Whether fair or unfair, it’s safe to say that today’s athletes are judged foremostly upon their ability to shine when the stakes are the highest.
It’s the same in every sport: playoff greatness is simply far more significant than regular season success. Likewise, performances late in games are consistently put under heavy scrutiny, while a tendency to produce in the early stages of competition is often deemed irrelevant if one is unable to reach that same level when the outcome is on the line.
And, though every sport has its share of thrilling moments, possessing that very coveted clutch gene is most crucial in the game of basketball. That’s because, throughout the regular season and the NBA Playoffs, game after game after game seemingly comes down to the final seconds and even the final possession, making it so vitally important to have someone who can knock down the biggest of big shots.
That’s what brings me to this list, one that is composed of the top 25 players in the history of the NBA that I would want taking the last shot.
Since this list regards nothing more than being able to make that final shot in a game, it will be comprised solely of players who could or still can hit jump shots — essentially no power forwards and no centers, with the exception of one or two.
Without any further ado, let’s get things started at the 25th ranked player, one of the most controversial and highly-talented players that basketball has ever seen.
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25. ALLEN IVERSON
As one of the most prolific scorers to ever play in the NBA, Allen Iverson was also able to put the ball through the hoop when it counted.
With the Philadelphia 76ers, The Answer had an abundance of big shots and game-winners, including 13 of the latter from 2003 through 2008, which ranked him fifth in the NBA during that time span.
He made the NBA Finals just one time (in 2001), but he certainly left his mark when given the opportunity.
In Game 1 of that series, the Sixers trailed by one, 99-98, with just over a minute on the clock. From there, Iverson went off, hitting a three to give them a two-point lead and another corner jumper to extend the lead to four and clinch the Game 1 win, the only one that Philadelphia would earn during the Finals.
Had A.I. had a little bit more help around him during his prime and thus been able to reach the NBA Finals on multiple occasions, this ranking would likely be a much higher one. The clutch gene was just in him.
24. BRANDON ROY
His career might have been cut much too short due to injuries, but when Roy was healthy, he was one of the best at making tough shots at the end of games.
He had several game-winners as a member of the Trail Blazers, including one against the Wizards in March of 2010, one against the Rockets in December of that same reason, and another against the Rockets that came in 2008.
However, of all his great moments, number one came during the 2011 NBA Playoffs, more specifically in Game 4 of the Western Conference first-round series between Portland and Dallas.
He scored 18 points in the fourth quarter, and his final two points came on a bank shot that was also the game-winner, bringing the Blazers into a 2-2 series tie.
It’s unfortunate that Roy’s career couldn’t have lasted longer than it did, but the 2007 Rookie of the Year will always be remembered for his ability to be at his best when needed the most
23. KEVIN DURANT
Although Kevin Durant has only been in the NBA for six seasons, he has already become the league’s best scorer and one of the most efficient shooters of all time.
For a guy who shoots mostly jumpers and creates his own shots, his field goal percentage of 51 percent is off-the-charts good, and his 42 percent from beyond the arc isn’t bad either.
So, just based on his pure shooting abilities, I would already consider Durant a strong candidate for a list like this, even before considering his clutch statistics.
Fortunately for Kevin, he has also had his share of game-tying and go-ahead shots late in games, both in the regular season and the playoffs.
Most recently, the 6-9 forward hit a game-winner against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals, the last game that Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder would win in 2013.
And in 2012, when he led the Thunder to the NBA Finals, Durant was 3-of-4 on go-ahead and game-tying shots with 24 seconds or less on the clock in the fourth quarter or overtime. The rest of the players in the league during that time were just 1-of-31, according to ESPN.
Durant doesn’t have quite the number of game-winning shots during the regular season as most on this list, but much of that has to do with the fact that the Thunder simply don’t need him to do so very often. And, when he has received those rare opportunities, he’s capitalized — most recently, Durant hit a game-winner against the Mavericks in January of this past season.
Luckily for Kevin, at just 24 years of age he likely still has both his best seasons and his most defining moments ahead of him, making it almost certain that he will move up these rankings in the near future.
22. CHAUNCEY BILLUPS
During his first stint with the Detroit Pistons, Chauncey Billups earned his nickname of “Mr. Big Shot” for good reason.
At one point, the Pistons — who really lacked a true superstar — appeared in six straight Eastern Conference Finals, and even won the NBA Finals in 2004. With a team full of very good but not any great players, it was always Billups who the Pistons turned to at the end of games.
And, as his nickname suggests, Chauncey made big shot after big shot throughout his six full seasons in Detroit. Of them, the most notable were his game-winner in Chicago that clinched the Central Division for the Pistons in 2005, his game-winner against the Sixers in Game 6 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Semifinals, and his half-court buzzer-beater that forced overtime against the Nets in Game 5 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Billups was traded in 2008, but after four years spent with the Nuggets and Clippers that saw even more late-game heroics from him, he is now back in Detroit as a member of the Pistons.
Chauncey will turn 37 years old in September, and although his overall game has deteriorated quite a bit since he his last played in Detroit, he’s still the one on that team that should be taking the shots late in games.
21. DWYANE WADE
When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat, there were suddenly questions about whether or not he would even be the closer on his new team.
Huh? The greatest player in the world might not even be the one to have the ball with the game on the line? Of course, the reason those questions arose was a pretty good one: Dwyane Wade, arguably one of the best closers in basketball today.
Wade has always been one to make clutch shots, including a number of game-winners, and he was at his best during the 2006 NBA Finals.
Before his heroics, the ’06 Finals looked like an utter blowout of the Miami Heat at the hands of Dirk Nowitzki‘s Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks held a 2-0 series lead going into Game 3, and were up by as much as 13 points with six minutes remaining in the third game, clearly on their way to taking a 3-0 advantage in the Finals.
But, led by Wade, the Heat made an incredible comeback and won the game. For Wade, his biggest shot came with a minute left, when he converted on a 20-foot jumper to pull Miami to within just a single point.
After the Heat won by a landslide in Game 4, it was again Wade carrying the team to victory in a very tight Game 5. The Heat trailed by two, 93-91, when he banked in a jumper on their final possession to tie the game, leaving less than three seconds on the clock and forcing overtime. And in that very overtime, he made two of the biggest free throws in NBA history — one to tie and one to win the game — with just 1.9 seconds left.
The Heat clinched the championship in Game 6, and while Wade has been a great closer throughout his career, it was those NBA Finals that have cemented him as one of the sport’s all-time great clutch players.
20. VINCE CARTER
If Vince Carter isn’t remembered as a very good player who could have and should have been a superstar, he’ll be remembered as the one of the kings of the game-winner.
During his 15-year career, Carter has made 17 game-winners with three different teams. He had 10 with the Raptors (including three in less than three weeks back in 2000), six with the Nets, and had his first as a member of the Mavericks in February of last season.
What hurts Carter’s legacy as a clutch shooter is that all of of his game-winners have come during the regular season, and none during the playoffs. And, as he enters his 16th season in the league, it’s unlikely that he will ever be able to rack up a significant amount of great playoff moments.
But, despite that, he at least deserves this spot due to his sheer amount of total game-winners, which he has more of than most on this list.
19. CARMELO ANTHONY
In less than three seasons as a member of the New York Knicks, Carmelo Anthony has already converted on five game-winners, including one in overtime on Easter of 2012 against the Bulls, a game in which he also hit the tying shot at the end of regulation.
And, if you think that’s impressive, try to recall the 2005-06 season, when ‘Melo had five game-winners as a member of the Denver Nuggets, all of which were jump shots and in the final five seconds of games.
He added one more game-winner in 2012-13, and Anthony now has 18 game-winning shots with 10 seconds or less on the clock, according to NBA.com.
He’s simply a game-winning shot machine, and the only thing keeping me from putting him higher on this list is his lack of game-winners during the postseason. Of those 18 game-winners, just one has come during the playoffs.
The argument can be made that he just hasn’t played in very many playoff games as it is, but until he puts more great playoff moments on his resume, I simply can’t say that I’d rather have him over the next 18 players with the game on the line.
18. DEREK FISHER
Of the players that I’ve already discussed and the others that I will get to, Derek Fisher is one of the few who never reached superstar status, but when it comes to his ability to make the final shot, that’s hardly relevant.
To me, the two biggest shots of his basketball career occurred on the same night, in Game 4 of the 2009 NBA Finals.
With a 2-1 series lead, Fisher and the Lakers appeared on their way to falling short for the second straight game and seeing their series advantage disappear.
Of course, that all changed when Derek suddenly found his hot hand; he hit the game-tying three-pointer with just four seconds left to force overtime, and in overtime, he knocked down the go-ahead three-pointer with 31 seconds left that ultimately clinched the game for Los Angeles. Without that sequence of shots from Fisher, Kobe Bryant might be sitting on just four championship rings right now.
After that, his next greatest shot and easily his most famous shot came in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals in 2004. With just 0.4 seconds left in game (yes, less than half of a second!), Fisher was able to pull off one of the most incredible plays of all time, successfully knocking down a turnaround jumper to win the game.
Perhaps most amazing about the play was that Fisher even got a shot off at all; in those four tenths of a second, he was able to catch the ball, turn around, and hoist a shot that ended up going in. I’ll still never quite believe that he was able to pull it off.
Although those three shots will undoubtedly be remembered as Fisher’s three best, he’s really made a career out of hitting clutch shot after clutch shot, all of which have come from his so easily recognizable high-arcing, rainbow-like jumpers.
And, even if he’s at the old age of 39, don’t be too surprised if Derek Fisher finds a way to add to his long list of game-winning shots during the upcoming NBA season.
17. DIRK NOWITZKI
Is there anyone with a jump shot harder to guard than Dirk Nowitzki?
He’s consistently one of the best shooters in the game, and even if a defender does his best to contest a shot from Dirk, the German still stands at seven feet tall and can simply just shoot over that defender.
He has made regular season game-winner after game-winner, with the most recent one coming against the Bulls in late March of last season, pulling Dallas to within one game of the eighth playoff spot. With it being such an important game for the Mavericks and their playoff hopes, it was almost as relevant as a playoff game-winner.
And, speaking of playoff game-winners, Dirk has some of them, too.
His first came in Game 2 of the 2005 Western Conference Semifinals against the Phoenix Suns. With only six seconds left, Dirk’s 16-foot fadeaway jumper gave the Mavericks the win and pulled the team into a 1-1 series tie.
Next, although it wasn’t a game-winning shot, it’s worth noting that Nowitzki hit two free throws — one to tie the game and one to win — with just seven seconds left in Game 3 of the ’06 Western Conference Semifinals against the then-defending champion Spurs. The Mavericks proceeded to win the series and ultimately came just two wins short of an NBA championship.
But the most important of Dirk’s game-winners came in Game 2 of the 2011 NBA Finals. With less than four seconds left in a tied 103-103 game, Dirk faced up Chris Bosh before dribbling, spinning, and driving to the basket to hit the game-winner.
Since entering the league in 1998, few — if any — have consistently performed as well in the clutch as Dirk Nowitzki has, as the German big man has proven time and time again that, when it’s money time, he knows how to show up.
16. LeBRON JAMES
For a guy making a convincing case to be the best player of all time, it’s strange to think that LeBron James still doesn’t have a reputation as an incredibly clutch player in this league, and it’s especially strange once you realize that James actually has quite the resume when it pertains to making crucial shots at the end of games.
Since being selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, he has the most game-tying or go-ahead shots in the final 24 seconds of games during the playoffs. In those situations, LeBron is 7-of-16 from the field, which is better than Wade, Kobe, Nowitzki, and any other current player.
To add to that, James also has a plethora of game-winning shots during the regular season, his most recent being against the Boston Celtics in March of this past season, when he knocked down a jumper to give the Heat a 105-103 lead with 10 seconds remaining.
So, if your case against LeBron has been his inability to hit the big shots, it might be time to rethink your position.
15. VINNIE JOHNSON
Vinnie Johnson averaged between 12 and 15 points per game as a member of the Pistons, but Detroit fans love him mainly because of one single moment.
In Game 5 of the 1990 NBA Finals, the defending champion Pistons were tied with the Trail Blazers, 90-90, and with a 3-1 series lead, Detroit was only a basket away from its second straight championship.
At that point, the entire basketball world couldn’t help but expect Isiah Thomas — undoubtedly the team’s best player — to take the final shot, even despite the fact that Johnson had scored five of his team’s previous seven points.
As expected, it was Thomas who collected the inbound pass and went to work on his defender, dribbling from the top of the key and letting the clock run down from 20 seconds. With about five seconds left, Isiah drove and was closed off by a help defender, leaving “The Microwave” (Johnson) open. Thomas dished him the ball, and Johnson took just two dribbles before taking and making the final shot to win the NBA Finals, leaving just seven-tenths of a second remaining in the fourth and final quarter.
With that one shot — the one shot to win the greatest championship that basketball has to offer — Vinnie Johnson put himself in the same class as basketball immortals, all while earning him a spot on every list and ranking similar to this one.
14. JOHN STOCKTON
Remembered mainly as one of the top-three passers of all time, John Stockton quietly had his fair share of big moments when it came to shooting the ball during his career.
He had more than a handful of game-winners during his career, and three of them came in the postseason.
His first playoff game-winner was in Game 1 of the Jazz’s first-round series against the Rockets in 1995, while his third and final game-winner of his basketball career came in Game 4 of the 1999 Western Conference First Round, when the Jazz downed the Kings, 90-89.
And, while those two were memorable in their own right, it was the game-winner sandwiched in-between them that will forever be John Stockton’s greatest moment.
In Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals that matched Stockton’s Jazz and the Houston Rockets, the two teams were tied at 90 with less than three seconds left. The ball was inbounded to Stockton, who took just one dribble before knocking down a game-winning three-pointer that sent Utah to the NBA Finals.
Unfortunately for Stockton, with Michael Jordan and the Bulls busy winning six championships in the ’90s, he and the Jazz were never able to accomplish their ultimate goal.
Despite that, Stockton’s number of important late game shots, namely that three-pointer in Game 6 of the 1997 WCF, have forever cemented him as one of the great clutch shooters to ever play, even if he was primarily a passer.
13. PAUL PIERCE
During his career, Paul Pierce has — at least in my opinion — been one of the most underrated players to ever step foot on a basketball court.
He has always been recognized as a great scorer and a good defender, but Pierce’s ability to both pass and rebound has been incredibly undervalued. To me, he’s without a doubt one of the best small forwards in the history of the game.
And, best of all, Pierce is an even better player when the lights shine brightest, as proven by his
ability to knock down shots in the most critical of moments.
As a Knicks fan, I’ve come to refer to Paul Pierce as the king of the dagger, because it always seems that if he’s not hitting the game-winning shot, he’s certainly hitting the one that at least clinches the Celtics’ fate.
To recall some of those game-winning, tying, and dagger shots late in games, check out this video of Pierce’s top ten clutch shots.
Of them all, the three most memorable came — not surprisingly — in the postseason.
His first came in the first round of the 2003 Eastern Conference Playoffs. With the Celtics trailing the Indiana Pacers by a score of 97-96, Pierce drained a three that gave Boston the lead before he knocked down four straight free throws to clinch the Game 1 victory.
Six years later, in the 2009 Eastern Conference First Round against the Chicago Bulls, with the game tied at 104 and the series tied 2-2, Pierce hit a game-winner with just three seconds remaining in overtime.
Next, in the 2010 Eastern Conference First Round against the Dwyane Wade-led Heat, Pierce again hit a game-winner, this one coming at the buzzer and breaking a 98-98 tie game.
And, though it wasn’t a game-winner, Pierce had one of the clutchest shots of his career in one of the biggest games in his career. It was Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and with just under a minute left, Pierce knocked down a three that extended the Celtics’ lead from one to four, essentially putting the final nail in the coffin.
He may not get the appreciation he deserves as one of the best players ever, but what can’t be argued is that Pierce has certainly been one of the best ever at making those last shots to both extend and win basketball games.
12. STEVE KERR
Steve Kerr was one of the best three-point specialists in the history of basketball and made countless jumpers throughout his career, but he earns a spot here because of one shot and only one shot.
The day was Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals, and Kerr’s Bulls, who held a 3-2 series lead, were tied with the Utah Jazz, 86-86.
Out of a timeout, perhaps the greatest clutch player of all time, Michael Jordan, decided to defer to Kerr, dishing him the ball with about six seconds remaining. Kerr, who played a key role in each of the Bulls final three titles in the Jordan era, promptly made the shot of his life, breaking the tie and clinching the 1997 NBA championship for Chicago.
If I wanted to, I could recount some of the other clutch jumpers that Kerr hit throughout his career, but it hardly feels necessary. Any player who can make a shot to win the NBA Finals automatically deserves to be on a list like this one, and because of that Game 6 jumper, I would never hesitate to let Steve Kerr take the final shot.
11. JOHN PAXSON
It almost felt like Paxson and Kerr should be ranked together on this list, and since I couldn’t do that, I decided it was best to just have them back-to-back.
Like Kerr, Paxson earns a spot pretty much based solely on one shot, with his coming in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals.
The Phoenix Suns led Paxson and the Bulls, 98-96, with very little time left, and it looked like Charles Barkley‘s team was going to force a deciding Game 7.
It looked that way, at least, until Paxson received a pass from Horace Grant and nailed the game-winning shot to also end the NBA Finals, as the Bulls won their third straight championship.
With that one three-pointer, Paxson was suddenly a part of NBA Finals history, not to mention the hero of the Bulls’ 1986 championship run.
You can certainly make the argument that Steve Kerr was a better shooter than Paxson, and because of that, he should be get the higher ranking of the two.
And, while I did think of that, the main reason that Paxson got the edge was because of the magnitude of his shot; the Bulls were trailing by two before he took it, and if he misses, the game is over and the series stays in Phoenix for Game 7. If Kerr had missed his game-winner in Game 6 of the ’96 Finals, there would have been an overtime period, and with Michael Jordan leading the way, the Bulls probably would have come out victorious.
10. MAGIC JOHNSON
While deciding where to rank each player on this list, I wanted to put Magic higher on this list. I really, truly did. He’s a top-three player in the history of the game and during his time, he won five championships, three NBA Finals MVPs and three league MVPs.
In this league, you can’t reach that level of excellence without being one of the clutchest to ever play, and Earvin Magic Johnson certainly was that.
He always seemed to make the most pivotal of shots late in games for the Lakers, but when it came to making that final shot, Magic’s collection wasn’t nearly as outstanding as I expected it to be.
In his career, he made just 10 game-winners, a nice total but not ultra-impressive when it comes to the standards of this list. However, to his credit, his only game-winner during the playoffs, in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals, was one of the greatest and most unforgettable shots in Finals history, making it nearly impossible to keep him outside of my list’s top 10.
The Lakers had a 2-1 series advantage, but with just seven seconds left and the Celtics holding a 106-105 lead in Game 4, Los Angeles was in danger of letting their arch rivals even the Finals at two games apiece, with the location set to shift to Boston for Game 5.
So, at the risk of losing homecourt advantage, the Lakers desperately needed some Magic, and fortunately for them, the point guard had his greatest trick ready at the perfect time.
After catching the ball near the sideline, Johnson dribbled into the key before lofting a hook shot that sailed into the basket, winning Game 4 of the NBA Finals and earning his team a 3-1 series lead.
The play will be shown over and over for the rest of time, and its greatness alone is enough to earn Magic this ranking.
9. ISIAH THOMAS
As the best player on the Pistons teams that won back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990, Isiah Thomas was always the one to come through when it mattered most.
His defining performance actually came in Game 6 of the ’88 NBA Finals, more commonly referred to as the “Ankle Game,” as Thomas played through a sprained ankle and even scored 25 points in the third quarter. Despite his unprecedented toughness, the Lakers won the game, 103-102, and also went on to win Game 7 and the series.
But, the Pistons would bounce back; they swept the Lakers in the ’89 Finals and defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1990 NBA Finals, when Thomas won his first and only NBA Finals MVP award.
So, sure, everyone remembers his role in the back-to-back championships and his awe-inspiring ankle game, but what seems to be forgotten is that he was one of the greatest clutch shooters of all time.
From 1982 through 1993, Thomas successfully made 14 game-winners, with five coming in the playoffs, two in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, and three in the first round.
Most impressively, before every one of those shot attempts, the Pistons had actually been trailing, meaning that each shot came in a make-this-or-lose type scenario. There was never that overtime security blanket in case of a miss. It was always do-or-die, and Isiah repeatedly came through.
And while he never hit a game-winner in the NBA Finals, he did hit a go-ahead jumper to give the Pistons a 100-99 lead with a minute left in Game 6 of what could have been a series-clinching win, proving that — even in the Finals — he could hit the most significant of shots.
8. SAM JONES
When it comes to NBA championships, only Bill Russell was able to win more than Sam Jones, who won 10 of them as a teammate of Russell.
A team can’t win those titles, or any, for that matter, without someone whom can be called upon to take the important shots with the game hanging in the balance. For those Celtics teams, that someone was Sam Jones.
Of all his truly legendary moments, two shots stand out as his absolute greatest.
First, in the seventh and final game of the 1962 Eastern Division Finals (equivalent to the Eastern Conference Finals in the modern day NBA), Jones made a jumper with just two seconds on the clock to break what was a 107-107 tie, win the game, win the series, and send his Celtics to the ’62 NBA Finals, which they won in seven games over the Lakers.
Over seven years later, in Game 4 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and Celtics, Boston had possession and trailed Los Angeles, 88-87, with only seconds remaining. On the inbounds play, Jones came off of a screen, received the pass, and knocked down the game-winner, evening the series at two games apiece.
Had Jones failed to make that shot, the Celtics would have faced a 3-1 series deficit and would have likely seen their season end in Game 5, when the Lakers beat the Celtics by double-digits. But, because of Sam Jones’ heroics late in Game 4, Boston was ultimately able to win the series in seven games.
He gets overlooked as an all-time great due to the fact that he was the Robin to Bill Russell’s Batman, but nobody on those championship Celtics teams, including Russell himself, was as to good as Jones when it mattered the most.
7. KOBE BRYANT
Kobe Bean Bryant. Where to begin? Well, it seems appropriate to do so with a certain number: 28.
That’s because, since being drafted in 1996, Kobe has hit 28 game-winning shots (TWENTY-EIGHT!). He even made five of them in the 2009-10 season, the same year he won his fifth and most recent championship.
When it comes to taking and making these shots, Kobe is simply fearless, and he almost appears to relish the opportunities.
On a not-so-impressive note, what also stood out to me is that Bryant has only had five game-winning shots in the NBA Playoffs (if his go-ahead jumper against the Spurs in the ’08 WCF with 26 seconds left is included), and has never had one in a round later than the Western Conference Finals.
To be fair, Kobe’s greatest individual moment did come in the 2004 NBA Finals, when — with the Lakers trailing the Pistons 1-0 in the series and 89-86 in Game 2 — Bryant pulled up and knocked down a three-pointer to send the game into overtime, where the Lakers proceeded to even the series at a game apiece.
And, even if he lacks a large number of big-time shots in both the playoffs and NBA Finals, that staggering number of 28 game-winners, along with his Mamba-mentality and fearless approach, is plenty of reason to put him at number seven on this list.
6. LARRY BIRD
To be the second-best player in the history of the league’s most successful franchise says everything that needs to be said about Larry Bird, especially when the man that Bird is second to is one Bill Russell.
A winner of three NBA championships and two Finals MVPs, few were as dependable as Larry Bird in crunch time.
With the Celtics, he was always making the most important plays, and more specifically, the most important shots, and plenty of them came in the NBA Finals.
In fact, in the first NBA Finals game of his career (Game 1 of the 1981 Finals), it was Bird who converted on the biggest shot. With under 20 seconds on the clock, the Celtics had a mere one-point lead against the Houston Rockets before Bird banked in a left-handed layup, extending the lead to three and clinching the incredibly important first game of the series. It was the first of many clutch plays from Larry Bird in the NBA Finals, and another notable one came four seasons later.
Trailing the Los Angeles Lakers 2-1 in the 1985 NBA Finals, the Celtics found themselves in a 123-123 overtime tie, at risk of falling into a nearly insurmountable 3-1 series hole. But on their next possession, Bird was able to drill a fadeaway jumper that gave Boston the lead and won the game, since the Lakers were unable to again pull into the lead or even into a tie.
One year later, in the 1986 NBA Finals, the Celtics were again in a tie contest late in Game 4, only this time against the Houston Rockets. And, although it came with about two minutes remaining, Bird hit a three-pointer to break the tie for good, as the Celtics held the lead throughout the rest of the pivotal fourth game, earning a convincing 3-1 series lead.
Later in that same series, in Game 6 to be exact, the Rockets appeared on the verge of possibly evening up the NBA Finals, and a furious late rally had turned a 17-point Celtic lead into just a three-point advantage. With just over a minute left, it was once again Larry Bird coming up with the big shot. This time around, he hit a corner three-pointer that was the final dagger not only in Game 6, but also of the NBA Finals.
Bird was just an expert at making the big shots, and it wasn’t only the case in the NBA Finals — Bird had 15 game-winners during his career, including one in Game 4 of the ’85 Eastern Conference First Round series between the Celtics and Cavaliers.
With the ball in his hands as a close game winded down, it was smart to not bet against Larry Bird.
5. RAY ALLEN
Okay, maybe I’m a little high on Ray Allen and maybe I’m still a prisoner of the moment, but to me, his game-tying buzzer-beater at the end of regulation in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals was the greatest shot of all time.
There are a few reasons why I believe this, so here we go:
– It was an elimination game:
If Allen doesn’t make that shot, that’s it. Game over, series over, and the Spurs win the
2013 NBA Finals, leading to an absolutely miserable offseason for the Miami Heat
– His presence of mind:
To me, the most impressive thing about the play wasn’t that Allen made the shot, it was that he was able to get in perfect position to take the shot. Despite not once being able to glance at the floor while backpedalling from the paint to the corner, he somehow knew exactly when he was beyond the three-point line but not yet out of bounds. As soon as he was in three-point territory, he caught the ball and nailed the tying shot, sending the game into overtime.
– He saved LeBron’s legacy:
The game was an instant-classic, but what seems to never be mentioned is that LeBron had pretty much blown it for the Heat before Allen saved him with that three.
After a spectacular fourth quarter in which he carried Miami back from trailing by double-digits, James made two turnovers in the final 40 seconds, and suddenly the Spurs were shooting free throws with a four-point lead. The game was over! The Heat were dead in the water and the Spurs were on their way to a championship mainly because LeBron’s 2011 demons had returned in the form of those two awful turnovers.
And then, suddenly, the Spurs missed a couple of free throws, the Heat grabbed a couple of offensive rebounds, and most importantly, Allen hit that game-tying three-pointer. If he doesn’t, it’s a long offseason full of questions and doubts revolving around LeBron’s ability to perform in the clutch.
Simply put, Ray Allen had the weight of the world on his shoulders when he took that shot, and with all factors combined, it at least deserves consideration for being the greatest play in basketball history.
Furthermore, one might think that that one shot — as great as it was — isn’t enough to put Allen ahead of guys like Kobe, Isiah, and Sam Jones, but I’d have to respectfully disagree. It was just that great.
And it’s not like that shot is the one thing Ray has on his record. Not only did he hit plenty of huge shots as a member of the Celtics, including one dagger that helped clinch Game 4 of the ’08 Finals, but he’s also the all-time leader in three-pointers made both in the regular season and the postseason.
Say what you want, but to me, someone who has made more three-pointers than anyone to ever play basketball seems like the perfect guy to take the final shot in the most imperative moments.
4. REGGIE MILLER
Being a lifelong Knicks fan, I can’t see or think about Reggie Miller without cringing, cringing and cringing some more.
He just had a knack for making clutch plays and shots, especially against the Knicks, and the most recognizable Reggie Miller moment came in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals. With his Pacers trailing 95-89, Reggie hit a three to cut the Knicks’ lead in half and then stole the ball off the inbounds pass before he hit the game-tying three. And on the Pacers’ next possession, he hit two free throws to win the game.
While those two three-pointers are probably his most popular shots, Reggie did have a laundry list of other plays and shots that were just as clutch as, if not more clutch than that moment against New York in ’95.
Miller hit a game-winner against the Pistons in the 2005 Conference Semis, he hit a game-tying jumper with five seconds left against the Knicks in the ’98 conference semis, he converted on a game-winner in Game 4 of the ’98 conference finals against Jordan’s Bulls, and had a game-winner against the Sixers in Game 1 of a 2001 first round series.
Even those are only a small portion of Reggie’s greatest, clutchest, most breathtaking shots, but it would be nearly impossible to discuss each one of them. And, though it pains the Knicks fan in me to say it, he was simply a master at making the final shot.
3. JERRY WEST
Given the nickname of “Mr. Clutch” by his peers, Jerry West seemed to just get better as the situations got tougher.
West hit several game-winning and clinching shots for Los Angeles during the 1960s and 70s, including each of the following:
– With the Lakers down by one in Game 2 of the 1962 Western Divisional Finals against the Hawks, West swished in a jumper in the final seconds to win the game
– In Game 5 of the 1966 NBA Finals, with the Lakers in a must-win position, the man on the NBA logo hit a game-winning corner jump shot to extend the series to a sixth game
– In Game 1 of the 1969 Finals, West hit back-to-back jumpers and two late free throws to pull the Lakers ahead, giving his team the victory
– With the Lakers trailing by two to the Knicks in Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals, he hit a buzzer-beating jumper that tied the game and forced overtime
– In Game 1 of the 1973 Western Division Finals, the Lakers were again saved by West, who knocked down the game-winning shot with eight seconds remaining
Similarly to Sam Jones, the memories of West’s most magical shots are hard to relive, simply because of the era he played in. Despite that, basketball histories and true fans know that he was truly the right man to earn the nickname of “Mr. Clutch.”
2. ROBERT HORRY
He averaged just seven points per game during his 16-year NBA career, but Robert Horry, also known as “Big Shot Bob,” literally specialized as a clutch shooter during the NBA Playoffs.
As a member of the Lakers, Rockets and Spurs, he was Jordanesque in late-game situations, and Horry almost looked like Michael when he made the two biggest shots of his life, the first of which came while with the Lakers.
In Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, Los Angeles had the ball late, trailing the Kings, 99-97. On that final possession, Kobe and Shaquille O’Neal each missed layups before the ball bounced out to Robert Horry, who was standing beyond the three-point arc at the top of the key. And, very calmly, Horry grabbed the ball, pulled up, and hit the game-winning three as the buzzer sounded. It took the Lakers seven long games to win the series, and without Horry’s heroics in Game 4, they would have never won their third consecutive title.
Then, three seasons later, Horry’s new team — the San Antonio Spurs — were in a similar position as the ’02 Lakers, only this time, it was the NBA Finals. With the series tied up, Game 5 couldn’t have been more decisive, and in the final seconds of overtime, the Spurs trailed the Pistons, 95-93. But, similarly to 2002, Robert was able to ignore the immense pressure and come through, knocking down a three with six seconds left to win the game and save the series, which San Antonio won in seven.
And, although those shots were his two greatest, Horry had plenty of others; he hit a game-winner in Game 3 of the 2002 Western Conference First Round series, he hit a three with under a minute left to extend the Lakers’ lead from one to four and clinch Game 3 of the 2001 NBA Finals, and he also hit a three-ball with 14 seconds left to clinch Game 3 of the 1995 NBA Finals for his Houston Rockets.
There’s just not much to say about Horry, other than that if there were a Mount Rushmore of clutch athletes, he would deserve to be on it.
His regular season and overall statistics might have been rather pedestrian and he might be the worst overall player on this list, but when it came to making that last shot to win or tie the most important of games, nobody — except for one man — was better than Robert Horry.
1. MICHAEL JORDAN
Is there really any debate with this one? Here, I’ll answer it for you: no, there isn’t.
Personally, I’m of the mindset that LeBron James will go down as the greatest player in the history of basketball, but when it comes to exhibiting a clutch gene, nobody will ever touch Michael Jordan.
I could recount each of his 30 game-winners, like his eight in the postseason that included two in the NBA Finals and one to win the ’98 Finals, but it would be pointless. You’ve already seen them all many times, and you know just how phenomenal he was, never really seeming to even be a human in those situations.
Each time he rose up for a game-winner or any other clutch shot, it was as if he knew the ball was going in before he even released it. He was somewhat cocky, but for good reason. Nobody could touch him.
The one thing he’s lacking? A clutch shot in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Why is he lacking it? Oh, right, because not once did Jordan even allow the Finals to go to a deciding seventh game. Once he got past Isiah and the rest of the bad boy Pistons, that it was it for the rest of the league. Jordan’s Bulls won six titles with two separate three-peats, and there was never a doubt about who was going to take the final shot, other than the one exception in Game 6 of the ’97 Finals, when Kerr hit the shot to win the game and the series.
If you told Jordan that he had to hit a game-winning shot with a blindfold on, I think he could probably do it. He was just that calm, cool and collected, and making those shots almost seemed like second nature to him.
His mentality on the court was unlike anything we have ever seen or ever will see, including that of Kobe Bryant, something that also contributed to his ability to step up in those scenarios.
There’s just no question about it. Whether it was a game-clinching shot, a game-winning shot or a tying shot, Jordan was by far the best, making it a very easy decision to put him at the top of these rankings.
Who is the most clutch player ever? Of today?
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