It’s been exactly two decades since Michael Jordan made the most memorable shot in NBA history. The crossover stepback over Utah Jazz guard Bryon Russell that won Game 6 of the 1998 Finals and secured his sixth championship in eight years. A shot to cap his Chicago Bulls career so perfect it felt scripted.
A generation of basketball players grew up recreating that shot in the driveway, imagining themselves in that moment, euphoria washing over them in waves of teammates and fans and media and everyone who just wants a piece of a highlight bound to be frozen in time forever. Jordan. Open. Chicago with the lead.
Anyone who’s picked up a ball has wanted to find something close to that feeling Jordan created. These guys — the authors of the nine biggest NBA playoff shots in the 20 years since — came the closest.
Derek Fisher, 0.4 seconds left, 2004
The shot Tim Duncan made with 0.4 seconds left in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals would absolutely be on this list were it not for Derek Fisher. In response to a Kobe Bryant jump shot that gave the Los Angeles Lakers a 72-71 lead with 11.5 seconds remaining, Duncan converted a ridiculous off-balance jumper from the top of the key over Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone that seemingly gave his San Antonio Spurs a 3-2 series lead in a battle between two teams that had won the NBA’s last five titles.
Enter Fisher, already an eighth-year veteran with three rings to his name. With two defenders shadowing Bryant, Fisher ran from the left elbow to the ball, and in one motion took Gary Payton’s inbounds pass and heaved a turnaround shot over Manu Ginobili’s outstretched arms. Nothing but net. If Doc Rivers’ voice wasn’t already hoarse by then, he lost it for good from the broadcast booth. “Oh. My. Goodness.”
At first, I thought the shot was a little long. But about halfway there, I knew it was going in. pic.twitter.com/4vtlXJfg8s
— Derek Fisher (@derekfisher) May 13, 2014
Review confirmed Fisher beat the buzzer, and the league upheld it against an appeal from San Antonio that the clock started late, but Spurs coach Gregg Popovich carried his protest with him. “You talk to [our] technological guys and they put it up on the screen, and it started late,” he said between Games 5 and 6. “There’s no doubt that the clock started late, but that’s using all the technological stuff that I don’t understand.”
The Spurs had good reason to throw the challenge flag, because it all but ended the series. Shaq and Kobe closed them out the next night, and San Antonio never got its Game 7 at home. Those Lakers lost the Finals to the Detroit Pistons in five games, but Fisher’s shot still might have reshaped NBA history, because those Spurs sandwiched titles around that improbable — and maybe even impossible — shot. — Ben Rohrbach
Ray Allen, Game 6, 2013
That’s the thing, five years later, that you still can’t get over: Ray Allen practiced this. And, in fact, he’d been practicing it for years.
As a young player in Milwaukee, Allen invented a drill in which he lies in the key, springs to his feet and backpedals to the corner. A coach throws him a pass. He has to catch and shoot without stepping on the 3-point line or the sideline. In Allen’s first training session with the Heat, just after Labor Day 2012, he performed the drill. “It was the first time I ever saw anybody do that,” [Heat head coach Erik] Spoelstra says. “He told me he does it for offensive rebounding purposes. He said, ‘You never know when you’ll be in a situation where you have to find the 3-point line without looking down.'”
Like, for example, when you’re down by three with nine seconds to go in a game that could mark the end of your season.
In those five backpedaling steps from the restricted area to the right corner, Allen’s peculiar practice made perfect, turning Chris Bosh’s offensive rebound of a LeBron James miss into the grace that saved the Heat from elimination, and from the ignominy of watching a team from Texas celebrate an NBA championship on their home court for the second time in three years. Allen’s shot splashed through, knotting the score at 95; the Heat would survive overtime, outlasting an emotionally wracked Spurs side that went 2-for-9 from the field in the extra session to force a winner-take-all Game 7.
Miami would win that, too, with James delivering the dagger en route to his second straight Finals MVP trophy … but none of what came next would’ve been possible if not for Allen’s blind-faith backpedal to the corner, which we knew from the moment it left his hands was destined to be an all-time classic.
“It’s going to be a shot that I’m going to remember for a long time,” Allen said after the game. Us too, Ray. — Dan Devine
Robert Horry keeps Kings from being crowned, 2002
Robert Horry was in the right spot. Robert Horry always seemed to be in the right spot.
The Lakers led 2-0 and never again until Horry spotted up at the top of the key with seconds waning and his team’s hopes of a three-peat finding his hands. In between, the Sacramento Kings built a 24-point lead that evaporated to 99-97 when Vlade Divac made one of his two free throws with 11 seconds left.
Divac did everything else right after that, turning away game-tying attempts from Kobe and Shaq at the rim before batting the ball out for what he figured were the clock’s final few ticks. Only there he was. As Divac said in an oral history of the series for Grantland, “Basically, I made a good pass to Robert Horry.”
“I was designing to be out there because I’m always going to go for the 3 to win,” added Horry, who of course found the net as time expired on a 100-99 win that evened the 2002 Western Conference finals at 2-2. “I don’t like that tie B.S. and going to overtime.”
Horry’s shot beat the buzzer, unlike Samaki Walker’s 3 that for some reason the refs still counted before the half. The Kings had three more punches to knock out the two-time defending champs in those West finals — a series marred by officiating malpractice and conspiracy theory musings since — but they only would have had to land one of them had Robert Horry not been in the right spot.
Marv Albert nailed the call after the Lakers forward did it on the court. “Robert Horry has done it again.” — BR
‘Big Shot Bob’ buries the Pistons in Game 5, 2005
The lesson, as always: listen to Hubie Brown.
“One thing that you cannot do is leave the key 3-point shooters unattended,” the legendary coach and commentator said on the ABC broadcast as the Spurs prepared to trigger an inbounds from the sideline, trailing the Pistons by two with 9.4 seconds to go in Game 5 of a Finals tied at two games apiece. “By that, we mean Bowen in the corner, or Horry at the top.”
Bruce Bowen wasn’t a concern; he sprinted from the right corner to set a screen for Tony Parker, then just kind of hung out on the right wing. Robert Horry, though? He wound up being a problem for Detroit, who forgot the cardinal rule of a sideline out-of-bounds play: pay attention to the inbounder.
Horry slipped a pass to a still-long-haired Manu Ginobili, running the baseline to the left corner, trailed by Tayshaun Prince. After Ginobili caught it, Rasheed Wallace — who had been guarding Horry’s inbounds pass — sagged over to try to trap Ginobili in the corner with a double-team. As soon as he did, though, the Argentine wizard dropped a slick bounce pass right back to Horry, who had taken one step in from the sideline and set up shop at the left wing. He took the pass, rose and fired just ahead of a contest from the racing Prince, and buried the 3-pointer to give San Antonio a 96-95 lead with 5.9 seconds to go in overtime.
The Spurs would hold on to take a 3-2 edge in the best-of-seven series, thanks in large part to the heroics of the 34-year-old, clutch-shot-making gunslinger. Horry didn’t score until the final play of the third quarter; he’d go on to pile up 21 points on 7-for-12 shooting, including a 5-for-6 mark from 3-point range, to go with seven rebounds and two assists in 32 minutes off Gregg Popovich’s bench. He scored 21 of San Antonio’s final 35 points, pushing the Spurs over the finish line to within one victory of a championship.
The Pistons would break back in Texas in Game 6 behind big performances from Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups to force a Game 7. But San Antonio closed out at home, riding star outings from Tim Duncan and Ginobili to win the third title of the Duncan/Popovich era.
Duncan might not have had that chance, though, had it not been for a bacon-saving throwback performance by one of the generation’s great big-game players.
“Probably the greatest performance I have ever been a part of,” said Duncan, who had missed six of seven free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter of Game 5 and a potential game-winning tip-in just before the end of regulation. “He was picking up charges, getting rebounds. He’s ‘Big Shot Bob.’ […] He pulled me out of an incredible hole that I put myself in.”
And, in so doing, Horry put himself in position to pick up the sixth championship ring of his career.
“I saw Rasheed bite,” Horry said. “I am the type of player that I want to win a game.”
Hubie knew. ‘Sheed didn’t. Game over. — DD
Kyrie, Game 7, 2016
It’s been one of the defining divides in NBA writing, reading, fandom and observation in recent years: How much stock should we put into statistical analysis of on-court events, compared to simply what we can see with our own two eyes as we watch the games? The answer, of course, is to use them both — to watch, to dig, to study both, to use them to inform one another — but I’ve got to be honest: It’s nice when they line up juuuuuust right. Like they did with just under a minute to go in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
In the moment, that shot by Kyrie Irving to give the Cleveland Cavaliers a three-point lead with 53 seconds to go in Game 7 — that ice-water-in-the-veins, unrepentant assassin’s shot, delivered over the outstretched right arm, and directly in the right eye, of reigning unanimous league MVP Stephen Curry — looked and felt like one of the biggest shots the sport had ever seen, a decisive dagger that left all the gold-clad fans in Oracle Arena feeling like they’d just lost cabin pressure and tilted the odds toward the Cavs actually pulling off the greatest comeback in NBA history. And, as it turned out, the math backed it up, according to Ben Cohen of the Wall Street Journal:
Cleveland’s win probability when [head coach Tyronn] Lue called timeout [with 1:09 remaining and the score tied at 89] was a coin flip: 50.2%. It inched upward with every dribble and spiked when Irving shot. Cleveland’s likelihood of winning the game — and the NBA title — was suddenly 82.3%. That change in championship probability was, according to the Journal’s analysis, the largest swing the league has ever seen.
It was a heart-stopping play, a brilliant shot authored by one of the sport’s premier magicians, and it — along with LeBron’s Block and Kevin Love’s Stop — delivered the Cavaliers their first NBA title, and Cleveland its first major pro sports championship in 52 years.
“I was just thinking the next team that scores has a great chance at winning the championship,” Irving said after the game. So he slid to his right, stepped back just out of Curry’s reach, bombed away and etched himself into NBA history. — DD
The Memorial Day Miracle
The real miracle was that Sean Elliott even played in Game 2 of the 1999 Western Conference finals. Unbeknownst to anyone but Spurs teammate Steve Kerr, Elliott’s kidney condition had worsened that April to the point he would eventually require a transplant. But there he was on Memorial Day, curling around a David Robinson screen in a game the Spurs never led and still trailed 85-83 with 12 seconds remaining.
Portland Trail Blazers wing Stacey Augmon nearly swiped Mario Elie’s entry pass, careening into the front row instead. Elliott nearly went with him, hopping to his tiptoes on one dribble to avoid stepping on the sideline and launching a 3 over Rasheed Wallace’s reach that even his teammates figured for a mistake.
“I was looking for the pass,” Robinson, one of three other options on the play, told Yahoo’s own Johnny Ludden, then of the San Antonio Express-News. “I was like, ‘What are you doing taking that shot?’ But that was a huge shot. To make that, you’ve got to have some ‘nerves.’ That’s a nice word for the media.”
As Bob Costas said on the broadcast, “Man, that’s the shot you take with the clocking running out, not with nine seconds left.” But the game was effectively over. The Blazers were stunned. Brian Grant stared into the distance from the bench. Damon Stoudamire, whose missed free throw put them in this predicament, stood frozen, hands to his head. And Arvydas Sabonis looked like someone kidnapped Domantas. After nearly winning the first two games and coming up empty in San Antonio, Portland never recovered, dropping the next two at home, and the Spurs dynasty was soon born with their first title. — BR
KD over LeBron, Game 3, 2017
Kevin Durant called it a “passing the torch” moment — “the best moment I ever had.”
Durant joined the Warriors in search of these moments, down two in the final minute with a chance to sit LeBron James down in an NBA Finals. This is the height of basketball, really, and Durant reached for it, pulling down a rebound, calmly dribbling to the left arc and rising over the Cavs superstar for a 26-footer.
The shot gave Golden State a 114-113 lead with 45 seconds remaining in Game 3 of a series the Warriors already led 2-0, and while Cleveland had two more possessions to retake the lead or even the score, it felt like so much more. It felt like Durant had answered his critics and cemented his legacy as an all-time great all in one neatly packaged highlight that we could watch over and over in Finals reels for eternity.
Whether or not the Cavaliers felt that weight, they didn’t rid themselves of it. Irving couldn’t recreate his 2016 magic, Andre Iguodala blocked LeBron’s game-tying attempt and the Warriors sealed a 118-113 victory that all but delivered Golden State’s second title in three years and first since Durant arrived.
As Durant later put it to GQ, “I made the game-winning shot in the finals against my f***ing idol.”
And he did it again this year, stepping around a screen to nearly the same spot, where he delivered another Game 3 dagger, this one to put the Warriors up six with 50 seconds left. It didn’t have quite the same feel. The series seemed less in doubt this time around. But it was a reminder — that he’s done this before on the same stage, and that there are few (if any) others who could do this, let alone recreate it.
“Same wing, different location,” his idol said this time around. “But you definitely tip your hat. I mean, that’s what he does. He’s a scorer. He’s an assassin, and that was one of those assassin plays.” — BR
Damian Lillard sends Houston home, 2014
“Nine-tenths left,” Mike Tirico said, setting the table for the final possession of regulation in Game 6 of the 2014 Western Conference quarterfinals, with the Portland Trail Blazers leading the best-of-seven series 3-2 but trailing the game 98-96. “A three wins the series.”
The Houston Rockets, who had just taken the lead on a Chandler Parsons put-back, were less than a second away from staving off elimination and giving themselves a chance to play a Game 7 back at home. They just needed one stop.
And then, they forgot about Damian freaking Lillard.
Lillard — Rookie of the Year a season earlier, a first-time All-Star three months prior, who’d averaged a shade under 26 a game through the first five games of the series and had gone 5-for-9 from the 3-point line through the fist 47:59 of Game 6 — just dusted Parsons and the rest of the Rockets’ defense off the whistle. (How exactly Parsons, James Harden and Patrick Beverley were supposed to be defending on that play remains a matter of spirited debate.) He sprinted to his left and found himself so completely wide open that inbounder Nicolas Batum, who was supposed to throw the ball to low-post landlord LaMarcus Aldridge for the game’s final shot, couldn’t not pass it to him. Lillard caught it, rose up, faded to his left, fired from 25 feet out … and splashed the jumper, giving Portland its first playoff-series win since 2000.
The shot confirmed Lillard’s burgeoning bona fides as one of the NBA’s great late-game assassins, stamped him as a made man in the Pacific Northwest, and sent the Moda Center into hysterics.
It might have only been Round 1, but it was the kind of moment the postseason’s all about. — DD
Young LeBron comes through in the clutch, 2009
LeBron James wasn’t considered clutch back then, even two years removed from scoring the final 25 points of a double-overtime Game 5 Eastern Conference finals win over a championship-pedigree Detroit Pistons squad that propelled him to his first Finals appearance at age 22. And maybe you still don’t consider him clutch. But this shot — this was one of many to come that should have changed your mind.
It was supposed to be a lob. Orlando Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu, whose running jumper had just put his team up 95-93 with one second left in Game 2 of the 2009 conference finals, sniffed out a play he’d seen on tape already, walling LeBron off from the basket. So LeBron took what Turkoglu gave him, popping out to the top of the key, planting both feet and bouncing over his defender for the game-winner.
“Biggest shot I’ve made in my career,” James told Brian Windhorst, then of The Plain Dealer, of tying the series. “A second is a long time for me; for others it is very short. As a kid you practice those moments.”
The Magic had already stolen Game 1 with a Rashard Lewis winner, and the Cavs were in danger of blowing a 23-point lead in Game 2. LeBron saved them from that embarrassment, even if he couldn’t save them from losing the series in six games. But gone was the notion that LeBron wouldn’t take and couldn’t make the big shot, or at least it should have been. If not then, maybe LeBron making the same shot in a pivotal Game 5 first-round win over the Indiana Pacers this year, almost a decade later, closed the door on it. Or the buzzer-beating runner that put the Toronto Raptors in a 3-0 hole a round later. — BR
The greats have a lot of these moments. Jordan does, too. Some you can still picture 20 years later.
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