Is there anything more attention grabbing than an individual battle between two Hall of Fame-bound players?
We were subject to it a few weeks ago when LeBron James and Kevin Durant went at it in Oklahoma City’s win over the Miami Heat. While the result is indicative of a lopsided affair favoring the Thunder, the battle between James and Durant was anything but as both players went for each other’s throat on one long-distance shot after another.
In the end, you can make arguments in favor of either player having the better game. That’s exactly where the greatness of these challenges is presented. Underneath the overlying challenge of ultimately winning a game, there was a one-on-one duel between two of the league’s greatest players attempting to show each other up in a shooting exhibition.
Of course, LeBron James and Kevin Durant certainly aren’t the first to do this. In fact, these types of battles have been occurring since the 1960s when the league’s top scorer and top defender met up over 50 times.
Just about every decade has its share of the league’s greatest going at it and having an entire game focus on the exploits of two players. There are few things more exciting than watching two players go at it and questioning what can they do next.
The best part, by far, is when they go on to top what they previously did. It seemingly happens every time, yet we never see it coming and have the same wide-eyed reaction every time we see it.
We’re not limiting this list of the league’s ten best duels, either. This includes duels over an entire career, over a playoff series, or even just for a single game if it’s good enough. The art of the duel should not be limited to a single occasion, as they can last for years, even decades.
Although we’re surely missing on some incredible duels over the past 60-plus years of the NBA, we were able to create a compilation of ten duels that captivated us and we reminisce about to this day.
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10. Tracy McGrady vs. Dirk Nowitzki
On a random December night, Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki put on a show that should still be recognized as one of the greatest try-and-top-this duels in NBA history.
For nearly 53 minutes, because we were so fortunate to be granted five minutes of free basketball, McGrady and Nowitzki hit impossible shot after impossible shot to keep up a high-octane, fast-paced game that we hoped would never come to an end.
McGrady was prolific in recording an absurd 48 points on 36 shots, including 6-13 from three, nine assists, nine rebounds, three blocks and two steals, yet he couldn’t top Nowitzki’s phenomenal career-high 53 points on 32 shots, 16 rebounds, four blocks, three steals and two assists in a game Dallas would eventually win by seven.
It wasn’t without the typical drama of an NBA game, though. In fact, McGrady actually cost his team a chance for victory in regulation when he missed the second end of a pair of free throws that would have given Houston a one-point lead with 27 seconds remaining.
McGrady was 4-for-7 on free throws on the night. Had he hit two more, this game would have featured two players going for 50. Even more strange, however, was that neither Dirk nor Tracy took the game-winning shot in regulation.
The overtime period was owned by Nowitzki. He scored the first ten points of overtime on the Mavericks first four possessions to give Dallas an insurmountable 103-93 lead with 3:36 remaining. McGrady would hit two three-pointers to cut the lead to four with 1:03 remaining, but a Marquis Daniels layup off an offensive rebound on the ensuing possession put a damper on any plans Houston had.
Of Dirk’s 53 points, 23 came in the fourth quarter and overtime, 31 overall in the second half. How exactly did Nowitzki earn that not-clutch label before winning in 2011?
9. Kobe Bryant vs. Gilbert Arenas
On December 17, 2006, we reached the climax of the Gilbert Arenas era.
While it’s one thing to score 60 points, it’s another, however, to do it against Kobe Bryant in his own building and single-handily outscore his team in overtime.
But it was a different time, a better time. Arguably the league’s two best scorers, Bryant averaged a league-leading 31.6 points to Gilbert’s 28.4 points per game that year, went toe-to-toe in a game that could seemingly never end, mostly because neither wanted to stop padding their stats.
Although the Wizards ended up winning by six, it wasn’t without the Lakers dropping 46 points in a fourth quarter they outscored Washington by ten in, overcoming Gilbert’s 15 points in the period. A Kobe assist off a Brian Cook three-pointer propelled the Lakers into an unlikely extra frame.
That’s where Gilbert grew weary of the Lakers’ antics. After Caron Butler hit a pair of free throws, Arenas would score the next 13 Wizard points, including a three-pointer with 57 seconds left that pushed the Wizards lead to five. Gilbert would then assist Butler on a shot at the rim to put the game on ice.
By the end of the night, Arenas had scored 60 points, 16 in overtime, on 32 shots, eight rebounds and eight assists, while Kobe Bryant had gone for a modest 45 points, ten assists and eight rebounds. They combined to shoot 12-for-23 from beyond the arc.
I’m already starting to miss these two. Both players never saw a shot they didn’t like, radiated confidence, and were extremely committed to their craft of scoring a whole bunch of points.
Who do we have to possibly replicate this?
8. LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant
Not even LeBron James turned out to be exempt from receiving a full dose of the Kevin Durant experience that took place in January. This was the icing on Durant’s midseason MVP pitch. He was just coming off a 41-point drubbing of Atlanta and had scored at least 30 points on better than 50 percent shooting in his past six, including that 54-point showing against the Warriors.
Needless to say, Durant was on an extended hot streak. And after scoring 54 on an apt defender in Andre Iguodala and 46 on Nicolas Batum a few nights later, it seemed that LeBron James was the only hope of making Durant appear to be mortal.
Not even LeBron could be up to the challenge. While he “held” Durant to 33 points, it came in a 17-point win for the Thunder that featured Durant shooting 12-for-23 and 4-for-9 from three.
As expected, LeBron and Kevin stole the show through the closing portion of the third quarter. Guarding each other, the two scored eight points apiece over a two-minute period that featured LeBron scoring six points on three shots within a minute.
LeBron actually wound up outscoring Durant 34-33, while shooting 12-20, but had rarely looked as vulnerable and human as he did when guarding his main competition for the MVP.
With the playing field level, since Durant’s offense overcame any sort of defense from LeBron, it made for one of the most impressive try-and-top-this battles in recent memory. With LeBron having been so dominant over the past two years and stepping up to every challenge, the NBA has needed a player like Durant to be a threat.
7. Allen Iverson vs. Vince Carter
The possibilities are endless when considering which contest featuring Vince Carter and Allen Iverson to choose from. Throughout the early-to-mid-2000s, these two were among the league’s top scorers and would constantly bring out the best in each other when their teams faced off.
As a result, we receive unbelievable duels, including a January 2001 contest that featured Iverson scoring 51 and Carter scoring 34 and an April 2005 duel that showcased Carter going off for 43 while Iverson scored 33.
But what could be better than an extended series between these two mammoth scorers? In the same year that gave us Iverson scoring 51 on Carter’s Raptors, the two squads, Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers and Carter’s Toronto Raptors, met up in the 2001 Eastern Conference Semifinals to decide who would play the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference finals.
As expected, both players averaged at least 30 points in a series that went, as expected, the full seven games, ending in a one-point win for the Sixers that was capped off by a Carter miss at the buzzer.
That was actually one of the worst showings by Carter and Iverson, scoring-wise, as they only combined to score 41 points on 45 shots, although Iverson did have 16 of his team’s 22 assists.
Before then, however, we were treated to one of those traditional give-me-the-ball-and-get-out-of-my-way games from Iverson. In Game 2 and with the Raptors threatening to take a 2-0 lead before the series even shifted to Toronto, Iverson took it upon himself to simply do everything to avoid what would have sealed their fate.
Of the 97 points scored in a game the Sixers would eventually win by five, Iverson scored 54 of those. He shot 54 percent on 39 shots, hit three three-pointers, made all nine of his free throws, and scored 19 of his team’s 24 fourth quarter points, including seven in the final 1:15. Carter scored a respectable 28 points in response. He was also not going to allow Allen Iverson to be the only one to score 50 points.
So, in response, Carter went out and put on a clinic in front of the home crowd the very next game, scoring 50 on only 29 shots and hitting nine of his 13 three-point attempts. He also contributed seven assists, six rebounds and four blocks in a dominant 24-point win where Iverson could only respond with 23 points on 22 shots.
But of course we were not done. Because two games later in Game 5, Iverson would have his second game in the series with at least 50 points. While Carter struggled with 16 points on 11 shots, Iverson went back into team-on-my-back mode and scored 52 points on 32 shots, including going 8-for-14 from three.
Game 6 would feature the two switching roles again, this time with Carter scoring 39 and Iverson scoring 20, in a Raptors win to push the series to seven games. Unfortunately, Game 7 wasn’t the prolific, end-all, be-all game we expected, instead giving us a tightly-contested defensive battle where neither player could hit the shot to put an end to it, once and for all.
6. Shaquille O’Neal vs. Hakeem Olajuwon
An effortless sweep that featured the Houston Rockets scoring at least 106 points in all four games, this battle between Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon is as close as we’ve ever gotten to the perfect Finals matchup.
Outside of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird battles, this full-on assault between Olajuwon and O’Neal was a spectacle to behold. The mixtures of strength, agility and footwork was a clinic put on by the two, including a 22-year-old Shaquille O’Neal, who clearly showed no respect to Hakeem.
O’Neal’s size afforded him averages of 28 points on 60 percent shooting, 12.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.5 blocks per game, while Olajuwon, who won Finals MVP, finished with averages of 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.0 blocks per contest.
Talk about doing a little bit of everything. Not only did these two do all the scoring, they also did most of the facilitating thanks to the attention they attracted and their uncanny ability to find teammates out of double-teams. Only their point guards averaged more assists throughout the series.
O’Neal dropped a double-double on Olajuwon in every game, including a 33-point, 12-rebound effort in a Game 2 loss, but Olajuwon did him one better with four straight games of at least 31 points. Being the force that he is, Olajuwon recorded 35 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and three steals in the clinching 12-point victory in Game 4.
It certainly wasn’t the first time that year Olajuwon demoralized an opposing center in a clinching victory. Hakeem also victimized David Robinson with 39 points and 17 rebounds in the Western Conference Finals clincher.
We’ll never be witness to this type of series again, where two post players bang against each other for over 40 minutes at a time and can consistently score on each other, while also defending well and nearly leading their team in assists. There are simply no types of players in today’s game that could even come near to matching either of the efforts from O’Neal or Olajuwon.
I guess we’ll just have to live with LeBron James going up against Kevin Durant.
5. LeBron James vs. Dwyane Wade
It was the one thing we lost when Dwyane Wade and LeBron James decided to team up in Miami. Knowing that Wade and James would no longer have any on-court duels was a serious blow to the NBA community, even to Heat fans that were appreciative of the skills and talent exhibited by both players when they met.
In 22 games against each other, LeBron won 13 of them, averaging 29.4 points on 47 percent shooting, 7.5 assists and 5.8 rebounds, while Dwyane, not to be outdone, averaged 27.6 points on 46 percent shooting, 6.7 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.4 steals per contest.
You can look back at any of the battles they’ve had and they could headline. Before we get to the game that’s featured, we can also look back at the historic outing on November 12, 2009, when Dwyane Wade recorded 36 points, five assists and four rebounds to LeBron James’s 34 points, seven assists and four rebounds in a Cavs win.
But only these two could top a game like that. Three years prior in Cleveland, Wade and James put together a battle of epic proportions. It was the first time both players scored at least 40 in a game against each other, as well as the most each player had scored against one another, LeBron going for 47 and Dwyane for 44.
Of course, they didn’t just score. No, that would be too easy. With his 47 points, LeBron also racked up 12 rebounds and nine assists, while Dwyane had nine assists and eight rebounds accompany his 44.
In a game where Cleveland eventually won 106-99, not even Wade’s 21 fourth quarter points were enough to compensate for a 37-point fourth quarter by Cleveland, led by–who else?–LeBron and his 18 points in the same frame.
Naturally, LeBron hit the go-ahead bucket on a short jumper that put Cleveland up two with 1:13 left. He delivered the dagger 30 seconds later when he rebounded his teammates miss and then assisted on a Donyell Marshall layup to put his team up four.
Even Heat fans have to miss this. These two brought the best out of each other every time they squared up, which has led to us earning such highlights as Wade’s dunk on Varejao, LeBron’s dunk on Alonzo Mourning, and the disturbingly lengthy sequences of shot-for-shot between the two.
4. Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell
There is only so much information one can find out on the epic battles that used to take place between Bill Russell, arguably the greatest post defender in NBA history, and Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the greatest post scorer in NBA history.
All we have left are box scores and black-and-white videos, and what they tell us is that Wilt Chamberlain, who famously scored 100 points in a single game and averaged over 50 points for an entire season, struggled to score on the man who won 11 championships to his two.
It certainly didn’t help that Wilt also shot 43 percent on 11 free throw attempts per game against Russell, but free throws were a consistent problem throughout Chamberlain’s career.
Chamberlain, who averaged 30.1 points over his 14-year career, averaged a mere 23.2 points per game in 51 games against Russell. He never scored more than 37 points and was limited to as few as eight points in a November 1967 game that pitted his Philadelphia 76ers against Russell’s Celtics.
Russell averaged only 10.8 points in their 51 games, but scoring wasn’t his calling card as he averaged only 15.1 points per game for his career. His main purpose on the court was rebounding and playing defense.
As you can tell by the labored numbers of Chamberlain whenever he played against him, Bill took his craft extremely seriously.
By the way, in those 51 games, Bill Russell came away as the winner by the wide margin of a 26-25 record.
3. Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins
It was over 25 years ago when Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins met in a Game 7 that would send the winner to the Eastern Conference Finals to play the Detroit Pistons.
This turned out to be no ordinary conclusion to a semifinals. What Game 7 between the Celtics and Hawks transpired into was a one-on-one duel between two titans of the game doing whatever possible to send their team to the next level.
While Dominique Wilkins ended up winning the fight, scoring 47 points to Bird’s 34, it was Larry Bird, playing 47 minutes, who won the war, thanks to a prolific fourth quarter where he scored 20 crucial points.
The fourth quarter between the two teams also has the credibility to be recognized as one of the greatest quarters in NBA history. A 34-34 stalemate that featured Bird and Wilkins defending each other and going jumper-for-jumper, capped off by a Bird layup off a blow-by on Wilkins with 25 seconds left and a five-point lead. Buried beneath this battle within a war was Doc Rivers recording 18 assists in 39 minutes and Kevin McHale going for 33 points and 13 rebounds.
2. Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson
It wouldn’t be fair to limit a duel between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to just one game.
You could certainly cite any number of games as the best duel. For example, in a Game 3 Celtics win, Bird went off for 30 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, while Magic went for a strong 32 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists.
You could even use the game before when Magic recorded an extraordinary 22 points and 20 assists in only 31 minutes against Larry’s 23 points and 10 rebounds.
And that’s just in the playoffs. In a regular season game in February 1985, Magic went off for 37 points and 15 rebounds in a Laker win, while Larry supported Boston’s cause with 33 points and 15 rebounds.
But it’s not fair to have this rivalry epitomized into a single game. The Magic-Bird rivalry deserves better for everything it went through and all it did for the game itself, propping it up to a level of popularity that had escaped the league since its inception in the 1950s.
Without these two, the game isn’t nearly what it is today. Bird and Magic made the stars you see today dream of being as successful and dominant as they were in their time. They laid down the foundation for what is now one of the most profitable, wide-reaching establishments in sports, dominating news cycles and shocking viewers with middle and high-schoolers who have dreams of their own.
If you had to take at least one NBA Finals matchup away, though, it would have to be their final meeting in the 1987 Finals that would be registered as their greatest duel. It wasn’t until Game 6, where the Lakers clinched, when either player scored below 20 points. Even then, Bird had contributed nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and two blocks to go along with 16 points, while Magic played the role of distributor, dishing out 19 assists, while also grabbing eight rebounds and scoring 19 points.
It was the second time that series where Magic recorded at least 19 assists. For the series, he averaged 13, while committing only 13 turnovers the entire six-game series, as well as 26.2 points and eight rebounds per. Two years earlier in the ’85 series, the Lakers also win, and Magic averaged 14 assists in six games.
Magic also averaged 13.6 assists in the ’84 Finals the Celtics won in seven games.
Bird, meanwhile, averaged 24.2 points, 10 rebounds and 5.5 assists per in the ’87 Finals, filling up the statsheet as he was usually inclined to do. His best showing against Magic and the Lakers came in the ’84 Finals, his lone win over Magic in the Finals, when he averaged an absurd 27.4 points and 14 rebounds per contest in nearly 44 minutes of playing time per game.
No matter what, though, the newfound NBA community was hooked by the flash and appeal of Magic and Larry turning the impossible into a mundane activity.
By the conclusion of their final meeting, although the Lakers would go on to beat Detroit in the 1988 Finals, Michael Jordan was ready to take the wheel.
1. Michael Jordan vs. Larry Bird
On his way to becoming the best to ever do it, Michael Jordan crossed paths with the best to ever do it of his time: A 1980s Larry Bird.
While Bird was busy winning titles, three to be exact, Jordan was making a name for himself as an unstoppable individual, not to be bogged down by the lack of talent surrounding him. That’s clear in their 28 total meetings, where even though Jordan outscored Bird by an average of 33.5 to 26.9 points per game, Larry won 17 of those contests.
Jordan actually outscored Bird 27-14 in their first-ever meeting in November 1984 and would do so again a month later, this time with Jordan outscoring Bird 32-10. These battles that usually resulted in a Boston victory also resulted in a robust Jordan statline, such as his 41 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in a loss in 1985, as well as a 48-point showing in 41 minutes in a loss.
Of all their contests, however, none standout more than a Celtics win in the first round over Jordan and his top-heavy Bulls in 1986. More specifically, a Game 2 that featured the Celtics winning in double-overtime, but not before Michael had something to say about it.
Although Larry had quite a day of his own, recording 36 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in 56 minutes, Jordan was the star of the day and it wasn’t even close. In 53 minutes, Jordan scored 63 points on 41 shots, shooting 19-for-21 from the foul line and doing everything possible to prevent his Bulls from suffering an easy first-round loss.
It was anything but easy for a Celtics team that would go on to win the title that year. This was Jordan at his best: breaking down defenders off the dribble, getting to the rim with relative ease, and rising up and hovering long enough to get eye-level with the rim on his jumpers.
Unfortunately, it was all for naught as Boston wound up winning 135-131, eventually leading to a sweep with Boston winning Game 3 by 18 in a game where Jordan only scored 19, but came up an assist short of a triple-double.
Not to be forgotten in this series was Jordan scoring 49 in 43 minutes in a 19-point loss in Game 1.
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