MIAMI -- NBA commissioner David Stern began the last Finals press conference of his career with a grinning declaration that carried the full bluster you would expect from a lifelong salesman.
"This is probably the most anticipated Finals in, who knows, 30 years," Stern said, a few hours before Game 1 between the Heat and Spurs unfolded as an instant classic. "We've got two teams who are no strangers to the Finals. We've got two teams that have more than one championship ring. We've got a group of players who are going to be in the Hall of Fame. We expect to have a heck of a series."
Then Tony Parker made all that sound less like hyperbolic promotional copy and more like an accurate appraisal. Parker's unpredictable, unbelievable game-sealing jumper lacks an obvious comparative precedent in Finals lore. Really, how often do NBA players recover from slipping to the court by pirouetting into a double-clutch banker? Now, how often do they do that with LeBron James breathing down their neck, the shot clock running out and an NBA Finals game hanging in the balance?
The sequence drew comparions to the Harlem Globetrotters. The sheer improbability of the hoop rendered James incapable of doling out unqualified credit.
“Tony did everything wrong and did everything right in the same possession,” James said. “He stumbled two or three times, he fell over … he got up and went under my arm. I got a great contest and he even double-pumped and barely got it off. That was the longest 24 seconds that I’ve been a part of.”
Where this shot falls in the canon of huge Finals shots will be determined, in part, by how the rest of the series plays out. History tends to be written by and about the winners. Should the Heat restore order, Parker's shot could eventually head in the direction of novelty. Should the Spurs go on to win the series, though, it seems unlikely that there will be a more iconic "David slays Goliath" moment than this one, with Parker reducing James to begrudging respect and a rueful reference to the shot clock. This one could last a long, long time.
In the spirit of Stern's address, here's a look back at five of the most memorable late-game Finals shots of the last 30 years, a time period that includes most of the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird 1980s, all of the Michael Jordan 1990s and a post-Jordan era dominated by the Spurs and Lakers.
5. John Paxson, 1993 Finals, Game 6
Bulls guard John Paxson lived out every child's dream scenario: final possession, clock ticking down, the ball gets swung around, the defense is slow to recover and one jumper has the power to clinch a championship. Trailing the Suns 98-96 in Game 6 of the 1993 Finals, Paxson found himself unguarded after Michael Jordan brought the ball quickly up the court and initiated a series of passes. Jordan to Scottie Pippen. Eight seconds. Pippen to Horace Grant. Six seconds. Grant to Paxson. Wide open, bang, 99-98 Bulls, 3.9 seconds remaining. Paxson ran back to the huddle with both arms raised, and Chicago held on to complete their first three-peat.
Paxson's heroics narrowly beat out Bulls guard Steve Kerr, who knocked down a jumper on a pass from Jordan to deliver the clinching victory for Chicago's 1997 championship team.
4. Vinnie Johnson, 1990 Finals, Game 5
Pistons guard Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson calmly milked the clock before setting up a lean-in jumper over Blazers forward Jerome Kersey that gave Detroit a 92-90 lead with 0.7 seconds remaining. (Fast-forward to the 6:30 mark of the video above to see the play.) The basket would prove to be a game-winner and a series-winner for the "Bad Boys" Pistons, who captured their second consecutive title.
3. Robert Horry, 2005 Finals, Game 5
Spurs forward Robert "Big Shot Rob" Horry delivered on his nickname yet again, knocking down a left angle three-pointer with 5.9 seconds remaining in Game 5 of the 2005 Finals against the Pistons. This one was so calculating: Horry steps forward after inbounding to Manu Ginobili in the corner and receives a return pass, wasting no time at all before delivering the knockout blow. The shot gave San Antonio a 96-95 win and put the Spurs up 3-2 in the series. San Antonio went on to win the series in seven games, securing the sixth ring of Horry's career. He would later add a seventh ring with the Spurs in 2007.
2. Magic Johnson, 1987 Finals, Game 4
More than 25 years later, this clip is still on repeat. Time travel 25 years into the future and it will still be on repeat. With seven seconds remaining and the Lakers trailing the arch-rival Celtics 106-105 in Game 4 of the 1987 Finals, Magic Johnson worked free on an inbounds play, running the clock down as he sized up Kevin McHale. As the clock hit five, Johnson juked toward the paint, stepping into a running sky-hook shot that he launched over McHale and Robert Parish, as Larry Bird flashed at him from the weakside. Johnson hit nothing but net, giving the Lakers a 107-106 victory. L.A. went on to win the series in six games and Johnson was named the Finals MVP.
1. Michael Jordan, 1998 Finals, Game 6
Michael Jordan offered a strong, strong, strong candidate for the greatest single shot in the history of the NBA when he buried a game-winning, series-clinching jumper over Jazz guard Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, securing the sixth and final title of his career. Everything about the moment was damn near perfect, from the fact that he set it up by stealing the ball from Karl Malone on the other end, to the long, steady hold of his release, to the utter silence of the Salt Lake City crowd, to the fact that he retired (for the second of three times) that summer after going 6-for-6 in the Finals and 6-for-6 in the Finals MVP voting. Sure, there's a vocal minority that will detract points because Jordan pushed off on Russell before stepping back into the jumper, but legendary coach Phil Jackson put it best: "That wasn’t a push off. It was a helping hand to a broke down comrade."