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A brief history of Tar Heels in the NBA Finals

Several former UNC players have made an impression on the NBA’s biggest stage.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This year, North Carolina will be represented in the NBA Finals by one man: James Michael McAdoo. This will actually be the third time McAdoo will play in the finals, having been on the Warriors’ roster for the last two years as well. However like the last two years, it’s unlikely McAdoo will get much court time against the Cavaliers.

Despite that, it’s no surprise that UNC has a history of players having NBA Finals glory. Tar Heels in general have found success in the league over the years, and that has carried over to success on the biggest stage.

Any recounting of Tar Heel NBA Finals success has to begin with Michael Jordan. Not only did Jordan play and win six NBA Finals, he was also named the series MVP every time. Only one of those years did he average under 30 points per game in the Finals.

His best series probably came in 1993. After losing out on the regular season MVP to the Phoenix Suns’ Charles Barley, Jordan’s Bulls played Phoenix for the title. Jordan proceeded to average 41 points in the six-game series. That included a 55-point effort in game four to put Chicago up 3-1. As far as finals success goes, Jordan is unparalleled by anyone, let alone another Carolina player.

The only other former UNC player to have won NBA Finals MVP was James Worthy. In 1988, Worthy got the award after averaging 22 points and 7 rebounds in a Lakers’ victory over the Pistons. The Lakers trailed Detroit 3-2 after five games, but they came back to win the series thanks in part to a combined 64 points from Worthy in games six and seven. In game seven in particular, Worthy scored 36 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, and had 10 assists. He is one of just 18 players to have put up a triple double in an NBA Finals game. That performance garnered him the nickname “Big Game James”.

That was the third and final ring in Worthy’s career. Worthy went for over 20 points per game in both other Finals’ wins he played in. He led the Lakers in scoring again in the ‘89 NBA Finals, but the Lakers were swept by the Pistons after Magic Johnson got hurt.

One of Worthy’s teammates on the 1985 championship-winning Lakers was related to this year’s lone Carolina representative. Bob McAdoo won two titles as a member of the Lakers in the 80s. He averaged 8 points in 19 minutes per game in ‘85, but in 1982, he was crucial, going for 16 points and five rebounds a game.

James Michael McAdoo and Harrison Barnes are the latest Tar Heels to win a ring, but the most recent to really put his imprint on a series was Danny Green. In the 2013 NBA Finals, Green went 5-5 from three in a game two loss to the Heat. In the following game, Green went 7-9 from three and scored 27 points in a win. The Spurs ended up losing the series, but had they won, there was a non-zero chance Green would have been named Finals MVP. The following series, Green shot 45% from three as the Spurs avenged their 2013 Finals loss.

Kenny Smith was nearing the end of his career when he was a member of the two mid-90s championship-winning Houston Rockets’ teams. His most notable contribution came in game one of the 1995 Finals. Smith scored 23 points and hit a game-tying three pointer that sent the Rockets into overtime. Houston went one to steal game one on the road against the Magic, and would sweep the series.

Some other recent Tar Heel NBA Finals winners include Rasheed Wallace and Rick Fox. Wallace’s lone title came in 2004. In game four, he led the Pistons with 26 points, as they beat the Lakers to go up 3-1.

Fox was a member of all three Lakers’ championships teams of the early 2000s. In 2001, Fox went for 20 points in the series-clinching game five win over the 76ers.

It seems unlikely that McAdoo will add his name to this list of Tar Heels in NBA Finals’ lore (this year, at least). However considering former UNC players’ history in the Finals, who knows. Maybe two weeks from now, we will be talking about his double double in game seven.