The 2015 NBA playoffs, as a whole, will be remembered more for "What could have been" rather than what actually happened. Golden State emerged as the champion from a strong Finals showdown with Cleveland, with Stephen Curry and LeBron James trading memorable moments, but something was lacking from the postseason as a whole.
Perhaps it was the fact that a heck of a lot of star power—including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Dwywane Wade, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony—watched from home. Perhaps it was the fact that this year saw only two Game 7s and that both conference finals ended in short order. Perhaps it was the nagging annoyance of the conference disparity, which produced a watered down East bracket and set up a field where two of the top five championship contenders—the Clippers and Spurs—were out before the conference finals. Perhaps it was the fact that injuries to the likes of Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Mike Conley and others intervened at the worst possible time.
Despite all of that nitpicking, the last two months still managed to produce plenty of series-altering plays, dramatic swings, and clutch shots. With that in mind, here's a rundown of the top 10 shots of the 2015 playoffs, with bonus points given for degree of difficulty, magnitude of the moment, and the stakes of the series.
10. Jerryd Bayless beats the buzzer
You forgot about this one, didn't you? That's exactly what Bucks coach Jason Kidd was counting on. Down 3-0 in the first round against Chicago, Milwaukee had just 1.3 seconds to get off a potential game-winner in regulation. Kidd's devious plan was to catch Derrick Rose napping on Jerryd Bayless, and it worked like a charm. Bayless cut behind Rose, hauled in the inbounds pass from Jared Dudley over his shoulder, spun for the layup and kissed it in before time expired, and before Rose figured out what had happened. One can only imagine the nerves Bayless faced, free as a bird with his team's season potentially hanging in the balance, and he deserves credit for finishing off the great play design and a great pass with a sound finish.
9. Stephen Curry flips in 70-footer
Curry has a once-in-a-generation ability for tough shot-making but... c'mon man, that's not fair. A hard-fought second-round series with Memphis turned for good when Curry buried a 70-foot buzzer-beater, flipped up from his waist, to end the third quarter of Game 6. The shot gave Golden State an eight-point lead and left the FedEx Forum in shocked silence. The Warriors followed Curry's nonchalant triple with a 32-point fourth quarter to close out Memphis on the road and advance to the conference finals.
8. LeBron drains go-ahead three in OT
The most excitement during a one-sided Eastern Conference finals came late in Game 3, when the Hawks, without Al Horford due to a second-quarter ejection, pushed the Cavaliers to overtime. James was masterful throughout, finishing with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists before dropping to his knees in exhaustion at the buzzer, but he won this one by doing something that had proven to be particularly difficult during the postseason: he nailed a three-pointer. Although James shot just 22.7% from deep in the playoffs and missed a leaning jumper earlier in the possession, he made the most of his second chance when Tristan Thompson captured the offensive rebound and returned the ball to him. James pump-faked to clear out Paul Millsap before burying the go-ahead three-pointer, giving Cleveland a 112–111 lead. The Cavaliers held on for 36 more seconds to take a 3-0 series lead before blowing out the Hawks in Game 4 to advance to the Finals.
7. Dellavedova stumbles and bumbles for and-one banker
It's possible no one had a crazier May and June than Matthew Dellavedova, who went from being an anonymous back-up guard, to a lightning rod with a "track record," to a surprisingly effective fill-in starter for the injured Irving, to a few games as a Curry-stopping hero early in the Finals, to a vicious regression to his anonymous mean as the Finals wrapped up. What a ride. The high point came late in Game 3, when the Aussie helped Cleveland take a 2-1 lead with a ridiculous off-balance shot that banked in and drew the foul. Dellavedova barely maintained his balance as he drove into the paint, staying on his feet just long enough to throw up a leaning prayer that brought the Quicken Loans Arena crowd to its feet.
6. Stephen Curry dances for a pair of three-pointers
Curry and his teammates, especially Draymond Green, seemed less pleased with Dellavedova's growing reputation as Cleveland's key to slowing down the reigning MVP. The response from Curry was, in a word, ruthless. Golden State took full command of the Finals with its Game 5 win, and Curry danced all over the court to hit a pair of fourth-quarter threes over a hopeless Dellavedova. The first one, delivered with a little under eight minutes to go, answered a James three and halted the Cavaliers' momentum. The second one, with a little under three minutes to go, helped ice away the victory. Both featured tremendous dribbling displays and quick-trigger launches.
5. Paul Pierce 'calls game' with buzzer-beating bank shot
Wizards forward Paul Pierce had no shortage of late-game heroics in the playoffs, hitting multiple daggers against the Raptors in the first round before hitting an almost game-winner that was wiped out by an Al Horford buzzer-beater in Game 5 and then hitting an almost game-winner that was wiped out by a replay review, which deemed it after the buzzer, in Game 6. Pierce's game-winner against Atlanta that did hold up, though, is one for the highlight reels. With the score tied in Game 3 and less than five seconds left, Pierce calmly worked himself open before firing up a fadeaway from just inside the three-point line. The shot, which was launched over two defenders, banked in as the buzzer sounded, turning the Verizon Center into a madhouse. Asked later whether he called glass on the shot, Pierce delivered an immortal reply: "I called game."
4. Stephen Curry hits impossible contested corner three
Curry was exceptional throughout Golden State's title run, but he was never more magical than when during Game 3 of a first-round series against New Orleans, when he hit a corner three in the closing seconds of regulation to cap off a 20-point fourth quarter comeback. Shots don't get much crazier: Curry hit this three: on the road, over two defenders (including Anthony Davis), while leaning in a tight space before falling to the ground, and, replays would show, with his eyes closed. No wonder SI.com broke the whole sequence down frame by frame right here.
3. Derrick Rose banks in buzzer-beating three-pointer
Series tied at one, game tied at 96, three seconds left. Derrick Rose chose that scene to make the shot of his year, saving a somewhat broken inbounds play with an improbable (and accidental) banked-in three over Tristan Thompson. When Mike Dunleavy couldn't find anyone open initially, Rose raced back to the ball, jetted around the perimeter, and squared his shoulders to the hoop for a tough look at a right angle three, all in under two seconds. His eventual shot cleared Thompson and went in cleanly off the glass, and the United Center crowd needed a split-second to process what had happened. As the building went nuts, Rose kept a totally straight face, soaking in the scene after missing most of the last three years due to injury. With a 2-1 lead over the Cavaliers in a second-round series, the Bulls' hopes rose briefly, only to be thwarted by a familiar foe.
2. LeBron James overrules coach, nails buzzer-beater
Of course it was James who yanked back the momentum at the earliest possible moment. After Rose put Cleveland in a 2-1 hole, James provided his answer, collecting an inbounds pass near the left baseline with 1.5 seconds and burying a fadeaway catch-and-shoot jumper over Jimmy Butler at the buzzer to give the Cavaliers a series-tying 86–84 victory. Later, James would make a point to tell reporters that Cavaliers coach David Blatt had initially diagrammed a play that called for James to inbound the ball before the four-time MVP scrapped that play and demanded the rock. James's second-guessing led to the first of seven straight victories for the Cavaliers, who closed out the Bulls in six games, before sweeping the Hawks in the conference finals. What if James, who has eliminated Chicago in four of the past six years, had missed the shot and the Bulls had claimed a 3-1 series lead? Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who was fired shortly after the season ended, would love to know the answer to that hypothetical.
1. Chris Paul hits series-clinching runner on one leg
"Hollywood" is the only way to describe Chris Paul's series-clinching runner in Game 7. Against San Antonio, the defending champions who were favored in the first-round series? Check. Over Tim Duncan, perhaps the best power forward of all time? Check. Facing decades of futile Clippers franchise history, in which everything always goes wrong? Check. Staring down years of criticism that he isn't a postseason performer? Check. On one leg, due to a hamstring injury that forced him from action earlier in the game? Check. Check. Check. Paul's remarkable shot had it all, banking in high off the glass with one second left to give L.A. a 111–109 victory. The only downside was what happened next, as the Clippers choked away a 3-1 series lead against the Rockets in the second round.