As we close the curtain on 2021, it was an incredible year for the NBA. Coming off a pandemic split season, 2021 was the end of the condensed season and the beginning of a “return to normal.” While that phrase no longer holds real meaning, the NBA had some spectacular moments that made us all, if only briefly, forget the challenges of another difficult year.
Let’s look at the 10 best!
10. Jayson Tatum’s 60 piece
In May of this year the Boston Celtics were down 32 points to the San Antonio Spurs. Tatum scored 60 points and tied Larry Bird’s franchise record for most points in a game in a 143-140 comeback win in OT.
9. “Bing Bong” — New York Knicks return to relevance
For the first time in eight seasons, the Knicks finished above .500 and made the NBA playoffs. Led by head coach Tom Thibodeau and Julius Randle, the Knicks played physical defense reminiscent of those 1990s squads under Pat Riley and converted on their open threes.
Madison Square Garden was rocking and the city was abuzz. When the team is good NYC is a Knicks town, and it’s something to behold.
In the 2021-22 season opener the Knicks won in double OT at home against the Boston Celtics, and as fans poured out of the Garden onto 7th Avenue, we all received the wonderful gift of “Bing Bong.”
It’s an NYC thing. You wouldn’t understand.
8. Russell Westbrook becomes the triple-double king
We like winners here at The Shadow League, and while this feat came in a one point loss, we must honor Russ’ triple-double mastery.
On May 10th, Russ surpassed Oscar Robertson’s career triple-double tally of 181 by registering a 28 points, 21 assists and 17 rebounds in that loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
Russ is the all-time triple-doubles leader for two franchises — the Oklahoma City Thunder (138) and Wizards (38).
7. LeBron James becomes the third member of the 35,000 point club
It’s impossible to have any best of NBA lists of the past 18 years and not have LeBron on it somewhere, right? One of only three men who can claim the GOAT basketball crown became only the third member of the 35,000 points club this calendar year.
In a February loss to the Brooklyn Nets LeBron scored 32 points, joining all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone as the only players with 35,000 points or more in NBA history.
Not bad for someone who repeatedly says, “I’m not a scorer.”
With this free throw, LeBron James becomes the 3rd player in NBA history to reach 35,000 career points, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone!
Watch on TNT pic.twitter.com/UWaz1fnqFn
— NBA (@NBA) February 19, 2021
6. Chris Paul — Founding member of the 20,000 points, 10,000 assists club
Whenever you are the first in NBA history to do something it is worthy of praise.
After his first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, the “Point God” wanted to prove it was no fluke. On Oct. 22 he became the first player in NBA history to record 20,000 points and 10,000 assists, with a 23-point, 14-assist performance in a win against the Lakers.
The game’s great floor generals weren’t relied upon to score as much in the past, and while Paul is a throwback to those great point guards of the past, he could still give you an efficient 25+ points whenever you need it.
— NBA (@NBA) October 23, 2021
5. The “Valley-Oop”
It’s Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns. The Clippers are up 103-102 with 0.9 remaining, about to steal home court advantage and level the series at 1-1.
Inbounding the ball on the baseline wide of the Clippers’ basket is the Suns’ Jae Crowder.
With only 0.9 on the clock a prayer catch and shoot is all you could do. Or is it?
In what can only be described as perfection, Crowder lofted the perfect pass just over the corner of the backboard, where Deandre Ayton perfectly timed his jump for a clean tip-dunk. Game over. Suns go up 2-0.
4. Trae Young Silences the MSG playoff crowd
Every once in a while a player comes along and is determined to play the villain. That was the Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young in the 2021 NBA playoffs.
The diminutive point guard has been slighted his entire life, real or perceived, and uses it as fuel for motivation. Already insanely driven and competitive, Young plays with a moxie and giant boulder on his shoulder.
Unafraid of any moment or situation, his supreme skills and confidence are a nightmare for opponents and their fans. Knicks fans found that out when in Game 1 of their series he finished with 32 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and a game-winning silencer.
3. Steph Curry is the NBA’s all-time three-point king
The greatest shooter of all time, the man who redefined the geometry of a basketball court became the league’s all-time three-point king with 22 points on Dec. 14 in a win over the Knicks.
— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) December 15, 2021
Curry surpassed Ray Allen with his 2,974th three in the first quarter. A career 43 percent shooter from three on 8.8 attempts per game. That is absurd.
When it’s all said and done that may be the NBA record that is never broken.
2. Kevin Durant’s big foot
In game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, then a member of the Golden State Warriors, KD suffered a catastrophic Achilles injury. In basketball that is the injury that effectively ends your career.
For a wing like KD that needs to have lateral quickness and explosion, the thought was he’d never be the same.
While he played fantastically in the regular season, the proof of whether or not he was truly back would come in the playoffs.
His performance in the conference semifinals against the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks was legendary. KD played seemingly every minute in the last few games of that series, and he was otherworldly.
He hit shots over every defender thrown at him and grabbed every single rebound he could. With no Kyrie Irving and a one-legged James Harden, KD was a big toe away from taking the Nets to the conference finals.
If there was any doubt as to whether KD was back, and who the best player in the world was, they were answered in that series.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 50 piece on the way to his first NBA title
Coming off a knee injury where it wasn’t clear he’d be able to play, let alone dominate, the “Greek Freak” put up a performance for the ages to close out the Suns in the NBA Finals.
Fifty points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks, including 17-for-19 from the free throw line. He was dominant on both ends of the floor.
When you consider his journey from selling handbags with his family on the streets of Athens, Greece, to NBA Finals MVP; it’s hard to pick a better moment from 2021.
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