The NBA Playoffs are a time when the biggest stars shine brightest. During the 2018-2019 regular season we have already already seen some incredible, all-time great individual single game performances by the likes of James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic. Throughout history many players have put up big time performance in the regular season, but it takes a special kind of player to do it when your entire Season is on the line.
Below is a list of the top 10 individual single game Playoff performances since 1983. In order to determine the best performances we will use a Game Score number. Game Score is a big long formula that is designed to give a measure of a player’s productivity for a single game, think of it as a total fantasy points type score. Thanks to Basketball Reference’s providing Game Scores for every game since 1983 we can have an objective measure of the best single Playoff game performances.
Top 10 Individual Playoff Performances Since 1983
10. Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers – 2001
45.3 Game Score
#1 Philadelphia 76ers vs. #5 Toronto Raptors
2001 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, Game 5, Series tied 2-2
Toronto 88 – Philadelphia 121
Allen Iverson, the Hall of Famer, 2001 NBA MVP, 11x All-Star (2x ASG MVP), 1997 Rookie of the Year, 4x scoring champ, and 3x steal champ had all of his skills on display against Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors on this day.
In game 5 of this series, Iverson went off for 52 points including 8 threes while only attempting 2 free throws all game. Iverson had already scored 54 points in game 2 of this series, becoming the second player in history to score two 50 point games in a single Playoff series.
In his prime, which he certainly was in this series at the end of his MVP season, AI was simply too quick to stay in front of. Defenses were at his mercy as he could get anywhere he wanted on the court and do it faster than anyone else. Combine that with his elite ability to finish (whether it be a floater, spinner of the glass, or a dunk) along with his devastating fadeaway jumper made him one of the best scorers in NBA history despite being listed at 6 feet 165 lbs in a league riddled with giants.
A 25 year old Allen Iverson and a 25 year old Vince Carter (crazy they are the same age and Carter is still in the League!) had a showdown for the ages in the 2001 Eastern Conference Semis. The lightning quick Iverson and high flyer Carter both put together some of the best games we have ever seen in the Playoffs. Neither player had much help but were capable of incredible performances on a nightly basis.
The 2001 Philadelphia 76er’s second leading scorer was Theo Ratliff with 12.4 points per game compared to Allen Iverson’s 31.1 ppg.
The 2001 Toronto Raptors second leading scorer was Antonio Davis who averaged 13.7 ppg compared to Vince Carter’s 27.6 ppg.
After seeing those stats it is really confusing why we do not see more double teams of Allen Iverson when we watch the highlight video below. He is just crushing the Raptors but Head Coach Lenny Wilkens left Chris Childs to be treated just like that, a helpless child, as Iverson completely took over the game and eventually the series.
Series Outcome: Philadelphia wins the series 4-3 and eventually lossest in the NBA Finals to the Lakers 1-4.
9. Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks – 1990
46.4 Game Score
#5 New York Knicks vs. #4 Boston Celtics
1990 Eastern Conference First Round, Game 4, Celtics Lead 2-1
Boston 108 – New York 135
Patrick Ewing is a Hall of Famer, 11x All-Star, 7x All-NBA, 3x All-Defense, and 1986 Rookie of the Year. It may not have been his deepest NBA Playoff run but his performance in 1990 marked the official ending of the Bird led Celtics Dynasty.
Not only did Ewing score 44 points in this game but he did so with just 24 shots from the field, made almost all of his free throws, and added 7 steals and 2 blocks to put together one of the most complete and efficient Playoff performances ever.
Ewing did all of his damage in this game from about 10 feet and closer. At 7’0″ and 240 lbs he was just too big and too skilled for the aging Boston Celtics. It is almost like he is in slow motion sweeping from one side of the paint to the other but he repeatedly managed to reach right around the defense to score layups off the glass. If they gave him a step than he could easily rise up and splash down jumpers from 10 to 12 feet.
During this series, a 27 year old Ewing was running with Johnny Newman, Maurice Cheeks, Charles Oakley, Gerald Wilkins, and Kiki Vandeweghe. These were some solid players, but nothing like the multiple Hall of Famers on the opposing side. Larry Bird age 33, Kevin McHale age 32, Robert Parish age 36, and Dennis Johnson age 35 thought they had one last Playoff run in them until they ran into the hungry Patrick Ewing. The younger Knicks upset the #4 Celtics and established himself as one of the best Centers in the entire League.
Series Outcome: The Knicks won this series 3-2 over the Celtics but then lost in 2nd round to the eventual NBA Champion Bad Boy Pistons.
8. Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks – 2011
46.5 Game Score
#3 Dallas Mavericks vs. #4 Oklahoma City Thunder
2011 Western Conference Finals, Game 1
Oklahoma City 112 – Dallas 121
Dirk Nowitzki’s 2011 Playoff run was one of the greatest of all time as he brought the Dallas Mavericks franchise and MFFLs everywhere their one and only NBA Championship.
Though known as one of the best shooting 7 footers in NBA history, Dirk didn’t even attempt a single 3 pointer in this game but showed he can be just as deadly from the free throw line going a perfect 24-24 in the greatest free throw performance in NBA history. He was working Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison in the high post all night long, basically toying with them making them jump and bite and all his little pivots and head fakes. It was so bad that at one point commentator Jeff Van Gundy blurts out “If I’m Serge Ibaka I am naming my first son Dirk!”
In this game Dirk didn’t have a ton of rebounds but was able to contribute 4 assists and 4 blocks to go along with his 48 points. 48 points on just 15 shot attempts is just ridiculous efficiency that has rarely ever been matched. Dirk and Michael Jordan are the only two players to EVER score more than 45 points on less than 20 shots in a playoff game.
This was peak Dirk Nowitzki, watching the highlight film of this game makes me giddy every time. Seeing a young Durant, Westbrook, and Harden look helpless as the big German handles his business just warms my Mavericks soul. Unfortunately this year we had to say goodbye to Dirk as a member of the Mavs team but thanks to performances like this he will live forever in basketball history as one of the best to ever do it.
Series Outcome: We all know how this story turned out. Dallas won this Western Conference Final against the Thunder 4-1. Then in the NBA Finals it was LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat who had the same 4-1 fate at the hands of Dirk Nowitzki and company. Nothing would stand in Dirk Nowitzki’s way in 2011 from coming back to Dallas with the Championship trophy. He and the Mavericks steamrolled the entire playoffs in what will surely go down as one of the best playoff runs ever.
7. Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors – 2001
46.8 Game Score
#1 Philadelphia 76ers vs. #5 Toronto Raptors
2001 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, Game 3, Series Tied 1-1
Philadelphia 78 – Toronto 102
Here we go, back to 2001 for the epic duel between Vince Carter and Allen Iverson. We have already seen the devastation that Iverson could bring with his 52 point performance in game 5, but it was Vince Carter who actually had the highest game score of the series.
50 points, 9 threes made, 100% from the line, racking up rebounds and assists, and holding down on the defensive end with 4 blocks. Vince Carter was not known as much of a 3 point shooter at this point in his career but he put on a shooting clinic in this game. When the most explosive athlete you have ever seen also has all of the skills working at the same time, this is the result.
This game was tied 23-23 after the first quarter but then it got ugly for Philly. The Raptors won the second quarter 35-18 on way to a route of the 76ers to go up 2 games to 1 in the series.
When it comes to individual great performances this is one of the best NBA Playoff series of all-time, two fun to watch fan favorites filling it up every game. Neither of these players were ever able to bring home an NBA Championship (Carter still trying) but they will still go down as two of the most beloved NBA players ever. They style, their passion, their skill, and their athleticism made them everything that basketball was about in the early 2000’s.
Series Outcome: Philadelphia wins 4-3.
This was Vince Carter’s best Playoff game of his career, but if you ask me, this is his best Playoff moment of all time.
6. Charles Barkley, Phoenix Suns – 1993
47.1 Game Score
#1 Phoenix Suns vs. #3 Seattle Supersonics
1993 Western Conference Finals, Game 5, Series Tied 2-2
Phoenix 120 – Seattle 114
Charles Barkley is often criticized by his TNT co-hosts for never having won a Championship but there is a reason Barkley is able to brush that aside, because of performances like this.
With the Conference Finals tied 2-2 Charles Barkley put together one of the most complete and efficient games we have ever seen in Playoff history with a MONSTER 43 point triple-double.
Scoring efficiency, rebounding, playmaking, and defense, Barkley did it all in game 5 against Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and Ricky Pierce. The only other player to ever drop 40, 15, and 10 in a Playoff game was Oscar Robertson in 1963.
Barkley was straight punishing Shawn Kemp and Sam Perkins, making them look like kids the way that Barkley was throwing them around under the hoop. Chuck was just too much body mixed with athleticism and skill for anyone to handle.
Series Outcome: Barkley was too much for the youth of Kemp and Payton as Phoenix would go on to win this series 4-3 against the Supersonics but would eventually lose 2-4 to Jordan and the Bulls in the NBA Finals.
5. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls – 1986
47.2 Game Score
#1 Boston Celtics vs. #8 Chicago Bulls
1986 Eastern Conference First Round, Game 2, Boston Leads 1-0
Boston 135 – Chicago 131
You knew Michael Jordan was going to be on this list, and here he shows up at #5 with this game in his second season, against the Celtics, in 1986. Young Michael may not have won the game, or even the series, but his play against the Celtics in 1986 will go down as one of the best individual efforts and put Jordan on the map as being one of the top players in the World despite being only 22 years old.
Even aside from the magnificent performance by Michael Jordan, this is one of the best games ever in NBA history. The young phenom and eventual GOAT going up against what is considered by many to be one of the best teams of all time in the Boston Celtics loaded with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge, Bill Walton, Dennis Johnson, and of course, the great Rick Carlisle.
It took two overtimes to decide a victor in this game. Jordan was absolutely unstoppable, the problem is, so were the Celtics as a team. To have such a large offensive burden and be able to score so dominantly and so efficiently, that’s just what Michael Jordan is. Making 22 field goals and going 19-21 from the free throw line to put up 63 points makes Jordan one of only 2 players to ever score 60 points in a Playoff game, joining Elgin Baylor.
In this game, Larry Bird went for 36 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists while Mchale chipped in 27 points, 15 rebounds, and 6 blocks. As hard a Jordan fought, Bird and McHale and Company were right there with an answer.
Series Outcome: Despite averaging over 43 points per game, Jordan and the Bulls were swept by the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics 3-0.
4. Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets – 1987
48.6 Game Score
#7 Seattle Supersonics vs. #6 Houston Rockets
1987 Western Conference Semi-Finals, Game 6, Seattle Leads 3-2
Seattle 128 – Houston 125
One year after losing in the NBA Finals to the aforementioned 1986 Boston Celtics, Hakeem Olajuwon was back in the thick of the Western Conference Playoffs in 1987. In a win or go home situation Olajuwon had his best Playoff performance ever despite coming up short in a double overtime loss.
Only two players have ever gone for 49 points and 25 rebounds in a Playoff game and the other should be no surprise, Wilt Chamberlain (2x). Olajuwon is a Hall of Famer, 2x NBA Champion, 1994 NBA MVP, 2x Finals MVP, 12x All-Star, and 2x Defensive Player of the Year.
No seven footer has ever had better footwork that Hakeem the Dream. He had all the post moves, shimmy and shakes hook shots, and fadeaway jumpers to render even the greatest defenders useless. Then at the same time he is one of the greatest defensive forces that has ever stepped onto a basketball court. Olajuwon is 1st all-time in blocks in NBA history (leading the field by almost 600 blocks) and 8th all-time in steals. At his peak defensive ability in 1990, Hakeem averaged 4.6 blocks and 2.1 steals per game and played all 82 games that season.
Series Outcome: This game 6 loss to Seattle was the deciding game and sent Houston home for the season. The SuperSonics went on to be swept by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, James Worth, and the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
3. Sleepy Floyd, Golden State Warriors – 1987
49.1 Game Score
#5 Golden State Warriors vs. #1 Los Angeles Lakers
1987 Western Conference Semi-Finals, Game 4, Lakers Lead 3-0
Golden State 129 – Los Angeles 121
In the other Western Conference Semi-Final in 1987, while Olajuwon was doing his thing, we had a more surprise performance from a little known Warriors legend that was good enough to be the 3rd best individual Playoff performance of all-time. I am not going to lie, I didn’t know about Sleepy Floyd before writing this article, the 6’3″ point guard out of Georgetown was never on an All-NBA team and made just 1 All-Star game, but on May 10, 1987 he had a night to remember.
Against the #1 seed and eventual 1987 NBA Champion, Los Angeles Lakers, Sleepy Floyd and the Warriors would not go quietly. Facing elimination and playing in front of their home crowd, Floyd put together a 51 point 10 assist game that will forever go down as “the Sleep Floyd game.” Aside from Sleepy, the only 2 players to have a 50 point, 10 assist game in the Playoffs are Jerry West and Russell Westbrook.
Down 102 – 88 going into the fourth quarter Sleepy woke up and delivered for the Warriors in a big way. Shot after shot, free throw after free throw, Floyd was able to single-handedly defeat one of the greatest teams ever assembled. The Warriors outscored the Lakers 41-19 in the 4th quarter behind the dominance of Sleepy Floyd.
Series Outcome: Unfortunately for the Warriors, Sleepy’s heroics only delayed the inevitable by 1 game as the Lakers went on to win the series 4-1.
2. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls – 1992
49.8 Game Score
#8 Miami Heat vs. #1 Chicago Bulls
1992 Eastern Conference First Round, Game 3, Bulls Lead 2-0
Chicago 119 – Miami 114
Michael Jordan is a Hall of Famer, 6x NBA Champion, 6x Finals MVP, 5x NBA MVP, 14x All-Star, 3x All-Star Game MVP, 1985 Rookie of the Year, 1988 Defensive Player of the Year, 10x scoring champ, and for my money the greatest basketball player who has ever lived.
The first time we saw Jordan on this list at #5 he was just a pup at age 22, this time he is in his prime as a 28 year old defending NBA Champion. Jordan now had the mid-range jump shot to complement his relentless pursuit of the rim. Any defender willing to back of a step to save the rim was not giving up an easy jump shot for a guy who averaged 30 points per game each season for the last 6 years!
Along with scoring 56 points on just 30 shots, Jordan had an all-around amazing box score. 5 rebounds and 5 assists were below his season averages, but the 4 steals and 2 blocks showed the defensive tenacity needed to close out a team on their home floor. Sidekick Scottie Pippen had a great game of his own in this one, going for 31 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks.
This game is just riddled with great Jordan highlights, check out the behind the back, crossover, and dunk in traffic just after the 2:00 minute mark of the video below. Then again, just after the 6:30 mark of the video Jordan gathers a rebound and goes coast to coast for a jam, crossing up any defenders in his path.
This was a 67 win Chicago Bulls team going up against a 38 win Miami Heat squad with a young Glen Rice (24), Rony Seikaly (26), and Steve Smith (22) so it should be no suprise that it ended in a sweep. The Bulls went on to repeat as NBA Champions, defeating the Portland Trailblazers 4-2 in the NBA Finals.
1. Charles Barkley, Phoenix Suns – 1994
52.6 Game Score
#6 Golden State Warriors vs. #3 Phoenix Suns
1994 Western Conference First Round, Game 3, Suns Lead 2-0
Phoenix 140 – Golden State 133
Charles Barkley is a Hall of Famer, 1993 NBA MVP, 11x All-Star, All-Star Game MVP, and one of the funniest TV personalities in all of sports with his work on TNT. However, there was nothing funny about the way he treated Chris Webber and the Warriors on May 4, 1994.
Barkley loved to shoot 3s despite being terrible (Barkley voice) at it. On this night, with everything was going his way, the 3s were no exception. There is even a moment about 2:00 minutes into the highlight video where Barkley actually hits a Warriors defender with a step-back 3 from the top of the key. When one of the most dominant inside presences ever has jump shots going his way, defenders are in for a loooong night.
This really isn’t the most exciting Barkley highlight film to watch. There is a ton of him using his big booty to back down defenders until he is close enough to the rim to turn and lay it in. At the 2:50 mark you can see Latrell Sprewell run down the court and should Charles Barkley to the ground, very close to a Sprewell/Barkley brawl that would have spiced this highlight video up real quick! Instead of wrapping his hands around Sprewell he just resumed his spot in the post and kept punishing the Warriors’ bigs.
There is only 1 other player to ever score 50 points, pull down 10 rebounds, and knock down three 3s in a Playoff game, the other one…the great Dirk Nowitzki who did it in 2006 against the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals.
Series Outcome: Despite a 20 year old Chris Webber nearly averaging a triple double for the series, the Golden State Warriors were unable to get a win against Barkley and the Suns as they were swept 3-0. Phoenix then went on to lose in the 2nd round to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets 4-3.