Breaking Down the Impact of a Game-Winning Shot on an NBA Playoff Series

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Breaking Down the Impact of a Game-Winning Shot on an NBA Playoff Series
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It was looking like deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said.

The Dallas Mavericks were about to put the Oklahoma City Thunder in an NBA playoff-sized hole in Game 1. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry carried the defending champions to a seven-point lead with just over two minutes to play.

Then, back came OKC, erasing that deficit and even capturing a one-point lead with a shade under a minute left in the game.

A pair of free throws by Dirk on the other end appeared to put the Mavs back in the driver's seat.

And then this happened:

A couple dribbles by Durant, a turn, a heave over the outstretched arm of Shawn Marion from the free-throw line, a soft bounce on the rim, off the backboard and through the bottom of the net.

Ball game.

But what does it mean for the Thunder?

That all depends on how you interpret it in context. Not all postseason game-winners are created equal. When, in a given series, a player hits such a shot and why his team needs him to in the first place determine what type of dagger we're talking about.

Think of it in terms of two axes. One axis represents when in the series the game took place—early (Games 1, 2 and sometimes 3), in the middle (Games 3, 4 or 5) or late (Games 6 or 7). The other pertains to which team would appear to have the upper hand at the time, be it on the floor or in the series itself and the disparity in quality between the two.

Let's break it down, shall we?

 

The Tone-Setter

There are those occasions when a heroic game-winner can serve as an announcement, "We're here, we're in gear, get used to it!"

Sometimes, it serves as a message sent by the old guard that their time to win is now. Others, it signals the dawn of a new era in which a new contender will be crowned.

In either case, there's nothing shaky about it. Both teams involved are of comparable quality, or at least appeared to be heading into the start of the series. As such, a dagger here gives one team a decisive bit of daylight that it can use to clear a wider path to victory down the line.

The "Memorial Day Miracle" comes to mind here:

The upstart San Antonio Spurs are well on their way to their first title, albeit during the lockout-shortened 1999 season. They dismantle the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Lakers in the first two rounds before finding some tougher sledding against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals.

The Spurs snag a four-point win in Game 1 over the deep and balanced Blazers before finding themselves on the ropes late in Game 2, at which point Sean Elliott hits a shot from the corner while falling out of bounds to give the Spurs their first and only lead of the game.

San Antonio then goes on to steamroll the Blazers in Games 3 and 4 knock out the New York Knicks in five games thereafter to claim the title.

You could argue that Durant's shot fits in this category—a championship-caliber club still finding its way, against a tough opponent, in a game during which his team is on the ropes for much of the time.  

The problem, though, is that the Mavs weren't at all expected to be able to hang with OKC, not after losing the likes of Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson and JJ Barea to free agency and sleepwalking their way through a bizarre regular season. 

 

The Early Life-Saver

Of course, where Durant's shot fits will ultimately be determined by how the rest of the series plays out. It could prove to be an early turning point for the Thunder.

Or, it could be a sign of trouble, a "Life-Saver" in a tough spot that, at first, seems unnecessary but turns out to be indicative of trouble lurking just beneath the surface.

Think, here, of LeBron James' off-balance game-winner in Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic. The Cavs were expected to crack the NBA Finals after winning 66 games and smoking Detroit and Atlanta in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The Magic, though, proved to be a much tougher nut to crack, with Dwight Howard dominating in the paint and Hedo Turkoglu enjoying the best stretch of his career.

Orlando eked out Game 1 and appeared to be on its way to a 2-0 advantage in the series when LeBron curled out to the top of the arc and hit a contested trey as time expired.

It was as dramatic a shot as any that was hit that year, but ultimately proved to delay the inevitable rather than tilt the table in Cleveland's favor. The Magic won three of the last four to claim the series and move on for a royal whoopin' at the hands of the Lakers in the Finals.

Durant's shot seemed to fall a bit closer to this category. The Thunder came in as the clear favorites to win, but looked largely limited to jumpers and fast-break buckets, often struggling to create much of anything offensively whenever Dallas was able to control tempo.

Which better describes Durant's game-winner?

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The fact that OKC needed Durant to hit that shot points to bigger problems for OKC (i.e. a lack of discipline in half-court sets, substandard focus on the defensive end from time to time) that, while perhaps not enough to derail them in the first round, could come back to haunt them later on in the postseason.

 

The Grip-Tightener

Perhaps there will be a point later on in the Thunder-Mavs series when Durant or Russell Westbrook takes charge to put the Mavs' backs against the wall with a dramatic, late-game shot.

These are what we'll call "Grip-Tighteners," shots that grant one team a commanding lead without necessarily clinching the series itself.

Magic Johnson's "junior, junior sky hook" in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals is a perfect example:

Magic's shot over Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish didn't deliver the Lakers the title that year, per se, but it did give them a 3-1 series lead over the Boston Celtics.

The C's came back to win Game 5, but could do little to turn the fortunes back in their favor before the Lakers closed it out in six.

 

The Shifter

Outside of a Game 7, there's none more crucial in a long series than a Game 5. Invariably, one team is either looking to stay alive down 3-1, or both are looking to grab the upper hand after a 2-2 tie through four games.

It's at the end of Game 5s that momentum can be and often is most dramatically swung. Utter the words "point four" just about anywhere in LA, and someone within earshot is bound to know exactly what you're talking about:

Derek Fisher's iconic shot in the 2004 Western Conference Finals proved to be the dagger that deflated the Spurs' hopes of defending their title turf. The Lakers hardly looked like a worthy winner that year in what proved to be the last hurrah of the Kobe-Shaq era in LA.

But, despite the Spurs appearing to be the superior team—and Duncan hitting a jaw-dropping shot to give San Antonio the lead just moments earlier—the Lakers took a 3-2 series lead back to LA, thanks in no small part to Fisher's miracle, which essentially shifted the odds firmly in the Lakers' favor.

 

The Extender

There aren't quite as many examples of Game 6 buzzer-beaters in which the team that hit it didn't clinch the series.

These are what we'll call extenders, clutch baskets to force deciding Game 7s, or, in the days of five-game opening series, Game 5s. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook over Henry Finkel in Game 6 of the 1974 NBA Finals fits the bill here:

That shot gave the Milwaukee Bucks the win in double overtime against the Boston Celtics, who went on to claim the crown in Game 7. 


The Clincher

The list of memorable series-clinchers is a lengthy one on which the Chicago Bulls appear quite frequently.

There's John Paxson's punch to the gut of the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 of the 1993 Finals:

And Steve Kerr's Game 6 dagger against the Utah Jazz in 1997:

And of course, there's Michael Jordan's unforgettable shot over Bryon Russell in Game 6 the very next year:

Hard to top a basket that determines who goes home with the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Maybe Kevin Durant will have the good fortune of taking such a shot later on this spring.

Or not. We'll have to see what the ramifications of his first playoff game-winner are first.

 

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