The 50 Greatest NBA Playoff Moments Ever
The NBA playoffs are always occasion enough for classic moments, and the 2013 edition is shaping up to be no different.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat will pursue a second straight title to validate a historic regular season. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder will seek redemption in the NBA Finals while proving they can survive just fine without James Harden, who's hoping to make some hay of his own with the Houston Rockets. Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce will try to outrun Father Time, while young upstarts like Stephen Curry and Brook Lopez will get their first taste of the postseason.
All eyes will be on the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls as they look to make some noise without their most pivotal stars—Kobe Bryant for Los Angeles and Derrick Rose for the Windy City. Carmelo Anthony will be battling for a seat at the table of respect next to his 2003 NBA draft classmates, while the Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Indiana Pacers will try to prove that they belong in the championship conversation.
The question is, will there be any new entries into the archives of historic moments in NBA playoff lore? And, if so, which players and teams will etch themselves into our collective sporting consciousness?
Of course, there's no way of knowing the answers with any certainty, unless anyone has a direct line to Nostradamus or (better yet) Miss Cleo.
For now, then, let's have a look back at the 50 greatest moments from the more than six decades of NBA playoff basketball that've come and gone thus far.
50. The 8th-Seed Upsets
Only four times in NBA playoff history has a No. 8 seed beaten a No. 1 seed, and each occasion has been plenty memorable.
The Denver Nuggets were the first to pull off the feat in 1994, when they upended the 63-win Seattle SuperSonics in five games, a series that left us with the iconic image of Dikembe Mutombo clutching the ball on the floor in celebration. Five years later, the New York Knicks became the first and (thus far) only eighth seed to advance to the NBA Finals, thanks in no small part to Allan Houston's series-clinching shot against the Miami Heat in Game 5.
Most recently, the Memphis Grizzlies earned their first ever playoff series victory by outmuscling a hobbled San Antonio Spurs squad in 2011.
But the most memorable of the eight-stop upsets belongs to the 2007 Golden State Warriors. Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson led the "We Believe" Warriors to a six-game stunner against his old club, the Dallas Mavericks, who'd played in the NBA Finals the year prior and sported the league MVP in Dirk Nowitzki.
49. The Triple-Doubles and Near-Quadruple-Doubles
The playoffs have given rise to more than a few impressive performances, though few players stuffed the stat sheet in their heydays quite like Larry Bird, James Worthy, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan did.
Bird tallied a triple-double (29 points, 11 rebounds, 12 assists) in Game 6 of the 1986 NBA Finals to seal the title for the Boston Celtics over the Houston Rockets, earn the Finals MVP for himself and send the C's off with a 50-1 home record during the regular season and the playoffs.
"Big Game James" came through in an even bigger way, with 36 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists to make the Los Angeles Lakers the league's first repeat champs since 1969 by way of a Game 7 win over the Detroit Pistons in the 1988 Finals.
Shaq led the Lakers back from a shocking loss in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals by nearly recording a quadruple-double, but he fell an assist and two blocks shy while piling up 28 points and 20 rebounds.
The Big Fundamental bested the Big Diesel's efforts two years later, when he accounted for a triple-double and needed just two blocks to complete a quadruple-double of his own to clinch the Spurs' second title in Game 6 of the 2003 Finals.
48. Tim Duncan Sends the San Antonio Spurs to Double OT with a Surprise Three
As great as Timmy was in bringing a second title to San Antonio, he'll likely be remembered far more for the three-pointer he hit to send the Spurs to overtime against the Phoenix Suns in their first game of the 2008 playoffs.
With time ticking away in overtime, Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili drove to the basket before kicking the ball out to Tim Duncan, who knocked down a wide-open three-pointer. The make was Duncan's first and only one from long range all year. The Spurs finished off the game in double overtime, 117-115.
47. Hakeem Olajuwon Blocks John Starks' Shot to Send 1994 NBA Finals to Game 7
Hakeem Olajuwon stands as one of the greatest defensive players of all time, thanks in no small part to moments like this one from the 1994 Finals.
Olajuwon's Houston Rockets were nursing a two-point lead over the New York Knicks in the final seconds of Game 6. Knicks guard John Starks went up for what would've been the game-winning (and series-clinching) shot from three.
But "The Dream" made sure that New York's title would be no more than a fantasy. Olajuwon deflect Starks' shot, delivering the victory to Houston and setting up an all-important Game 7 that the Rockets went on to win to secure their first NBA championship.
46. Vinnie Johnson Shoots Detroit Pistons to Second Consecutive Title
The Detroit Pistons followed up the Los Angeles Lakers' back-to-back titles with a pair of their own, getting plenty of help from Vinnie Johnson in Game 5 of the 1990 Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.
The man known as "The Microwave" scored all of the Pistons' final seven points, capped off by a miraculous 14-footer with 0.7 seconds to go, to deliver another Larry O'Brien Trophy to the "Bad Boys" from Motor City.
45. Sleepy Floyd Puts the Los Angeles Lakers to Bed
The Golden State Warriors managed just one win against the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1987 Western Conference Semifinals, but that result just so happened to be a historic one.
Eric "Sleepy" Floyd single-handedly stopped a Lakers sweep with a stunning 51-point performance in the Warriors' 129-121 win. Floyd scored 29 of those points (on 12-of-13 shooting) in the fourth quarter to spark a miraculous 14-point comeback at the expense of the eventual champions.
44. Dirk Nowitzki Demolishes the Thunder at the Free-Throw Line
The 2011 playoffs belonged solely to Dirk Nowitzki, with Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals standing alone as his most impressive achievement. The giant German scored 48 points on 12-of-15 shooting from the field.
But the real achievement came elsewhere. Nowitzki set NBA playoff records for the most consecutive free throws made in a game and most made without a miss by knocking down all 24 of his attempts from the stripe against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
43. Allen Iverson Torches the Lakers for 48 Points in the 2001 NBA Finals
There was no immovable object to obstruct the unstoppable force that was the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2001 playoffs, though there was no slowing down Allen Iverson, either.
At least not in Game 1 of that year's Finals. The Lakers had no answer for "The Answer," who blew up for 48 points (on a whopping 41 shots!) to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a surprising 107-101 win in overtime.
It was the only game the Lakers lost on their way to a second straight title, and Iverson was largely responsible for pulling it off.
42. LeBron James' 'Cramp Game'
LeBron James' "cramp game" is bound to go down as one of those legendary moments in sports whose circumstances recede into the background behind the spectacle itself, not entirely unlike the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.
Granted, the best basketball player on planet Earth (and probably since Michael Jordan) drilling a big shot will never measure up to Team USA, a massive underdog, stunning the USSR in hockey (i.e. the Soviet Union's team sport of choice) at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in the midst of the Cold War.
But America's victory that day came not in the gold-medal game, but rather, in a semifinal. Likewise, LeBron's one-legged shots weren't actually game-winners, nor did they come in the closing moments of the contest—James had to sit out the last 55 seconds on account of said cramps.
Nor was the game itself the deciding one of the series. The win gave the Miami Heat a 3-1 edge over the Oklahoma City Thunder, leading up to the Heat's eventual evisceration of their upstart opponents in Game 5 of last season's Finals.
Still, as with the "Miracle on Ice," LeBron's "cramp game" has the potential to stick so well in our collective sports consciousness that the specifics of the moment itself won't matter in time.
Especially since the game itself officially marked, in the eyes of many, James' transition from a limelight-shrunken "choker" to an against-the-odds clutch performer.
41. Big Shot Bob Burns the Sacramento Kings
The Los Angeles Lakers might not have had a three-peat of which to speak in the early 2000s without the timely help of Robert Horry.
The biggest shot of all from "Big Shot Bob" came in the closing moments of Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the hated Sacramento Kings. The Lakers were desperate to avoid falling into a 3-1 series hole against the Kings, and it showed. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal both struggled to convert relatively easy looks at the cup.
Luckily for them, Horry was perfectly placed to collect the carom (punched out by Vlade Divac) and launch a three-pointer at the buzzer. The Lakers went on to win the series in seven games.
40. Kobe-to-Shaq Connection Seals Lakers' Comeback vs. Trail Blazers
No talk of the Los Angeles Lakers' three-peat would be complete without paying proper respects to their magical comeback against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals.
The Lakers were stuck in a 15-point hole with less than 11 minutes to play—and on the verge of losing three straight games for the first time all year—when they embarked upon a 29-9 run to regain the lead and seal the franchise's first trip to the Finals since 1991. That spur will be remembered most for this alley-oop between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
Especially in light of the feud that would later break out between the team's two superstars and (eventually) subjugate a Lakers dynasty that might've otherwise accomplished ever more than it did.
39. Steve Kerr Shoots the Chicago Bulls to Their Fifth Title
The brilliance of Steve Kerr's shot to beat the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals didn't stem solely from the fact that it ended the series in favor of the Chicago Bulls or that it came from about six feet closer in than normal for Kerr, though both of those details certainly play into the longevity of the play.
Of greater interest was how Kerr's title-winner was a reflection of the attentiveness and the evolution of an older, wiser Michael Jordan. MJ's buzzer-beater in Game 1 of those Finals came on a play similar to one the Bulls used at the end of Game 6. Jordan expected that the Jazz would send a double-team the second time around and was proven correct in his prediction.
Rather than try to do it himself, as he might've years earlier, Jordan opted instead to trust in his teammates—in this case, All-Everything shooter Steve Kerr—and was rewarded with his fifth championship.
38. John Paxson Clinches the Bulls' First Three-Peat with Three-Pointer vs. Suns
To be sure, Steve Kerr's dagger was hardly the first instance of Michael Jordan benefiting from deference to a teammate, particularly in the closing moments of a championship series. Wind the clock back to 1993, and you'll see His Airness swinging the ball to another dead-eye shooter (John Paxson) to finish off another Western Conference foe (the Phoenix Suns) led by another of Jordan's running mates from the 1992 Dream Team (Charles Barkley).
Paxson's shot, though, stands apart from (and above) Kerr's in a few key ways:
1. Pressure: if Kerr had missed his shot, the Bulls would've still had a chance to beat the Jazz in overtime. If Paxson's shot had rimmed out, Chicago would've lost to the Suns by two and had to play a deciding Game 7 in Phoenix. Hence, you could argue that Paxson's shot required bigger cojones, so to speak.
2. Process: Kerr's shot came at the end of yet another possession dominated by MJ. Paxson's, on the other hand, was the byproduct of four passes, with each Bulls player getting a touch before Paxson got the ball. Thus, you could argue that his shot came by way of a greater team effort.
3. Product: Kerr's make sealed another championship for Chicago, though the series itself was largely forgotten between the 1996 result against the Seattle SuperSonics and the 1998 rematch against the Jazz that Jordan himself finished off.
Paxson's, meanwhile, closed out the NBA's first three-peat since the days of Bill Russell's Boston Celtics. As such, you could argue that Paxson's shot was more memorable.
37. Bill Walton Boosts Blazers with Evisceration of Sixers in 1977 Finals
It's the opinion of some NBA scholars that Bill Walton might've been the greatest center of all time had he not succumbed to all manner of injuries over the course of his Hall of Fame career.
Debatable as that may be, there's no denying Walton's transcendence during Game 6 of the 1977 NBA Finals. The big redhead led the Portland Trail Blazers to a 109-107 win over Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers by way of his 20 points, 23 rebounds, eight blocks and seven assists. At the time, Walton's performance stood out as one of the finest ever put forth by a player at his position, and it still carries plenty of weight in that regard.
And though the Blazers' bid for a post-merger dynasty burned out too soon, Walton's showing guaranteed that Portland's only title would stand on its own, even amidst the muck that made up much of the league during the mid-to-late '70s.
36. The Game 7 Duel Between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins
A moment coming from a first- or second-round playoff series had better be some kind of special to crack the all-time top 50. Surely the battle between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins during the 1988 Eastern Conference finals fits the bill.
For one, the duel came in a Game 7 that, in many ways, encapsulated the crossing of paths between the old guard (Bird's aging Boston Celtics) and the new ('Nique's young, athletic Atlanta Hawks). Likewise, the game featured Larry Legend, approaching his twilight years, against the Human Highlight Reel, whose exploits as a scorer and dunker were fast becoming the stuff of lore.
Moreover, this particular game bore witness to these two basketball savants practically going tit-for-tat. 'Nique dominated most of the game, with 47 points in total, but it was Bird whose team came out on top, thanks in no small part to his 20-point outburst in the fourth quarter.
Bird's scoring total for the evening (34) may have paled in comparison to Wilkins', but the spoils went to the true victor anyway.
Even though the "Bad Boy" Pistons oust the C's in the next round.
35. The Big Dipper Plays Through Pain to Lift Lakers Past Knicks in 1972 Finals
By and large, Wilt Chamberlain probably deserves much of the beating he's taken from history, particularly in Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball. But as oft-maligned as the Big Dipper is and has been for his selfishness and apparent insecurity, the basketball muses are too often quick to forget that he did, indeed, sacrifice himself for the sake of his team.
Later in his career, anyway.
Such was the case in Game 5 of the 1972 NBA Finals, when Wilt posted 24 points, 29 rebounds and four assists with (unofficially) six blocks and a steal to lead the Los Angeles Lakers past the New York Knicks, despite having severely sprained his wrist the game prior.
To the point where Chamberlain could barely grip the ball.
To be sure, the anti-inflammatory shot Wilt received before that contest likely dulled most of the pain. However, at the age of 35, the fact that he decided to fight through it anyway speaks volumes to who he'd become over the course of his illustrious career.
Not surprisingly, Wilt was rewarded with the Finals MVP for his efforts in leading the Lakers to their first title since moving to L.A., one that capped off a magical season in which the Purple and Gold won a record 33 straight games.
34. George Mikan Delivers First Title to Minneapolis with a Broken Hand
Wilt wasn't the first Lakers big man to play through pain in service of victory, though. A full 23 years before Chamberlain affirmed the Lakers' place in the L.A. sports scene, George Mikan put Minneapolis' basketball club on the map while playing with a cast around his broken wrist.
The original "Mr. Basketball" scored 22 points in Game 5 of the 1949 Finals against the Washington Capitols before finishing off the series with 29 points in a Game 6 blowout for the Lakers.
Better yet, Mikan did all of this as a rookie, albeit shortly before the BAA merged with the NBL to form the NBA. That title was the first of five that the Lakers would win in Mikan's first six seasons, during which the bespectacled center helped to legitimize pro basketball as a form of star-studded entertainment.
33. Kevin McHale Clotheslines Kurt Rambis
Mikan called it quits years before the Lakers moved to L.A. and sparked up their historic rivalry with the Boston Celtics.
A rivalry that turned particularly nasty during Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals. With the "Showtime" Lakers running the Celtics ragged in the second quarter, Kevin McHale did his "best" to turn the tide when he clotheslined Kurt Rambis in a rather rough attempt to slow down L.A.'s fast break. Predictably enough, the incident ignited plenty of bluster between the two foes—the sort that would likely incur the wrath of David Stern in a big way had it taken place in today's NBA.
More importantly, McHale's hard foul brought the C's back to life. They closed the gap with the Lakers shortly thereafter and went on to escape from the Great Western Forum with a 129-125 win, sealed by an overtime jumper from Larry Bird over Magic Johnson, in one of the greatest games in NBA Finals history.
32. The Captain Leads the Lakers to Their First Finals Victory vs. the Celtics
The Los Angeles Lakers finally broke through against the Boston Celtics the very next year, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leading the way.
The 37-year-old scored 29 points in the Game 6 clincher and, for his efforts, became not only the oldest to ever be named Finals MVP (at the age of 37), but also the first (and still the only) to earn that honor at least 15 years apart.
Beyond that, the Captain's exploits gave the Lakers their first Finals triumph over Boston after eight previous failures while sending the C's to their first Finals elimination on the parquet floor at the Garden.
31. Rookies Rally Celtics to First Championship
Chances are, there would've been no hallowed history on which those Los Angeles Lakers could've stomped without the foundations laid by the Boston Celtics at the close of the 1956-57 season.
That was the year in which Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn debuted together in Beantown. The C's two rookies proved particularly productive (and important) in Boston's 125-123 double-overtime win against Bob Pettit's St. Louis Hawks in Game 7 of the 1957 NBA Finals. Russell piled up 19 points and a whopping 32 rebounds, while Heinsohn came away with a 37-23 line of his own to give Boston its first basketball championship and kick off an historic dynasty, the likes of which have rarely (if ever) been seen in sports.
30. Dwyane Wade Dominates Dallas in the 2006 Finals
Say what you will about the suspect officiating that marred much of the 2006 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks, but don't blame Dwyane Wade for taking full advantage of the circumstances at hand.
At least not entirely. As villainous as Wade has proven to be at times throughout his career, the then-budding superstar demonstrated his mastery of the pro game (and getting to the free-throw line) at the Mavs' expense. During the last four games of that series, Wade averaged an astounding 39.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.5 steals, 1.0 blocks and 18.3 free-throw attempts in 44.6 minutes.
Not surprisingly, Wade was named the Finals MVP. The Heat, for their part, won all four of those games to turn an 0-2 series hole into the first championship in franchise history.
29. Kareem's Sky Hook Scoots the Bucks Past the Celtics
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will always be remembered chiefly for his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, though his time as a tormentor of the Boston Celtics predates his return to the City of Angels. His beef with Beantown first took root during the 1974 NBA Finals, when the Captain was still a member of the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Celtics were on their way to clinching the title in Game 6, with a 101-100 lead and just seven seconds left in double overtime following John Havlicek's rainbow of a shot over Abdul-Jabbar.
But on this night, the Bucks wouldn't be denied. Oscar Robertson inbounded the ball to Kareem, who sized up his opponent—Henry Finkel, in for the fouled-out Dave Cowens—and subsequently dribbled toward the right baseline before stunning the C's with his signature, sweeping sky hook to win the game.
Milwaukee, though, went on to lose Game 7 and wound up trading Kareem to the Lakers in a blockbuster deal less than two years later.
28. Jerry West Bests Celtics with a Last-Second Steal and Layup in 1962 Finals
Jerry West hasn't been one to hide the pain and frustration he felt from all those years of losing in the playoffs, particularly to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. But if ever there were a superstar who deserves a free pass for his professional failures, it's Jerry West.
"The Logo" came through in a number of big moments on the biggest of stages for the Los Angeles Lakers, including this iconic play against the C's during the 1962 NBA Finals. With the score tied at 115 and just four seconds left on the clock in Game 3, West picked off Sam Jones' inbound pass to Bob Cousy and raced the other way for a buzzer-beating layup to deliver the result to the Lakers at the L.A. Sports Arena.
The Lakers, though, went on to lose the series in seven.
27. Ron Artest Rescues the Lakers in Game 7 vs. the Celtics
The Los Angeles Lakers may well have wound up with yet another disappointing NBA Finals loss to the Boston Celtics in 2010 if not for the surprising uprising from Ron Artest.
With Kobe Bryant struggling to find the hoop and the Lakers down by as many as 13 points in the third quarter of Game 7, Artest stepped up with his best game of the series, if not the entire season—20 points, five rebounds, five steals and one assist, with a crucial three-pointer to put L.A. ahead by six with a minute to go.
The Finals MVP trophy went to Bryant anyway, though Artest was still rewarded with plenty of airtime, which he put to excellent use with the postgame interview above, followed shortly by one of the most entertaining press conferences in NBA history.
26. Celtics Stun Lakers with Massive Comeback in Game 4 of 2008 Finals
Ron Artest's triumph might not have been nearly as sweet for the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans if not for the agony—and, for the Boston Celtics' fans, the ecstasy—of what took place at the Staples Center just two years prior.
The Lakers appeared to be on well on their way to tying the 2008 NBA Finals at two games apiece between themselves and the Celtics. L.A. came storming out of the gate in Game 4, building up a 24-point lead in the second quarter and keeping it stretched out to as many as 20 points in the middle of the third.
But as dire as the situation seemed at the time, the C's were none too intimidated. They ripped off a 23-5 run over the final seven minutes of the third period to shave the Lakers' lead down to two points, with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Eddie House combining to do the vast majority of the damage.
Boston completed the comeback in the fourth on the way to a 97-91 win before closing out the series (and capturing their NBA-record 17th championship) in six games.
25. Derek Fisher Finishes Spurs with 0.4 Seconds Left
As far as improbable playoff shots are concerned, they don't get much crazier than Derek Fisher's to beat the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals.
Here's why Fisher's shot gets such plum placement on this list, even though it neither occurred in an NBA Finals game nor led to an eventual championship:
1. Fisher was no better than the fifth option on a Lakers squad that featured Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone. The fact that the ball wound up in his hands has to be one of the great accidents in basketball history.
2. Moments earlier, Tim Duncan had hit an insane, off-balance 18-footer over Shaq to give the Spurs the lead. There seemed to be no way anyone could possibly have topped Timmy's shot at that moment, especially considering that there was less than half a second left on the clock.
3. Fisher got a shot off in 0.4 seconds! Keep in mind, we're not talking about some quick-trigger sharpshooter like Ray Allen or Stephen Curry, whose respective shooting motions are so compact that they can get off a quality shot with mere inches of space. Fisher's shot has been (and likely always will be) a slow, Rube Goldberg-like process that begins with a deep crouch and ends with the ball dropping towards the rim (and often through the net) by way of a detour through a storm cloud. Only Fisher and the time-keeper in the arena know how this shot came to pass.
4. That one shot shifted all the momentum in that series from the Spurs' side to the Lakers'. L.A. went on to win in six.
5. Few players in NBA history will ever be closely associated with a number they never wore. Derek Fisher is one of them.
24. John Stockton Sends Utah Jazz to Their First NBA Finals
Derek Fisher's shot eventually led the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals, though not nearly as proximally as did John Stockton's to close out Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference finals.
Eleven times, Stockton and Karl Malone had led the Utah Jazz to the playoffs, and 11 times, they'd failed to win the West.
The Salt Lake City duo finally changed all that in 1997 at the expense of the Houston Rockets. With the score tied at 100 and just 2.8 seconds left on the clock, Malone set a screen for Stockton, who got open for the inbounds pass from Bryon Russell and subsequently knocked down the series-winning shot to send the Jazz to their first-ever NBA Finals.
23. "The Shrug"
So much of Michael Jordan's greatness as a basketball player stemmed from his maniacal competitiveness and sociopathic desire to not just beat his opponents, but to pound them into a fine powder. Such was evident during the 1992 NBA Finals, when MJ addressed all the hoopla about his matchup with Clyde Drexler by demolishing "The Glide" and his Portland Trail Blazers.
And it's not as though Jordan wasted any time doing so, either. He set Finals records for threes (six) and points (35) in a half during the first 24 minutes of the series. Even MJ, a middling long-range shooter at that juncture, was flabbergasted by how hot he was, or so his shrugs indicated.
Jordan finished with 39 points as the Bulls won Game 1 by a whopping 33 points before wrapping up their second consecutive title in six.
22. "The Flu Game"
As long as we're talking Michael Jordan moments here, let's take some time to acknowledge his infamous "Flu Game" during the 1997 NBA Finals.
In Game 5 against the Utah Jazz, Jordan was so sick and exhausted that he needed the assistance of his teammates just to get from the floor to the huddle timeouts. And yet, MJ still managed to massacre Utah's defense on the way to a 38-point night and a crucial 90-88 win for the Bulls. Jordan's superhuman efforts gave Chicago a 3-2 series lead, of which they took full advantage with a series-clinching Game 6 win on their home court thereafter.
21. "The Shot"
A game-winning shot against the Cleveland Cavaliers wouldn't normally be much to write home about. But in Michael Jordan's case, his shot on Craig Ehlo in Game 5 of the Chicago Bulls' first-round series against the Cavs in 1989 came to be an important flashpoint in his individual evolution and in that of the Bulls into one of the NBA's great juggernauts.
At the time, the thought of the Bulls beating the Cavs in a five-game series seemed ludicrous. Cleveland was the higher seed in the matchup and had swept all four of its meetings with Chicago during the regular season.
Not that Jordan cared. He averaged an astounding 39.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 3.0 steals in 42 minutes per game to help Chicago score the upset. It was only fitting, then, that after all that, MJ had the privilege of finishing off the Cavs with that iconic, drifting shot in the final moments of a deciding Game 5.
20. The King Arrives in Time for Game 5 Against the Pistons
Speaking of important Game 5's in the lives of transcendent superstars, the basketball world knew LeBron James was good (if not very) from the moment he donned his Cleveland Cavaliers jersey as a rookie in 2003. But few knew how good he might turn out to be until he beat the Detroit Pistons all by himself in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals.
The then-22-year-old phenom scored a career-playoff-high 48 points, including the Cavs' last 25 and 29 of their final 30, to carry Cleveland to a 109-107 win in double overtime.
To put that in perspective (as if it isn't already impressive enough on its own), LeBron was the only Cav to score for more than a quarter's worth of time at the end of the game—12:47, to be exact.
Can you imagine seeing one player do all of his team's scoring for an entire quarter? Better yet, can you imagine that player's team winning such a game? Against an opponent playing in its fifth straight conference finals, no less?
Then again, coming up with a player of LeBron's size, skill and athletic ability takes quite a bit of imagination in itself.
19. Reggie Miller Scores 8 Points in 8.9 Seconds
Aside from voluminous three-point shooting, nothing defined Reggie Miller's career quite like his tormenting of the New York Knicks.
Reggie's trolling of the Big Apple reached a fever pitch in Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Knicks appeared to have the result wrapped up, what with the Pacers needing to make up a six-point deficit in the final 18.7 seconds to win the game and all.
So, of course, Miller hit one three off an inbounds pass to cut the Knicks' lead in half. Then he stole the ball from New York, stepped behind the three-point line and buried another to pull the Pacers even.
After a pair of missed free throws by John Starks, Miller grabbed the rebound from a 10-foot clanker by Patrick Ewing and drew a foul, much to the dismay of the crowd at Madison Square Garden. Reggie stepped to the line and knocked down both shots, but not before taunting all those in attendance.
Miller finished with 31 points, and Indy went on to win the series in seven games.
18. Bum Ankle Can't Keep Zeke from Torching the Lakers
Ironically enough, nearly two decades prior to LeBron's recently mentioned explosion, the Detroit Pistons had employed the player who'd set the standard for single-quarter playoff scoring. Isiah Thomas established a new NBA Finals record when he poured in 25 points in the third quarter of Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.
To be sure, it'd be easy to demerit Zeke's accomplishment—which came as part of a 43-point, eight-assist evening—on account of his Pistons losing both the game and the series.
But those faults can be just as easily filled in by the fact that Thomas exploded in the third while limping around on an ankle he'd sprained mere moments earlier.
17. Dr. J's Baseline Scoop Against the Lakers
In terms of pure iconography, Julius Erving's baseline scoop against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980 NBA Finals still stands as one of a handful of the most recognizable moments in league history.
Dr. J had long been known for his thunderous dunks and breathtaking athleticism, and yet it was a layup—albeit a supremely awe-inspiring one—that would emerge as the defining image of his high-flying, Hall of Fame career.
Yeah, it's all well and good that the Doctor's drive contributed to the Philadelphia 76ers' 105-102 win in a critical Game 4, though the Sixers went on to lose the series in six.
But, really, when Magic Johnson says it's the greatest move he's ever seen in a game, there's got to be something to it.
16. "The Move"
Dr. J's aerial acrobatics in 1980 may well have inspired a similar move made by Michael Jordan against the Los Angeles Lakers more than a decade later.
In Jordan's case, the layup came after he'd switched the ball from his right hand to his left in midair and as part of a run that saw His Airness connect on 13 consecutive field-goal attempts. That run from MJ blew Game 2 wide open, from which point the Chicago Bulls won four straight games to secure the first of their six championships during the decade.
15. Ralph Sampson Shocks Lakers, Sends Houston Rockets to 1986 Finals
No single shot ever did quite as much to dampen the hopes of the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans as did Ralph Sampson's touch attempt in 1986.
With the score tied at 112 and one second left on the clock in Game 5 of the 1986 Western Conference finals, Sampson caught an inbounds pass from Houston Rockets teammate Rodney McCray, made a quick turn and tossed the ball blindly toward the basket, whereupon it bounced and rattled around before dropping through for the winning two.
The result ended the Lakers' four-year streak of NBA Finals trips and appeared to be the beginning of a Rockets dynasty with Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon in the middle.
Until it all fell apart after Houston lost to the Boston Celtics in the 1986 Finals.
14. Elgin Baylor Blasts C's for 61 Points and 22 Rebounds at Boston Garden
The 1962 NBA Finals would've been a sight to behold on a modern, high-definition broadcast, due in large part to the aerial artistry of Elgin Baylor.
The 6'5" wing, who revolutionized the game with his strength and athleticism on the perimeter, achieved the peak of his powers in Game 5 of that series. He ripped through the Boston Celtics for 61 points (a single-game Finals record that still stands more than 50 years later) and 22 rebounds to propel the Lakers to a 126-121 win.
Not a bad way to make your mark, especially in your first-ever NBA Finals appearance.
13. Bill Russell Secures 1962 Finals with 30 Points and 40 Rebounds in Game 7
Unfortunately for Elgin Baylor, his efforts eventually went for naught, as the Boston Celtics sneaked past the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games in 1962. That last game will always be remembered for Frank Selvy's missed shot that would've won the title for L.A. in regulation, as well as for Bob Cousy dribbling out the clock in overtime.
But none of that would've been possible for the C's without the shoulders of Bill Russell on which to stand. Russell finished that evening with 30 points and an eye-popping 40 rebounds—all of which the C's needed to outlast the Lakers on the way to a 110-107 win.
And to think, Boston still had four more titles in a row (and six overall) left to win before Russell called it quits.
12. Bob Pettit Piles Up NBA-Record 50 Points to Clinch Title for Hawks
Bill Russell may well have started his monumental career with 10 straight championships if not for the pesky play of Bob Pettit.
Pettit's St. Louis Hawks met Russell's Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals four times within a five-year span, emerging victorious just once. That one run to the title, though, was plenty epic for all involved, including Pettit.
The 6'9" Hall of Famer tied the existing NBA record with 50 points during the Hawks' 110-109 win over the Celtics in Game 6 of the 1958 Finals. That performance saw Pettit score 31 points in the first half, with the other 19 coming amidst his team's last 21 in the fourth quarter.
More importantly, Pettit's points proved crucial in closing out the C's for St. Louis' first and only NBA championship. The Hawks would become the last non-Bostonian squad to win the title until 1967, when Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia 76ers came out on top.
11. Russell's Celtics Stun Lakers to Cap Last Championship Chase
The Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics are often thought of as some sort of unstoppable force that ruled the NBA with an iron fist from the mid-1950s through the 1960s. In reality, though, the C's overcame myriad obstacles, often as the underdog, to capture 11 titles in 13 seasons the way they did.
Never was that more true than during Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals. The Los Angeles Lakers—with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain at the forefront—were heavily favored coming into and throughout the series, though the aging C's managed to push them to a seventh game anyway.
Prior to the game, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke hung balloons in the rafters at the Forum in preparation for his club's potential victory. Russell famously found out about this and used it to fuel what turned out to be his last game in the NBA.
Russell only registered six points on the evening. But John Havlicek came through with 26 of his own, and Don Nelson hit a shot at the end that hit off the back of the iron, bounced up and dropped through the net to seal the deal for the C's.
And keep those pesky celebratory balloons strung up in L.A.
10. King James Joins Basketball Royalty with Game 6 Explosion vs. Celtics
Even though LeBron James wasn't officially crowned an NBA champion until after his Miami Heat vanquished the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 Finals, he arrived at the coronation well before that.
Namely, after demolishing the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. The Heat were down 3-2 in the series at the time, facing all manner of upheaval if the ball didn't bounce in their favor at the TD Garden in Boston.
LeBron did everything in his power to make sure it did. The three-time MVP scored 45 points (on 19-of-26 shooting), grabbed 15 rebounds and dropped five dimes in 45 minutes during an epic, coming-of-age performance against the C's, who'd had his number (and been deep inside his head) since his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
James' effort, which included lockdown defense on long-time nemesis Paul Pierce (nine points on 4-of-18 shooting), propelled the Heat to a 98-79 win and shifted momentum in Miami's favor heading into an all-important Game 7.
Which the Heat dominated at home, 101-88.
9. Michael Jordan Drops 63 on Celtics
And yet, as great as LeBron James' outburst was, it still pales in comparison to Michael Jordan's 63-point virtuoso against the Boston Celtics in 1986.
Even though LeBron's contributed to a victory for his team, while Jordan's didn't. Even though James went on to win the title afterward, while MJ would have to wait another five years before hoisting a Larry O'Brien Trophy of his own.
Because this was the first truly seismic NBA moment in the career of the greatest basketball player who's yet walked the Earth. Remember, Jordan had spent most of the 1985-86 season sidelined by a broken foot and had been encouraged by the Bulls to sit out its entirety as a precautionary measure.
But rather than play it safe, Jordan, in his second year as a pro, worked his way back, played the final 15 games of the regular season and led the Bulls back into the playoffs. Chicago's stint lasted only three games, as the Bulls were summarily swept by the eventual-champion Celtics, but Jordan made sure that his team's short stay would be a memorable one nonetheless.
So, naturally, MJ dropped a playoff-record 63 points...on a Celtics squad that's arguably the greatest ever assembled...after spending four-and-a-half months on the shelf!
Realistically, though, all you need to do to understand how great Jordan was in that game is read what Larry Bird, then at the apex of his basketball powers, had to say afterward (via NBA.com):
I didn't think anyone was capable of doing what Michael has done to us. He is the most exciting, awesome player in the game today. I think it's just God disguised as Michael Jordan.
That's right: Jordan was so good in that game that the man described by some as the "Basketball Jesus" could only liken him to a deity.
8. Magic Channels the Captain with Baby Sky Hook in Boston
It was only a matter of time before Magic Johnson debuted a "Sky Hook" of his own. He'd been a teammate of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's, practiced with and against the Captain and even filled in for him at center in a title-clinching game (more on that later).
Really, then, Magic's "Junior, Junior Sky Hook" against the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals wasn't so much a surprise as it was yet another brilliant stroke of Johnson's basketball genius.
Or shouldn't have been a surprise, anyway, though apparently Larry Bird never got that memo.
All the better that the shot proved to be a game-winner at the Boston Garden that gave the Lakers a 3-1 series edge over their bitter rivals. Magic's hook also served as the perfect cap to an L.A. run that whittled away at Boston's 16-point halftime lead on the way to a 107-106 victory for the Purple and Gold.
7. The Greatest Game Ever Played...
If you were a novice of NBA history (which, at this point, you clearly aren't) and I told you that the Boston Celtics were involved in arguably the greatest game of basketball ever played, you'd probably believe me without thinking twice. After all, the C's have a record 17 championships in their trophy case and have employed all manner of great players over the last 60 years or so.
But—in the spirit of Morpheus—what if I told you that said game featured neither Bill Russell nor Larry Bird, and that the opposing team wasn't the tradition-steeped Los Angeles Lakers, but rather the upstart Phoenix Suns?
Seems ludicrous, until you consider that the contest in question (Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals) went to triple overtime, making it the longest Finals game ever.
Throw in Paul Silas' nonexistent timeout that went ignored by the referees in the first overtime, fans storming the floor after John Havlicek's shot and Gar Heard subsequently sinking an equalizer at the buzzer in the second overtime and Glenn McDonald coming alive in the third, and you've got what may well have been the craziest pro game ever staged.
Oh, and the Celtics won, 128-126, so there's that.
6. "THERE'S A STEAL BY BIRD!"
Larry Bird's famous steal at the end of Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals was a theft in more ways than just the obvious one.
Sure, Bird literally stole the ball on an inbounds pass from Isiah Thomas to Bill Laimbeer. Just before Thomas released the ball, Bird noticed Zeke looking toward Laimbeer and smartly darted into the path of the pass. That Larry Legend was able to keep the ball from skipping out was remarkable enough.
But then, Larry being Larry, he used the takeaway to help the C's steal the game from the Detroit Pistons. He caught Celtics teammate Dennis Johnson up the floor with a crisp pass, which DJ laid into the hoop with one second left on the clock.
Furthermore, that win (108-107) gave the aging Celtics a 3-2 edge in the series and allowed them to steal another year as Eastern Conference champions (their fourth straight) out from under the discerning nose of Father Time by way of another Game 7 win.
Albeit before being bounced by the Los Angeles Lakers in six in the following Finals.
5. Mr. Clutch Sends Lakers and Knicks to OT with 60-Foot Shot in 1970 Finals
If the NBA had instituted the three-point shot 10 years earlier, the Los Angeles Lakers may well have another title about which to boast and Jerry West might have more than one on his resume as a player.
With time running out on Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals against the New York Knicks, West launched a 60-foot shot from beyond half court that found its way into the opposing hoop at the buzzer. That sent the game into overtime, from which the Knicks emerged with a 111-108 win.
But if the three-point arc had been around back then, West's Hail Mary make would've resulted in a Lakers win. And who knows? Maybe L.A. would've gone on to win the series before Willis Reed had a chance to rally his team's spirits on one leg (more on that later).
And, maybe, West's most memorable shot would've wound up higher on this list. Alas, R. Kelly, there is no turning back the hands of time.
4. "HAVLICEK STOLE THE BALL!"
The 1965 Eastern Division finals may well be the greatest series ever played in which the NBA title wasn't directly on the line. You had a meeting of historic rivals between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. You had two teams loaded with Hall of Famers on the fringes—Tommy Heinsohn, John Havlicek, Tom "Satch" Sanders, Sam Jones and KC Jones for the C's; Hal Greer and Chet Walker for the Sixers.
As it happens, though, the real star of the series turned out to be Boston broadcasting legend Johnny Most. It was Most whose raspy vocals lent life to one of the most iconic radio calls in sports—"HAVLICEK STOLE THE BALL!"
Of course, Most probably wouldn't have been quite as emphatic if Havlicek's theft of Hal Greer's pass hadn't sealed a Game 7 victory for the Celtics. In any case, Boston to win its seventh of eight straight titles by way of a five-game series victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1965 NBA Finals.
3. Willis Reed Rallies Knicks to First NBA Title
In purely statistical terms, Willis Reed didn't do much during Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. He scored just four points on two shots in the New York Knicks' 113-99 victory.
Which, compared to Walt Frazier's 36 points and 19 assists, seemed forgettable at best.
Except nobody expected Reed to even step on to the court that night. He'd missed Game 6 of that series against the Los Angeles Lakers after tearing a muscle in his right thigh during Game 5. The guy could barely walk, much less play a game of professional basketball.
And yet, there he was, limping out onto the floor at Madison Square Garden, jumping center against Wilt for the opening tip—the pain in Reed's leg dulled by a pregame injection, the adrenaline in his body and the roar of a raucous crowd of New Yorkers.
Those two baskets of Willis' may seem inconsequential in relation to the final score, but they were the first two of the game for New York and served to rally the rest of the Knicks to the franchise's first NBA championship.
2. Magic Does It All to Lift Lakers to 1980 Title
There's nothing about Magic Johnson's performance in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals that isn't still remarkable to this day.
Now, scoring 45 points, ripping down 15 rebounds and dishing seven assists would've been enough to land Magic in the pantheon of great performances. Since 1986, only one player (Charles Barkley) has matched or exceeded that output, and that came in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.
Not a clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals, as was the case with Johnson's virtuoso performance, which gave the Lakers the first of their five titles captured during the 1980s. Not in place of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who didn't even board the pregame flight to Philadelphia on account of a sprained ankle. Not while switching between all five positions throughout the game, as Magic did.
And not as a 20-year-old rookie, which Magic was at the time he stepped into the shoes of a player who'd already established himself as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.
1. Michael Jordan's Final Shot with the Bulls
So how is it that Magic Johnson's best playoff game doesn't register as the No. 1 moment in NBA postseason history?
Because Michael Jordan's deciding shot over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz may well be the most perfect moment in the decorated career of the greatest basketball player who's yet set foot in the Association.
But it wasn't just the shot itself that made this moment special. It was the way a 35-year-old Jordan crossed up a younger Russell, had him stumbling over his own feet, to create the open look. It was Michael's theft on Karl Malone that put the ball in his hands in the first place, with the Chicago Bulls down by one and less than 20 seconds left on the clock. It was MJ's driving layup before that, which accounted for just two of the Bulls' final eight points, all from Michael's hand.
And it was the 45 points on the evening, in Jordan's last dance as a resident of the Windy City.
With that shot, that performance, Jordan collected his sixth championship and sixth NBA Finals before riding off into the sunset.
Which, apparently, proved a dead end when, less than four years later, he resurfaced in a Washington Wizards uniform for an ill-fated second "unretirement." But not even that bit of basketball sacrilege could sully Michael Jordan's perfect moment.