Picking the greatest moment in NBA finals history depends a lot on your definitions.
First, what is a moment? For me, it's a play, an appearance, a tableau. A moment only lasts a moment.
For example, some will tell you Michael Jordan's flu game was a great NBA Finals moment. I can't agree. You see, it was a great game, not a great moment.
But at the contest's end, when MJ fell into Scottie Pippen's arms…that was a moment.
Next what makes it the greatest? Well, the greatest moment has to have infinite staying power. It had to directly affect a pivotal finals game, or perhaps win the championship outright.
And with one exception, the greatest moments are from the NBA's golden era of the 1980s until now. That's because the moment can only be truly great if the sport is great, and until the '80s, though there was terrific basketball being played, professional basketball experienced uneven popularity: Its nadir was the late '70s, where Finals broadcasts were, unbelievably, shown on tape-delay.
So for example, this shot by Julius "Dr. J" Erving, which I used to play over and over again in slow motion just to marvel at, doesn't make the list—even though it defies every natural law of physics.
Bearing those definitions in mind, what is the greatest Finals moment?
They are listed in ascending order, from fifth to first.
Talk about a moment.
Lose this game, and the Houston Rockets would have been eliminated. They were down 3-2 in the series to the New York Knicks in the 1994 Finals.
The Rockets came out fighting, going up by ten at the half. Then John Starks went to work.
Starks almost single-handedly willed his team back into Game 6. In the fourth quarter alone, he netted 16 points. Houston's lead was down to two with just 10 seconds remaining.
Starks, who was seemingly destined to be a hero in New York, worked a pick-and-roll with center Patrick Ewing, and found himself open in the corner. Olajuwon, who had to switch after the pick, stumbled and almost fell catching up to the fleet shooting guard.
But Hakeem recovered and, showing brilliant timing, hustled back to get a finger on Starks' shot.
If you watch the play, it seems like Starks could have released the ball a split second earlier, which might have avoided Olajuwon's block; had he done so and the shot had fallen, the series would have been over.
But Olajuwon wrote a vastly different ending with his lightning-fast block. The play forced a Game 7, in which Starks was painfully mortal, and the Rockets won the title.
Game 5 was arguably the most memorable; I vividly recall switching back and forth from the basketball game to the famous O.J. Simpson low-speed Bronco chase. But Game 6 had the most memorable moment in the series—and one of the most memorable finals moments of all time.
With a two-point lead in overtime of Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals, the Detroit Pistons were looking at a 3-2 lead, and only had to win one of the next two games on the road.
All they had to do was stop one final shot attempt from the Spurs.
Robert Horry made sure that was easier said than done.
Forgotten in the legend of this incredible shot is the fact that Rasheed Wallace flat-out blew the coverage. The defensively gifted Wallace should never have left Horry wide open to double Manu Ginobili.
But left him he did. Ginobili leaned into a perfect pass to Horry. The Pistons' Tayshaun Prince did his best to challenge it, flying across the court, but by then Horry had an open look. Worst of all, it was a three-ball. The Pistons went from leading by two to down by one with one game-changing shot.
Had Wallace stayed on Horry, the Pistons might well have won this series. They managed to win Game 6. But winning two games in a row on San Antonio's home court, where the Spurs had lost just three contests all regular season, proved too monumental a task. San Antonio took Game 7 and the championship.
It never would have happened without this mega-memorable Finals-changer from Big Shot Bob.
The 1987 Finals once again featured Magic Johnson's L.A. Lakers versus Larry Bird's Boston Celtics. No one even dreamed it would be the last Finals in which these two classic rivals would square off.
The Lakers were up 2-1 in the series, but Game 4 on the fabled parquet floor of the Boston Gardens seemed to be going the Celtics' way. At halftime, Boston led by 16.
The Lakers, however, kept coming back, cutting the lead to one with a half-minute to play. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird both made heroic plays for their squads, and with seven seconds left, the Lakers were still down by one.
The Celtics had the rebound that would ice the game in their hands, but Mychal Thompson pushed it out of bounds, and somehow the officials ruled that Boston had touched it last.
The break was all Johnson needed. He scurried to the left corner for the inbounds pass, squared up for the jumper...then changed his mind. He drove around Kevin McHale, to the paint, where the 6'9" Johnson was suddenly guarded by McHale (6'10"), Larry Bird (6'9") and center Robert Parish (7'0").
All three were ready to stop anything Johnson put up.
Except a sky hook.
That was Abdul-Jabbar's trademark shot, and none of the three expected Johnson to launch it. After the game, Bird even said, "You expect to lose to the Lakers on a sky-hook…you don't expect it to be from Magic."
But it was from Magic, and with the shot, the Lakers took an insurmountable 3-1 series lead. Boston managed to win the next game on their home court, but the sky hook by Johnson in essence secured the championship—as well as its place among the greatest of NBA Finals moments.
This was no offensive foul. This was a fantastic shot by the greatest NBA player of all time.
It's faded in many fans' memories, but several other Bulls actually hit title-winning shots during the Bulls' six championships. John Paxson's three-pointer clinched the 1993 trophy, while Steve Kerr's jumper won the title in 1997.
But the last title of the Jordan era was won by His Airness himself.
With a minute left, Chicago was down by three. Then Jordan went to work.
First, he scored on a drive. Next, he swooped in from the backside on Karl Malone, knocking the ball loose and then recovering for the Bulls.
With 20 seconds remaining, Jordan drove up court. As he hit the three-point line, Jordan saw his dream come true: Bryon Russell was defending Jordan one-on-one with the title on the line.
If you watch MJ's Hall of Fame acceptance speech, you'll hear that he was harboring a competitive grudge against Russell. Russell had said to Jordan during his retirement, "Why'd you retire? You know I could shut you down. If I ever see you in shorts again..."
Here Jordan was, shorts and all, about to face the guy who said he could stop him cold.
Jordan drove toward the paint, but stopped short with a move that was so quick and crafty, it actually dropped Russell to the floor.
A wide-open Jordan calmly put up the shot, and left his shooting arm up in triumph as the ball hit nothing but net for his and the Bulls' second three-peat of the 1990s and the final championship of the Jordan era. In point of fact, it was Jordan's last shot as a Chicago Bull.
It was a storybook ending to a record-book career. And as an in-game moment, it was the finest the Finals has ever offered.
This one breaks the pre-1980s rule, and it wasn't an in-game play. But it doesn't matter. It was that good.
Willis Reed was the Knicks' all-everything player: All-NBA first teamer, All-Defensive first teamer and regular season MVP. But early in Game 5, Reed hit the court hard and had to leave the game. The Knicks managed to win the contest, but got the devastating news afterwards: Reed had a torn thigh muscle.
Imagine the Heat's chances without LeBron James. That was what the Knicks were looking at with Reed sidelined. They lost Game 6 by almost 20 points.
It was game time of Game 7, and no one expected Reed to play. In point of fact, with the severity of his injury, it seemed impossible he would play. Reed took an injection to dull the pain, but still, he was dealing with a leg that simply couldn't function properly.
So when he strode onto the court at the end of warmups, it was like Rocky and The Natural combined into one. The crowd roared, the players were inspired, goosebumps abounded.
Reed, incredibly, then proceeded to score the first two buckets of the game.
Though they were the only points he would score in the contest, his presence ignited his squad; they rode the emotion to a 113-99 victory.
Neither of the two baskets provided the indelible moment that stands as the NBA Finals' greatest. It was Reed simply limping onto the court, overruling his body and his injury to play.