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The best playoff debuts in NBA history

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September 1st, 2020

Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Dončić is just 21 years old, but he has already solidified himself as an NBA legend, after his postseason debut.

In Game 1 against the Los Angeles Clippers, Dončić racked up 42 points, which set the record for a first-time playoff appearance.

The next game he put up 28 to became the second player, behind George Mikan, to score 70 points across his first two career playoff games. Dončić is also the youngest player to hit a playoff buzzer-beater, and the third player in NBA postseason history to tally 40-plus points, 15-plus rebounds, and 10-plus assists.

Despite his mind-blowing production, the Clippers defeated the Mavs in Game 6 and ended Dončić’s brief, but stellar run.

That got us thinking about a few other players who showed out like Dončić in their NBA postseason premieres. Here are the five best playoff series debuts in NBA history.

LeBron James (2006)

King James didn't earn a postseason berth until the 2005-06 season, his third year in the league.

In his playoffs debut, James scored 32 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and dished out 11 assists in a win against the Washington Wizards. In Game 3, he sank the first game-winning shot of his NBA career, and made the game-winner again in Game 5.

The Cleveland Cavaliers closed out the series in six games, with James averaging 35.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.3 steals. James also scored more than 40 points twice in that series. Dončić, Magic Johnson, and Tracy McGrady are the only players to record 40 points at the age of 21 or younger in an NBA postseason game.

Michael Jordan (1985)

Michael Jordan made his presence felt from the first time he stepped foot on an NBA court. The 1985 Rookie of the Year led the Bulls to the postseason for the first time since ’81 and met the second-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.

Jordan stuffed the stat sheet each night. In Game 1, he totaled 23 points, 10 assists, four rebounds, and three steals. The next game, he posted 30 points, 12 assists, four rebounds, and another two steals.

He scored 35 in Game 3, the Bulls’ only win of the series. The Bucks sent Chicago packing in Game 4, in a 29-point outing by Jordan.

For his career, Jordan outscored all but one of the 269 opponents he faced in a playoff series, based on points per game. That exception occurred his rookie season, when Bucks forward Terry Cummings averaged 29.5 points per game to Jordan’s 29.3 across four games.

Larry Bird (1980)

With Larry Bird’s arrival in Boston in 1980, the Celtics went 61-21 and secured the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The sharpshooter got off to a humble start in Game 1, with 14 points, seven rebounds, and three assists in a win against Houston.

In Game 4, Bird began to light it up. He recorded 34 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, and hit 65% from the field to complete the sweep of the Rockets.

The next series, Bird went on a rampage, with a double-double in every game but one against Philadelphia. In Game 3, he collected 21 rebounds, on top of adding 22 points, four assists and four steals.

Through nine postseason games, Bird averaged 21.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 4.7 assists.

David Robinson (1990)

In 1990, rookie David Robinson helped his team achieve a 56-26 record and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, one season after the Spurs finished 21-61. At the time, it was the greatest turnaround in NBA history.

In Game 1 of the 1990 NBA Playoffs, the Spurs confronted the Denver Nuggets, and Robinson hit the ground running. He scored 26 points, pulled down 13 boards, and blocked five shots.

In the Spurs’ three-game sweep of the Nuggets, Robinson averaged a double-double, with 27.7 points and 13.7 rebounds.

The Spurs would go on to lose to Portland in seven games in the semifinals. Through his first 10 career NBA playoff games, Robinson averaged 24.3 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks per game.  

Magic Johnson (1980)

Since Magic Johnson’s playoff campaign in 1980, no rookie has had a more successful postseason debut.

The Los Angeles Lakers point guard averaged a triple-double in his first playoff series, with 15.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 11 assists through five games against Phoenix.

In the next series, Johnson’s rebounding and assist averages (9.4 and 8.8) dipped, but his scoring jumped to 17.4 points in the five-game series with the SuperSonics.

Magic bumped that average up even more in the NBA Finals, scoring 21.5 points across six games against Philly. He also put up 11.2 rebounds, 8.7 assists, and 2.7 steals.

His most exceptional performance occurred in Game 6, when Johnson started at center in the absence of an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

That night, he compiled 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, one block, and went 14-of-14 from the free-throw line to seal the NBA title for the Lakers.


Head to BetAmerica to find the latest odds on the 2020 NBA playoffs!

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