When discussing the all-time lists of NBA players, one of the most important criteria is their post-season success. Playoff games are where the stakes are at their highest, and delivering in those high-pressure situations separates the good and the great. Having a tremendous regular-season doesn’t give you the legendary status. You have to prove it in a 7 games series. Playoff series are draining, and they require a different level of focus and the ability to adapt. Facing the same opponents for almost three weeks requires you to make offensive and defensive adjustments, both individually and as a team, to be successful.
Over the years, we have seen players who have a breakout regular-season, making us believe that they are built for greater success, but often end up not proving their worth in the playoffs. You never see a playoff series be taken over by a player out of the shadow. We have even seen elite-level players like James Harden, who is constantly the MVP conversation, but can’t take the next step in the post-season. That’s why big post-season performances are significant when arguing how successful a player’s career is.
Michael Jordan, the GOAT, had many historic playoff performances. Only nine times in NBA history, a player has averaged 40ppg in a playoff series. Jordan did it five times. Here’s the list of those memorable series:
5. – 1986. First Round vs. Celtics, 43.7 ppg on 51%
Twenty-three years old Michael Jordan just came off a broken foot injury and persuaded the Bulls to let him play on a heavy minutes restriction. Jordan led the Bulls to a 30-52 record, claiming the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference and securing the first-round matchup vs. Boston Celtics. The Bulls were clear underdogs facing one of the greatest teams of all time who were coming of a historic 67-15 regular season and were led by 3x MVP Larry Bird, along with five other Hall of Famers.
MJ opened the series with 49 points, but the Bulls were blown out. He followed it up with a historic 63 points performance, which to this day is the most points scored in a single playoff game, having Larry Bird famously call him “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” Celtics swept the series 3-0, and in the final game, MJ posted a near triple-double with 19 points. Michael averaged 43.7 points per game on 51% shooting, but it wasn’t enough to threaten the Celtics.
4. – 1988 First Round vs Cavaliers, 45.2 ppg on 56%
Jordan’s second playoff series averaging over 40 ppg came in 1988 vs. The Cavs. Famous 90s Bulls were starting to take shape, already having Pippen, Grant, and Paxson on the team. The Cavs were led by Mark Price and Larry Nance, but couldn’t contain His Airness.
Throughout 5 games, Jordan averaged 45.2 points per game on 56% from the floor, adding 5.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.8 steals, and 1.6 blocks per game. His overall performance in that series was unbelievable. He was a team’s best defender with a defensive rating of 105 and the player with the highest usage rate of 39.2%. Michael led his team to a 3-2 win over the Cavs, advancing to a second-round vs The Bad Boy Pistons which the Bulls lost 4-1.
3. – 1990 Eastern Conference Semifinals vs Sixers, 43 ppg on 55%
1990 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Bulls and the Sixers was a clash between Jordan and Barkley. By that time, Jordan was considered the best player in the world, so he knew that he had to deliver at the biggest stage and when it mattered the most. The duo of Jordan and Pippen beat the Sixers 4-1 and advanced the Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals where they where once again stopped by Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas in a close 7 game series.
Jordan finished the series vs. Barkley’s Sixers averaging 43 pts per game on almost 55% of shooting. In those 5 games, Michael attempted 23 three-pointers and hit them at a rate of 39.1%. He was also able to get to the free-throw line, converting 85% of 40 free-throw attempts. Other than dominating on the offensive end, MJ was once again the team’s best defender with a defensive rating of 103.
2. – 1992 First Round vs Heat, 45 ppg on 61%
Following his first NBA championship, Jordan and the Bulls were trying to go back-to-back. Their first obstacle was the Miami Heat who the Bulls swept and they went on to win their 2nd straight NBA title. What MJ did in the series vs the Heat was nothing short of impressive.
Michael averaged 45 points per game with a true-shooting percentage of 66.8%. He attempted 0 three-pointers and converted 90.6% of his 32 free-throw attempts. Jordan finished 40% of Bulls’ possessions and was once again dominating on the defensive end of the floor, averaging three steals and a block per game.
1. – 1993 Finals vs Suns, 41 ppg on 51%
The last playoffs series Jordan averaged 40+ per game was the NBA finals in 1993. Coming off a 4-2 win over the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls were ready to complete their first three-peat. The only thing on their way was Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns. Barkley played a great series, but the Suns didn’t have an answer for MJ. The Bulls won the series 4-2, claiming their 3rd title in a row.
How good was Michael? He averaged 41 points per game on 50.8% from the field while also grabbing 8.5 rebounds per game and dishing out 6.3 assists per game. His scoring averages could’ve been even higher if MJ didn’t struggle from the free-throw line, hitting only 69.4% of them. This was also the last time we have seen a player average over 40 ppg in a playoff series. Some came close after this, but none was able to do what MJ did five times in his career.