This year’s NBA Playoffs haven’t gotten off to a very exciting start. The home teams are 8-0, and the majority of those games haven’t been close. The best part of the weekend was actually probably Kobe Bryant‘s consistent tweeting. Thankfully, we have nearly two more months of this to look forward to, and inevitably there will be some memories that’ll last with us for a lifetime.
To celebrate the start of the postseason, we dove into the history books to unleash the best buzzer-beaters (And yes, we tweaked the rules a few times to include a couple of shots that weren’t exactly buzzer-beaters. But who’s complaining?) of the NBA’s second season. There were many great ones that didn’t make the list — check out a few of our favorites in the Honorable Mentions — because trying to limit this piece to 25 was damn near impossible.
Here are the top 25 buzzer-beaters/game-winners in NBA Playoff history.
*** *** ***
25. Paul Pierce’s game-winner against Chicago in the 2009 Eastern Conference First Round
In one of the greatest series ever, you can find a lot of historical moments. This shot by Paul Pierce was one of those moments. Pierce wasn’t having a great game at all — he only scored seven points in the first half. The last shot is what counts the most in this situation though. In the end, The Captain came through for his team without Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. He scored the game winning shot with John Salmons barely giving him any room. He took to that sacred elbow spot that he loves so much and put the game away. The Truth will set you free.
24. Dudley Bradley In the 1986 Eastern Conference First Round Against Philadelphia
Maybe the only shot on this list that wasn’t the highlight of the game. In this first round matchup during the 1986 Playoffs, the Bullets were down 17 points with four minutes left before Dudley Bradley banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer to cap a crazy comeback. Charles Barkley and Dr. J are still recoving from this loss.
23. Reggie Miller Clutch Shots against the Nets in the 2002 Eastern Conference First Round
In a win or go home situation against the top-seeded New Jersey Nets, Reggie Miller shined twice. He sent the game into one overtime off of a crazy bank-shot three-pointer that should’ve never went down. He shot that ball fading away toward the sideline and it hit the middle of the backboard with such accuracy. It was an amazing shot in itself, but Miller wasn’t finished. He needed two points to force another overtime, so what does he do? Dunks it, of course. Miller finished the game with 31 points, but it wasn’t enough. The Nets were just too good in the end and the Pacers lost the game.
22. James Harden’s game-winning three in the 2012 Western Conference Finals
Most people remember James Harden for what happened in last year’s NBA Finals where he was a non-factor for the whole series, but to be fair we have to remember what Harden did just the series before. This was one of the most important game-winners within the last couple of years — not to mention that it was a game-winner against one of the best defenders in the NBA in Kawhi Leonard. The Oklahoma City Thunder had tied the series up 2-2, and this was a pivotal Game 5. Harden’s three catapulted the Thunder into the win after a very close contest. They’d beat the Spurs in six games and move on to the NBA Finals in large part due to Harden’s effort.
21. LeBron James in the 2012 NBA Finals
To cap off one of the greatest seasons of all time by any player in NBA history, James does away with his detractors with this clutch basket. James had just sat out for a three-minute stretch and came into the game cold, then proceeded to put this dagger in the Thunder and help Miami gain a pivotal 3-1 lead in the series. He sat out for quite some time and there was a lot of time left on the clock. It took a lot of guts to get this shot off, but in the end, it wasn’t as clutch as it looks.
20. LeBron in 2009 Eastern Conference Finals
This was when we thought LeBron had arrived as the best player in the league and the new face in the NBA (ironically, it took him until No. 22 to accomplish that). While facing a 1-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference Finals in ’09, the Cavaliers were down 95-93 with less than a second on the clock. Things looked bleak until James let that ball go. Then Quicken Loans Arena erupted in joy after the shot dropped. As incredible as it was, the Cavaliers still only won two games in the series and in the end it was meaningless.
19. Chauncey Billups hits a bank shot in the 2004 Eastern Conference Semifinals
The Detroit Pistons didn’t win this game, but they sure did do everything in their power to try. This game went into triple overtime and it wouldn’t have been possible at all without Billups’ effort. The Pistons went on to win the series 4-3 and then they went on to win the championship, but this is really where Chauncey Billups earned the name Mr. Big Shot.
18. Gar Heard in the 1976 NBA Finals
The triple-overtime thriller in Game 5 of the ’76 Finals in Boston is still one of the two or three best playoff games in NBA history. The hero, Phoenix’s 6-6 forward Gar Heard, was never a great player, finishing his career with an average of 8.7 points per game. But he responded to a near game-winner from Boston’s John Havlicek with his own incredible shot. This high-arcing fadeaway sent the game into its final overtime, where the Celtics would win by two. (You can see the shot at the 4:24 mark)
17. Kobe Bryant’s fadeaway in the 2006 Western Conference First Round
In Kobe’s early years without Shaq, the way he played in this series against Phoenix was one of his best moments — especially with the two plays you see here. Even though it was a first round series and the Lakers would end up losing, Bryant’s effort couldn’t be questioned. He scored the basket to send the game into overtime and also hit a very, very difficult game-winning jumper once the Lakers got to the extra session. The legacy of Kobe Bryant without Shaq was starting to mold here.
16. Michael Jordan in the 1997 NBA Finals against Utah
The Mailman might not deliver on Sunday, but Michael Jordan certainly did. In Game 1 of the ’97 Finals against the Jazz, the G.O.A.T. banged a pull-up J at the buzzer to secure the pivotal game, and set up what became one of the best Finals series of the 1990s.
15. Reggie Miller vs. Jordan in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals
Reggie Miller hits this dagger three-point shot over Michael Jordan. I’m not sure if anything else needs to be said after that. Michael Jordan — one of the NBA’s best defenders — was plain embarrassed by Reggie Miller in a pivotal playoff game. He couldn’t keep up with Miller after receiving a bump for separation. Then Miller makes the catch and shoots the ball, getting all net while fading away. This is just a spectacular shot in a spectacular moment, with a high degree of difficulty. This is a very hard shot to make on the move from such a distance. Even though the Pacers ended up losing the series, the difficulty of it moves it over some of the previous LeBron and Kobe shots.
14. John Stockton’s game-winning three in 1997 Western Conference Finals
John Stockton ended the series for the Utah Jazz with this three-point shot. With the score tied, Stockton makes a catch with just over two seconds left, and then hurls up a three-ball. He kept all composure, form and poise as he shined in the moment, then exploded once it dropped, sending the Utah Jazz to the NBA Finals over Olajuwon‘s Houston Rockets. This was one of the best shots that you’ll ever see from one of the best point guards in the game. It doesn’t get much better than this.
13. Steve Kerr’s game-winner in the 1997 NBA Finals
Steve Kerr told Jordan in the timeout, “If he comes off, I’ll be ready.” That’s one of the most memorable quotes in NBA history to me. This is what basketball is all about. Michael Jordan took a mistake that he made earlier and turned it into a positive later. In the biggest moment, to win the NBA Finals, Steve Kerr shined. This was the first NBA Finals that I ever watched. It’s also the best example you could ever have of how the game is supposed to be played.
12. Vinnie Johnson’s game-winning jump shot in the 1990 NBA Finals
Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson put the Portland Trail Blazers away with this jump shot. Everyone thought that Isiah Thomas was going to take the last shot, but he passed the ball. You could see the glow in Vinnie’s eyes once he caught the ball — he was taking the shot no matter what. He wasn’t going to miss it, either. He used that incredibly high and awkward release to get the ball off, and the rest is history.
11. Ralph Sampson’s buzzer-beater against the Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference Finals
This unbelievable shot pushed Houston into the NBA Finals, destroying the Lakers’ four-year run atop the Western Conference. It was also thought to be the beginning of a new dynasty â€“ Houston was talented, young and featured the twin towers (Sampson, Olajuwon) that were set to change the dynamics of the NBA. Instead, they lost to Boston in the Finals and the team subsequently self-destructed before every achieving anything more.
10. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook over the double-team in the 1974 NBA Finals
On a list of the most unguardable shots in the league’s history, Kareem’s skyhook has to be at the top. Kareem lead the Bucks to victory in Game 6 of the 1974 NBA Finals with that same shot. He kept the series alive for just one more game by shooting that very same shot over a Celtics’ double-team. There was nothing that the Celtics defense could do about it. Everyone knew what was coming, but it couldn’t be stopped.
9. Ron Artest’s fluke shot in the 2010 Western Conference Finals
This is one of my favorite shots in NBA history. Why? Reason No. 1: Ron Artest is still known as Ron Artest and not Metta World Peace. Reason No. 2: Kobe Bryant shoots an air ball and sparks the “was it a pass?” debate across the country. Reason No. 3: The reaction the Phoenix Suns team has here is priceless. This was probably the most unexpected game-winning field goal in NBA history, but a win is a win. You take them whatever way you can… even if you get lucky. I mean, who would’ve expected Ron Artest to hit the game-winner off of a Kobe air ball? You can’t write this stuff. It’s classic.
8. Jerry West’s game-tying buzzer-beater in the 1970 NBA Finals
For those of you who don’t know where the name Mr. Clutch comes from, here it is. The Logo strikes again, tying the game against the New York Knicks in Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals with a long half-court heave. If the three-point shot existed, that would’ve been a game-winner. The Knicks would go on to win this game and the series, but none of that would be because of Jerry West. He kept the series competitive for the Lakers, fighting the Knicks to a seventh and final game.
7. John Paxson’s series-sealing three in the 1993 Finals
Speaking of unexpected, we have more on the next entry in this list. No one expected Michael Jordan to not get the last shot in this moment. What was even more unexpected was for John Paxson to hit the game-winning three to clinch the series and another NBA title. Paxson earned a lot of respect for making this shot in the clutch with all of the pressure on him. If you ask me, this is one of the greatest single shots of all time.
6. Robert Horry’s game-winning three in the 2002 Western Conference Finals
Robert Horry’s game-winning shot in this moment epitomized his entire career. Just when you think that he’s out of the picture, when you think he won’t hurt you, he magically finds a way to rip your heart out. The Kings stopped Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant here. What else did they need to do? Apparently, guard Robert Horry. The ball just rolled to him like a magnet sticks to a refrigerator. Once he let it go, you knew that ball was going in. Robert Horry is just magical, man. That’s the only way to explain it.
5. Michael Jordan in the 1989 Eastern Conference First Round against Cleveland
Everyone’s seen Jordan’s shot to send the Cavs home in a Game 5 in ’89. It’s probably the second-most famous shot of his career, and was really the tipping point for his legacy. Before this double-pumping jumper, he was just a great talent that scored a lot but couldn’t win games. This game-winner began a journey that would see him become the greatest ever. What made this shot so memorable is the backstory: in Game 4, Jordan scored 50 but missed two free throws that could’ve ended the series, so there was added pressure to get it down once they returned to Cleveland.
4. Derek Fisher’s .4 shot in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Semifinals
Since we’re on the subject of unlikely, let’s talk about the seemingly impossible. Derek Fisher’s .4 shot is one of the most unexpected shots in NBA history. Fisher was the only option on this play. The lob to Shaquille O’Neal was taken away first and Kobe was double-teamed. The Spurs didn’t even guard the inbound player in order to put two people on Kobe. When Fisher made the catch he put the ball up as soon as he got it. It had to have the slowest, highest arch in NBA history — it certainly felt like it.
elt like it.
3. Magic Johnson’s skyhook in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals
This is another one of the greatest individual plays in NBA history. Only a special player like Magic Johnson could pull something like this off. Everyone knew where the ball was going and who was going to try to make a play. By now, this was Magic Johnson’s team and everyone knew it. For him to hit a skyhook over the lengthy Celtics defense is one of the moments that will be forever captured in NBA history. It gave the Lakers a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. There are very few players in the NBA who have been able to hit this shot with consistency. Magic did it in the heat of the moment to win a game.
2. Dennis Johnson’s game-winning layup in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals
This is just Larry Bird being Larry Bird. After a questionable call that lost the ball to the Detroit Pistons, it looked as if the game was over for the Celtics. Then Larry Legend swoops in and steals the inbound pass. He gives a sweet dime to Dennis Johnson, who scores what would be the game-winning field goal. This is one of the best defensive plays you’ll ever see, combined with flawless execution. This shot is ranked second because of the flawless execution and the great defensive play. Also, it isn’t often that you’ll see a pass stolen like this off of a simple inbound. It just goes to show how great Larry Bird was on both sides of the ball.
1. Michael Jordan’s last shot in the 1998 Finals
You know we can’t have a game-winner list without mentioning this one. In Jordan’s final game as a Chicago Bull before his second retirement, he makes a game-winning jumper over Bryon Russell to seal his sixth, and final, championship. The great one hits the greatest shot over one of the NBA’s greatest defenders. This seems like the proper way to go out for Jordan, doesn’t it? The No. 1 player deserves the No. 1 shot in the No. 1 moment in NBA history. How often do you see players walk into the sunset like this and leave on top? Jordan knew just how to write a story through his play. He seemed to have perfect timing with everything, including this shot.
Did we get it right?
Follow Michael on Twitter at @Mikey_NBA.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.