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A Brief History of “Stolen Glory” Moments in the NBA Playoffs

From Draymond Green’s monster performance in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals to Shaq being outshined by A.I. in 2001, here are the postseason achievements lost in the shadow of defeat

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In 2016, LeBron James became only the third player ever to hang a triple-double on an opponent in an NBA Finals Game 7. Jerry West did it in 1969 (his Lakers ended up losing to the Celtics, which was probably unbelievably frustrating for West, considering he put up 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists). James Worthy did it in 1988 (his Lakers beat the Pistons, but probably more interesting than that is that his Game 7 triple-double was the first triple-double of his career). And then LeBron did it (an even more mammoth thing: He became the first player ever to lead both teams in a playoff series in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks). It was this very big, very real talking point in the post–2016 Finals basketball discussion.

In that same game, though, Draymond Green—lo, he of basketball ill repute and wiener shots—also went bonkers. He played 47 of the game’s 48 minutes (!), scored 32 points on only 15 shots (!!), went 6-of-8 from 3 (!!!), yanked down 15 rebounds (!!!!!), and had nine assists and two steals just because he felt like it (!!!!!!). If the Warriors had held on to win, he’d have absolutely been knighted a hero. It’d have been a redemption story of the highest order, truly. (That was the series where he was suspended for Game 5 after taking a shot at LeBron’s groin area during a scuffle in Game 4, then played horribly in his return for Game 6.) Instead, Green’s performance ended up getting broken up into a million pieces and washed down the sink by the greatest play of LeBron’s career and the greatest shot of Kyrie Irving’s career (and, to a lesser extent, the greatest defensive stand of Kevin Love’s career, if we’re being very thorough). It became, in effect, lost history: a mammoth individual performance destined to live in the dark, clammy, cold shadow of someone else’s victory.

Lost history is an interesting thing. Even in a loss, it’s not always a definite thing—sometimes, a player manages to grow his lore to such heights in a loss that it outshines the entirety of the other team’s win, and probably the best example is the God Disguised As Michael Jordan game from the 1986 playoffs, when Jordan put up 63 during a loss to the Celtics in Boston Garden—but it’s an interesting thing.

One that I always remember is a young Dirk Nowitzki splashing around in the boat after the Spurs had reeled him and the Dallas Mavericks in during the second-round Spurs-Mavs series in 2001. The Spurs won in five, and Game 5 was never even close, but Dirk—in a precursor to the basketball serial killer he’d fully become in the playoffs during the Mavs championship run a decade later—put up 42 points and 18 rebounds on his way out the door.

Another one from 2001—a big one, truly—was Game 1 of the Finals that year. The Lakers, who by then had proved themselves to be literally unbeatable in the playoffs (they were 11-0 at that point and had won those 11 games by a combined 170 points), stood across from the Sixers, who had survived knife fight after knife fight just to make it to the championship round (they trailed in each of the three previous rounds and found themselves an 11.5-point underdog in Game 1, making them the biggest Game 1 underdogs ever, per Mike Lynch of Basketball-Reference).

Of course, Allen Iverson went berserk-o and the Sixers ended up stealing that game. Everyone always brings up Iverson’s performance (as they should) because not only did he have 48 points, five rebounds, six assists, and five steals, but also that was the time he stepped over Tyronn Lue after Lue fell down while trying to stop Iverson from hitting the dagger bucket late in overtime. But what gets lost is Shaq’s evening. He was a total bruiser, and at his most BASKETBALL 18-WHEELER deadliest. He had 44 points, 20 rebounds, and five assists, and he did so while being guarded by Dikembe Mutombo, one of basketball’s best-ever defensive players (and Matt Geiger, an alive human man).

(An aside: It’s legitimately jarring to watch the video of Shaq’s highlights from the game and see how vicious and violent he was around the rim. I wish there was a way that, just for a week, we could drop 2001 Shaq into today’s NBA. It’d be mayhem. It’d be like that time Arsenio Hall interviewed Jason Voorhees and nobody knew what to do, only that they were ready to run away to avoid being machete’d to death.)

A good one from the ’80s that is entirely ignored is Bernard King’s 41-5-5 in Game 4 of the first-round Knicks-Pistons matchup. I suspect a big part of the reason it’s been erased is because he was somehow even better in Game 5 when his Knicks won the series, hitting the Pistons in the forehead with 44 points and 12 rebounds while playing with two dislocated fingers and also the flu. But still. Lost history.

In the 1987 playoffs, the Rockets and the Sonics played in the Western Conference semifinals. The Sonics, despite having finished the season with a losing record, marched their way to a 3-1 series lead, and the Rockets were able to steal away another few days of life with a Game 5 win (112-107), but they ended up losing a double-overtime ax battle in Game 6. Seattle’s Tom Chambers and Dale Ellis were both giants (37 points, eight rebounds for Chambers; 36 points, nine rebounds for Ellis), but it was Hakeem Olajuwon, then still going by “Akeem,” who was the game’s Megazord. He played 53 minutes that night, putting up an extremely gross 49 points, 25 rebounds, and six blocks.

Hakeem’s performance here is probably my favorite one to bring up as a way to talk about whether you can blame someone for losing a game after they miss a big shot at the end of it when they were the only reason their team was even in the game in the first place. What I mean is: Hakeem not only had a shot to win Game 6 in regulation (he ended up missing a jumper with two seconds left), but he also had a chance to win it in the first overtime (he missed a free throw with five seconds left that would’ve put the Rockets up by one). If he had made either of those, the Rockets would’ve probably won, forcing a Game 7 in Houston with all the pressure suddenly back on a team that’s given away a 3-1 lead. He missed the shots, though, and the Rockets lost the series. So I get that some people might see that and be like, “If he doesn’t miss that free throw, the Rockets win. Hakeem choked.” But can you really, truly, fairly say, “Hakeem blew it for the Rockets,” after he put up the single highest Game Score rating in a playoff loss since 1983-84? That doesn’t seem right, or feel right.

(Game Score is an advanced stat created by John Hollinger that, per Basketball-Reference, gives “a rough measure of a player’s productivity for a single game.”)

(For the record, I vote no on the Hakeem thing. If a player goes atomic, as Hakeem did, and is 90 percent of the reason that a team even has a chance of winning the game, as Hakeem was, you can’t blame him if he misses a potential game-winner.)

A fun thing (and nerdy thing) to do is to pull up all of the highest Game Score ratings in playoff losses on Basketball-Reference and then search the internet for stories about each of them.

Ray Allen had a great lost-history moment against the Bulls in the 2009 playoffs (51 points, WITH 18 3-POINT ATTEMPTS). Russell Westbrook had one against the Rockets in the playoffs last year (a 51-10-13 triple-double, which was/is the only 51-point triple-double in playoff history). Kobe Bryant had a 50-8 showing that Steve Nash and the Suns karate-kicked into the Pacific Ocean in the 2006 playoffs. Dwight Howard somehow had one against the Hawks in the 2011 playoffs, which is the most Dwight Howard thing I have ever heard of (46-19). My beloved Tim Duncan had one against the villainous Mavericks in the 2006 playoffs (41-15 in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals), and I’ll thank you in advance for never bringing it up again.

On and on and on. More and more and more. Over and over and over again. There are many of them; a great deal of them; literally hundreds. All there, forgotten by everyone except by those who suffered through them, lost to the depths of the oceans or under the ashen soot of a dead volcano. Lost history. And stolen glory.