The NBA is a league of stars, nobody disputes that. And there’s no time of year when the stars shine brighter, when the best players play better, than the playoffs (well, unless you’re Karl Malone, James Harden, or Kobe Bryant), where legends are made and legacies are written. But while nobody has ever really been surprised when someone like Kevin Durant, Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, or Jerry West goes nuts in the postseason…sometimes the greatest heroes come from the most unlikely places. Sometimes, those performances come from guys whose names are only remembered by true NBA fans, and occasionally, not even then. Some of these guys played on marquee franchises like the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, or San Antonio Spurs, but just as often, they played on more unexpected teams.
One thing is for sure, though: fans of the opposing teams these guys destroyed definitely remember their names, usually substituting a swear word for their middle initial. The luckiest of these guys made big bank on contracts in the off-season, usually to the detriment of the team that signed them. But whether they have success after the fact is cold comfort to the fans of the teams they torched.
So which were some of the greatest random NBA playoff performances ever? Which playoff games did absolutely no one, including their stars’ own mothers, expect? Which games made opposing fans wail “we got beat by THAT guy?!” in utter, heartwrenching anguish? Here are the all-time top eleven.
The 11 Greatest NBA Playoff Performances That Surprised Everyone
Sleepy Floyd’s 1987 Western Conference First Round Game 4
This has to be the all-time “what was THAT?!” game. The ’87 Lakers, one of the best teams of that or any other decade, had cruised to a 3-0 lead against the Golden State Warriors in the first round, and for good reason; they won the title that year. But in Game 4, something truly bizarre happened: Golden State’s point guard Sleepy Floyd went absolutely INSANE. After five quick points to end the third, Floyd authored maybe the best slice of basketball ever played in the fourth quarter. All told, Floyd scored 34 points over an 11-minute period, ending with 51 for the game, while not missing a single shot, and the Warriors came back from down 14 at the start of the fourth to win. Most impressively, he did virtually all his damage against Michael Cooper, who is maybe the greatest perimeter defender of the 1980s, at the absolute peak of his powers.
Magic Johnson’s 1980 NBA Finals Game 6
Earvin “Magic” Johnson was already a star when his team went into Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals with a 3-2 lead over the Philadelphia 76ers, but this game was unexpected for a totally unique reason. The Lakers had looked dominant against the Sixers in that series, but Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had suffered a badly sprained ankle in Game 5 with the series headed back to Philadelphia for the sixth game. The Lakers’ answer at center turned out to be…their point guard. Magic started at center, eventually playing all five positions in a single game (the only time in NBA history I can find where that happened), and dropped 42 points, 15 rebounds, and 7 assists. It may have been the single greatest performance of his legendary NBA career.
Bob Dandridge’s 1979 Eastern Conference Finals Game 7
This might be the all-time great forgotten game, possibly because the Washington Bullets got absolutely trashcanned by the Seattle Supersonics in the finals in five games. In Game 7 against San Antonio (yes, for some reason the Spurs were in the Eastern Conference in the late ’70s), George Gervin had the greatest playoff performance of his career, dropping 42 points and absolutely killing Washington in the second half. The reason it isn’t well remembered is because the Spurs still lost that game, largely thanks to one guy. Bob Dandridge isn’t in the Hall of Fame (though he belongs there), and this was the finest game of his career. He dropped 37 to Gervin’s 42, absolutely locking down the Iceman once he was switched onto him in the fourth, then drilled the game-winning 15-footer over three Spurs with eight seconds remaining. Maybe not a buzzer-beater, but since he made the game-sealing steal on the other end right afterward, it’s probably more impressive.
Danny Green’s 2013 NBA Finals Game 3
Tim Duncan is the greatest player in the history of the Spurs, no one disputes that. But in one of the biggest games of one of the best NBA playoff series ever played, he wasn’t the biggest star on the court. Danny Green spent most of the series tormenting the Heat (he didn’t miss a single shot in scoring 17 points in Game 2), but in Game 3 he got especially cruel, scoring 27 points on 7-9 shooting from three. The Spurs ultimately lost the series to Miami, but it’s doubtful it would’ve even gone seven games if Green hadn’t had the best series of his career.
Andrew Toney’s 1982 Eastern Conference Finals Game 7
Andrew Toney is one of the all-time “what if” guys. In his case, what if he’d benefitted from modern medicine when his feet gave out on him in the 1980s? Until that happened, though, Toney routinely tormented the Celtics so badly in the playoffs he earned the nickname “The Boston Strangler.” Nowhere was that more on display than this game. It wasn’t Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Mo Cheeks, or Bobby Jones who crushed Boston’s title hopes that year. instead, it was Toney, who went 14-23 from the floor for 34 points to rip the Celtics’ hearts from their chests.
Leon Powe’s 2008 NBA Finals Game 2
The Los Angeles Lakers had to have been wondering what in the world was happening to them in this game. In less than 15 minutes, little-known Celtics reserve Leon Powe absolutely ripped their hearts out, dropping 21 points on 6-7 shooting and willing himself to the free-throw line over and over and over. Ask a Lakers fan if they remember the name “Leon Powe” and be prepared for an anguished look on their face.
Glenn McDonald’s 1976 NBA Finals Game 5
This game has a strong case for the greatest game of basketball ever played on any level, let alone just in NBA playoff history. The Phoenix Suns were in their first NBA Finals in a matchup against the league’s biggest bullies in the Boston Celtics. The game was already two overtimes deep when Celtics forward John Havlicek hit an apparent buzzer-beater and the crowd rushed the court…only for the refs to rule that there should be one second left on the clock, giving Phoenix’s Gar Heard a chance to tie the game on a ridiculous circus shot. But in the third OT, with starters Paul Silas, Charlie Scott, and Dave Cowens all having fouled out, little-used reserve Glenn McDonald got his moment to shine. McDonald scored six key points to allow Boston to eke out a win, likely ultimately securing the series in the process.
Robert Horry’s (Pick A Clutch Moment)
Never has there been a more accurate nickname than “Big Shot Bob.” This almost doesn’t count because he did this so many times, but there’s never been an NBA role player who hit even 1/4 of this many shots in big moments. Horry never averaged more than 12 points per game in any regular season, shot 34% from three for his career and yet he is as responsible as anyone for his seven championship rings across three franchises. If you were rooting against the Rockets, Lakers, or Spurs during the ’90s and 2000s (say, because you were a Sacramento Kings, Portland Trail Blazers, or Detroit Pistons fan), absolutely nobody terrified you more than Robert Horry. Off-hand, I can think of six or seven huge clutch moments from Horry, which means he had six or seven more than Kobe Bryant.
J.J. Barea’s 2011 NBA Finals
I can’t pick a game here; Barea terrorized the Heat this entire series. His offensive numbers were nothing special, but somehow a 5’10” guard made the Heat’s lives hell for seven straight games. He was such a quick, pesky defender that LeBron James, who had 10 inches and roughly 70 lbs on him, refused to try to post him up (aka the thing nobody has ever been able to defend against for LeBron’s entire career). Dirk Nowitzki won Finals MVP that year (and deserved to, as his flu game was nearly as impressive as Michael Jordan’s a decade and a half earlier), but the Mavericks don’t win their one and only title without Barea.
Reggie Williams’s 1993 Western Conference First Round Game 3
Going into 1994, no eight-seed had ever beaten a one-seed, and by the end of Game 2 of the Denver Nuggets’ five-game series against the Seattle Supersonics, it didn’t look like that was going to change. Then Reggie Williams happened. LaPhonso Ellis may have carried Denver to an unexpected upset with great performances in Games 4 and 5, but the Nuggets wouldn’t have gotten there without a truly bonkers stat line from Williams in Game 3: 31 points on 11-16 shooting to go along with 8 assists and 6 boards. If Williams doesn’t play like that in Game 3, we don’t get the indelible Game 5 image of Dikembe Mutombo lying on the court on his back, holding the ball above his head, screaming “I LOVE THIS GAME!” Sure, the Nuggets lost in seven games to the Utah Jazz in the next round, but it was fun while it lasted.
Josh Smith’s 2015 Western Conference Semifinals Game 6
Josh Smith had all the talent to be an NBA star, but like a lot of guys before and after him, his brain didn’t work well enough to make use of it. In 2015, he was near the end of his career with the Houston Rockets, having already worn out his welcome with the Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons, and the Rockets trailed the Clippers three games to two in Game 6. The dawn of the fourth quarter did not look bright, with the Rockets trailing by 13…but then Smith tapped into his well of considerable talent. “J-Smooth” scored 14 points on 4-of-5 field goal shooting (including 3-4 from deep) to nearly outscore the Clippers by himself, all while playing lockdown defense. The Rockets won the game comfortably, and eventually won Game 7, and none of it would’ve been possible without a guy who’d be out of the league a year and a half later.