The NBA Playoffs is where we normally see stars takeover and will their teams to a win. Teams with legitimate superstars tend to have the advantage over their opponent; however, sometimes a dominant superstar just is not enough. The league has always been full of talent, which has spread amongst a good number of teams yearly.
Even if a team were to have a superstar, they may run into another team with two stars or a well-balanced team behind a borderline star player. In this article, we will go over NBA Legends/Greats who have attempted to carry their team but came up short. Some came up short due to a lack of team help, others just simply were outmatched by the opposition. The common storyline is that how well this star performed should have been good enough to win a playoff series, but unfortunately, they came up short.
The great determiner of how well a player performs in the playoffs in ‘Game Score’. Game Score does a good job of calculating a player’s impact through a small cluster of games, which is perfect for analyzing Best of 7 (or shorter) playoff series. In this article, Game Score will be the main factor we will use to determine what Greats have performed at a high level to no avail.
*Disclaimer: An average Game Score is 10.0. A great Game Score is 20.0 or above. Though a great statistic, Game Score is not a reliable source for NBA games prior to 1983, as stats were not as all-inclusive as they are now. So, we regrettably will not include players like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, etc. The players listed below were either drafted after 1983 or suffered most of their playoff series losses post-1983.
***Players listed in order of their highest Game Score value (lowest to highest). Only Series Game Scores of 20.0 or above were considered ‘Great Performances’.
Great Performances in Series Losses: 1
Most Notable: 2007 Western Conference 1st Round (20.0 Game Score)
Matchup: #7 Los Angeles Lakers vs #2 Phoenix Suns
Notable Stats in Series: 32.8 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 4.4 APG, 46.2 FG%, 91.9 FT%
Surprisingly, Kobe Bryant has not had many outstanding performances in losing fashions… at least not for an entire series. His great performances normally came in wins, or he simply did not play at a high enough level to lead his team past opponents. His lone great performance in a loss came against the Phoenix Suns in 2007.
The Los Angeles Lakers tasked a 28-year old Kobe with leading a young, inexperienced team past a 61-win Suns team featuring two 1st Team All-NBA players: Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire. As expected, Kobe and the Lakers came up short, losing the series in five games. Though Kobe ended the series with solid overall numbers, he did have two poor shooting nights in Games 2 & 5, shooting for a combined 18-46 (39%). He also finished the series averaging 4.4 turnovers per game. The Lakers’ one win in the series came behind a 45-point performance where he scored nearly half of his team’s points on highly efficient numbers.
Great Performances in Series Losses: 1
Most Notable: 1990 Eastern Conference 1st Round (20.6 Game Score)
Matchup: #4 Boston Celtics vs #5 New York Knicks
Notable Stats in Series: 24.4 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 8.8 APG, 90.6 FT%
Larry “Legend” Bird is known as a winner. Throughout his playoff career, Bird rarely underperformed, until late in his career when injuries began to affect him greatly. At the same time, he also only had one incredible performance that was not enough to help his team advance to the next round. For the most part, if Bird played well, his team played well, and they won. But this was not the case in 1990 as the Boston Celtics matched up with the New York Knicks.
The Celtics came into the series as the favorites to win, being seven wins ahead of the Knicks to end the season. This was Bird’s final ‘healthy’ season (played 75 games in the regular season after playing only six games the season prior) and at age 33, he was looking to make yet another title run. Bird’s pursuit would be cut short in the 1st Round as he was outplayed by a motivated 27-year old Patrick Ewing. Bird played well in the series, playing well above league-average in three of the five games.
The Celtics won the 1st two games of the series then lost three straight games in a Best of 5 series. In the two wins, Bird averaged 19.5 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 13.0 APG, and 2.5 TOPG while shooting 44.1% from the field. Oddly enough, Bird’s scoring numbers were worlds better in the following three losses as he averaged 27.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 6.0 APG, and 4.3 TOPG on 44.6% shooting. On the surface, one would believe Celtics played better behind Bird’s playmaking for others rather than him attempting to take over the game with scoring. However, the Celtics simply were not nearly as efficient offensively in the final three games as they shot 61.8% from the field in Games 1 & 2, then 49.8% in the three losses.
Great Performances in Series Losses: 3
Most Notable: 2012 NBA Finals (20.7 Game Score)
Matchup: #2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs #2 Miami Heat
Notable Stats in Series: 30.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 54.8 FG%, 39.4 3PT%
Kevin Durant has had several playoff moments that wowed us, as well as a few moments that left us a bit disappointed. Typically, he has put up between 25-30 PPG in every series he is played in, always showing off his scoring prowess. However, he was unable to nab an NBA title until leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State back in the 2016 offseason. That is not due to a lack of effort on Durant though (for the most part).
Back in 2012, in his 1st ever Finals appearance, Durant showed the world that he belongs amongst the NBA’s elite names, even in a losing effort. The matchup was himself, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden versus LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh; the NBA’s premiere youthful Big 3 versus the seasoned, villainized Big 3. As most expected, the Thunder’s youth came back to haunt them, but not Durant. His worst shooting performance in the series saw him shoot 47.4% from the field, still higher than any overall series FG% of the five aforementioned players.
Durant’s scoring abilities were at its best in the team’s lone win of the series in Game 1. He scored 36 points while shooting 60% from the field (12-20), 50% from three (4-8), and 88.9% from the line (8-9). The Thunder would lose the following four games, even with Durant averaging 29.3 PPG with 53.6% and 36% shooting from the field and three, respectively. Unfortunately for Durant, besides scoring, he failed to impact the series with other aspects of his game consistently. He was also let down the most by the 3rd member of the Thunder Big 3, James Harden, as Harden had an extremely poor series.
Great Performances in Series Losses: 3
Most Notable: 2003 Western Conference Semifinals (22.7 Game Score)
Matchup: #5 Los Angeles Lakers vs #1 San Antonio Spurs
Notable Stats in Series: 25.3 PPG, 14.3 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 55.9 FG%
Shaquille O’Neal is easily the most dominant player of the 2000s, if not ever in NBA history. His dominance led to four NBA Championships as well as many outstanding playoff numbers. His most significant performance in a loss, however, came back in 2003. The 50-win Los Angeles Lakers were looking to continue their dynasty, after winning three straight titles. The team seemed to lack motivation, winning their fewest amount of games since the emergence of the Kobe and Shaq tandem. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, were looking for revenge as the Lakers eliminated them in the Semifinals the year prior.
The Spurs were able to win the series in six games behind stellar defense (ranked 3rd in the regular season) and a balanced scoring offense behind Tim Duncan. Meanwhile, the Lakers relied heavily upon Shaq and Kobe Bryant to score most of the team’s points (they averaged 57.6 PPG combined in the series, with the rest of the team averaging 36.1 PPG). Without Duncan’s 28.0 PPG, and even (Spur’s 2nd leading scorer) Tony Parker’s 14.8 PPG, the Spurs averaged 56.7 PPG. The teams’ scoring depths simply were not even.
Though Shaq trailed Kobe in scoring in the series (25.3 to 32.3), he was able to impact the game on the boards and defensively. Also, oddly enough, the two stars averaged the same assists per game, 3.7. Their efforts were not enough to overcome the Spurs’ depth.
Great Performances in Series Losses: 8
Most Notable: 1986 Western Conference Semifinals (25.2 Game Score)
Matchup: #3 Philadelphia 76ers vs #2 Milwaukee Bucks
Notable Stats in Series: 27.6 PPG, 14.7 RPG, 4.4 APG, 2.4 SPG, 62.2 FG%
Of all the players on this list, Charles Barkley has been let down by his teams the most. Barkley has had eight great playoff series that ended without him advancing: five with the Philadelphia 76ers, two with the Phoenix Suns, and one with the Houston Rockets. His most notable instance was in the 1986 Western Conference Semifinals with his 76ers matched up against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Semifinals matchup pitted a 22-year old Barkley against another young, ‘star-in-the-making’ PF, 24-year old Terry Cummings. The Suns’ roster featured several renowned veterans, namely Julius Erving (35), Moses Malone (30), Maurice Cheeks (29), and Bob McAdoo (34). The Bucks, conversely, featured a young roster with no rotational players older than 28. Unfortunately for the Suns, Malone suffered an injury late in the season against these same Milwaukee Bucks, forcing him out of the playoffs. The Bucks also had their own major injury to deal with, as their star wing, Sidney Moncrief, was in and out of the lineup due to injury. He managed to play in just three games in the series. Neither team was at full strength, but both had solid depth to withstand the losses.
Looking solely at the numbers from that seven-game series, it is shocking to know that the Suns did not advance. Barkley was not without scoring assistance as the Suns outscored the Bucks by the end of the series. In Game 7, while Moncrief managed to suit up (and score an efficient 23 points) for the Bucks, Barkley had his least effective game of the series, scoring 18 points while only attempting nine shots (averaged 14.8 FGA per game in Games 1-6). In the closing seconds, Erving missed the go-ahead mid-range jumper, rendering Barkley’s great series numbers null.
Great Performances in Series Losses: 4
Most Notable: 1990 Western Conference Semifinals (26.7 Game Score)
Matchup: #1 Los Angeles Lakers vs #5 Phoenix Suns
Notable Stats in Series: 30.2 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 12.2 APG, 50.0 FG%, 91.1 FT%
Magic Johnson is well known for his brilliant playoff performances. As a rookie, he helped his team win an NBA title, winning Finals MVP with his efforts replacing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at C in a crucial game. In that game Magic scored 42 points, leading his team to victory. Somehow, in the 1990 Semifinals matchup against the Phoenix Suns, Magic surpassed that scoring effort in two games, losing both.
The series did not play out as many expected (Lakers were heavy favorites to advance), as Magic’s teammates failed to score efficiently alongside him. The Suns, instead, had a well-balanced attack with three players averaging over 20 PPG in the series. Through three games, Magic was averaging 21.7 PPG and 14.7 APG, but the Lakers were down 1-2. In Games 4 and 5, Magic put up 43 points in both outings, but the Lakers failed to win either game. The 63-win team simply did not look as dominant as witnessed during the regular-season while the Suns played at a high level for four of the five games. Magic’s greatest ‘individual numbers’ series was put to waste by an underdog Phoenix Suns.
Great Performances in Series Losses: 2
Most Notable: 2006 Western Conference Semifinals (26.8 Game Score)
Matchup: #1 San Antonio Spurs vs #4 Dallas Mavericks
Notable Stats in Series: 32.3 PPG,11.7 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 55.6 FG%
Tim Duncan is one of the most winningest players of the 2000s, as he won three Championship rings in the decade (two outside of the decade: 1999 & 2014). That is not to say he has not had his ups and downs throughout the playoffs. There is a reason why the San Antonio Spurs never managed to repeat as Champions despite consistently making the playoffs as a top 4 seed in the West during the Greg Popovich/Duncan era. Generally, the Spurs coming up short in the playoffs was synonymous with Duncan either underperforming or simply not breaking into the next level we have witnessed him perform at.
Nevertheless, in 2006, the #1 seeded, 63-win Spurs were matched up against the #4 seeded, 60-win Dallas Mavericks. It was a battle between two superstar PFs, Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. While the Spurs entered as clear favorites to win, the Mavericks’ depth was a deciding factor in the series. The Spurs featured a Big 3 of Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, with all three averaging over 20 PPG in the series (accounting for 73.7 of the team’s 99.9 PPG in the series). Michael Finley was the team’s 4th leading scoring, with 10.6 PPG, leaving the rest of the team with just 15.6 PPG. The Mavericks, however, had a much deeper scoring attack as five different players averaged over 10 PPG, with Dirk leading at 27.1.
Duncan’s ridiculous numbers were to no avail. In the team’s four losses, he averaged 33.8 PPG, 12.3 RPG, and 3.0 BPG. It marked just the 2nd time (and final time) in Duncan’s career that he outplayed every player on the opposing team yet still lost the playoff series. The 1st instance occurred in 2002 as Duncan greatly outplayed both Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, yet the Spurs lost the series in five games.
Great Performances in Series Losses: 6
Most Notable: 2009 Eastern Conference Finals (29.3 Game Score)
Matchup: #1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs #3 Orlando Magic
Notable Stats in Series: 38.5 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 8.0 APG, 48.7 FG%
We all remember LeBron James’ performance in the 2015 NBA Finals. Not only were he and his 53-win Cleveland Cavaliers facing a 67-win Golden State Warriors, but they were also without two of their three best players: Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving (only played one game). The series went six games, with the Warriors winning the title, and LeBron was lauded for his incredible numbers as he led both teams in scoring, rebounding, and assisting. The one caveat keeping this performance from being his most notable was his efficiency. Having to carry such a heavy load offensively, versus a team that led the league in scoring, weighed down on LeBron’s shooting numbers as he went from 48.8% from the field (regular season) to 39.8% in the series.
A ‘great LeBron James’ series we tend to overlook is his performance against the Orlando Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. The only real memory we have of LeBron from that series is his Game 2 game-winner over Hedo Turkoglu. Besides that, we remember the series mainly for Dwight Howard’s dominance in the paint while playing in Coach Van Gundy’s 1-in, 4-out style of play. However, LeBron’s play in that series may have been even better than his play in the 2015 Finals (in a series loss).
LeBron was, without question, head and shoulders above any other player in the series, averaging nearly 40 PPG (scored 40+ points in three of the six games). He did so while nearly averaging a triple-double and shooting efficiently from the field, despite only hitting 11 of his 37 3-point field goals. He simply was outmatched. The Magic surrounded Howard with a phenomenal mixture of defenders and outside shooters. The team hit 62 threes on 40.8% shooting while the Cavaliers hit 42 threes while shooting only 32.3% from range. This may have been LeBron’s most impressive of his six great performances in losing efforts during the playoffs.
Great Performances in Series Losses: 7
Most Notable: 1986 Eastern Conference 1st Round (30.6 Game Score)
Matchup: #1 Chicago Bulls vs #8 Boston Celtics
Notable Stats in Series: 43.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 5.7 APG, 2.3 SPG, 50.5 FG%
Michael Jordan has only had two career playoff series with a Game Score under 20.0, and both ended with his team winning the series (1997 Eastern Conference Finals vs Miami Heat, 18.7; 1996 NBA Finals vs Seattle Supersonics, 18.5). Even in his losses, Jordan put up incredible numbers. Through his illustrious career, Jordan played in 37 different playoff series… and has only lost seven. In every single one of those losses, Jordan’s numbers were quite impressive.
With that said, his best performance in loss remains as his performance against the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics in 1986, getting swept in three games. It was Jordan’s 2nd season and just his 5th-7th career playoff games. The Bulls, at the time, had no business making the playoffs as they finished the season with a 30-52 record. It was a lost season, as Jordan had missed all but 18 games while dealing with injuries. Yet somehow, the Bulls made the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference. Unfortunately for them, they were matched up against a 67-win Celtics who were coming off a Finals loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the previous season. The Celtics were motivated, and the Bulls were simply happy to be there.
While his teammates were overwhelmed by the overpowering Celtics (led by the quintet of Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, and Robert Parish), Jordan had a historic outing while standing no chance to win. Though he underperformed in Game 3, only scoring 19 points (with a solid ten rebounds and nine assists), he was incredible in the 1st two games. He scored an impressive 49 points in a 19-point Game 1 loss. He then followed that up with a dazzling 63-point night while the Bulls still lost by four points. He finished the series with 131 points in just three games, good for 43.7 PPG. He did this while shooting 50.5% from the field, with 6.3 RPG, 5.7 APG, 2.3 SPG, and 1.3 BPG in addition.
Great Performances in Series Losses: 7
Most Notable: 1988 Western Conference 1st Round (34.2 Game Score)
Matchup: #6 Houston Rockets vs #3 Dallas Mavericks
Notable Stats in Series: 37.5 PPG, 16.8 RPG, 2.3 SPG, 2.8 BPG, 57.1 FG%
Hakeem Olajuwon holds the top spot for ‘Greatest Performance in a Playoff Series Loss’. He earned the spot after his performance in the 1st Round of the 1988 playoffs. His 46-36 Houston Rockets were up against the 53-29 Dallas Mavericks. It was Hakeem’s 4th season and 8th overall playoff series. He had already established himself as a legitimate star in the league, making the NBA Finals just two years prior. Though his Rockets lost the series in six games to the Boston Celtics, Hakeem had solid numbers through the series. Also, his last playoff game (1987 Western Conference Semifinals), we saw Hakeem put up a historic 49 points, 25 rebounds, and six blocks in a losing effort against the Seattle Supersonics. Hakeem put the league on notice; he just did not have the team around him to defeat the deeper Western Conference teams.
This sentiment would persist in the 1988 playoffs as the Rockets, despite having one of the league’s best young talents in Hakeem Olajuwon, were not favorites to win the 1st Round matchup. The series started as expected; the Rockets lost by 10 points while Hakeem put up 34 points and 14 rebounds on 60% shooting. The following game, Hakeem was able to help lead his team (along with an impressive/shocking outing from starting PG Sleepy Floyd) to a 119-108 victory. Hakeem had 41 points and 26 rebounds while Floyd added 42 points (the two put up 83 points while the remainder of the main rotation put up 34 points; two points came from Lester Conner who played a total of one minute).
The Rockets’ fortunes would end that game as Hakeem continued to put up magnificent numbers (35 points/12 rebounds in Game 3; 40 points/15 rebounds in Game 4). Despite his efforts, the Rockets lost in just four games. Only two other Rocket players managed to average over 10.0 PPG: Floyd and Joe Barry Carroll. Carroll averaged a mere 11.0 PPG on a poor shooting (38.3% from the field with no 3-point attempts. Floyd, on the other hand, averaged 18.8 PPG on below-average efficiency. The biggest issue with Floyd’s numbers is that they were carried by his 42-point outburst. Outside of that Game 2 performance, Floyd only averaged 11.0 PPG while shooting a horrific 25.6% from the field on 13 shots per game. Hakeem’s numbers were wasted. His numbers were not just impressive for a player in a loss, it was simply impressive for any playoff performance overall.
One Man Cannot Do It All
If anything, this list goes to show that no ‘one’ player can truly win a championship by himself, let alone a playoff series. Yes, we have seen individual talents overcome superior opponents in the playoffs; but it was always accompanied by unheralded performances by their teammates, even if it did not show in the counting stats.
All-Time greats all share moments where their team let them down even behind their best efforts. Some, unfortunately, had to experience this more often than others, but just about every great was able to put these losses behind them and win a title (sorry Charles Barkley).