Ranking the Greatest Clutch Shots in Modern NBA Playoff History
NBA legends are made during the postseason, and nothing elevates a player to legendary status faster than connecting on a clutch bucket.
That's why even casual fans know the names Robert Horry and John Paxson, otherwise anonymous role players who just happened to connect on some of the biggest baskets in league history.
Propelled by Luka Doncic's latest crunch-time dagger, we're digging through the recent archives—going back to the 2010 playoffs—to identify and rank the best clutch shots. These buzzer-beaters and series-clinchers have been evaluated on everything from the difficulty of the shot to the stakes and significance attached to them.
Vince Carter: 2014 First Round, Game 3
Carter clearly doesn't age on the same curve as the rest of us, and this miracle make as a 37-year-old reserve was one of a million pieces of evidence.
In just 1.7 seconds, Carter wrestled away from Manu Ginobili, pump-faked to buy a sliver of breathing room and launched a corner three while nearly bouncing into the stands. The shot found nothing but net, turning the Dallas Mavericks' two-point deficit into a one-point win. But the eighth-seeded Mavs would eventually fall to the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in seven games.
Derrick Rose and LeBron James: 2015 Conference Semifinals, Games 3 and 4
When a pair of MVPs lock horns in a playoff series, this is exactly what hoop heads want to see.
Rose helped the third-seeded Chicago Bulls snag a 2-1 lead on a buzzer-beating bank shot over the outstretched arms of 6'9" Tristan Thompson. The very next game, James returned the favor by drilling a corner triple over Jimmy Butler as the final horn sounded to knot the series back up at two wins apiece.
"I was supposed to take the ball out, and I told [then-Cavaliers coach David Blatt] there's no way I'm taking the ball out unless I can shoot it over the backboard and it goes in," James said, per Andrew Keh of the New York Times. "I told him, Have somebody take the ball out, give me the ball and everybody get out of the way."
The Cavs would go on to win this series in six games and then advance to the NBA Finals in James' first season back in Ohio.
LeBron James: 2018 First Round, Game 5
James' last stand in Cleveland nearly went awry in the opening round. He was almost a one-man army by this point, and he had trouble separating from the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the opening round. Indiana won Games 1 and 3, meaning Cleveland hadn't held a series lead entering a critical Game 5.
The Cavs held a six-point lead with 4:38 remaining and immediately went ice-cold, allowing Domantas Sabonis' jumper to tie the score with 33 seconds left. James turned the ball over but blocked Victor Oladipo on Indiana's possession, giving Cleveland the ball in a tie game with three seconds remaining.
The Cavs inbounded to James, who dribbled twice to his left, planted and fired from the top of the key over 6'8" Thaddeus Young. James hit nothing but net, giving Cleveland the win and control of the series, which it won in seven games. The Cavs would make their fourth Finals appearance in four seasons since James' return, and he exited for the Los Angeles Lakers shortly thereafter.
Damian Lillard: 2014 First Round, Game 6
This was the moment the entire populace of the Pacific Northwest set their watches to Lillard Time. It was only his second season in the Association, and he hadn't even claimed control of the Blazers offense yet as it still ran through LaMarcus Aldridge.
But with Portland trailing by two points and less than a second remaining in Game 6, the Blazers called upon their sophomore star and tasked him with launching them past the Houston Rockets and into the second round. Lillard wasn't fazed by the moment or the outstretched arms of 6'9" Chandler Parsons and coolly swished a series-clinching 25-footer.
5. Luka Doncic: 2020 First Round, Game 4
Maybe I'm overindulging in recency bias here since it's impossible to know the full stakes of Luka Doncic's dagger without knowing how this series plays out.
Saying that, sheesh. Everything about the sequence is filthy, and most of it shouldn't be possible.
He wasn't even guaranteed to see the floor as a sprained ankle in Game 3 left him as a game-time decision. He went into this contest without his 7'3" co-star, Kristaps Porzingis, who sat with knee soreness. Doncic's seventh-seeded Mavericks trailed by as many as 21 points to the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, who might be the most popular championship pick and employ two of the game's stingiest stoppers in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Oh, yeah: Doncic is 21 years old. This was his fourth career playoff game.
This shouldn't make sense.
And yet, the sophomore star dazzled throughout his historic performance, capping a 43-point, 17-rebound, 13-assist with this step-back, walk-off bomb. He created his own air space with a pair of crossovers followed by a step-back, then he rose and splashed the second-longest game-winning buzzer-beater in playoff history (28 feet).
"I can't explain the emotions I had," Doncic said, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon. "Not only when the ball goes in but when I see the whole team running toward me. That was something special, one of the best feelings I ever had as a player. Just something special."
4. Damian Lillard: 2019 First Round, Game 5
Before getting to the ability required to make this shot, let's start with the audacity of even attempting it.
While Portland was the higher seed (third), the sixth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder were favored by almost everyone. OKC's stars, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, enjoyed greater spotlight shares than Lillard, who was starting to be forgotten as the Blazers were swept out of the first round both of the previous two seasons.
Lillard needed this win to claim his place among the elite, and the Blazers, holding a 3-1 lead, needed to seal the deal without giving a talented-but-flawed Thunder team a second chance at life. So, when he brought the ball across half court with more than 10 seconds remaining in a tied game, everyone watched and waited for his attack move.
But he just pounded the seconds away, methodically dribbling back and forth and lulling everyone to sleep. Then it happened. While nearly straddling the center logo, he side-stepped to his right and fired—from 37 feet! The Blazers only needed a point, but Lillard, who's so cool he'll dance in the fourth quarter of a playoff game if you play the right track, took the dramatic route to eliminate the Thunder and wave them off the floor.
"I was standing there looking at the rim and I was like this is a comfortable range," Lillard said, per ESPN's Royce Young. "... When I was standing there I was like, 'I'm gonna shoot it.' [George] was a little bit off of me and I was [thinking] this was enough space for me just to raise up and shoot it for game."
3. Kyrie Irving: 2016 NBA Finals, Game 7
Statistically speaking, this might be the biggest shot in NBA history.
Kyrie Irving was just 24 years old at the time and playing in his second postseason. His opponent was a Golden State Warriors team that had just raised the all-time bar with a record 73 wins. The setting was Oakland's Oracle Arena, a building in which the Dubs went 39-2 during the campaign. His defender was Stephen Curry, the best shooter to ever play and perhaps basketball's biggest star at the time.
There was less than a minute left in a winner-take-all Game 7 clash for the championship. The stage doesn't get bigger. The spotlight doesn't shine brighter.
But Irving wasn't rushed. If anything, he seemed relaxed. The man with a million dribble moves opted for a vicious inside-out escape dribble to open his shooting window. He elevated, released, splashed—and made history.
One defensive stop, one LeBron James free throw and a few Warriors misses later, the Cavaliers had snapped their city's 52-year championship drought while becoming the first team ever to wiggle out of a 3-1 hole in the Finals. Irving's dagger also meant the Dubs wouldn't punctuate their otherwise historic season with a championship ending.
"It was calm," Irving later said of his mindset on The Bill Simmons Podcast (h/t NBC Sports' Drew Shiller). "Either way—make or miss—I was gonna be cool with the result. ... It's a little fade to the right. But my angle to the rim was just perfect. Just knock it in."
2. Kawhi Leonard: 2019 Conference Semifinals, Game 7
A trip to the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals was on the line when Kawhi Leonard's Toronto Raptors squared off with the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round. A back-and-forth affair had just been knotted up again (for the seventh and final time) on Jimmy Butler's layup with 4.2 seconds left, leaving the Raptors with just enough time to go for the jugular.
Leonard took the inbound pass near the top of the key and immediately headed right. The first player in his path was 6'10" Ben Simmons, who has a legitimate argument as the most versatile defender in basketball. Leonard kept probing to the right and next encountered Joel Embiid, a 7'0" two-time All-Defensive selection.
It was basketball's equivalent to changing lanes in rush hour and encountering gridlock in every one.
At least, it should have been that had Leonard not engineered the most important shot in Toronto's franchise history. He raced all the way to the right corner and fired over Embiid. The high-arching heave bounced first on the front of the rim and shot straight up. A second bounce sent the ball across to the back iron, where it bounced again and hit the rim a fourth time before finally falling through.
"It looked short," then-Sixers shooting guard JJ Redick said, per ESPN. "It looked short. And there's a lot of emotion that happens as the ball starts rolling around the rim."
You can watch this shot a hundred times and still find yourself doubting those bounces will end in anything other than a miss.
The trapped-in-time drama of the shot might be its biggest selling point. But considering the difficulty of launching on the move over a 7-footer and the far-reaching significance of this make (Toronto winning its first title and Philly perhaps spoiling its best championship chance of the post-Process), it's no minor miracle this doesn't rank No. 1.
1. Ray Allen: 2013 NBA Finals, Game 6
This shot didn't technically win a series—it didn't even win a game—so if you want to gripe with this ranking, there's your argument. But between the technical expertise to pull this off, the championship stage, the star power in this series and the maniacal training regimen that helped make it happen, there's just too much happening here to put anything else at the top.
The sequence still scripts dreams in South Beach and drives nightmares in the Alamo City. The Spurs were up three and only one defensive stop shy of securing the title. Security personnel had the yellow ropes out, and the championship trophy was brought courtside in anticipation of the Silver and Black's coronation.
James misfired on a three with 10 seconds left. Chris Bosh snared the offensive rebound in traffic and found a backpedaling Ray Allen racing to the corner. Bosh hit Allen in stride, and the sharpshooter caught the ball and fired without ever checking his position on the court. Turns out, the legendarily hard worker had somehow drilled himself for this exact scenario.
Allen nestled in between the three-point arc and the out-of-bounds line, launched without hesitation and, in the words of Mike Breen, "BANG!" The Heat had tied the score, saved their season and, after taking the overtime period and winning Game 7, built their bridge to a second championship in as many seasons.
"Once the ball came off the rim, I just knew to get to the three-point line," Allen told SB Nation's Paul Flannery in 2013. "We needed a three. Two points isn't going to cut it. So my mental checklist is really to have my legs ready and underneath me so when the ball comes, if it comes, I was ready to go in the air."
The 2013 Finals had so many compelling elements. LeBron James triple-doubled twice. Tim Duncan had a 30-point, 17-rebound effort as a 37-year-old. Dwyane Wade had 32 points and six steals in one game and then 25 points and 10 assists in the next. Kawhi Leonard laid the groundwork for his All-Star ascension. Erik Spoelstra and Gregg Popovich did masterful work from the sidelines.
But when anyone remembers this series, their first thought is Allen from the corner. That's a testament to an all-time make and the best clutch shot in recent playoff history.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.