The top playoff performances from LeBron James and Kobe Bryant

AP Photo/Michael Conroy
AP Photo/Michael Conroy

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers made all sorts of history and dropped all sorts of jaws Thursday night. After trailing by 25 at halftime to the Indiana Pacers, King James spearheaded an incredible comeback via 43 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. It was the largest playoff halftime deficit any team has erased.

His orchestration of Cleveland’s massive comeback was a work of basketball art. In the process of ripping Indy’s heart out and recording his 17th playoff triple-double, James passed Kobe Bryant for third on the all-time playoff scoring list. He eclipsed the Black Mamba’s 5,640 postseason points and now follows only Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time list.

It’s a milestone moment for James because Bryant was the top scorer in the post-Jordan era. While there’s seemingly no end in sight to LeBron’s dynamic career, his legacy is already among hoops deities.

To mark this figurative passing of the torch, let’s remember the most brilliant postseason performances from the two most creative superstars of the 21st century:

Bryant honorable mentions:

-2000 WCF Game 7 vs. POR (25 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists to clinch trip to finals)

-2006 1st round vs. PHX (50 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists in OT loss)

-2010 NBA Finals Game 7 vs. BOS (23 points, 15 rebounds, 2 assists to win NBA title)

James honorable mentions:

-2006 1st round Game 1 vs. WAS (32 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists in playoff debut)

-2008 ECSF vs. BOS (45 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists in duel with Paul Pierce)

-2015 NBA Finals Game 2 vs. GSW (39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists to tie series)

10. Kobe Bryant vs. Sacramento Kings, 2001 Western Conference Semifinals Game 4

48 points and 16 rebounds to clinch sweep of Sac-Town

The Lakers and Kings had quite a rivalry in the early 2000’s, and L.A. claimed the upper hand in this round. Sacramento unleashed all of its firepower with its back against the wall in Game 4, but Kobe out-gunned them.

He erupted for 48 points, scoring primarily via acrobatic drives and mid-range buckets. The Kings couldn’t consistently stay in front of him and resorted to fouling him during many sequences. Bryant also crashed the boards, including a whopping nine offensive rebounds to discourage the Arco Arena crowd.

9. LeBron James vs. Orlando Magic, 2009 Eastern Conference Finals Game 2

35 points, 5 assists and a buzzer-beater

James had a bunch of other high-scoring games during this unsuccessful series against the Magic, but his Game 2 exploits were magnified because they were punctuated with an electrifying buzzer-beater.

After losing Game 1 at home, the Cavaliers were in jeopardy of falling down 2-0 to Orlando. James poured in 35 points and five assists, and he put the cherry on top by delivering a clutch three-point bomb. With only enough time to catch and fire up a prayer, James coolly found the bottom of the net and sent Quicken Loans Arena into a frenzy:

8. Kobe Bryant vs. Indiana Pacers, 2000 NBA Finals Game 4

28 points, huge clutch shots in overtime

This was not one of Bryant’s best game’s statistically. He had to take 27 shots in 47 minutes just to get to 28 points. However, the Black Mamba came up colossally in overtime after Shaquille O’Neal fouled out. Bryant scored eight points in the extra period, including three of L.A.’s last four buckets. It was one of the signature moments that illustrated his clutch-ness and ascent to superstardom.

7. LeBron James vs. Detroit Pistons, 2007 Eastern Conference Finals Game 5

48 points, nine rebounds and seven assists to give Cleveland 3-2 lead

In 2007, a 22-year-old James carried the Cavs to the NBA Finals. The most impressive effort during this playoff run was his 48-point outburst in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Pistons prided themselves on their physical, defensive-minded style, but James was in an unstoppable groove. Strong drives, timely jumpers and pinpoint passes shredded Detroit’s defense and silenced the Palace crowd in overtime. If James wasn’t already the Alpha Dog of the Eastern Conference, he cemented it with this performance and a trip to the 2007 Finals.

6. Kobe Bryant vs. Orlando Magic, 2009 NBA Finals Game 5

Bryant stuffs the stat sheet to clinch first post-Shaq title

It had been a long time since Bryant had hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy. After the Lakers three-peat in 2000-02, Bryant had lost in the Finals in 2004 and 2008. In 2009, he climbed back to the top of the mountain against Dwight Howard’s Magic.

Kobe put his imprint on every aspect of the closeout game. He posted 30 points, six rebounds, five assists, four blocks and two steals in Game 5 to finally give the Lakers another banner. After many wondered whether Bryant could win a championship without Shaquille O’Neal, he emphatically erased all doubt.

5. LeBron James vs. Boston Celtics, 2012 Eastern Conference Finals Game 6

45 points, 15 rebounds on the road to keep Heat alive

With his Miami Heat down 3-2 and facing elimination, James uncorked a masterpiece to keep his title hopes alive. He attacked and scored from all over the floor en route to 30 first-half points and 45 total. At that point in his career, he had not yet won a championship and still had many doubters. James’ dominant performance on the road against a veteran Boston squad was a convincing stepping-stone toward his first ring:

4. Kobe Bryant vs. Detroit Pistons, 2004 NBA Finals Game 2

33 points, 7 assists and game-tying shot

Bryant willed the Lakers to this overtime victory. His 33 points and game-tying shot to force OT was one of the only bright spots in this otherwise forgettable series for the Purple and Gold. In addition to scoring 33, he dished seven dimes to keep the Lakers’ offense one step ahead of Detroit.

The game-tying rainmaker was a classic Kobe shot. He sized up Rip Hamilton, rose up confidently and launched a swish from way beyond the three-point arc:

3. LeBron James vs. San Antonio Spurs, 2013 NBA Finals Games 6 & 7

A combined 69 points, 22 rebounds and 15 assists to lead comeback over Spurs

We stacked these two games together because they felt like one long, epic performance. With the Heat down 3-2 in the series and down 10 entering the fourth quarter of Game 6, James found another gear. He lost his headband but took control of the game, giving Ray Allen a chance to hit a game-tying shot at the end of regulation. James finished the job in overtime and ended up with a triple-double of 32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds.

His game-seven exploits were nearly as heroic, as he splashed jumpers and tallied 37 points to clinch back-to-back titles for the Heat.

2. Kobe Bryant vs. Phoenix Suns, 2006 First Round Game 4

24 points, 8 assists, game-tying shot AND game-winning shot

Although Kobe had several monumental performances in this series against Phoenix, the most memorable one was capped by a game-tying shot to force overtime and a buzzer-beater in overtime to close it out.

The Lakers trailed the whole fourth quarter of Game 4, right up until the final play. Smush Parker forced a steal against Steve Nash, and then Kobe made a sky-scraping floater to knot the game at 90. Then to close out overtime, he buried a buzzer-beating fadeaway with two Suns challenging him:

1. LeBron James vs. Golden State Warriors, 2016 NBA Finals Game 7

Triple-double and chase-down block clinch historic comeback

After succumbing to the Warriors in the 2015 Finals and falling behind 3-1 in the 2016 rematch, Games 5, 6 and 7 were all masterful from James. We decided to focus on the last one, an amazing triple-double that brought Cleveland its first pro sports championship in 52 years.

James displayed a perfect balance between aggressively getting his own buckets and keeping everyone involved. Golden State, equipped with several high-level defenders, couldn’t contain him as he relentlessly attacked the hoop. James’ complemented his legendary offensive performance with a game-saving block on Andre Iguodala in the final minute.

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