Amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the NBA’s future still so uncertain, we look again to the past, polishing up our Dunk History series — with a twist. If you are in need of a momentary distraction from the state of an increasingly isolated world, remember with us some of the most electrifying baskets and improbable buckets in the game’s history, from buzzer-beaters to circus shots. This is Sunk History.
Today, we revisit Robert Horry’s NBA-bending big shots.
[Dunk History, collected: Our series on the most scintillating slams of yesteryear]
I don’t know if Robert Horry is a Hall of Famer, but he deserves a wing all his own in Springfield, Massachusetts, because he re-charted the course of NBA history more often than any other player. His pension for clutch playoff shooting altered the careers of countless superstars, making and breaking a number of all-time legacies.
Before we get to his seven last-minute game-changing buckets, let us settle a score. It is “Big Shot Bob,” regardless of Horry’s preference. “You can make it Rob,” he told reporters after delivering Game 5 of the 2005 Finals. “R-o-b. But B-o-b, that’s not me.” You don’t dictate your nickname. Big Shot Bob is better.
Now for the shot-by-shot impact Horry made on the historical status of Hakeem Olajuwon, Dennis Rodman, Clyde Drexler, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Jason Kidd, Tim Duncan, Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron James and many more.
1995 Western Conference finals, Game 1
With the clock ticking on the series opener against Robinson’s San Antonio Spurs, Olajuwon found Horry wide open on the left arc. Rodman was so far from his assignment, Horry hesitated, took one dribble to the elbow and still had time to calmly stroke the go-ahead jumper with 6.5 seconds left in a 94-93 win.
Horry’s Houston Rockets won the set in six games. Game 7 would have been in San Antonio. His first big shot spoiled Robinson’s best chance at a pre-Duncan championship, and who knows if the Spurs gift wrap Rodman to Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in October 1995 had they ever wrangled him on a title run.
1995 NBA Finals, Game 3
The Rockets advanced to face O’Neal’s Orlando Magic in the title round. The series already saw Nick Anderson blow Game 1 with four straight missed free throws with less than 10 seconds left, any one of which would have sealed the deal for the Magic. Horry then delivered the knockout two games later.
With Houston leading by a single Horry free throw moments earlier, Olajuwon again found him on the left arc as the shot clock was set to expire. This time, Horry fired a triple that gave the Rockets a 104-100 lead with 14.1 seconds left. There was no magic left for Orlando, which suffered a sweep one game later.
How that series might have changed had O’Neal and Hardaway tasted blood in Games 1 and/or 3. Heck, there was a chance the Magic would have had an easier road against San Antonio had Horry not set Olajuwon on course for his second straight title and Drexler to his first one round earlier. Would O’Neal still have left Orlando in July 1996 had he won the title? Is Hardaway a Hall of Famer if he gets one?
2001 NBA Finals, Game 3
Horry joined O’Neal on the Los Angeles Lakers by way of a January 1997 trade from the Phoenix Suns, thanks to the towel he threw in coach Danny Ainge’s face days before. He remained in L.A. for six-plus seasons, long enough to swing two of the Laker’s three straight championships at the turn of the century.
In the final minute of Game 3 in a Finals series tied 1-1 with the Philadelphia 76ers, Horry drilled a corner 3-pointer with 47.1 seconds left that gave the Lakers a 92-88 lead. He added four free throws down the stretch, scoring 12 of his 15 points on just three shots in the fourth quarter of a series-swinging win.
How much confidence would Iverson have had were he given the chance to seal another Finals victory and regain the series lead? The Lakers went on to win their second straight title in five games, but a Game 5 in Philadelphia tied 2-2 is a lot more interesting than facing a 3-1 deficit against Shaq and Kobe.
2002 Western Conference first round, Game 3
In a first-round series opposite a Portland Trail Blazers team full of familiar names, Bryant turned the corner on “Kobe stopper” Ruben Patterson with 10 seconds left and the Lakers trailing by two, drawing Pippen to a double team. Bryant dumped his game-tying chance for a better look in the corner from a suddenly open Horry, who fired the game-winning three with 2.1 seconds on the clock in a 92-91 victory.
Horry’s fourth big shot capped a sweep of a Wallace-led Blazers team that had taken the Lakers to Game 7 of the West finals two years earlier. Any chance they tie the series in Portland in a Game 4?
2002 Western Conference finals, Game 4
The Lakers blitzed Duncan’s Spurs in the second round before meeting a stacked Sacramento Kings squad in another Western Conference finals. Webber led Sacramento to a 2-1 series edge and a 99-97 lead in the final seconds of Game 4. The Kings were on the verge of putting the two-time defending champions on their heels and inching closer to the franchise’s first Finals appearance in 50 years.
Vlade Divac played incredible defense on game-tying tries by both Bryant and O’Neal, slapping the second miss out of the paint in an attempt to run out the clock. Only, there was Horry, calmly collecting the ball, hitting nothing but net on a buzzer-beating three and knotting the series at two games apiece.
Not even the officials could have saved the Lakers from a 3-1 deficit. Instead, L.A. beat the Kings in seven games following one of the most egregiously called games in league history. That meant no title shot for Webber, who should be in the Hall of Fame and would undoubtedly be in with a trip to the Finals.
2005 NBA Finals, Game 5
In the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 5 in a title series tied 2-2, a 34-year-old Horry scored 18 of his 21 points on a bum left shoulder. The last three came off a dish from Spurs teammate Manu Ginobili with 5.9 seconds left in the extra period, swinging a 95-93 deficit into a 3-2 Finals lead against the Detroit Pistons. San Antonio ultimately won the third of Duncan’s five championships in a Game 7 at home.
How differently do we remember those Pistons if they won back-to-back titles instead of just the one in 2004? Are Billups, Rasheed and Ben Wallace all in the Hall of Fame as a result? Perhaps no player had his legacy spoiled more by Horry than Rasheed Wallace, twice foiled by Big Shot Bob backbreakers.
2007 Western Conference first round, Game 4
With the Spurs leading the Denver Nuggets 2-1 in their opening-round series, another Horry three pushed San Antonio’s lead to 93-89 with 35 seconds left. The Nuggets never recovered, missing a pair of long threes in an attempt to climb back in it, and San Antonio closed them out at home in Game 5.
These were the same Nuggets that nearly made a Finals with Billups in the fold two years later. Might Anthony and Iverson have pushed the Spurs to seven games if they managed to even this series? What if a 22-year-old ‘Melo met that moment? Could they have challenged the Suns in the second round? Do Nash and Stoudemire advance to a conference finals against the Jazz? Any one of those teams could then have faced James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals? Does LeBron get his first ring at age 22?
Any one of those answers might mean reshuffling the all-time player rankings entirely.
As it were, Horry ensured Nash and Stoudemire never got their title chance with a different kind of big shot. He decked Nash into the scorer’s table in the final moments of a Game 4 loss to Phoenix that evened the West semifinals. Stoudemire and Boris Diaw briefly left the bench in response, earning suspensions for a Game 5 the Spurs won by three. San Antonio went on to win the series in six at home.
For those counting at home, Horry may have meant a difference in two additional rings for Hall of Famers (to be) O’Neal, Bryant, Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker. How many spots on the list of all-time greats do O’Neal, Bryant and Duncan fall with less hardware? Are Ginobili and Parker even locks for Springfield with two rings instead of four? Do they join the likes of Hardaway, Webber and Billups, whose Hall of Fame cases were undoubtedly altered by Big Shot Bob. His sliding doors are almost too many to count.
And there were nearly more. Horry barely missed a game-winning attempt in Game 5 of a tied 2003 Western Conference semifinals that would have swung the series in the Lakers’ direction. Instead, the Spurs prevailed in six. If that shot found the net, do O’Neal and Bryant win four straight titles? Does Horry leave the Lakers in free agency for San Antonio that summer? Maybe it all washes out in the end.
But get this: The Rockets traded Horry and Matt Bullard to the Pistons for Sean Elliott in February 1994, but Elliott’s physical revealed his kidney disease, and Houston voided the deal. Does Horry win any of his seven titles if that deal goes through? Do we actually live on the other side of every single sliding-door moment of his career? Does Elliott ever make his way back to the Spurs? Is Horry still on the Detroit team he helped eliminate in 2005? Has the world as we know it been altered entirely by Robert Horry?
I’m starting to think he’s a Hall of Famer.
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