You might be a Jordan guy. You might be a LeBron guy. Any way you slice it, Michael Jordan and LeBron James are the best to ever play basketball.
When ESPN drops the 10-part "The Last Dance" documentary series Sunday night [ESPN, 9 ET], it will serve as a reinforcement of Jordan's nearly unblemished resume as basketball's G.O.A.T. The doc will have highlights and commentary on his best games and greatest achievements of his career. It. Will. Be. Amazing.
It will also be difficult for people to watch the documentary series and not have it warp their opinions in all of the subsequent MJ vs. LeBron debates that undoubtedly will follow. Thus, to help those who aim to be objective, I've ranked in inverse order the top 25 games Michael Jordan and LeBron James have played.
There are 12 games for Jordan; 13 for LeBron. Maybe that’s because I’m a LeBron guy. Or maybe it’s because games such as this, this and this — all of which happened in the span of 87 days — had to be left off the honorable mention.
Honorable mention games
Remember when Jordan scored 55 points in the first round of the 1988 playoffs? Or when he obliterated the Bad Boy Pistons championship defense in a two-point win in the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals? Or when he had a 64-point explosion against the Magic in 1993? Or when he scored 55 points in the first round of the 1997 playoffs? None of those games made this list.
Remember when a 20-year-old LeBron had a 56-point, 10-rebound, five-assist game? Or his 52-point, near-triple-double at Madison Square Garden in 2009? What about his pivotal playoff performances in 2012 (Game 4) and 2018 (Game 7) against the Pacers? Or his 37-18-13 Game 3 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals? All of those were left on the cutting room floor.
Here's the creme de la creme:
After a solid first half, LeBron caught fire in the third quarter against Milwaukee, going on arguably the hottest streak of shooting in his career – netting six straight jump shots, four of them deep threes — in just a little over two minutes in Cleveland's 111-103 win. He finished with 55 points, nine assists and five rebounds.
As the Bulls-Pistons rivalry was really starting to heat up, MJ had one of the more impressive scoring performances you will ever see, scoring 59 points on 21-of-27 shooting and 17-of-19 from the free-throw line. He also chipped in six assists in Chicago's 112-110 win. Even more impressive: He made zero threes.
Before a prime-time 2017-18 regular season matchup, Wizards star Bradley Beal made headlines by saying the 2016-17 Cavs “didn’t want to see us [in the playoffs].” Bad move. LeBron waxed the Wizards, recording an insane stat line: 57 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks in an eight-point win in Washington.
Two days after scoring only six points, ending his then-record streak of 866 straight regular-season games with at least 10 points (guess who broke it?), a 38-year-old Jordan erupted for 51 points in a 107-90 win over the Hornets. The Wizards' wonder became the oldest player to score 50 points in a game.
21. March 28, 1995: Jordan’s double-nickel
In his fifth game after returning from a year-and-a-half hiatus from the sport, Jordan treated the fans at Madison Square Garden to a night they’ll never forget. He scored 55 points and stunned everyone by passing up a potential game-winning shot to find Bill Wennington open for a winning dunk in the Bulls' 113-111 victory. This is only representation of the No. 45 version of MJ on this list.
20. March 3, 2014: LeBron’s career-high 61
This goes to show just how ridiculous this list is — LeBron scores 61 freaking points, against Michael Jordan’s Charlotte team, no less, and it’s only the 20th-best game between the two of them. James caught fire from behind the arc, netting eight of 10 from three-point land, in the Heat's 124-107 win.
19. June 3, 1992: The 'Shrug' Game
Heading into Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals, Jordan was at his apex, but there were people who thought Blazers star Clyde Drexler was on the same level. So in Game 1, Jordan, who hardly even shot threes, annihilated Drexler and the Blazers, scoring a Finals record 35 points and burying a then-record six three-pointers in the first half of a 122-89 win. After his sixth three, he made his legendary shrug toward the sideline. … Even he was left speechless by his performance.
18. March 28, 1990: MJ scores a career-high 69 points
Isn’t it quite the coincidence that LeBron’s highest-scoring game came against a team MJ owns, and MJ’s highest-scoring game came against the team with which LeBron spent the majority of his career? Well, one year after “The Shot," Jordan once again breathed fire on the city of Cleveland — this time in a regular-season game — scoring a career-high 69 points in a 117-113 overtime win. He added 18 rebounds and six assists for good measure.
17. April 29, 1992: Jordan eviscerates Heat with 56 points
Nobody really remembers this game, but according to Basketball-Reference, this was Jordan’s highest “Game Score” rating of his playoff career (49.8). Mike scored a highly efficient 56 points on 20-of-30 shooting (attempting zero three-pointers!) and 16-of-18 shooting from the line to lead the Bulls to a 119-114 win over the Heat, completing a three-game first-round sweep.
16. June 11, 1997: The 'Flu' Game
This game has taken on a life of its own, as some believe that Jordan was hungover as opposed to being sick. Regardless of what you think, he was clearly completely devoid of energy during this entire pivotal Game 5 of the Finals and dragged the Bulls to a 90-88 victory on the road, scoring 38 points and making a massive three-pointer to break a tie with 25 seconds remaining.
15. April 25, 2018: LeBron bails out Cavs in Game 5 against Pacers
This was the moment people started to realize that LeBron was going turn in an all-time great postseason. With the score tied at 95, James
goaltended blocked a Victor Oladipo layup with three seconds remaining. On the other end, LeBron took the inbound pass, drove to the top of the key and nailed a three as time expired in Cleveland's 98-95 win. He finished with 44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists to go along with the massive two-way finish to the game.
Everyone knows about “The Shot." With the Bulls down a point in the final seconds of a deciding Game 5 in Cleveland, Jordan somehow got free through two defenders, drove to the foul line, elevated for a jump shot, hung in the air an extra second to let gravity drag poor Craig Ehlo back to earth and nailed a series-ending shot. Final score: Chicago 101, Cleveland 100. Jordan’s shot was an all-timer, but his stat line was damn impressive too: 44 points, nine rebounds and six assists.
Jeff Van Gundy would sum up LeBron’s Game 7 by saying, “No one person has ever shouldered more and gotten his team to the Finals.” LeBron beat the Celtics, 87-79, on the road in a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals all by himself. (Kevin Love was out with a concussion, but no matter!) The King scored 35 points, grabbed 15 boards, dished out nine assists and played ALL 48 MINUTES!!
As legendary as LeBron’s Game 7 was, his Game 6 performance was even better. Down 3-2, LeBron refused to let Boston end his quest to reach eight straight NBA Finals. In Cleveland's 109-99 win, he dropped 46 points and added 11 rebounds and nine assists. His fourth-quarter play was impeccable and included 14 points and back-to-back three-pointers in Jayson Tatum’s face from way downtown to ice the game.
On the road against the 73-9 Warriors in a win-or-go-home Game 5, LeBron and Kyrie Irving were as magnificent as two teammates have ever been. Together, they became the only duo in NBA Finals history to both score 40 or more points in the same game and laid the groundwork for a 3-1 series comeback. LeBron’s stat line in Cleveland's 112-97 win: 41 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocks.
After holding Jordan to abysmal 25-for-77 shooting (32 percent) through the first three games of the series, the Knicks had the Bulls on the ropes in Game 4. But MJ simply refused to lose, scoring 54 points on 18-for-30 shooting (6-for-9 from three) and leading Chicago to an ultra-important 105-95 win to tie the series. The Bulls would go on to eke out Game 5 (the Charles Smith Game) and Game 6 to take the Eastern Conference crown.
Larry Bird’s famous quote about Jordan came after the ’86 Celtics (arguably the greatest team ever) beat the eighth-seeded Bulls 135-131 in a double-overtime Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs. MJ rendered the elite Boston defense useless the entire game, scoring an NBA playoff record 63 points and dishing out six assists. This was Jordan’s playoff arrival.
LeBron became the NBA’s next generational superstar when he took down the grizzled Pistons by himself on the road in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. When I say “by himself," I mean entirely by himself. LeBron not only made the game-winning basket with 2.2 seconds left, but he also scored the Cavs’ last 25 points (and 29 of their last 30) in a 109-107 win. He finished with 48 points, nine rebounds and seven assists on his way to leading the worst roster in modern NBA history to the Finals as a 22-year-old.
Looking back at the Cavaliers’ epic 3-1 comeback in the 2016 NBA Finals, Game 6 was the moment they realized they were in the Warriors’ heads. LeBron had figured out how to beat Golden State — posting his second straight 41-point game and adding 11 assists, eight rebounds and four steals — and he had gotten into Steph Curry’s head by attacking him on switches and blocking his shots at the rim, culminating in this epic exchange. Final score: Cleveland 115, Golden State 101.
The crowning achievement of LeBron’s career was Cleveland's 93-89 win in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Even though it was far from his prettiest game, he still managed to post a 27-11-11 triple-double and came up with the defensive play of a lifetime: The Block. When the clock finally hit zero, the Cavs had won their first NBA title.
Jordan and the Bulls won five of their six titles in six-game series, including the 1993 championship over Charles Barkley and the Suns. Looking back, this Suns team was probably the most formidable opponent as it pushed MJ to heights we never saw him reach. (He averaged 41 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists for the Finals.) Game 4 was apex Jordan — he refused to let the Suns tie the series by scoring 55 points on 21-for-37 shooting from the field to lead Chicago to a 111-105 win.
In another Game 7 for the ages, LeBron came through for the Miami Heat again and again, punishing the Spurs for playing under screens by nailing five of 10 three-pointers and burying a championship-clinching 19-footer with less than 30 seconds left to play. In the 95-88 win, he finished with 37 points, 12 rebounds and four assists and was named the Finals MVP for the second straight season. He’d later call his clutch jumper his “MJ moment.”
This was quite possibly the most unstoppable a player has ever looked in a game. Facing a 3-2 deficit, and his career at another crossroads in Boston, LeBron turned in a virtuoso performance, scoring 45 points on 19-for-26 shooting, grabbing 15 rebounds and handing out five assists. In the first half of Miami's 98-79 win, he had 30 points on 12-for-14 shooting, hitting an array of shots and dunks. The Heat would go on to take Games 6 and 7 and win the title over the Thunder for James’ first career championship.
Because of a bogus overturned charge call, George Hill’s missed free throw and JR Smith’s epic last-second gaffe, this game by LeBron James will never get its proper due. No basketball player has ever played the sport as well as LeBron did during the first 48 minutes of this game. His complete package was on display all game. He blew past and bullied elite defenders (Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson) like they weren’t even there, nailed three-pointers from Steph Curry range, orchestrated the Cavs offense magnificently, and whenever Cleveland needed a late-game bucket, he put his head down and scored at will. After the game, Warriors coach and Jordan’s former teammate, Steve Kerr, said of James, “They have a guy who is playing basketball at a level that I’m not sure anybody’s ever seen before.” Warriors officials would later say it was the “best game they’ve ever seen in person.” Had the Cavs won the game, it would have been No. 1 on this list. Final score: Golden State 124, Cleveland: 114
No clarification is needed when someone says “Jordan, Game 6." At Utah in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, Jordan was running on fumes, and his usual Bulls co-stars were out of sorts. Scottie Pippen had a back injury, and Dennis Rodman was completely out of control off the court. MJ reached back for one final heroic game, scoring 45 points in an 87-86 win that gave the Bulls their sixth and final championship of the Jordan era. Down three points with 41 seconds remaining, Jordan hit a quick layup and then stripped Karl Malone of the ball at the 18-second mark. Then, in a supremely clutch moment, MJ swished a 17-footer with five seconds left to give the Bulls the lead. His jump shot was absolutely textbook form, and his follow-through, which he held an extra couple of seconds for effect, was the personification of greatness.