The greatest playoff game-winners
Michael Jordan owns two of the three greatest playoff game-winning shots
Magic Johnson's "junior, junior sky hook" provided a classic Lakers-Celtics finish
Robert Horry made his name with memorable clutch shots in the postseason
Every graduating class brims with hopes and dreams, as full of promise as so many of its members are full of themselves. In the NBA, in terms of thrilling, game-deciding big shots, the Class of 2009 has to rank among the best.
"Big Baby" over Orlando in Game 4 ... Carmelo on the no-call against Dallas ... Paul and Ray in separate hero moments in the Chicago series ... Deron Williams to save face for Utah against the Lakers ... Andre Iguodala's jumper, Thaddeus Young's layup and Hedo Turkoglu's three-pointer highlighting the 76ers-Magic series. Really exciting stuff. Amazing even.
The question now is, Will they last? Will they travel that distance from short-term to long-term memory, transferring from last night's highlights into honest-to-goodness lore? Will we, in other words, still love them tomorrow, in ways we clearly have forgotten to love The Shirelles?
Hard to say. The competition, after all, is stiff. And we're only halfway done, in terms of rounds, with the potential for something truly searing in the next month. We're all still waiting for the ultimate, the walk-off equivalent of Bill Mazeroski's famous Game 7 home run to swing the 1960 World Series from the Yankees to the Pirates. That's kind of surprising, actually, that of all the NBA's great game-winning shots, none meets all of the criteria that we'd like to see: the Finals, Game 7, last five seconds ticking away, the team with the ball about to lose -- until somebody's ice-in-the-veins shot changes everything.
So there's room for historic (hint, hint, LeBron). In the meantime, these top 10 game-winners will have to do:
10. John Stockton, Jazz, Game 6 of 1997 Western Conference finals
Thirteen consecutive postseasons, 13 consecutive exits without a trip to the Finals. That's the streak of frustration that Stockton ended for Utah when his three-pointer near the top of the key dropped through as time expired. The 103-100 victory at Houston, with Stockton scoring 15 points in the final quarter, earned Utah its first of two Finals meetings with Chicago. It also put Houston fans through an emotional wringer, coming four days, on the same floor, after Eddie Johnson's buzzer-beater to win Game 4.
9. John Paxson, Bulls, Game 6 of 1993 NBA Finals/Steve Kerr, Bulls, Game 6 of 1997 NBA Finals
OK, so we're going with a dual entry here, the first of two on this list, because in both cases, it is almost impossible to think of one without thinking of the other. Paxson's three-pointer was more clutch because Chicago's situation was more precarious; it trailed 98-96 in the closing seconds and would have faced Game 7 on the Suns' court. Kerr's came from inside the arc and with the score tied at 86-86, with a Bulls loss bringing them and the Jazz back to Chicago for a series finale. Which raises another question: Would Michael Jordan have entrusted those sharpshooting teammates with the last shots if they had come at the end of Game 7s?
8. Ralph Sampson, Rockets, Game 5 of 1986 West finals
Good thing for Houston it was the 7-foot-4 Sampson squeezing off this Hail Mary shot with one second left for an inbounds play, because the Lakers had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at full length defending it. Sampson caught Rodney McCray's pass with his back to the basket, turned in mid-air and flicked his shot at the rim, which rattled around and in to win 114-112. It was Houston's fourth straight victory after dropping the opener, and it left an indelible image of Michael Cooper lying on the Forum floor, not unlike Dikembe Mutombo at the end of the 1994 Denver-Seattle first-round upset. Except shattered, in Cooper's case, vs. Mutombo's ecstatic. The downside: It cheated us out of another Lakers-Celtics, Magic-Larry Finals.
7. Sam Jones, Celtics, Game 4 of 1969 NBA Finals
Who says Hoosiers was only a movie? The Celtics, down 88-87 with seven seconds left, ran a "picket fence'' play for Jones, getting him free off screens to hoist his shot. He launched it off the wrong foot and it went rim-backboard-in to pull Boston even at 2-2 in the series. Six days later, Don Nelson's jumper from the foul line took a crazier path, caroming straight up off the back rim, then dropping through the net for an equally memorable shot. But Nellie's came with just over a minute left in what became a 108-106 Game 7 clincher in L.A., sealing Bill Russell's final NBA title and keeping a net full of Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke's balloons aloft and unused at the Fabulous Forum.
6. Robert Horry, Spurs, Game 5 of 2005 NBA Finals/Horry, Lakers, Game 4 of 2002 West finals
Dual entry No. 2. We like them in this order because the earlier one gave the later one so much more flavor. If Horry hadn't earned his reputation as Big Shot Rob in part with his look-what-I've-found three-pointer to beat Sacramento and avoid a 3-1 Lakers deficit in 2002, the Pistons' gaffe in leaving him unattended near the end of overtime might not have been as glaring. But when Rasheed Wallace strayed down to the left corner to help double on Manu Ginobili and Ginobili shuttled the ball to Horry on the wing, you absolutely knew what was about to happen.
5. Jerry West, Lakers, Game 3 of 1962 NBA Finals
The only reason the Celtics' game-winner over Detroit in Game 5 of the 1987 East finals isn't on this list is because it really involved three separate plays: Larry Bird's steal of Isiah Thomas' inbounds pass, Bird's almost-over-the-baseline pass to a streaking Dennis Johnson and Johnson's clutch layup to beat the clock and the Pistons 108-107. A great, great moment, but more sequence than shot. At least this one was one man's doing. West stuck a hand in front of Sam Jones' inbounds pass for Bob Cousy, tipped the ball and raced downcourt for a layup, all before the last four seconds elapsed. It boosted the Lakers to a 117-115 victory and 2-1 series lead, though Boston would win the championship in a Game 7 overtime.
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