It’s not often when NBA superstars fall short of expectations, and it’s even more eye-opening when it occurs on the biggest stage – the playoffs. But every now and then a perennial All-Star falters when his team needs him the most in the postseason, the latest example being Sunday night in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ stunning loss to the shorthanded Boston Celtics.
But LeBron James is far from the only superstar to fall short in the postseason. Here are eight of the worst playoff performances by some of the best players in the game.
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Michael Jordan, 1989 Eastern Conference finals, Game 5
Yes, even the great Michael Jordan came up with a dud from time to time in the playoffs. His Airness took just eight shots in the game against the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons – but he did get to the free-throw line 11 times and converted 10 of those attempts. The Pistons honed in on Jordan, limiting him to 18 points in a game-high 46 minutes, and Detroit’s physical brand of basketball stymied the Bulls in a 94-85 loss. Jordan tried to affect the game in other ways, handing out nine assists, but the Pistons also forced him into four turnovers as Detroit went on to win the series in six games.
Reggie Miller, 2000 NBA Finals, Game 1
Stats: 7 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, 1-16 fgs
After years of falling short against Michael Jordan in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Miller finally got his shot on the NBA’s biggest stage. And maybe one of the greatest shooters in league history was a bit nervous in his Finals debut or maybe it was the fact he was going up against Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal at the beginning stages of what would become a Lakers’ three-peat. Whatever the reason, Miller was far from his normal self, hitting just one shot from the floor and missing all three of his attempts from beyond the arc. The Lakers went on to win Game 1 and eventually took the series in six games.
Reggie Miller wasn’t the only all-time great shooter to have a disastrous game in the Finals. Allen was a key part of the Celtics’ Big Three era but was a virtual no-show in Game 3, being held to just two points – coming at the free-throw line – as the Lakers took a 2-1 series lead. It was an especially unexpected performance from Allen considering he was lights out in the previous game, scoring a game-high 32 points and hitting 8 of 11 from deep in Boston’s Game 2 victory. The series went seven games, and the Lakers eventually prevailed in a thriller.
James Harden, 2017 NBA Western Conference semifinals, Game 6
The Rockets were perfectly set up to force a Game 7 against the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard was out for Game 6 because of an ankle injury, and San Antonio was already without Tony Parker, who suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury earlier in the series. But Harden, coming off one of the most efficient seasons in NBA history, appeared to be passive throughout the must-win game for Houston as the Spurs rolled to a surprising blowout victory. James was a minus-28 for the game and looked nothing like the MVP candidate who fueled the Rockets’ 3-point-happy offense all season.
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Dirk Nowitzki, 2007 Western Conference quarterfinals, Game 6
Nowitzki had an MVP regular season, leading the Mavericks to the best record in the league, and it appeared Dallas would be a formidable team in the playoffs. But the eighth-seeded Warriors had other plans, pulling off one of the biggest stunners in NBA playoff history, and Nowitzki was barely a factor in a must-win game for Dallas. Golden State’s smaller and quicker lineup frustrated Nowitzki, who got to the free-throw line just four times despite playing 39 minutes.
Arguably the biggest blemish in James’ career, the 2011 Finals left many wondering whether he would ever win an NBA title. Coming off a regular season in which the Heat were reviled virtually every time they were on the road, it appeared the toll had finally caught up to James, who at times in this series appeared disinterested. And no game crystalized that belief more than this one, in which he got to the free-throw line just four times and took just 11 shots in 45 minutes. The Heat lost the game to the Mavericks and eventually lost the series in six games.
Kobe Bryant, 2006 Western Conference quarterfinals, Game 7
Stats: 24 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, 8-16 fgs
If you take a quick look at Bryant’s stats, you’d wonder why this is considered a bad performance. But dig a bit deeper and you’ll notice that the Black Mamba took just three shots in the second half against the Suns and scored his only point after halftime on a technical free throw. Kobe was heavily criticized throughout the regular season – his first without Shaquille O’Neal by his side – for attempting 27.2 shots per game in 2005-06. So it was even more eye-opening to see one of the most unapologetic superstars take a back seat to his teammates in a winner-take-all game. The Lakers blew a 3-1 series lead and lost this game by 31 points.
NBAE/Getty ImagesKent Smith
LeBron James, 2017 Eastern Conference finals, Game 3
The Cavs were on a perfect run in the playoffs, facing a Celtics team without its only perimeter ball-handler and coming off one of the most lopsided wins in NBA playoff history. James appeared superhuman in the postseason, reaching heights that had many wondering if he still could dethrone Michael Jordan as the greatest ever. Then LeBron reverted to a passive mode we had not seen since his early days with the Heat, getting to the free-throw line just six times in 45 minutes in the Cavs’ shocking loss to the Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics.