The Most Heroic Losses in NBA Playoff History

The NBA is often described as an individual game, and whether we like it or not, there’s some truth to that. A single player can make a huge difference in the league. When LeBron James left Cleveland the Cavaliers transformed from a contender to one of the worst teams in the NBA.

In the playoffs we tend to focus on team performances, but that shouldn’t take away from the great individual efforts — and some of the surprising performances — we’ve seen through the ages. Sometimes, those great games even come in a loss. We looked at the best performances in NBA Playoff history — all by players who found themselves on the wrong side of the final score when the buzzer sounded.

25. Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson considers his best performances in NBA Playoff history.
We could all use a little Magic. | Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Back in 1987, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics had another classic NBA Finals battle. After the Lakers took a 2-0 series lead in Los Angeles, the series shifted to Boston for the next three games. A big second-quarter helped the Celtics pull off a win and keep the series interesting, with a final score of 109-103. But Magic Johnson did everything he could. The Lakers’ Hall of Famer finished with 32 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists.

24. Karl Malone

Karl Malone looks to pass.
Karl Malone is one of the all-time greats. | Robert Sullivan/AFP/Getty Images

In the 1991 Western Conference Semifinals, the Utah Jazz took on the Portland Trail Blazers. The Jazz were stacked, with Karl Malone, John Stockton, Jeff Malone, and Mark Eaton on the roster. But the Blazers were coming off a trip to the NBA Finals the previous year and had a 63-19 record in the regular season. Portland took a 2-0 series lead with a 118-116 win in Game 2, but Malone did what he could to keep the Jazz in it. He led a massive fourth-quarter comeback, finishing with 40 points and 16 rebounds.

23. Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson prepares for action.
Magic Johnson prepares for action. | Mike Powell/Getty Images

In the first round of the 1991 NBA Playoffs, the Golden State Warriors pulled off a stunner and took Game 2 over the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, tying the series at 1-1 with a 125-124 victory. Chris Mullin dropped 41 points for the Warriors, but Johnson stole the show. Even though the Lakers lost the game, Johnson went for 44 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists. The good news: The Lakers ended up winning the series and advancing to the NBA Finals.

22. Charles Barkley

Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns waves to fans as Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers watches.
Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns waves to fans as Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers watches. | Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images

In 1993, Charles Barkley led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, who hoped for their third consecutive NBA Championship. The Bulls won the first two games of the series in Phoenix before losing Game 3 in Chicago, setting up a pivotal Game 4. Barkley went nuts, playing 46 minutes and dropping a triple-double with 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. The Bulls won anyway, 111-105, taking a 3-1 series lead and eventually closing it out in Game 6.

21. Kobe Bryant

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant shows his number during a game in 2014.
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant shows his number during a game in 2014. | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Another Los Angeles Laker to make the list is Kobe Bryant from 2010. Facing the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers held a 2-1 series lead going into the Game 4. Phoenix tied up the series with a 115-106 victory, pulling away late in the fourth quarter. But they ultimately lost the series in six games. Bryant had himself a day, however, dropping 38 points with 10 assists and shooting 15-for-22 from the field and 6-for-9 from the three-point line. That’s an impressive game, win or lose.

20. Draymond Green

Draymond Green takes a breather on the court.
Draymond Green had the game of his life in Game 7. | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The performance of Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green from Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals is one of the most overlooked aspects of this infamous series. While the Cleveland Cavaliers took home their first NBA title, thanks to a timely three-pointer by guard Kyrie Irving, Green was masterful. In fact, with Stephen Curry shooting just 6-for-19 from the field, Green’s 32-point, 15-rebound, nine-assist performance is really the only reason the Warriors had a chance of winning in the final minutes.

19. Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony watches as the play begins.
Carmelo Anthony watches as the play begins. | Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In 2011, the Boston Celtics opened up the playoffs against the New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony. The talented Celtics overmatched the Knicks entirely, and New York eventually lost the series in a four-game sweep. But in Game 2, Anthony had a great game and kept it close. While Boston eventually won the game, 96-93, they couldn’t stop Melo from dropping 42 points with 17 rebounds and six assists. That’s pretty impressive, considering that he had little help on that team. The second-leading scorer was guard Toney Douglas with 14 points.

18. Tim Duncan

Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs watches the action.
Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs watches the action. | Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs had a classic Western Conference Semifinals series in 2006, going all the way to seven games – including overtime in Game 7. Dirk Nowitzki dropped 37 points, going 15-for-16 from the free-throw line and leading the Mavs to a 119-111 win. Spurs forward Tim Duncan was phenomenal in the loss too; he dropped 41 points, 15 rebounds, six assists, and three blocks. But it wasn’t enough, and the Spurs’ season ended while the Mavericks moved on to the conference finals.

17. Karl Malone

Karl Malone prepares to shoot a free throw.
Karl Malone prepares to shoot a free throw. | Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

In the opening round of the 1992 NBA Playoffs, the Utah Jazz took on the Los Angeles Clippers. Facing elimination against Utah, down 2-1 in the series, the Clippers took a victory on their home court behind 33 points from Danny Manning and 26 from Ron Harper. But Los Angeles had no answer for Malone, who scored 44 points on 11-for-18 shooting from the field and 22-for-24 from the free-throw line. The forward threw in 11 rebounds as well. Despite losing the game, the Jazz won the series.

16. Charles Barkley

Charles Barkley battles Will Perdue for a rebound.
Charles Barkley battles Will Perdue for a rebound. | Paul Gero/AFP/Getty Images

At the start of the 1993 NBA Playoffs, things didn’t look good for the Phoenix Suns to eventually make their run to the NBA Finals. They went down 0-2 against the Los Angeles Lakers, losing both games on their home court. The Lakers took Game 1, 107-103, behind an improbable 35 points from guard Sedale Threatt. Barkley had another great game for Phoenix in the loss, shooting 12-for-16 from the field for 34 points and adding 15 rebounds (eight of them on the offensive end).

15. Charles Barkley

Phoenix Suns forward Charles Barkley laughs at a foul call with Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan.
Phoenix Suns forward Charles Barkley laughs at a foul call with Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan. | Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Yet again, Barkley threw down a great game in a loss in the 1993 NBA Playoffs. Facing the Bulls at home in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Suns power forward had a major on-court battle with Jordan. While the Bulls star dropped 42 points with 12 rebounds and nine assists, Barkley contributed 42 points, 13 rebounds, and four assists. The Bulls, of course, won the game and the series. But the 199293 NBA MVP award winner, Barkley, couldn’t be blamed for lack of trying.

14. Tim Duncan

Tim Duncan jogs across the court.
Tim Duncan won five championship rings. | Andy Lyons/Getty Images

When the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs faced off in the 2003 NBA Playoffs, Duncan once again came away with a performance for the ages to go along with a loss. In Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, the Mavericks went to San Antonio and pulled out a stunning 113-110 victory over the favored Spurs behind 38 points and 15 rebounds from Dirk Nowitzki. Duncan played 45 minutes for San Antonio, scoring 40 points and adding 15 rebounds and seven assists. Despite the loss, the Spurs won the series and the NBA Championship.

13. John Stockton

Utah's John Stockton reacts to being called for a foul.
Utah’s John Stockton reacts to being called for a foul. | Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

In 1989, the Utah Jazz went into the postseason as the higher seed against the 43-39 Golden State Warriors. To everyone’s surprise, the Warriors took the first two games in Utah and forced the Jazz to go on the road in Game 3 to try to keep their season alive. Stockton was brilliant in that game, as was Malone. “The Mailman” scored 34 points with 14 rebounds, but it was Stockton who is of note: 33 points, 16 assists, and six steals. He even finished with two blocked shots! But of course, that wasn’t enough to salvage a victory in the game or the series.

12. Terry Cummings

Terry Cummings stretches.
Terry Cummings was a big-time scorer in his early days. | Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

All the way back in 1985, the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks met up in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. A matchup of two strong teams, the Sixers featured an aging Julius Irving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, and a young Barkley. And Sidney Moncrief and Terry Cummings represented the Bucks’ stars. Philadelphia won the series in a clean sweep but despite a 112-108 loss by the Bucks in Game 2, Cummings put on a show. He finished with 41 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and three steals.

11. Hakeem Olajuwon

Hakeem Olajuwon high fives his teammates.
Hakeem Olajuwon is one of the greatest ever. | Getty Images

In 1988, the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks faced off in an interstate battle in the first round. With Dallas leading, 2-1, and looking to close things out in Game 4, Rockets center and future Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon came to play. “The Dream” scored 40 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, shooting 16-for-24 from the field and 8-for-8 from the free-throw line. But that wasn’t enough, as the Mavericks won the game and the series that night.

10. Paul Millsap

Paul Millsap points at his teammates.
Paul Millsap may not finish the season with the Hawks. | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In a more recent and memorable playoff performance, Paul Millsap of the Atlanta Hawks put on a show against the Boston Celtics in 2016. In Game 4 of their first-round series, Boston took a tight, 104-95 overtime victory to tie the series at 2-2. Even though his Hawks struggled to put the ball in the basket throughout much of the game, Millsap was outstanding. He shot 19-for-31 from the field, scoring 45 points and adding in 13 rebounds and four blocked shots.

9. Clyde Drexler

Vinny Del Negro gets trapped by Clyde Drexler.
Vinny Del Negro gets trapped by Clyde Drexler. | Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

In 1992, the Los Angeles Lakers were coming off a trip to the NBA Finals the previous year but they were missing the recently-retired Johnson. That left LA undermanned in their opening-round series against Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers — and they lost the series in four games. The Lakers did sneak out a win in Game 3, an exciting overtime affair that finished 121-119. Drexler gave it everything he had, though, scoring 42 points on 14-for-23 shooting and adding 12 assists and nine rebounds, too.

8. Charles Barkley

Charles Barkley answers a reporter's question during a press conference.
Charles Barkley answers a reporter’s question during a press conference. | Tom Mihalek/AFP/Getty Images

In 1986, the very same Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers faced off again. This series was much more of a thriller; they went all seven games and finished with a one-point Milwaukee victory in the final game. But the focus here is Game 4, where the Bucks won, 109-104, on the road in Philadelphia. No one could stop Barkley in that game. He shot 11-for-17 from the field and 15-for-19 from the free-throw line, putting together a line of 37 points, 14 rebounds, and nine assists despite losing the game.

7. Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson laughs with Miami Heat coach Bob McAdoo.
Magic Johnson laughs with Miami Heat coach Bob McAdoo. | Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

In 1990, the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers clashed in the Western Conference Semifinals. Game 4 of that series was pivotal, with the Suns entering with a 2-1 series lead and playing on their home court. They pulled off a victory thanks to 30 points from point guard Magic Johnson, taking a 3-1 lead and eventually winning the series in six games. But Johnson had another classic performance, dropping 43 points on 15-for-26 shooting and 12-for-12 from the free-throw line, as well as 10 assists and six rebounds.

6. James Harden

James Harden dribbles toward the basket.
James Harden is changing the game. | Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In 2015, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets faced each other in the Western Conference Finals, with the Warriors taking the series in five games on their way to an NBA Championship. But despite the series loss, and specifically a one-point loss in Game 2, Rockets guard James Harden had a memorable game. He shot 13-for-21 from the field, including 3-for-6 from three-point range, finishing with 38 points to go along with 10 rebounds, nine assists, and three steals.

5. Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook dribbles down the court.
Russell Westbrook has gone off the charts. | Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Just this year, Russell Westbrook had a game for the ages in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round series loss to the Houston Rockets. In Houston’s 115-111 win in Game 2, James Harden dropped an easy 35 points with eight assists. But Westbrook outdid him in every imaginable way with the exception of the win column; he scored 51 points with 13 assists, 10 rebounds, and four steals. That’s a great game, even if it took him 43 shots to get his 51 points.

4. Kevin Johnson

Kevin Johnson drives against the Utah Jazz.
Kevin Johnson drives against the Utah Jazz. | George Frey/AFP/Getty Images

After losing in the 1993 NBA Finals, the Phoenix Suns seemed to be on their way back again in 1995. They faced the Houston Rockets, a team that finished 12 games behind them in the Western Conference standings in the conference finals. Game 7 was on the Suns’ home court, and Kevin Johnson had a magnificent game. He notched 46 points and 10 assists, going 21-for-22 from the free-throw line. Barkley grabbed 23 rebounds in the game, but unfortunately for Suns fans a bad third quarter doomed them; they lost the game — and the series.

3. Rajon Rondo

Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics reacts after a play.
Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics reacts after a play. | Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

In the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, the aging Boston Celtics took on the then-ringless LeBron James and Miami Heat. The Heat were heavily favored in the series and took Game 1 on their home court. But the Celtics were determined to fight in Game 2 to try to split the games on the road. It didn’t work out for them, as Miami won the game 115-111 in overtime. But point guad Rajon Rondo, never known as a big-time scorer, had a memorable night. He finished with a game-high 44 points on 16-for-24 shooting in 53 minutes, adding 10 assists and eight rebounds as well.

2. Dirk Nowitzki

Dirk Nowitzki shoots against the Golden State Warriors.
Dirk Nowitzki shoots against the Golden State Warriors. | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs met up yet again in the 2001 NBA Playoffs, facing each other in the Western Conference Semifinals. The Spurs won the series in five games, as well as the game in question, but Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki was awesome. Despite losing Game 5, 105-87, Dirk put together a 42-point, 18-rebound, six-steal game against San Antonio. It clearly wasn’t enough against Duncan, David Robinson, and the supercharged Spurs.

1. Hakeem Olajuwon

Hakeem Olajuwon celebrates with his teammates.
Hakeem Olajuwon celebrates with his teammates. | Getty Images

Certainly the greatest game in NBA Playoff history by a player who lost must go to Olajuwon. The Houston Rockets faced the Seattle SuperSonics in the Western Conference Semifinals, and Game 6 was a possible elimination game for the Rockets. This one was an absolute classic, with the underdog Sonics pulling out a 128-125, double-overtime victory. Olajuwon was stunning in the loss, scoring 49 points and pulling down 25 rebounds — 11 were offensive boards — and blocking six shots.

Statistics courtesy of ESPN and Basketball-Reference.