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The NBA conference finals are a culmination of a season’s worth of work, and still yet a preview of things to come. We experience the entire spectrum of human emotion during these games – and we’re almost guaranteed to witness a moment that will latch onto the collective conscience of NBA fans and play on a loop in our heads for years after the buzzer sounds.
Think back for a second. Further than that. Back when a budding star in Indiana went toe-to-toe with the best basketball player in the world. When a thunderbolt in Oklahoma City wreaked havoc at about 1,000 miles per hour. When a King took matters into his own hands. And when a 3-point barrage helped shift the entire landscape of basketball. What do all these moments have in common? They happened in the conference finals.
Today, we’re hopping in our Enjoy Basketball Time Machine (it’s real, we just can’t show it to you) and reliving 10 of the most enjoyable conference finals performances of the past 10 years. Let’s get to it!
Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
2022 Eastern Conference finals, Game 6 (Heat 111, Celtics 103)
47 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists, 4 steals
We mean this in the absolute nicest way possible: What goes on in Jimmy Butler’s brain when the playoffs start? On second thought, do we really want to know? Or should we just be happy to watch Miami’s superstar flip a switch and take his game to a level that very few players have ever been able to reach? Yeah, we’ll probably go with the ladder.
Butler’s 2022 playoff run was brimming with explosive performances, perhaps none more scintillating than this one. He scored 47 points and Miami needed every single one. Jimmy entering this zone (which he actually seems to do about twice a week each postseason) is truly one of the most captivating events in all of basketball.
Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
2021 Western Conference finals, Game 6 (Suns 130, Clippers 103)
41 points, 8 assists, 3 steals, 16/24 FG, 0 turnovers.
Point God. Go back and read that stat line again. CP3’s complete control over every aspect of this game’s second half was dizzying. He seemed to know how every play would turn out three possessions before it actually happened.
Phoenix led at the half, but Paul finished the first two frames with just 10 points. The moment the second half got underway, it was clear CP3 wasn’t coming this far just to come this far. He was surgical, mathematical, scrupulous, punctilious, essentially any adjective you can think of that describes greatness on a basketball court. He was that. 31 points, 12-for-16 shooting in the second half. And most importantly – a W.
Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
2021 Eastern Conference finals, Game 3 (Bucks 113, Hawks 102)
38 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, 15/26 FG
Let. Khris. Khook!
We must not let Middleton’s brilliance throughout the Bucks’ 2021 championship run be lost in the sands of time. Of all Khash Money’s playoff moments, the fourth quarter of Game 3 in the ECF is certainly one of the brightest. In the final frame alone, Middleton poured in 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting and 4-for-6 from deep. The definition of locked-in.
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
2020 Western Conference finals, Game 2 (Lakers 105, Nuggets 103)
31 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal, 1 buzzer-beater
Knowing the 2020 season culminated in an NBA championship for the Lakers must make watching Anthony Davis sink a buzzer-beater in the WCF feel even sweeter for Lakers fans. This shot lifted Los Angeles to a 2-0 series lead over Denver that ended up being insurmountable.
AD was a force throughout the entirety of the NBA bubble (10 games of 30+ points) and his buzzer-beater remains one of the defining moments of the Lakers’ championship run. Some shots you just know are going in.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
2019 Western Conference finals, Game 3 (Warriors 110, Trail Blazers 99)
20 points, 13 rebounds, 12 assists, 4 steals, 1 block
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more “Draymond” game than this one. Everything he’s supplied for the Warriors during this incredible dynasty — the energy, the communication on defense, the feel for the game, the leadership, the distribution — was on full display during an exhilarating comeback win against Portland, which gave the Warriors a commanding 3-0 series lead.
Every team should try to find their own Draymond Green. The problem is, there will only ever be one Draymond Green. And games like this show why he’s an integral part of basketball’s biggest dynasty over the past decade.
Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
2019 Eastern Conference finals, Game 3 (Raptors 118, Bucks 112)
36 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, 1 block
A decade from now, explaining Kawhi Leonard’s tenure in Toronto might be difficult. He played 84 total games for the Raptors yet will forever be a legend in the 6ix thanks to one of the most dominant and methodical postseason runs we can remember. Klaw showed up for one season, took care of business and headed out West. But whenever we try telling our boss that load management helped Kawhi win a championship in Toronto, and that’s why we should work two days a week, we get in trouble?
We don’t actually think Kawhi is a cyborg. But when this game went to double-overtime and he was still dominating on both ends like the game just started, we may have gotten a little suspicious.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
2018 Eastern Conference finals, Game 6 (Cavaliers 109, Celtics 99)
46 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals
Are you a basketball team whose season is on the line? Is your back against the wall? Is your second-best player injured? Here’s what you should do.
Simply have your LeBron James-type player (assuming you have one of those) score over 40% of your team’s points, over half of your assists and about a quarter of your rebounds.
What, you mean no one else on the planet can do that? Oh, yeah, that makes sense actually. A truly royal performance from King James.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
2016 Western Conference finals, Game 6 (Warriors 108, Thunder 101)
41 points, 11 3PM
And thus, Game 6 Klay was born. Klay Thompson’s 11 3s in Game 6 against OKC were the most ever in a playoff game up to that point. They certainly weren’t just for the sake of breaking a record, either – Klay’s 10th made 3-pointer cut a seven-point deficit to four, and his 11th was the go-ahead bucket with just over 90 seconds left in the game. Every point was crucial. Cold-blooded. Or, gold-blooded?
Paul George, Indiana Pacers
2014 Eastern Conference finals, Game 5 (Pacers 93, Heat 90)
37 points (21 in fourth quarter) 6 rebounds, 6 steals
Sometimes it’s just obvious. In the case of Paul George, it was obvious. A superstar was being born right in front of our eyes, and it was thrilling to watch.
PG was on the cusp of greatness in 2014, and he sprinted full speed into stardom by refusing to back down while facing the back-to-back NBA champion Miami Heat. In the fourth quarter of Game 5, a 23-year-old George was the best player on the floor with multiple HOFers, hitting big shot after big shot. No fear. PG was always built for stardom.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
2014 Western Conference finals, Game 4 (Thunder 105, Spurs 92)
46 minutes, 40 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds, 5 steals
Russell Westbrook showed us in this year’s playoffs that he still has some gas left in the tank. How exactly that’s possible, we’re not quite sure, considering Brodie has run about 100 miles per hour every time he’s stepped on the court over the past 15 years.
Have you ever seen those videos of average people trying to keep up with the pace of world-class marathon runners? That’s kind of what playing against Russ circa 2014 must have felt like. He just. Kept. Coming. At. You.
In Game 4 of the 2014 WCF, San Antonio experienced that firsthand. Russ attacked like it was the last basketball game he was ever going to play; and he never gave the defense a break, sitting just two minutes the entire game. As Russ would say, “Why not?”