Shooting gallery

The Baltimore Sun

Many sports-loving channel flippers must have shared a similar experience Thursday night. The NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers-Detroit Pistons series hadn't offered much artful basketball for the casual fan. And it carried with it a sense of futility given that the San Antonio Spurs await the winner. But if you settled on Game 5 at the right time - say the end of the third quarter - you saw a beautiful hour of sports. There aren't many true prodigies, and the chance to catch one coming to full bloom is rarer still.

But LeBron James did just that, hitting shot after improbable shot in one of the great playoff performances in memory. At times, he rumbled through a good Pistons defense right to the basket. At others, he floated away from it at crazed angles and hit jumpers from the deepest environs of the court. With his inspiring effort in mind, we remember some of the other best performances in NBA playoff history.

Bob Pettit, 1958 -- He may be the most underrated great player in NBA history and Pettit showed why in Game 6 of the Finals against the Boston Celtics. He scored 50 points, including 19 of his team's last 21, to lead the St. Louis Hawks to their only championship.

Walt Frazier, 1970 -- Willis Reed supplied the inspiration by hobbling onto the court for Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers, but Frazier supplied the substance with 36 points, 19 assists and five steals as the Knicks rolled to a championship.

Magic Johnson, 1980 -- It was Game 6 of the Finals, and the Lakers were without their centerpiece, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Johnson, a wide-grinning, 20-year-old rookie, took the opening jump ball from center and proceeded to take apart the Philadelphia 76ers from all portions of the court. He scored 42 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished seven assists.

Sleepy Floyd, 1987 -- In a largely forgotten gem, Floyd scored 51 points, including 39 in the second half and 29 on 12-for-13 shooting in the fourth quarter, to keep the Golden State Warriors alive in the Western Conference semifinals against the powerful Lakers.

Larry Bird, 1988 -- He had played better overall games for much greater teams, but the Celtics' Bird pulled it all together one last time to score 20 in the fourth quarter and overcome a 47-point outing by the Atlanta Hawks' Dominique Wilkins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Isiah Thomas, 1988 -- Strangely, "Zeke" sealed his reputation as a playoff great in a losing effort for the Pistons against the Lakers in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals. He left the game briefly with a badly sprained ankle but returned to score 25 points in the third quarter on his way to 43 for the game.

Michael Jordan, 1992 -- He had no weaknesses on offense, but Jordan was never a great three-point shooter. Or so the Portland Trail Blazers thought before he made six three-pointers in a 35-point first half for the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of the Finals. No game better summed up the prime Jordan, who was so much better than everyone else that he had to shrug at the wonder of it.

Reggie Miller, 1995 -- Miller had posted a solid 23-point outing in what was shaping up as a tight loss to the Knicks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. But in the last 8.9 seconds of the game, he scored eight points to give the Indiana Pacers an improbable win.

Hakeem Olajuwon, 1995 -- "The Dream" gets this nod not for a single game but for his six-game beatdown of David Robinson during the Western finals. Olajuwon averaged 35.3 a game for the Houston Rockets to Robinson's 23.8 for the Spurs and ended any debates about who was the best center of that generation.

Michael Jordan, 1998 -- It wasn't his most aesthetically pleasing performance. Jordan was showing his age and carrying too much of the load for his team against the ever-solid Utah Jazz. But the sequence in which he hit a driving layup, stripped Karl Malone and juked Bryon Russell to hit a championship-winning jumper was, well, perfect.

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