The NBA’s Greatest Postseason Performers Of All-Time

By Eric Williams
Updated: April 24, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — With the first-round of the 2005-06 NBA playoffs just getting under way this weekend with several interesting match-ups, I thought this would be a perfect time to look back through the annals of NBA history and rank the ten greatest postseason performers of all-time.

Before I go any further, let me say, that, with all of the great players to ever lace up a pair of sneakers – from Chuck Taylor’s to Nike’s – this was an extremely hard column to write. However, as is usually the case, I have once again managed to go above and beyond the call of duty to provide my expert opinion on the best playoff players of all-time.

So, awaaaay we go…….

1. Bill Russell

All I’m going to say about Russell is that the man has 11 championship rings. I realize that he played in an era when there weren’t as many teams – and the Celtics were the dominant franchise – but Russell always played his best when the games were most important. Statistics would never do this gentle giant, justice. Russell was – and still is – by far, the greatest team player in NBA history. As former Celtics player and NBA coaching great, Don Nelson once told the Boston Herald, “There are two types of superstars. One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there’s another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that’s the type Russell was.” Russell made his presence felt come championship time more than any other player ever – including Michael Jordan – and is the game’s ultimate winner.

2. Michael Jordan

Who else were you expecting? Jordan’s playoff performances are truly the stuff of legend. From the time he scored 63 points on my beloved Boston Celtics in the playoffs in 1986, to the, almost annual, torture he dished out on the Cleveland Cavaliers and Craig Elho, Jordan has done it all in the postseason. Oh, by the way, who can forget his game-winning, championship-clenching jump shot over Byron Russell and the Utah Jazz in the 1998 finals? As the greatest player of all-time, Jordan relished the big games and the opportunity to take the big shot and is clearly the game’s second greatest playoff performer of all-time.

3. Magic Johnson

Speaking of players who lived for the biggest games of all. Johnson also saved his greatest performances ever for the postseason. From the time he entered the league and started at center as a rookie for an injured Kareem-Abdul Jabbar in game six of the NBA finals (a game I attended I person) and unleashed a 42-point, 15-rebound masterpiece on the Philadelphia 76ers in the championship-clenching game, until he finally retired nearly two decades later, Johnson made history and “magic” when the postseason rolled around. A time Johnson, a five-time NBA champion, aptly called, “winning time.”

4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The league’s all-time scoring leader wasn’t just a guy who scored a bunch of meaningless points throughout his career. From the time Kareem entered the league and led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA title in his second season, he has proven time and time again, that he is without a doubt, the single most reliable offensive weapon the game has ever seen. Kareem’s legendary “sky hook” remains the game’s most unstoppable – and dependable – shot ever. Whenever the Lakers needed a big basket in a tight playoff game, the ball was sure to touch the six-time NBA champion’s hands – and more often than not, Abdul-Jabbar delivered.

5. Robert Horry

As the first active player on this list, Horry has firmly established his legacy as one of the greatest playoff performers of all-time. Throughout his career, Horry has always cruised through the regular season (7.5 points per game and 5.0 rebounds per game in his career) only to transform into the aptly named, “Big Shot Rob,” once the postseason party begins. Horry is one of only two players in league history to win championship rings with three different teams (joining John Salley) and has played an integral part in helping each team to their respective titles. Horry won two consecutive titles with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995, and set an individual, NBA Finals record with five 3-pointers in one quarter. Horry also won three consecutive titles with the Los Angeles Lakers. Horry is also second on the all-time list of three-pointers made in the playoffs, behind only Reggie Miller. He also holds the record for most three pointers made in the NBA Finals history. A member of the perennially contending San Antonio Spurs, it also looks like Horry will have at least two or three more opportunities to add to his championship hardware.

6. Larry Bird

Bird, my favorite player of all-time, was stone-cold assassin. “Larry Legend” led the to three titles during his time in Boston and had several epic playoff showdowns in his career, beginning with none other than Julius “Dr. J. Erving. Bird also had larger-than-life showdowns with Magic Johnson and one of his most memorable against the Atlanta Hawks’ Dominique Wilkins, where he scored 20 points in the fourth quarter.

7. Isiah Thomas

I’ll tell anybody to this day that Isiah Thomas’ performance in game seven of the 1988 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, was the greatest single playoff performance I have ever seen. If you didn’t see that performance, let me tell you that Thomas’ severely sprained ankle had him truly playing on one leg that night. Thomas set the Finals’ single-game record for most points in one quarter with 25 and the Finals’ single-game record for most field goals in one quarter with 11 and shares the Finals’ single-game record for most field goals in one half with 14. The Pistons went on to win two consecutive championships following that finals loss and most people may not remember that Thomas single-handedly almost willed the Pistons to another, but I do.

8. Reggie Miller

Miller is the first postseason performer on my list who doesn’t have a championship ring – though, not for a lack of trying. A certain player by the name of Michael Jordan stopped a lot of great players from ever earning a ring, but hey, that’s a story for another day. At an rate, Miller’s playoff performance have been nothing short of amazing. Not only did Miller stick a stake in the heart of the Knicks that day, he did it in Madison Square Garden in front of a national television audience while jawing back and forth with film maker Spike Lee, an avid Knicks fan. Championship or not, there aren’t many players other than Miller I’d want to take the last shot in a big playoff game.

9. Kobe Bryant

I know some people may disagree with this selection, but I’m sticking to my guns. Bryant is nearly as clutch as any player who has ever laced up a pair of basketball sneakers. After his infamous three-air ball hiccup in a Laker playoff loss as a rookie, Bryant has been nothing short of remarkable in the playoffs. In 2000, Bryant ripped out the hearts of Miller and his Pacer teammates in leading the Lakers to the first of three consecutive titles in 200 by draining several clutch jumpers in the waning seconds of Game 4, a game in which head coach Phil Jackson supposedly the team to give the ball to Bryant and step aside. In both of the following title years, Bryant similarily torched the Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Philadelphia 76ers as well. Love him or loathe him, Bryant is the closest thing to Michael Jordan we’ve seen so far.

10. Jerry West

Would this list be complete without Jerry West? I think not. West, the original “Mr. Clutch” was the man behind what is possibly the most famous buzzer-beater of all time – a 60-foot swish that tied Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the New York Knicks. West was dominant in the 1969 finals against the Celtics that he became the only player ever on the losing team to be named finals MVP.

So there you have it. The NBA’s greatest postseason performers of all-time. Who knows, maybe I’ll have to revise it soon after watching LeBron James.