The greatest playoff game-winners

Publish date:

"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.

4. Derek Fisher, Lakers, Game 5 of 2004 West semifinals

It wasn't just Fisher's shot from the left side or the fact that it came on a play run with 0.4 seconds left. It's that his improbable game-winner came on the defending champion Spurs' home court, just moments after -- actually, three straight timeouts after -- Tim Duncan had hit a stunning 20-foot fadeaway over Shaquille O'Neal for a 73-72 lead. Instead of taking a 3-2 lead to L.A. for Game 6, the Spurs fell behind and were as deflated as their fans, getting eliminated by 12 points in what became the finale two days later.

3. Michael Jordan, Bulls, Game 5 of 1989 East first round

This was Godzilla's foot stomping down on Bambi in the famous shocking mini-cartoon. The Bulls weren't yet the Bulls when Jordan got the ball near the right sideline and raced to the middle of the attack zone, with what seemed like Cleveland's entire defense chasing him at Richfield Coliseum. Poor Craig Ehlo just happened to be the one assigned and closest to him as Jordan elevated and shot, his game-winner giving Chicago its series-clinching 101-100 victory. It was the second of what would become the Cavaliers' five playoff failures against the Bulls.

2. Magic Johnson, Lakers, Game 4 of 1987 NBA Finals

Johnson called it his "junior, junior sky hook,'' but it is remembered in NBA lore as the "baby hook,'' that running attempt over Boston's Big Three -- Kevin McHale tracking, Robert Parish and Larry Bird helping -- for a 107-106 victory on the Celtics' parquet floor. That gave the Lakers a 3-1 series lead and they won it six games, ending what seemed like a decade's worth of June showdowns between the NBA's two most famous franchises but was, in fact, their third and last.

1. Michael Jordan, Bulls, Game 6 of 1998 NBA Finals

If we squint, cover our ears and babble "la-la-la-la-la!'' loud enough to block the outside world, maybe we can forget about Jordan's two overripe seasons with Washington and see this for the perfect career capper that it should have been.

There was the situation: Chicago down by three points in the final minute, Jordan scoring on a drive to the hoop, then setting up this final drama by swiping the ball from Karl Malone. There was the shove: Jordan, always the gamer, pushing Utah's Bryon Russell just enough to create space. There, of course, was the basket: a 20-footer with 5.2 seconds left for the 87-86 victory, good for the Bulls' sixth NBA title in eight years -- no Game 7 ever required. And there was the pose: his right arm held high, his wrist flexed, thousands of anguishing Salt Lake City fans frozen as backdrop like Edvard Munch's masterpiece. Jordan's Hall of Fame stay with the Bulls and his playoff career ended in that moment, the perfect wiser, more efficient and mature bookend to his post-Ehlo frenzy.

* * *

Got a memorable game-winner not on the list? Before you write, call or tweet, know that a second unit, 10 deep, drew equally heavy consideration:

• Sean Elliott, Spurs, Game 2 of 1999 West finals: The Memorial Day miracle, with Elliott's heels dangling over the sideline as he launched his three-pointer to beat Portland.

• Allan Houston, Knicks, Game 5 of 1999 East first round:Houston ducked in for a jumper and got a favorable bounce off the rim with 0.8 seconds left to push the No. 8 Knicks past top-seeded Miami in the best-of-five era.

• Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bucks, Game 6 of 1974 NBA Finals: Sky hook over Henry Finkel from the right side at the end of the second overtime gave the Bucks a 102-101 victory and forced Game 7 in Milwaukee. (The Celtics won the deciding game 102-87.)

• Larry Johnson, Knicks, Game 3 of 1999 East finals: Four-point play, the free throw that followed Johnson's three-pointer just as clutch in New York's 92-91 victory, en route to winning the series in six.

• Alonzo Mourning, Hornets, Game 4 of 1993 first round: Rookie 'Zo from the top of the key, erasing Boston's 103-102 lead at the buzzer as Charlotte won its debut playoff series.

• Reggie Miller, Pacers, Game 4 of 1998 East finals: Miller shoved Jordan worse than Jordan later shoved Russell to get open for his three-pointer with 0.7 seconds left, evening Indiana's series vs. Chicago at 2-2.

• Vinnie Johnson, Pistons, Game 5 of 1990 NBA Finals: Fourteen feet, right side, 0.7 seconds left, the Microwave clinches Detroit's second NBA title in a row.

• Mario Elie, Rockets, Game 7 of 1995 West second round:Tiebreaking three-pointer from the left corner, punctuated with a kiss blown to Phoenix fans, that wins a series Houston had trailed 3-1.

• Rik Smits, Pacers, Game 4 of 1995 East finals:Brian Shaw's three-pointer with 13.3 seconds left for a 90-89 Orlando lead, begat Miller's three to make it 92-90 with 5.2 seconds left, begat Penny Hardaway's three that made it 93-92 with 1.3 seconds left, begat Smits' inbounds catch-and-shoot at the buzzer.

• Manu Ginobili, Spurs, Game 1 of 2008 West first round:Tim Duncan's three-pointer to knot the first OT against Phoenix was more startling; Ginobili's driving layup with 1.8 seconds left at the end of double OT looked almost easy.