We love to throw around the word clutch whenever we can, but sometimes use it so loosely that it loses all meaning. We have to be selective when declaring whether someone is key in crunch time or hides from the moment, and we have to be fair. That also means that while I think a player can be clutch by hitting a game-winning shot, it doesn’t mean he’s not if he doesn’t always come through (looking at you, LeBron).
Clutch isn’t just a term to use to describe a single play. It should also be applied to spectacular moments leading up to those final seconds, because how would you have gotten there otherwise? Clutch is not always a buzzer-beater. It’s overcoming odds, overcoming troubles, and overcoming doubters to turn in an incredible performance. It’s the games that leave your hair standing up long before the buzzer sounds, the games that make you remember exactly where you were when you watched them. Here are 15 of the most clutch performances in NBA history…
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15. ALLEN IVERSON Drops A Crisp 48
On one side you have the Lakers, with their dominating tandem of Shaq and Kobe. Los Angeles was the defending champs and had swept their way to the Finals. On the other side, you have a very underwhelming Philadelphia squad whose one shining star shone brightest, at least in Game 1.
Allen Iverson was the answer. He scored an incredible 30 points in the first half alone despite garnering most of the attention from the Lakers defense. Able to slash and penetrate at such a small size with perhaps the strongest man ever to play the game standing in the paint is nothing short of heroic. He finished with 48 points as the 76ers took the first game of the series in a thrilling overtime bout. Unfortunately, Philly dropped the next four games, but Iverson’s scoring spree may be his best game ever.
14. JERRY WEST’s Toils
Despite winning just one championship among eight trips to the NBA Finals, West still earned his nickname of Mr. Clutch for always playing at his highest when things seemed most tense. On his long, storied road to winning a title, West hit many bumps, and perhaps none bigger than one suffered in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals.
In what would be Bill Russell‘s final game as a player, West did his best to end the Celtics’ unmatched run of the 1960s. In a series in which he averaged nearly 39 points per game, West left it all on the court for a shot at a ring. In the deciding game, West spurred a comeback and helped the Lakers overcome a 16-point deficit in the fourth quarter. But the ring would elude him again, as his 42 points were not quite enough to get past Russell. For his efforts, West was awarded Finals MVP, the only losing player to take home the award.
13. BILL RUSSELL’s Monstrous Game 7
There’s a reason the Finals MVP award is named in his honor. With 11 NBA titles, Russell is far and away the most decorated player in league history. Going a perfect 10-0 in Game 7s in your career makes for some incredible moments, and one that sticks out was his massive 30-point, 40-rebound performance in the 1962 Finals.
Going head-to-head with Elgin Baylor, who scored 61 points in Game 5, Russell outplayed the Lakers big man in a tightly contested game that needed overtime to be decided. His 40 rebounds tied his own Finals record, and ensured the prolongation of the Celtics dynasty.
12. LeBRON’s Outburst
The Pistons routinely rolled out some of the best defensive teams of all time during their title-chasing years in the 2000s, so it was no small feat what LeBron James was able to do against them in a performance we’ll never forget. At just 22 years old, LeBron had one of the most clutch scoring outbursts in NBA history, scoring 29 of his team’s final 30 points during a pivotal playoff game.
James straight up carried the Cavaliers on his back to lead them to a double-overtime victory that gave Cleveland a 3-2 series advantage. He made an amazing variety of fallaways, dunks and daggers to silence a team that was playing in their fifth-straight Eastern Conference Finals. It was a performance that will only add to the lore of LeBron 50 years down the road.
11. JAMES WORTHY’s Triple-Double
Big Game James, as he was called by his contemporaries, earned his nickname thanks to his penchant for coming through in the clutch. There were countless moments where Worthy delivered big shots and helped the Lakers to victories, but none bigger than his title-clinching performance in Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals.
With the series knotted at three apiece against the Pistons, Worthy couldn’t have picked a better time to notch the first triple-double of his career. His 36-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist effort lifted Los Angeles to a 108-105 victory for their third title in four years.
10. WALT FRAZIER’s Game 7
With the Knicks seemingly without star center Willis Reed before the deciding game of the 1970 NBA Finals, many wondered how New York would be able to stop Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers from cruising to a title. Someone would need to step up without the contributions of the season’s MVP. That someone was Walt “Clyde” Frazier.
Although Reed did suit and start the game, an iconic moment in NBA history, it was Frazier who led the Knicks to their first championship with an inspiring performance. Scoring 36 points and dishing out 19 assists, Frazier commanded the floor with the precision and force of a five-star general. Knick fans may remember Reed’s courageous effort more, but it was Frazier’s play that brought home the hardware.
9. KOBE’s Division Title Clincher
In the season following the summer sexual assault scandal that temporarily cast a shadow on Bryant’s public image, he dealt with backlash and ongoing pressure from the case to help lead the Lakers to a Pacific Division title. It wasn’t until the final day of the season, though, that the troubled duo of Shaq and Kobe could solidify that spot in the standings, and it took miraculous shots to earn that.
Facing the Portland Trail Blazers on the final day of the season, the Lakers found themselves down three with just seconds remaining, a division title and possibly homecourt advantage in the playoffs on the line. Kobe was able to somehow get a circus shot off despite a hounding Ruben Patterson doing everything he could to defend the shot without fouling. It fell, and the game eventually went to a second OT.
From there, with chant of “Beat L.A.” raining from the Rose Center crowd, Gary Payton inbounded to Kobe with just one second on the clock. Mamba struck, sinking a catch-and-shoot fallaway three that silenced the crowd and propelled Los Angeles to the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
8. T-MAC’s 13 In 35
It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t have more McGrady moments like this one due to his injury troubles, but at least we can look back at this game and smile. With the Rockets trailing the Spurs by eight and the clock winding down, it seemed like T-Mac was just padding his stats lining up for a three-pointer, but he had much bigger plans in mind.
McGrady went on a scoring barrage, hitting impossible shot and impossible shot and somehow leading Houston back within two with just 11 seconds remaining. But the Spurs had possession and T-Mac’s effort appeared to be too little, too late. However, Devin Brown slipped while trying to escape a double-team, and McGrady ended up with the ball and a chance to win the game. He wasn’t going to miss.
For a more detailed summary of the closing minute, check this out.
7. JORDAN’s Real Final Game
After finishing with identical records of 62-20, it was only fitting that the Bulls and Jazz would meet in the Finals. While it wasn’t yet known that this would be Michael Jordan’s second send-off (even though it technically wasn’t), he played like it was his last. MJ made sure to keep up his perfect Finals record and complete a second three-peat.
Jordan scored 45 of his team’s 87 points, with only one other teammate reaching double figures. It was capped off by one of the most memorable shots ever, a jumper from the free throw line to give the Bulls a one point lead with just five seconds remaining. John Stockton missed a three on the other end, and Chicago was the champs once again. He could’ve left the league on the most perfect terms you could ever imagine. To me, this’ll always be MJ’s real last game.
6. ISIAH THOMAS Perseveres
Although the Pistons ultimately lost this game, Thomas’ performance was nothing short of incredible. Hobbled by a sprained ankle suffered in the middle of the third quarter in Game 6, Thomas only sat for half a minute before willing himself back on the floor. Obviously hurt and limping around the court, Thomas was amazingly still effective.
He scored 25 points in that third quarter alone, a Finals record, providing Detroit with an 81-79 lead over the Laker with just 12 minutes to go. Unfortunately, despite Thomas’ line of 43 points, eight assists and six steals, the Pistons fell short when the buzzer sounded. They went on to lose the series, but everyone still remembers the night that Isiah stood up.
5. LeBRON Silencing the Critics
Coming off three straight gut-wrenching losses to the Celtics, the Heat were facing elimination in a crucial Game 6 in Boston in 2012. For LeBron James, this meant another haymaker to his legacy. He would head into another offseason facing heaps of criticism, backlash and hate. Failure was not an option for Miami this time around, and James made sure of that.
James put together one of the most remarkable performances in recent playoff history, and one of the most clutch games ever if you consider what was on the line for him. Shooting a staggering 19-for-26 from the field, LeBron scored 45 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. The Heat forced a Game 7, and the rest is history. Imagine how much different things would be if James didn’t put together a career-defining performance?
4. MAGIC JOHNSON Plays Center
With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nursing a sprained ankle incurred in Game 5, the Lakers called on their rookie to not only carry the load usually bore by the league’s all-time leading scorer, but to assume his position for the potential title-clinching game. Well, he looked every bit the part to say the least.
At just 20 years old, he put together one of the greatest games in Finals history while playing out of position. Magic put up 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished seven assists, leading Los Angeles to a title. He was named MVP of the series for his efforts, the first rookie ever to do so. With the win, it solidified the fact that Johnson was poised to have a legendary career.
3. LARRY BIRD Steals the Ball And The Game
There are waaaaaaaaay too many Larry Legend moments to choose from, so I decided to narrow it down to one of his more iconic moments. With the Celtics down 107-106 in Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, all the Pistons had to do was inbound the ball and draw a foul. Detroit players were ecstatic, running around the court like they had just won the title.
In the chaos, trying to find an open man on the near sideline, Isiah Thomas didn’t take into account that Bird was lurking. After miraculously intercepting the ball intended for Bill Laimbeer, he had the presence of mind to find a streaking Dennis Johnson to lay it in for the game-winner. Bird finished with 36 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists and that lone steal.
2. REGGIE MILLER Vs. New York
Sorry Knick fans, I have to bring this one up. Miller’s penchant for breaking hearts in New York took full throttle in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semis. Down by six with 18 seconds left, Miller drained a three in John Starks in his face. On the ensuing inbounds play, Anthony Mason tried to feed Greg Anthony, who appears to have been tripped up, though Knicks fans will argue it was a foul to this day.
Miller swooped in and grabbed the errant pass, wisely retreated to the perimeter, and drained another three. The game was tied just like that, and all of Madison Square Garden was stunned. After Starks was fouled for no good reason, he failed to connect on either of his two free throws, opening to door for the Pacers to steal the game. Miller was fouled during a scrum for a rebound and didn’t miss his opportunity to give Indiana an unexpected victory.
1. MICHAEL JORDAN’s Flu Game
Have you ever felt so sick that you just couldn’t find that strength to get out of bed? How about throwing up to the point of dry-heaving? Have you ever tried playing basketball on the verge of fainting?
We all know how this one goes. Stricken with illness the day before a huge Game 5 against the Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals, Jordan somehow found it within himself to deliver one of the most memorable games in league history. Despite arriving just two hours before tip-off and throwing up all the while, he took the floor.
Visibly exhausted even as the game began, MJ helped the Bulls overcome an early 16-point deficit. Led by his Airness, Chicago was able to keep it close until the final minute. Jordan scraped every bit of energy from his body’s barrel and tied the game with 45 seconds left. He then hit a remarkable game-clinching three, collapsing into Scottie Pippen‘s arms on his way back to the bench. If you haven’t seen this game recently, I urge you to remind yourself of this heroic performance.
ROBERT HORRY Puts The Spurs On His Back
Horry’s 21-point outburst in Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals in Detroit is one of the most clutch games by any player… ever. There’s no other description necessary. Just watch.
What do you think were the most clutch performances in league history?
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