Ranking the Top 10 Buzzer-Beaters in NBA Playoff History

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistApril 18, 2018

Ranking the Top 10 Buzzer-Beaters in NBA Playoff History

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Champions are remembered forever, but game-winning shots aren't soon forgotten, either. That's why some of the most memorable moments in NBA postseason history are buzzer-beaters. 

    In some cases, it was a series-clinching shot, while others sparked a turnaround for a player's team during the postseason. NBA fans continue to relive certain winning buckets regardless of the series result, too.

    Based on difficulty, circumstance and series impact, let's walk through the best buzzer-beaters in NBA playoff history.

    One important note: Each of these shots occurred with the buzzer sounding. So, any game-winning basket (a la Vinnie Johnson in 1990, Michael Jordan in 1998 or Kyrie Irving in 2016) with time remaining on the clock was not eligible to be featured here. Additionally, while the shots could force overtime, every basket happened in the fourth quarter or later.

10. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2009

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    During the 2008-09 season, LeBron James won the first of his four MVP awards. It's only fitting that a buzzer-beater in the playoffs punctuated his stellar campaign.

    Trailing the Orlando Magic 95-93and 1-0 in the Eastern Conference FinalsLeBron caught an inbounds pass with exactly one second remaining. He then drilled a fadeaway three to stun the Magic and even the series at one game apiece.

    "I'm shocked anybody would make that shot," Magic center Dwight Howard said after the game. "Everybody is watching. I know I won't be able to sleep and the rest of my teammates won't be able to sleep. We've got to get over it."

    The Magic would recover and win the series, but the buzzer-beater helped LeBron further his growing legend.

9. Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers, 1970

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    Imagine making a 60-footer that only counts for two points.

    If your name is Jerry West, you already know the feeling.

    In Game 3 of the 1970 NBA Finals, New York Knicks forward Dave DeBusschere buried a go-ahead jumper in the closing seconds, but "The Logo" heaved a 60-foot two-pointer to force overtime.

    New York ended up winning the game and ultimately the series, so Los Angeles Lakers fans can only wonder whether another banner would be hanging in Staples Center had the three-point line existed in 1970.

8. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers, 2014

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    Only 0.9 seconds stood between the Houston Rockets and a Game 7 in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.

    Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard had a different plan.

    Down two, Lillard sprinted around a double screen, clapped twice for the ball and tossed a leaning fadeaway over Chandler Parsons from about 27 feet.

    The buzzer sounded; the arena went still; splash.

    Thanks to Lillard's triple, Portland advanced to the second round of the postseason for the first time in 14 years.

7. Ralph Sampson, Houston Rockets, 1986

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    How did Ralph Sampson possibly make this shot?

    On first glance, it may appear as though he miraculously tipped the ball over his head, past Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But the Houston Rockets standout contorted his body to make a twisted, half-turned, awkward-looking jumper for a 114-112 win.

    "We had every possible shot covered," Lakers forward and future Hall of Famer James Worthy told reporters at the time. "That was the last shot I expected."

    Thanks to that winning shot, Sampson and the Rockets finished off the Lakers, 4-1, in the 1986 Western Conference Finals. Houston later fell to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals.

6. Robert Horry, Los Angeles Lakers, 2002

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    The Lakers needed two points. Kobe Bryant had a chance; he missed. Shaquille O'Neal had a second chance; he missed.

    After the misfires, Sacramento Kings center Vlade Divac swatted the ball away from the congested paint area. Unfortunately for him, it bounced right to an uncovered Robert Horry.

    Seeing as Horry is now remembered as "Big Shot Bob," you know what happened next.

    Horry fired a three-pointer over the outstretched arms of Kings star Chris Webber, who could only watch as the ball scorched the net for a 100-99 Lakers win.

    Instead of entering Game 5 facing a 3-1 series deficit, Los Angeles pulled even at two victories apiece. The Lakers would later go on to win the Western Conference Finals in seven games, and they eventually secured their third straight NBA title.

5. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers, 2006

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    How can Kobe not make an appearance, right?

    With 6.1 seconds left in overtime during Game 4 of a 2006 first-round series, the Lakers trailed the Phoenix Suns, 98-97. Luke Walton swatted a jump ball toward Bryant, who methodically took five dribbles and pulled up at the right elbow.

    Neither Raja Bell nor Boris Diaw managed to disrupt the shot, and Kobe handed the Lakers a 99-98 victory.

    Although the higher-seeded Suns would rattle off three consecutive wins to steal the series, this was one of Kobe's most memorable shots.

4. John Stockton, Utah Jazz, 1997

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    Eleven years after Sampson's shot clinched Houston's place in the NBA Finals, John Stockton stunned the Rockets at the buzzer.

    The Utah Jazz had 2.8 seconds to break a 100-100 tie in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, and the legendary passer made a legendary shot.

    Rockets forward Charles Barkley scrambled to contest the three-pointer, but Stockton stepped into a clean look after receiving the inbounds pass and taking one dribble.

    The buzzer-beater handed his team a 4-2 series victory and sent the Jazz to their first-ever NBA Finals.

3. Derek Fisher, Los Angeles Lakers, 2004

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    As if Tim Duncan's tossing up a go-ahead 22-foot fadeaway prayer over Shaquille O'Neal wasn't jaw-dropping enough, Derek Fisher provided even more theatrics during Game 5 of this 2004 second-round clash between the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs.

    The Spurs took a 73-72 lead on Duncan's miraculous jumper, but Fisher somehow managed to nail a game-winner despite having only 0.4 seconds to get a shot off.

    Given that minuscule window of time, the Lakers guard thought it best to immediately sprint off the court.

    "I just wanted to get out of there and not give them an opportunity to think that we didn't believe it went in," Fisher said.

2. Gar Heard, Phoenix Suns, 1976

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    Considered one of the greatest NBA games ever played, Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals between the Suns and Celtics packed enormous drama into a three-overtime classic.

    In the waning moments of the second extra frame, John Havlicek tossed in a leaning 15-footer that pushed the Celtics in front 111-110 and set off a court-storming at the Boston Garden. However, one second remained on the clock.

    Because of since-changed NBA rules, the Suns called a timeout to advance the ball to half court, even though it meant they ceded a technical free throw. After clearing fans from the court, Phoenix had one shot.

    Gar Heard didn't waste it. His turnaround 20-foot jumper hit nothing but nylon, forcing a third overtime

    The Suns went on to lose the wild contest in triple overtime, and Boston won the Finals one game later.

1. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1989

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    Michael Jordan eliminated the Cleveland Cavaliers from the 1989 postseason in truly devastating fashion.

    Shortly after Jordan gave the Chicago Bulls a 99-98 lead, a layup by Craig Ehlo put the Cavaliers back in front with only three ticks remaining on the clock.

    That's when MJ provided one of the most iconic moments in NBA history.

    Jordan escaped Larry Nance, double-clutched to let Ehlo fly past him and rattled home the decisive shot for a 101-100 victory. As the Bulls legend unleashed a jumping fist-pump, Ehlo collapsed to the floor in disappointment.

    Chicago had upset the third-seeded Cavaliers, and Jordan moved one step closer to becoming the greatest player in league history.

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