- Neil Paine
LeBron James had an incredible performance against the Pacers on Thursday night, pouring in 30 points to go with eight rebounds and six assists, including a dominant stretch during the third quarter in which his 16 points gave Miami a stranglehold on the game and the series. For most players, that would have been the game of a lifetime, to perform at that high of a level on such a big stage. But for James, it was pretty much par for the course; in fact, it wouldn't have even cracked his top 10 greatest conference finals performances.
The numbers support it; last night's showing ranked 11th in James' pantheon of conference finals games. I ran the calculations on every conference finals performance since 1986, the first year for which Basketball-Reference.com has complete box scores. For each player, I computed Alternate Win Score (AWS), a linear-weights formula that multiple studies have found to be the best of its kind in terms of predicting future team performance. I also made adjustments for the quality of the opponent, location of the game and team defensive performance that isn't captured by the box score, and I weighted everything by championship leverage index to account for the game's level of "clutchness."
What follows are the results of that study -- the 10 best conference finals performers of the past 28 seasons, according to AWS per game (minimum 10 conference finals games played).
Was James' performance Thursday good enough to put his career average over the top?
Just Derek Fisher, Shaquille O'Neal, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Rasheed Wallace and Robert Horry have played more conference finals games than Bryant since 1986 (Michael Jordan is tied with Kobe at 45). And just Fisher, Horry, Pippen, Jordan and Rodman can beat Bryant's 28 wins in that span.
Signature performance: Bryant tallied 30 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists at Sacramento in Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference finals (4.8 leverage index).
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann