The Top-5 Statement Games in NBA History

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Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past week—and if you have, you’ve already missed some great NBA action—you’ll be aware that OKC traded the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden, to the Houston Rockets, after he turned down their offer of a slightly-less-than max contract. Regardless of whether they were correct in making the trade for long-term reasons—which requires another article—there’s no denying the fact that OKC just got substantially weaker in the short-term.

And on Wednesday night Harden reminded Thunder fans of what they’ll be missing this season. In his Rockets debut Harden had 37 points, 6 rebounds, 12 assists, and 4 steals. There are 3 things you can infer from his performance. Firstly, Harden is an awesome player and can undoubtedly lead a franchise. Secondly, Detroit isn’t a very good team; and thirdly, Harden felt compelled to show the Thunder that they were wrong in not offering him a max contract and trading him.

The first two inferences are reasonably logical, and given human nature, it’s hard to argue with the last one. Harden may have been playing his natural game on the court, utilizing all of his breath-taking skills in order for his team to win, but there was undoubtedly an element of “This one’s for you Sam Presti!” On Wednesday night Harden was in, what Bill Simmons likes to refer to as, “Eff You Mode”.

And in light of that, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at 5 of the biggest ‘statement games’, or to be more crass, ‘f**k you games’, of all time. Games in which a player didn’t just play well for the sake of playing well—to help his team win—but also to send a clear message to the fans, coaches, media, opposition players, and the entire world.

5. LeBron James vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, December 2nd, 2010. (38 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists)

Although LeBron would claim that his destruction of the Cleveland Cavaliers was nothing personal—just business—it’s hard not to see a little bit of an edge to his stunning performance. LeBron was returning to Cleveland for the first time since his departure that summer—a departure made worse by the gaudy spectacle that was ‘The Decision’. Immediately after LeBron’s decision to take his talents to South Beach, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert penned a vitriolic letter to Cavs fans, pouring scorn on LeBron’s actions, and promising that the Cavs would win a championship before LeBron would (that latter part was somewhat ill-advised).

Leading up to LeBron’s much-anticipated return, there had been jersey burnings, comparisons to famous traitors in American history (Benedict Arnold), security concerns, and ever-so-slightly creepy YouTube videos of Cavs fans ‘breaking up’ with LeBron.

But LeBron was to add insult to the collective injury felt by Cleveland. He began the night with his chalk-routine (not a popular decision) and then was unplayable for the 30 minutes he was on the court—scoring from everywhere and feeding off the crowd’s incessant booing. Cleveland fans may have had the last laugh in that particular season, but LeBron well and truly stuck it to them on that night.

4. Kobe Bryant vs. Toronto Raptors, January 22nd, 2006 (81 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals)

There’s been a lot of talk about this game recently—a game that featured the second highest points total scored by a player in a single game. Former Raptor, Jalen Rose, has talked recently about what it was like to guard Kobe in that game, how Kobe didn’t say a word as he was carrying out his destruction, and how he begged Raptors’ coach, Sam Mitchell, to double-team Kobe when things started getting out of hand. Rose is certainly not confused as to why Mitchell is no longer coaching in the NBA.

Unlike LeBron’s destruction of the Cavaliers, Kobe’s ‘eff you’ performance actually seems to have been aimed, less at the Raptors, and more at his own team. Other than Kobe, the Lakers, pre-Gasol trade (2004-2007), were pretty awful. Talking about those bad old days, Kobe said, “I was shooting 45 times a game. What was I suppose to do? Pass it to Chris Mihm or Kwame Brown?” In that same discussion Kobe went on to trash Smush Parker, leading to a bizarre and completely pointless feud. The point is, Kobe in his prime was playing on a team with the likes of Parker, Mihm, Brown and Sasha Vujacic—and he was pretty mad about it. The fact that he was still able to get that team into the playoffs, and then lost out to Steve Nash for MVP, rubbed salt into the wound.

Kobe’s destruction of the Raptors, both impressive and selfish at the same time, was a message to the front office, his teammates—you’re crap and I don’t trust you—and to the rest of the NBA.

3. LeBron James vs. Boston Celtics, June 8th 2012. Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6. (45 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists).

Yep, that man again. Despite his transcendent 2011/12 regular season numbers, and his fantastic post-season up until that point, the narrative on LeBron was still that he was weak in the clutch, and that he wilted in the biggest moments. Some of that was fair, and some of it was hyperbole and/or plain old trolling.

Regardless, Game 6 was do-or-die for the Heat and LeBron James. They trailed 3-2 against the Celtics—a team that delighted in trash-talking LeBron (see Rondo and Pierce in that series for examples)—and went to Boston on the verge of elimination. Fairly or unfairly, LeBron was going to be the media’s whipping boy, as he’d been since 2010, if the Heat were eliminated that night.

But that didn’t happen, of course. LeBron put on a performance for the ages, putting on the type of devastating display that says to your doubters, if I may steal a line from Alonzo Harris in Training Day: “I run shit here! Y’all just live here!”

LeBron hit 19 of 26 from the field, and destroyed the Celtics on the boards—all the while never changing his cold, heartless facial expression. He meant business that night, and that performance was a statement to his detractors in the media, and to those trash-talking tough-guys in Boston.

2. Hakeem Olajuwon vs. San Antonio Spurs, May 22nd, 1995. Western Conference Finals, Game 1. (27 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 blocks)

If you’re sadistic enough, or you just want to see low-post play at its absolute finest, go back and watch Hakeem Olajuwon’s absolute schooling of David Robinson. Hakeem the Dream, one of the top-10 NBA players of all time, took many an NBA centre to school during his illustrious career—hell, he’s still schooling dudes in the off-season—but there was something different about his Game 1 destruction of Robinson.

The Rockets had won the NBA title the previous year, but didn’t feel like they were quite getting the respect that champions deserve. The Spurs had finished with the best record in the Western Conference that season, and had home-court advantage against Houston in the Western Finals. What’s more, Robinson, a fantastic player in his own right, had won the MVP. The league, to the detriment of the Spurs in retrospect, presented Robinson with his trophy before tip-off. Olajuwon, probably feeling that no man was better than him at the 5-spot, made a conscious decision to embarrass Robinson on national television.

The Admiral just couldn’t live with Olajuwon, who bamboozled him with his classic array of fakes, deceptive speed, and transcendent footwork. By the end of Game 1 (Houston won the series in 6, incidentally) the basketball world was aware that although Robinson may have been the league’s MVP that season, he certainly wasn’t the league’s best centre. Robinson, classy as ever, said in the post-game press conference: “I don’t even know how I can say it with a straight face, but I thought most of the time I defended him pretty well. That man just played as well as I’ve seen anybody play in a long time”. Lesson: avoid anything that could potentially goad a champion in embarrassing you—like winning the MVP award.

1. Michael Jordan vs. Portland Trail Blazers, June 3rd, 1992. NBA Finals, Game 1. (39 points, 11 assists, 2 steals.)

It’s become one of the most iconic images in NBA Finals history; that moment when MJ turns to the broadcast table, after his 6th 3-pointer of the first-half (an NBA record), and shrugs his shoulders in feigned surprise. Jordan scored 35 points in the first half of the game—breaking Elgin Baylor’s record of 33—leading the Bulls to a comfortable victory in Game 1, while making Clyde Drexler’s life miserable in the process.

But this game was more than simply MJ being MJ, and destroying another NBA team. This was a statement game for Jordan. Leading up to the Finals there had been talk about the Bulls struggling in the playoffs, and to a certain extent, that was true. The Bulls had been taken to 7 games by the Knicks, and 6 by the Cavaliers, while at the same time, the Trail Blazers had stream-rolled their way through the Western Conference. The media definitely didn’t have the Bulls as clear favourites against a very potent Portland team.

And there was another, perhaps even more intriguing, subtext to the series: the growing rivalry between Jordan and Portland’s Clyde Drexler. Drexler had had a fantastic season, and was a supreme talent, but some in the media were going as far as to say that Drexler was Jordan’s number-1 rival in the league—a guy that could match him step for step. It’s hard to imagine that someone with an ego like Jordan would be able to ignore all that hype. Jordan went into the ’92 Finals, not simply intent on destroying the Trail Blazers and winning his 2nd championship, but also destroying the notion that Drexler was anywhere close to his equal.

In retrospect we now realize that Jordan had no equal—although Drexler had a fantastic hall-of-fame career—but his Game 1 performance helped hammer home that fact to misguided journalists, and possibly Drexler himself. Of course, Clyde never compared himself to Jordan, but he was getting the ‘eff you’ treatment regardless. 

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