a player’s single-game value factoring in all elements of the box score from scoring efficiency to playmaking to rebounding and defensive impact. Although imperfect, it quickly captures a player’s baseline performance and allows us to compare conference finals games going back to 1978 — the first year the NBA tracked individual turnovers.
Over that span of 45 years of NBA Finals, we’ve highlighted the top 25 individual performances, 16 of which came in victories for their team. How did each player succeed and what did their heroics mean for the series and the NBA playoffs as a whole? Let’s take a closer look at the top conference finals performances, highlighted by four from James and two from Jimmy Butler, who will look to add to his total in the games to come.
— Kevin Pelton
2016 Finals: Game 6 vs. Golden State Warriors
By now you’ve seen the viral clip of James in the Cavs’ locker room after Game 6 of the 2016 Finals, putting the 15th piece of the team’s 16-piece Larry O’Brien Trophy championship puzzle in place while telling his team the Warriors are “f—ed up … mentally and physically.” He dealt a fair portion of that damage with 41 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 blocks. Cleveland jumped out to a 31-11 lead after the first quarter and won by 15 points to set up a Game 7 for the ages.
— Dave McMenamin
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks | Game score: 42.0
2021 Finals: Game 6 vs. Phoenix Suns
With the Bucks one win away from winning their first NBA title in 50 years, all it took was Antetokounmpo having one of the greatest games in Finals history to end their drought.
Antetokounmpo finished with 50 points on 16-for-25 shooting from the field to go along with 14 rebounds, 2 assists and 5 blocks was one thing. But for him to also go 17-for-19 from the free throw line, after all of the chatter about his foul shooting during the postseason, was the definition of rising to meet the moment.
And, as a result, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were able to celebrate a championship on their home floor in Milwaukee.
— Tim Bontemps
3. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat | Game score: 42.0
2020 Finals: Game 3 vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Butler carried the Heat throughout their time in the 2020 Orlando, Florida, Bubble, but never more so than in Game 3 of the Finals against James and the Lakers. Butler scored 40 points with 13 assists and 11 rebounds in a win that not only kept the Heat in the series, but further cemented his status as one of the game’s premiere playoff players. Butler played 45 minutes, leaving everything he had on the floor while making big play after big play all night.
— Nick Friedell
4. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat | Game score: 41.3
2020 Finals: Game 5 vs. Los Angeles Lakers
With his team’s season hanging in the balance in the bubble, Butler delivered another all-time performance to the tune of 35 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in a Game 5 victory over the Lakers. Butler knew he had to set a tone for the rest of his teammates and that’s exactly what he did, following up his Game 3 showcase with another game that will be remembered within the Heat organization for years. Aside from Butler’s ability to make big plays all over the floor, the picture of an exhausted Butler from this game remains one of the most memed in history.
5. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers | Game score: 41.3
2018 Finals: Game 1 vs. Golden State Warriors
In the greatest game of James’ individual postseason run, the star forward became just the fifth player in league history to top 50 points in an NBA Finals game, joining Elgin Baylor (61), Michael Jordan (55), Rick Barry (55) and Jerry West (53) with 51 points. He also had 8 rebounds and 8 assists, all against one of the greatest teams ever assembled. The masterful performance still wasn’t enough to get a win, as the Warriors prevailed in overtime with two crucial sequences going against the Cavs. First, James was called for a blocking foul on Kevin Durant with 36 seconds left and Cleveland up two. Had it been a charge, maybe things would have been different. And second, in one of the most memed moments of James’ career, JR Smith dribbled out the clock when George Hill missed a free throw with four seconds left with the score tied, rather than go for the go-ahead bucket near the hoop, causing James to splay his arms toward his teammate in exasperation.
2003 Finals: Game 6 vs. New Jersey Nets
Duncan set the tone for the Spurs’ Finals defeat of the Nets with an all-time box-score stuffing performance in the series opener: 32 points, 20 rebounds, 6 assists, 7 blocks and 3 steals. It was the most blocks and steals ever recorded in a 30-20 Finals outing and the third-most assists. Duncan was almost as dominant in the closeout Game 6, putting up a 21-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist, 8-block line to clinch his second Finals MVP.
— Tim MacMahon
7. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors | Game score: 39.8
2018 Finals: Game 3 vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Any time the Warriors needed a big play in Game 3 of the 2018 Finals against the Cavaliers, Durant delivered. He had 43 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists, but it was a clutch 3-pointer over two Cavs defenders with 52 seconds left that sealed both the game and his place in Finals history. An all-time dagger from an all-time player. Durant would go on to win his second straight Finals MVP and lead the Warriors to their second consecutive title.
8. Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers | Game score: 39.6
1980 Finals: Game 6 vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Johnson, who was a year removed from leading Michigan State to the NCAA title, stepped into the starting center role for the Finals closeout game with legendary big man Kareem Abdul-Jabbar staying in Los Angeles to nurse a badly sprained ankle. “Never fear, Magic is here!” Johnson told his teammates as they boarded the flight to Philadelphia. Johnson delivered the best Finals performance ever by a rookie, scoring 42 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and dishing out 7 assists to lead the Lakers to the first of their five championships in the Showtime era.
9. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers | Game score: 39.2
2016 Finals: Game 5 vs. Golden State Warriors
“What did you say Klay [Thompson] said?” James asked a reporter prior to Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals. “Klay said, ‘I guess he just got his feelings hurt,'” the reporter replied, detailing Thompson’s response to James’ run-in with Draymond Green in Game 4. Then James burst out an indulgent chuckle. It was the start of the most significant postseason stretch of his career, winning Games 5 through 7 to help the Cavaliers become the first team in Finals history to climb out of a 3-1 deficit and win. James was brilliant in Game 5, putting up 41 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks as he and Kyrie Irving became the first pair of teammates to ever drop 40-plus in the same Finals game. The comeback was on.
10. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers | Game score: 39.1
2020 Finals: Game 5 vs. Miami Heat
Much like the Smith game in the 2018 Finals, James’ brilliance in Game 5 of the 2020 Finals sometimes gets forgotten, because of the attention paid to Danny Green‘s potential game-winning 3-pointer from the top of the key missing with under 10 seconds remaining. But the fact that James nearly closed out the bubble by making 15 out of 21 shots — including 6-of-9 3s — to score 40 points with 13 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals while wearing the “Black Mamba” uniform that held so much significance to the Lakers’ franchise that season in remembering Kobe Bryant makes it one of the finest playoff games of James’ or any other player’s career.
11. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls | Game score: 38.9
1993 Finals: Game 4 vs. Phoenix Suns
Jordan scored nearly half of the Bulls’ points with a 55-point outburst in Game 4 of the 1993 Finals. It was one of the highest scoring performances in Finals history and put the Bulls on the verge of their first three-peat.
Chicago won the first two games of the series on the road before dropping Game 3 after returning home, but Jordan would not allow the Suns back into the series. Phoenix had no answer in stopping him from getting to the rim and Jordan shot 56.8% from the field with 8 rebounds and 4 assists. Jordan’s 55 points are tied for the second-most in Finals history, trailing only a 61-point game by Baylor in 1962.
— Jamal Collier
12. Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers | Game score: 37.9
2000 Finals: Game 1 vs. Indiana Pacers
Shaq’s 2000 series against Indiana was one of the most dominant Finals ever, as he averaged 38.0 PPG to rank third in Finals history behind Jordan in 1993 (41.0) and Baylor in 1962 (40.6). Fresh off a Game 7 comeback to beat the Portland Trail Blazers, O’Neal served the Pacers notice in the series opener at the then-Staples Center, putting up 41 points on 21-of-31 shooting and 19 rebounds as the Lakers pulled away late. The 21 field goals were one shy of Baylor’s 1962 Finals record, which came on 15 more shot attempts.
13. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks | Game score: 37.4
2021 Finals: Game 3 vs. Phoenix Suns
When the Bucks returned home from Phoenix down 2-0 in the Finals, it looked like their storybook season would wind up being anything but.
That’s where Antetokounmpo came in. With a loss all but certain to end Milwaukee’s season, Antetokounmpo made sure that would not happen, going for 41 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists in just under 38 minutes, while also going — in a precursor to his truly legendary performance in Game 6 — 13-for-17 from the foul line. It wound up being the first of four straight wins for the Bucks in the series, as Milwaukee would go on to win its first title since 1971.
14. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors | Game score: 37.2
2019 Finals: Game 3 vs. Toronto Raptors
The barrage of shots from all over the floor started early in a Game 3 loss to the Raptors as Curry carried an offense playing without star forward Durant, who was out because of an Achilles injury. While he couldn’t carry the Warriors to a victory, Curry hit six 3-pointers and scored 47 points, giving Warriors fans one last show in Oracle Arena before the team moved to Chase Center after the season. While Curry’s performance was a highlight for the Warriors, this series will always be remembered by Durant’s Achilles tear in Game 5 and Klay Thompson‘s ACL tear in Game 6.
15. Charles Barkley, Phoenix Suns | Game score: 37.0
1993 Finals: Game 2 vs. Chicago Bulls
After a subpar Game 1, where he posted 21 points on 9-of-25 shooting as the Bulls won the opener in Phoenix, Barkley bounced back with his best game of the 1993 Finals: 42 points on 16-of-26 shooting, plus 13 rebounds and 4 assists. Only one problem: Jordan also scored 42 points, coming within an assist of a triple-double. While Barkley got the edge in game score by virtue of his efficiency, Jordan’s Chicago team earned the 111-108 win, taking a 2-0 lead in a series they would go on to win in six games.
The best of the rest
16. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1992 Finals Game 1 | Game score: 36.9
17. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, 2021 Finals Game 2 | Game score: 36.7
18. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2017 Finals Game 5 | Game score: 36.2
19. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors, 2016 Finals Game 7 | Game score: 35.9
20. Charles Barkley, Phoenix Suns, 1993 Finals Game 4 | Game score: 35.6
21. Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers, 2001 Finals Game 1 | Game score: 35.0
22. Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers, 1987 Finals Game 3 | Game score: 35.0
23. Shaquille O’Neal, Los Angeles Lakers, 2002 Finals Game 2 | Game score: 35.0
24. James Worthy, Los Angeles Lakers, 1988 Finals Game 4 | Game score: 35.0
25. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1991 Finals Game 2 | Game score: 34.7