Best Finals performances: Method
Editor's note: This was originally published during the 2010 NBA Finals and was updated after the 2011 Finals.
BOSTON -- We've had a lot of great individual performances in the NBA Finals over the past three decades and change -- from Michael Jordan's "Flu Game" to Magic Johnson's starting at center in Philly to Isiah Thomas' scoring 43 on a sprained ankle in L.A.
But which of those was the best? And how do we rank the other truly exceptional performances? That was my job this week.
This was an inherently subjective task, because there were three criteria I had to use that have no statistical measure: relevance, timing and obstacles.
Relevance means a great individual performance is a lot more important when it swings a game or, for that matter, a series. In Game 3 against Dallas in 2006, for instance, Dwyane Wade not only played well, but he single-handedly brought Miami back from the brink and fueled its shocking rally to the title. On the other hand, Shaquille O'Neal's devastation of the Nets in 2002, as impressive as it was, was difficult to rank since none of those performances had the same big-picture importance -- L.A. was winning anyway.
Similarly, I chose only five games in which a player's team lost. Some of them, like Thomas' one-legged effort, were so exceptional they demanded a mention despite the outcome. Mostly, however, efforts that came in vain weren't deemed relevant enough to crack the list.
Timing refers to the flow of the game itself. Several of the most highly ranked performances in the list featured big shots by the player in question at the end of games, such as Jordan's brilliant final minute in Game 6 against Utah in 1998. Those game-swinging moments count extra, and should, because in many cases they're what made the performance so memorable.
And finally, we have obstacles. Those three performances I mentioned at the top -- Jordan with the flu, Magic at center, Thomas with the sprained ankle -- were memorable not only because of how well the players performed, but because of the challenges they shrugged aside along the way. They all were put in positions they weren't normally faced with and rose to overcome them.
With all that said, there's a statistical component to this exercise as well. In many cases, we were left making apples-to-apples comparisons between games in terms of their relevance, timing and obstacles, which left us with a straight stats-versus-stats argument when comparing, say, Tim Duncan's Game 1 versus New York in 1999 with Duncan's Game 1 against Cleveland in 2007.
Game Score Formula*
Raw Score =
+ (Field goals x 0.4)
+ (Offensive rebounds x 0.7)
+ (Defensive rebounds x 0.3)
+ (Assists x 0.7)
+ (Blocks x 0.7)
- (Field goal attempts x 0.7)
- (Free throws missed x 0.4)
- (Fouls x 0.4)
* Score is then pace-adjusted
For that, I dredged up my game score formula, which is a shorthand way of rating a single-game performance without getting into quite as many mathematical gyrations as player efficiency rating. You can see the formula in the chart; basically we just add the good, subtract the bad and we're off. The one tweak I used here is that all the results are pace-adjusted.
I looked at two other permutations of game score as well: a player's game score normalized to 40 minutes, to look at everyone's per-minute output on equal footing, and a player's game score adjusted for the opposing defense, since all Finals opponents are not created equal (it was much harder to rack up numbers against the '96 Bulls than it was against the '81 Rockets).
With the help of our ace staffer Alok Pattani, we compiled the game score for every Finals game since 1977, which is a useful cut-off point for two reasons. First, that's when the ABA and NBA merged, and the "modern" NBA era began. Second, the league began tracking individual turnovers in Finals games starting in 1978, so it's not possible to create accurate game scores for the prior seasons. We can estimate for the 1977 Finals based on certain parameters (like team turnovers) to take us to the convenient cut-off of the merger, but attempting to go back any further yields as many questions as answers.
What we're left with, then, are the 50 greatest individual Finals efforts of the post-merger era -- encompassing 35 Finals. I've ranked them 1 through 50, and as I said, it was an inherently subjective exercise. But enough of my yakking. On to the list: No. 1