Buzzer beaters are great, generally, because they are heaven-sent, nearly transcending logic, whether it’s for a crucial NBA playoff victory to stave off elimination or to beat the clock at work to avoid salary deduction. The split-second of uncertainty, the 50-50 chance of make or break, the thin line between winning and losing, the electrifying crowd roar, and the celebration as clock hits zero—these make buzzer beaters the moment that kids fantasize about. As adults, buzzer beaters are, ultimately, what we pray for.
The greatest buzzer beaters, meanwhile, are dubbed as such because of how it moved the plot forward (game-winners, series-winners), degree of difficulty, and historical value. A Stephen Curry 38-foot heave to end quarters is great, but a Rik Smits’ up-and-under to win a playoff game is greater. With shouts to Smits, 1993 Alonzo Mourning, and 2006 Kobe Bryant, here are 8 of the greatest buzzer beaters in the NBA.
In 2009, LeBron James was only 24 years old with a lot to prove. He was that year’s Most Valuable Player, but the pressure of bringing a championship to his hometown was mounting. This explains his ecstatic reaction to a game-winning 3 at the buzzer in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic. LeBron, post-The Decision, would go on to hit a couple more game-winners in the playoffs, but his attitude toward them showed a calmer, more poised, and subdued demeanor. The element of surprise when The King gets a W is gone, and we might never see him as animated as this ever again, which is why this is one of the greatest buzzer beaters in the NBA. After the game, LeBron said: “I was going to come get the ball no matter what happened. I knocked down the shot. Biggest shot I’ve made in my career.”
THE SAN ANTONIO HEIST
In Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals, Tim Duncan hit an impossible, fadeaway shot over Shaquille O’ Neal to give the San Antonio Spurs the lead with only 0.4 seconds left on the clock. There’s not much we can do, as humans, in 0.4 seconds, but somehow, Los Angeles Lakers guard Derek Fisher was able to catch the ball, turn, and make an impossibler, high-arching shot over the outstretched arms of Manu Ginobili. Fisher ran off the floor like a thief because he successfully stole a playoff win from the Spurs, which is why this is one of the greatest buzzer beaters in the NBA. After the game, Fisher said: “I just wanted to get out of there and not give them an opportunity to think that we didn’t believe it went in.”
TAKE A BOW, TONI
Toni Kukoc had a couple of clutch baskets during his time with the Chicago Bulls in the 90s, a difficult feat if you’re playing with Michael Jordan. In 1994, in a season played without MJ, Kukoc made one of the biggest shots of his career against the Reggie Miller-led Indiana Pacers. Miller was the king of clutch in the 90s, and he proved it again in this January game when he hit a fadeaway over Steve Kerr to give his team a 2-point lead with 0.8 seconds left. Miller, the patron saint of Nick Young, turned to the Chicago crowd and took a bow for his performance. The Bulls still had a chance to win the game with a 3, and the play was drawn for someone else, not Kukoc. But the OG Croatian Sensation got free from his defender, caught the ball at the top of the key, and banked in the game-winner. He didn’t bow, but he gave the Bulls the W, and taught Miller a lesson in humility, which is why this is one of the greatest buzzer beaters in the NBA. After the game, Kukoc said: “I was like the fourth option. The play was not designed for me. Nothing special, really. We won the game, and that’s the most important thing. It’s not just the last shot.”
BIG SHOT BOB
If you’re playing on a team that already has Shaq and Kobe, there’s not much required for you to do but wait for the ball to land in your hands and be a positive contributor. In Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, that’s exactly what Robert Horry did. With his team down 2 in the dying seconds, Horry hovered outside the three-point line and waited for his shot at history. Kobe missed a lay-up, Shaq missed the follow-up, Horry caught the loose ball and sank the game-winner. Horry is a Paul Giamatti-type character who steals every film he is in, which is why this is one of the greatest buzzer beaters in the NBA. After the game, Horry said: “I was like, ‘If I don’t get it off in time, we lose. If I do, it’s money.’ I was just worried about getting my form and getting my money shot down.”
Ralph Sampson was a legit NBA superstar in the 80s who was known for two things: punching people in the 1986 NBA Finals and eliminating the Los Angeles Lakers with a miraculous buzzer beater. Let’s focus on the latter. Sampson and the underdog Houston Rockets surprisingly dominated the favored Lakers—led by Kareem, Magic, and Worthy—in the 1986 Western Conference Finals, jumping to a 3-1 series lead. In Game 5, Rockets had a chance to eliminate LA with the game tied with only a second left. Sampson caught a high inbounds pass at the post, spun in the air in one motion, and scored the very rare alley-oop buzzer beater on a lucky bounce. The series-ending shot looked awkward and ugly and defied logic, which is why this is one of the greatest buzzer beaters in the NBA. After the game, Sampson said: “This is the greatest moment of my basketball career.”
If you’re wondering what gave Damian Lillard the right to brand himself Dame D.O.L.L.A. and drop rhymes like “I stand out because I’m a soldier in a sucker’s game,” enter Exhibit A: this playoff moment down 2 with 0.9 seconds left in Game 6 of the 2014 NBA Playoffs. The play starts out ordinarily—with defensive schemes being shouted and the offense winding up to move like clockwork. Then, like a burst of energy, as if someone fired a gun, Lillard made a mad dash for the ball, leaving his defender two steps behind. He clapped his hands for the ball to signify the start of Dame Time, took the shot, and became a hero. (“I just want you to know/ Everybody needs a hero,” he later rapped.) Aside from breaking the hearts of the Rockets, the shot also catapulted the Portland Blazers to the second round for the first time in 14 years, which is why this is one of the greatest buzzer beaters in the NBA. After the game, Lillard said: “That’s definitely the biggest shot of my life—so far.”
JOHN STOCKTON, CRUSHER OF DREAMS
Before “super teams” were frowned upon by purists, the Houston Rockets fielded its own version in 1997 with the Hall of Fame triumvirate of Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and Charles Barkley. The mini-dream team failed to make it to the NBA Finals, however, thanks to a buzzer-beating three-pointer from John Stockton. With less than 3 seconds left in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, Stockton caught the ball at the top of the key and delivered the soul-crushing, season-ending blow to the Rockets, which is why this is one of the greatest buzzer beaters in the NBA. “The Rockets suck,” Stockton probably said after the game, because he is a straight-up gangster who doesn’t care about your dreams.
Any Michael Jordan highlight package—or any NBA’s greatest moments list—wouldn’t be complete without The Shot. The play had all the elements of an A-list buzzer beater masterpiece: the dramatic set-up (Bulls down 1 on the road with 3 seconds left, series tied at 2), the commentary (“A shot on Ehlo…Good! The Bulls win!”), the double-clutch shot (the Jordan jumper trademark), and the celebration (you’ve copied the fist pump at least once in your life, admit it). The Shot would become one of the key bullet points of Jordan’s résumé, which is why this is one of the greatest buzzer beaters in the NBA. After the game, Jordan said: “I never saw it go in, but I knew right away from the crowd reaction—silence—that it was good.”
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