Updated: Aug 16
Year after year, the NBA Playoffs come and go, but the performances of the league's stars remain burned into our memory banks. Epic moments like LeBron James' comeback down three games to one against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals and Luka Dončić's tremendous Game 6 and 7 against the Phoenix Suns in the 2022 Western Conference Semifinals remind us of what is possible in an NBA game. Moments like James Harden's yearly playoff collapse or Ben Simmons' nightmare meltdown in the 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinals remind us that playoff basketball is where the greats are separated from the goods.
Elimination games bring out the very best, and sometimes the very worst. I've compiled some elimination game statistics from some of the biggest names in basketball history as well as some other notable playoff performers - and notable does not equal good, necessarily. Without further ado, please enjoy the NBA Elimination Game Breakdown!
**All stats are taken from BasketballReference.com**
Yikes. Harden's stats don't necessarily look terrible on the surface: 23.4 points per game isn't too far from his per game regular season average, but oof, a 3% drop in his field goal percentage is rough. There are a couple truly terrible games here as well, like Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals in 2016 versus San Antonio and last year in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus Milwaukee. His elimination game averages might not be as miserable as you expected, but Harden is certainly a player who needs to step up more.
Can you say, "absolute beast?" Or can we all at least put to bed the idea that LeBron isn't clutch? 33.5 points per game in 25 career elimination games is absurd, not to mention the 10.7 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game, both up from his regular season averages. Maybe the most impressive statistic is the 44:43 minutes per game LeBron averages in elimination games - this is what putting the team on your back looks like.
I don't know about you, but I had to do a double take when I saw Magic Johnson had a losing record in elimination games. Still, his teams outscored his opponents in those games, which shows you how close Magic and the Lakers were playing those teams. The 12.3 assists per game Magic averaged in elimination games is a crazy stat as well.
Legends are made during playoff time and Larry Legend fits his moniker. 15 wins in 24 career elimination games means you don't want to face Bird with his back to the wall. Throw in the fact that you see almost no decrease in production in these games and there's no question Bird is one of the greatest NBA postseason performers in history.
Like all of Wilt Chamberlain's stats, the numbers are eye-popping at first. 25.7 rebounds per game in elimination games? That will play. What won't play is Wilt the Stilt's performance against the dreaded Boston Celtics. No wonder the narrative around Chamberlain during his career was that he couldn't win the big game.
Not as bad as you expected, huh? Still, Simmons' stats decrease just about across the board in elimination games. But none of this matters, really. Until Simmons proves he's capable of taking - just taking - a shot in a big moment, he's not a useful postseason player.
I bet you didn't expect to see MJ with a losing record in elimination games! When you consider how difficult the challenge of overcoming the Detroit Pistons was, it's easier to understand how His Airness ended up with the 6 - 7 record. Still though, 31.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game are all up from his already incredible regular season stats. MJ still reigns supreme.
Surprised to see Robert Horry on this list? Don't be! He's one of the greatest postseason performers in NBA history. "Big Shot" Bob always played his best when the lights were brightest. 19 - 8 in 27 career elimination games is nothing short of incredible. Horry just goes to show you how important role players can be in postseason success in the NBA.
This is uh...uh...not good. How is it even possible that Chris Paul's teams have been outscored by 111 points in elimination games? And this list doesn't even include the 2018 Western Conference Finals where Paul's Houston Rockets team blew a 3 - 2 lead over the Golden State Warriors! Paul is one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, but his playoff performances leave a lot to be desired.
I mean, I know it's a small sample size, but is Luka the greatest elimination game performer in NBA history? It's hard to dispute at this point. The dude averages 38.0 points per game in elimination matchups! Add in the fact that he's shooting an absolutely scorching 53.4% from the field in those games, and Luka Dončić is well on his way to becoming one of the greatest scorers ever in the playoffs.
*Updated* (June 1, 2022): Luka and the Mavericks may not have had quite enough firepower to overcome the Warriors, but they look like a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference moving forward. The sky is the limit for Dončić.
Jerry West is a man of many nicknames. Mr. Outside, the Logo, Zeke from Cabin Creek, even Tweety Bird. But no nickname suited the first NBA Finals MVP ever like Mr. Clutch. Just take a look at his elimination game statistics. Although he had a rough time getting past the Celtics in the '60s, the fact that he finished his career with a winning record in elimination games is nothing short of remarkable. His 30.6 points per game in elimination games even surpasses his 1972 NBA Finals teammate Wilt Chamberlain.
Dominique Wilkins might have been known as the "Human Highlight Film", but you might want to skip his playoff elimination game reel. The high-flying forward converted a meager 40.9% of his field goal attempts in elimination games, while his points per game dropped from 24.8 in the regular season to 22.9. At least he salvaged some of these performances with his work on the glass, averaging 7.8 rebounds per game in elimination games against 6.7 in the regular season. Still, 'Nique was not exactly worth the price of admission in crunch time.
I've gotta be honest here - this was by far the most disappointing breakdown I’ve done so far. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Big O. Sadly, his elimination game statistics are rough, especially in the latter half of his career. If you were wondering where Mr. Triple Double was, check out his stats from the first seven elimination games of his career - that’s the real Oscar Robertson. He averaged over 48 minutes of play in those games!
Am I the only person who thought Jimmy Butler was a 20-points-per-game guy? His regular season scoring average is a surprising 17.7, which makes his 14.6 ppg in elimination games more forgivable. Still though, this is Jimmy G. Buckets we're talking about - maybe Buckets should just be "Bucket." That said, Butler is really starting to earn that nickname with the way he played in his last two elimination games. His Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals versus Boston, in particular, will go down as one of the legendary elimination game performances in NBA history.
The man who's scored more points than anyone in the history of the NBA did not disappoint when his teams needed him most. Kareem was known for his legendary "sky-hook," which he used to perpetually flummox defenses. Despite facing some tough defenses during his time with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar routinely carved up whoever was brave enough to challenge him in the post.
Even more impressive, check out the Big Fella's numbers in his first 18 elimination games: 29.4 points per game, 14.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists on 53.4% shooting from the floor. Those numbers stack up well with just about everybody we've covered so far. If you leave here with one thing, just remember that Kareem is absolutely one of the greatest basketball players of all time - he doesn't get nearly enough recognition.
The greatest winner in the history of sports. He was an eleven-time NBA Champion. He made twelve All Star teams. He won five MVPs. When Bill Russell passed away on July 31, the NBA, and the entire sporting community, lost a legend.
It's no surprise, then, that Russell was at his best in elimination games. We've seen a lot of excellent performers in these games, but to go 17 - 2? That's on a whole other level - and only Russell can exist on that level. He put up 30 points and 40 rebounds in Game 7 of the 1962 NBA Finals versus the Los Angeles Lakers! 40 boards in one game! And it's really too bad the NBA didn't keep track of steals and blocks back in the '60s, because Russell would have surely awed us in that regard as well.
This is in no way a complete summary and many NBA legends were omitted. If there are any other players you would like me to do a breakdown on, please let me know in the comments section.