In 2015, NBA records fell, a major retirement was announced, a beloved coach was remembered, and the Warriors were crowned. All-Star Weekend produced one of the best dunking showcases ever, the playoffs were loaded with memorable game-winners from the game’s biggest stars, and one respected veteran scored a major off-court legal victory.
To recap the past year, Sports Illustrated unveils its 10 favorite NBA moments of 2015, as compiled by Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney.
1. Klay Thompson sets NBA record with 37-point quarter (Jan. 23)
A historic run began with an innocuous short-range jumper—the kind that happens in most every NBA game when a defense isn’t quite set as it should be. That shot gave Thompson what were the his 14th and 15th points of the night, in the process tying a game against the Kings at 58-all. By the time Thompson’s salvo had run its course, Thompson sat on 50 points for the night and his Warriors boasted a 97-73 lead. An unbelievable performance had made Thompson the author of a one-man blowout.
Part of the fun in reliving Thompson’s record-setting quarter is charting his progression from taking open shots in transition and within the offense to firing up threes the moment the opportunity presents itself. Thompson ended his quarter in perfection: 13-of-13 from the field, 9-of-9 from the three-point line, and 2-of-2 on free throws for good measure. Most shocking of all, his 37-point “quarter” was really a 37-point torching in just under 10 minutes of action. Bananas. — RM
2. Zach LaVine dominates Slam Dunk Contest (Feb. 14)
Hyped YouTube sensations don’t always translate well to the Slam Dunk Contest (remember James White?). After years of assembling a cult-like following by showing off on the summer circuit and at pro-am events, Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine delivered on the big stage at the Barclays Center. LaVine, a 19-year-old rookie at the time, mesmerized the audience with his forceful leaping ability and smooth mid-air ball-handling.
Through the legs while coasting underneath the hoop? No problem. Around the back while peering down into the basket? Light work. Left-handed through the legs? He’s got it. Off the side of the basket support, through the legs and then in? That’s a wrap. By the time LaVine was done, there was no doubt he had taken the contest in a rout. Only one question remained: Will he defend his title in Toronto? Please? — BG
3. Chris Paul hits series-winning runner to beat Spurs in Game 7 (May 2)
Let’s be honest: some moments endure longer than others. When Chris Paul drove past Danny Green and pulled up over Tim Duncan to kiss in a series-sealing last-second shot to eliminate the Spurs in Game 7, it seemed the Clippers finally had their Hollywood ending. Paul had been nursing a hamstring injury early in the game, facing doubts about his playoff chops for years and the Clippers were down 3–2 in the series against the defending champs. Duncan congratulated Paul in a nice show of sportsmanship between two former Demon Deacons before long-suffering fan Billy Crystal came over to embrace Paul in a hug that was years in the making.
One season after the Clippers had contemplated boycotting a game during the Donald Sterling saga, Paul’s shot marked a genuine, feel-good moment for a franchise in desperate need of them. Unfortunately, the magic proved temporary. Paul’s Clippers collapsed in the next round against the Rockets, short-circuiting the possibility of a highly-anticipated showdown with the Warriors and setting up what proved to be a dramatic, topsy-turvy off-season. Those ensuing events might take some of the shine off of Paul’s winner, but they don’t spoil it entirely. Regardless of what happened next, Paul’s shot stands as the high point of a truly remarkable career. — BG
4. Paul Pierce calls ‘Game’ after banking in winner vs. Hawks (May 9)
With a little help from the backboard, Pierce nailed an improbable, off-balance buzzer-beater over two defenders to give Washington a 2–1 lead over Atlanta in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was only in the interview that followed, however, that Pierce immortalized the moment with an all-time NBA quote. — RM
5. LeBron James beats Bulls at buzzer after overruling David Blatt (May 10)
LeBron James’s run through the 2015 playoffs was one for the ages. As his teammates went down with various injuries, James kept adding and adding to his individual burden, piling up enormous triple doubles as he carried the Cavaliers to the Finals. The quintessential sequence from this Herculean stretch came in Game 4 of a second-round series against Chicago, when James let the media know that he wasn’t just picking up the slack for his depleted cast. He was handling important coaching duties too.
Shortly after coach David Blatt attempted to call a timeout he didn’t have (and assistant Tyronn Lue saved him), James decided to overrule Blatt on the game’s final possession. Even though there were only 1.5 seconds left on the clock, Blatt wanted James to inbound the ball from the baseline. James nixed that idea and put the ball into his own hands, installing himself as the pass recipient rather than the passer. The rest is history, as he buried a corner jumper over Jimmy Butler at the buzzer, thereby answering Derrick Rose’s Game 3 winner, evening the series at two games apiece, and crushing Chicago’s spirits in a series that Cleveland went on to win in six games. James’s shot and his subsequent display of power over Blatt stood as yet another reminder that James isn’t merely a “franchise player”—he is the franchise. — BG
6. Warriors go small in Game 4 to claim control of NBA Finals (June 11)
Call this the lineup change heard ‘round the world. Trailing 2–1 to the slow-it-down Cavaliers, the Warriors watched as their 67-win season teetered on the edge of a stunning upset. How could they unleash Curry? How could they pick up the pace? The answer came from 28-year-old special assistant Nick U’Ren, who suggested to coach Steve Kerr that Andre Iguodala, the team’s sixth man, should be inserted into the Warriors’ starting lineup in place of center Andrew Bogut.
The move, which forced 6'7" forward Draymond Green to play center, worked perfectly: Golden State won Game 4 in blowout fashion and took the series in six games, as Cleveland had no adequate counter for the super-small look. The Warriors’ new look was simply too potent and too versatile. Iguodala went on to win Finals MVP, in recognition of his defense on James and his pivotal role in changing the dynamics of the series. The repercussions of this lineup switch then carried into the off-season, as numerous teams sought to keep up with the Warriors by remaking themselves into nimbler and more interchangeable units. — BG
7. Thabo Sefolosha is fully vindicated in NYPD incident (Oct. 9)
The NBA’s own tangle with police scandal came to a satisfying conclusion in October, when Sefolosha maintained his defense and took to the stand himself to challenge the NYPD. Reports of the incident were strange from the start. Sefolosha and then-teammate Pero Antic happened to be present at the same club where Pacers forward Chris Copeland was stabbed back in April, and as the club was emptied, Sefolosha had somehow found himself in a scuffle with several New York City police officers.
Testimony by those at the scene and the reporting done since the incident don’t paint the on-scene officers in an especially positive light. Best that we can tell, Sefolosha is guilty of giving a particular, aggressive officer some lip and $20 to a panhandler. This led to an altercation in which Sefolosha’s leg was broken and ankle ligament torn—injuries that would take him out of the picture completely for Atlanta’s playoff run.
Before his trial began, the prosecution essentially gave Sefolosha an out: All charges would be dropped if he fulfilled a single day of community service and went six months without any other legal troubles. Sefolosha declined. He took his case to trial, testified in his own defense, and made an example out of what he sees as racial profiling. A not-guilty verdict did just that while vindicating Sefolosha and sending the NYPD down the rabbit hole of internal investigation. — RM
8. Timberwolves honor memory of Flip Saunders with moving tribute (Nov. 2)
The NBA family suffered a terrible loss when Saunders, a man truly beloved throughout the league, passed away in October at age 60. It was a shocking turn for those not in Saunders’s immediate circle; although it was known that Saunders had been hospitalized in his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and would not be able to coach or run the team for the entire 2015–16 season, only after his passing was it reported that Saunders had been in a coma for six weeks prior to his death.
Saunders’s lifetime of work in basketball left mourners throughout the sport. Former players, assistants, and colleagues paused to reflect. Teams around the league honored Saunders before games. And fittingly, the Timberwolves offered the most touching tribute of all.
And this musical memorial that left few dry eyes in the Target Center:
Rest in peace, Flip. — RM
9. Kobe Bryant announces plans to retire after 2015–16 season (Nov. 29)
It was time. Boy, was it ever time. Roughly one month into a season filled with losses and airballs, Kobe Bryant announced his 20th season would be his last. After revealing his plans to retire in a poem, Bryant distributed “thank you” letters to Lakers fans and held court in an extended press conference for the ages. “I really feel at peace with it,” Bryant told reporters, words that once seemed like they would never come from his mouth.
Bryant’s announcement led to huge ticket sales and moving tributes at road arenas, and it gave meaning to what had been a frustrating and pointless Lakers campaign. Whereas L.A. had seemed stuck between catering to an aging Bryant and developing its younger talents, the post-announcement reality lifted much of the pressure by turning this season into a celebration of Bryant’s career. A 4–23 record (through Monday) just doesn’t sting as badly knowing it’s Bryant’s last go-around, and youngsters D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle are now able to bide their time knowing exactly when it will be their turn to run the show. For Bryant, slipping quietly out the side door never seemed like a fitting ending to a career that produced five titles and 17 All-Star appearances. — BG
10. Warriors beat Celtics for NBA-best 24–0 start (Dec. 11)
In fairness, the full extent of this particular "moment" spanned roughly a month and a half. During that time, the Warriors claimed the record for the best start in NBA history, invoked comparison to the legendary 1995–96 Bulls, and appeared ready to to challenge the longest winning streak in league history with 24 consecutive victories. The 24th was far from the prettiest, but in many ways symbolized just how dominant Golden State had become.
Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, the Warriors' starting wings, were both sidelined by injury. Boston seized on the opportunity by flatly outplaying the defending champs through the majority of this game. It wasn't enough. Thrilling performances from Draymond Green (24 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, five steals, five blocks) and Stephen Curry (38 points, eight assists, 11 rebounds) earned Golden State a sloppy, gutsy, double-overtime victory. It was a moment that symbolized both how good the Warriors had become at pulling out close games throughout their winning streak and just how much better Golden State seems to be than just about every other team in the league. — RM
Honorable mention: Derrick Rose banks in game-winning three to beat the Cavaliers, Wesley Matthews returns on opening night after tearing his Achilles, Tony Allen screams “First Team All-Defense,” the Pelicans make the playoffs on the final day of the season and DeMar DeRozan posterizes Rudy Gobert.