In honor of the NBA’s 75th anniversary, we’re taking a trip down memory lane with 75 of our favorite moments of all time. From Wilt’s 100-point game to MJ’s last shot to LeBron’s legendary block, here’s our list of lasting memories (in chronological order):
Cooper, Clifton and Lloyd make history
Three years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Chuck Cooper broke into the NBA with the Celtics—as the 14th pick of the 1950 draft. Within two months, the Knicks would sign Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and the Capitals would sign Earl Lloyd, the first small steps toward racial integration. The NBA operated for years with an unofficial quota system, however, before reaching full integration in the 1960s. — Howard Beck
Celtics’ dynasty begins
The Bill Russell–Red Auerbach dynasty began with Russell collecting 32 rebounds in a double-overtime Game 7 win over the Hawks. Also featured: a fellow rookie named Tommy Heinsohn, who scored 37 points and pulled down 23 rebounds to help the Celtics secure the first of 11 championships. —Chris Mannix
Wilt’s 100-point game
With six minutes to go in the record-breaking game in 1962, the Knicks—unable to stop Wilt Chamberlain from dominating—simply began playing a four-corners offense to hold the ball and run the clock, despite trailing in the contest. They simply didn’t want the seven-footer to make them fodder for NBA history trivia. No matter. The record has stood for nearly 60 years and could easily stand for another 60. —Chris Herring
Elgin Baylor scores Finals-record 61 points
The Lakers legend scored 61 points (on 46 shots) in the 1962 Finals against a loaded Celtics squad that featured one of the NBA's greatest defenders in Bill Russell. Yes, the Lakers lost the series, but to become the first—and only—player to break 60 points in a Finals game against a team that would go on to have seven Hall of Famers is remarkable. —Wilton Jackson
“Havlicek stole the ball”
Even if you can’t pinpoint the play, you remember the call, the raspy voice of Johnny Most roaring when John Havlicek, the guts of Boston’s ‘60s championship teams, lured Hal Greer into lobbing an ill-fated pass toward Chet Walker late in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Havlicek tipped it to Sam Jones, and Jones ran out the clock, springboarding the Celtics into the NBA Finals. —C.M.
Jack Kent Cooke’s balloons stay in the Forum’s rafters
Before Game 7 of the 1969 Finals between the Lakers and Celtics, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had 5,000 balloons that read “World Champion Lakers” stuffed in the rafters, with instructions to have them drop after his team won the title. The only problem was Los Angeles lost by two points. In the great Bill Russell’s final game, Boston had secured its 11th championship in 13 years. “It’s gonna be fun to watch them get those balloons out,” Russell told his teammates before the game. “One at a time.” —Michael Pina
Jerry West’s half-court shot
One year earlier, West became the first—and still the lone—Finals MVP in a losing effort. He made a case to repeat in 1970 as well, averaging 31.3 points and 7.7 dimes despite the Lakers’ falling short again. West’s dramatic, buzzer-beating launch from almost 60 feet, worth just two points back then, sent Game 5 to OT and was his brightest moment of the Finals. —C.H.
Willis Reed walks through the tunnel in Game 7
On a noncontact play, Reed, the league’s regular-season MVP, tore the tensor muscle up around his thigh during Game 5 of the 1970 NBA Finals. After the Lakers beat the Reed-less Knicks in Game 6, knotting the series 3–3, Reed took three injections of Carbocaine to numb the leg and be available for Game 7. Though he dragged the leg (and scored just four points), his mere presence electrified the Madison Square Garden crowd—and his team—as the Knicks won their first NBA title. —C.H.
Kareem’s skyhook for the win
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged 32.6 points and 12.1 rebounds in the 1974 Finals with Milwaukee, punctuating the dominant effort with a picturesque skyhook to give the Bucks a 102-101 double-overtime victory over the Celtics in Game 6. The Celtics would go on to win the series in seven, but Abdul-Jabbar would defeat Boston two times in the Finals as a member of the Lakers in the ‘80s. —Michael Shapiro
Darryl Dawkins shatters the backboard
Dawkins's dunk in 1979—self styled the “Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam—was the first glass-shattering moment in NBA history, and the inspiration for the breakaway rims seen in the NBA today. —C.M.
Adoption of the three-point line
Such a simple concept, such a profound impact. The NBA didn’t add the arc until 1979—three years after the dissolution of the ABA, which had popularized the shot. The three-pointer was mostly viewed as a gimmick, or as a shot of last resort, but not as a go-to weapon. Teams averaged a mere 2.8 attempts per game in 1979–80. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that the shot became a staple, and the mid-2000s when it started to revolutionize the game. —H.B.
Magic steps in at center
An injury to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left the Lakers thin up front going into Game 6 of the 1980 Finals. Enter Magic, who slid into Kareem’s slot at center and piled up 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in a series-clinching win over the 76ers. As a rookie. —C.M.
Dr. J’s swooping baseline layup
In today’s NBA, we see players with major lift and the ability to adjust midair to throw down a ferocious dunk, but Julius “Dr. J” Erving’s iconic baseline layup is one that always gives me chills. Who knew 41 years later a layup would still be one of the league’s most iconic moments? —W.J.
Dr. J dunks on Michael Cooper
Erving nearly decapitated elite Lakers defender Cooper, whose head almost collided with the bottom of the backboard in trying to stop the dunk. But nothing was stopping Dr. J on that play in transition. In one of the most graceful plays you’ll ever see, Julius Erving stole, dribbled, cradled and cocked the ball back with his right hand alone before gliding to the hoop for an enormous dunk that’s still viewed as one of the best ever. The Sixers also went on to beat the Lakers for the title that year when the teams met again. —C.H.
I didn't witness the prediction in real time. But my dad had a poster of Dr. J and Moses Malone in our basement that made me curious about that 76ers team. The fact that Moses, fresh off an MVP season in 1983, was off by only one game on Philly's title run was legendary to learn about. I could only imagine how awesome a moment like that would be today in the social media age. —Robin Lundberg
Creation of the salary cap
Imagine the competitive landscape if TV-rich teams in New York and L.A. could simply outspend their rivals for all the best players. That’s what worried NBA officials back in 1983, when they adopted a salary cap as part of a new labor deal with players. The cap and its many wrinkles—Bird rights, max contracts, trade exceptions—have come to shape the league as much as the crossover dribble and the Eurostep. —H.B.
First draft lottery
What would the NBA be without this annual festival of Ping-Pong balls, actuarial tables and conspiracy theories? It started more modestly in 1985, with a pile of envelopes placed in a hopper—an attempt to combat tanking concerns of that era. The Knicks won that first drawing, and the right to draft Patrick Ewing, spawning the “frozen envelope” myth—and the thousands of conspiracy theories that have followed. —H.B.
Larry Bird’s left-handed game
It’s one thing to record a triple-double—47 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists—but to do so with your off hand for the majority of the game? Out of all the legendary moments in Bird’s career—three NBA MVP awards from ’84 to ’86, three NBA championships, two NBA Finals MVP awards and 12 All-Star appearances to name a few—this triple-double was unique. —W.J.
Ralph Sampson takes down Lakers
Sampson’s off-balance, game-winning shot with one second left against the Lakers in the ’86 Western Conference finals shocked the NBA world and denied Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy from making five consecutive Finals appearances. The twisting jumper—one that bounced off the rim before going in—sent Houston to its second NBA Finals in franchise history. —W.J.
Bird steals Isiah Thomas’s inbounds pass
Dubbed “the most incredible play that’s ever happened against me” by Thomas, Larry Bird’s steal clinched Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals. Bird not only showed the athleticism to swipe Thomas’s pass, but had the presence of mind to flip the ball to a cutting Dennis Johnson, who banked in the game-winning layup. —C.M.
Magic’s junior skyhook
The greatest point guard in basketball history took a page out of teammate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s book down the stretch of the 1987 Finals. Trailing by one with seven seconds left in Game 4, Magic Johnson took the inbounds pass, dribbled toward the foul line, then stopped before unleashing a textbook skyhook. Johnson’s shot went in, the Lakers won, and they were crowned champions five nights later. —M.S.
MJ vs. Nique
In a rare exhibition that came down to two future Hall of Famers, Michael Jordan outlasted Dominique Wilkins in the 1988 dunk contest, winning on the final dunk of the competition by gliding through the air for a one-handed jam from the free throw line. Jordan has said he likely would have given the crown to Wilkins, whose dunks were more powerful throughout the night. “But given that it was on my home turf [in Chicago], it wasn’t meant to be” for Wilkins, who settled for second place. —C.H.
Larry Legend wins in a warm-up jacket
Larry Bird earned that moniker on the basketball court and as a trash talker. Perhaps no event put that on display better than the 1988 three-point contest, where Bird famously asked, "Who's playing for second?" and then proceeded to win the contest in a warm-up jacket with one finger in the air. Swag. —R.L.
Isiah scores 25 in one quarter on a bum ankle
Initially unable to stand after a nasty rolled ankle, Isiah Thomas logged one of the most impressive hobbled performances of all time, scoring 25 points against the loaded Lakers in the third quarter of Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals. It marked a single-quarter scoring record. He finished the road game—a loss—with 43 points and eight assists. His ankle tightened between that day and Game 7, which helped keep Detroit from winning the title that year. But the Pistons would win rings in ’89 and ’90. —C.H.
Going into the Bulls’ 1989 first-round series with the Cavaliers, Jordan had already recorded the highest playoff scoring average in NBA history. Then he topped that with one of the most iconic shots of his career: a gravity-defying, series-winning jumper over Craig Ehlo. Just as memorable as the shot itself was Jordan’s celebration. “I never saw it go in,” Jordan said at the time, “but I knew right away from the crowd reaction—silence—that it was good.” —Ben Pickman
Pistons walk off the court
Could you imagine the takes if this happened in an NBA game in 2021? The “Bad Boy” Pistons absolutely embodied their nickname, and frankly I don’t blame them for not worshipping at Michael Jordan’s altar like everyone else in 1991. If you had any doubts about the hatred involved in this rivalry, as recently as November 2021 Scottie Pippen made clear he has no interest in reconciling with Isiah Thomas. —Rohan Nadkarni
MJ switches hands midair
In Game 2 of his first Finals in 1991, Michael Jordan drove down the lane and went up for a layup. But when Lakers center Sam Perkins came to contest the shot, Jordan had to acrobatically adjust to a left-handed finish, midair, leading to Marv Albert’s classic call: “a spectacular move by Michael Jordan.” —M.S.
Magic wins All-Star MVP in 1992
The All-Star Game, held just three months after Magic Johnson retired from the sport due to his stunning HIV diagnosis, marked the first time he returned to the court in front of an audience. Despite the time away, he dazzled the crowd with his patented no-look passes, hook shots and a trio of triples—the last of which sent players pouring onto the court to congratulate him. He had a game-high 25 points and nine assists in what many figured might be a swan song for his playing career, if not his life. —C.H.
The most vicious dunk in NBA playoff history had a backstory. In Game 2 of a 1992 first-round series between the Seattle SuperSonics and Warriors, seven-foot journeyman Alton Lister shoved Shawn Kemp in midair. A brawl broke out, and Lister’s Warriors won the game. A few days later, with the Sonics up 2–1, Kemp caught a pass on the perimeter, took one dribble and unleashed a dunk that sent Lister tumbling toward the baseline. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Kemp then crouched down and pointed two fingers right in Lister’s face. Basketball revenge in its all-time finest form. —M.P.
You know the story: Personally affronted by comparisons to Blazers star Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan flippantly poured in six threes and 35 points in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 Finals. His iconic faux-sheepish shrug toward the sidelines became part of the MJ mythos. The Bulls, of course, won the game and the series. —Jeremy Woo
Dream Team wins gold
The NBA’s penetration of the Olympics in ’92 created less of a tournament than a coronation, with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird & Co. thumping opponents by an average of 44 points per game. —C.M.
Dikembe Mutombo celebrates epic upset
The high point of a forgettable decade for Denver, Mutombo’s celebration on the floor in Seattle, after the No. 8 seed Nuggets upset the top-seeded Sonics, marked one of the great emotional releases in NBA history. —M.S.
According to Pippen, because of this dunk in the 1994 playoffs, Patrick Ewing won’t speak to him. That’s basically all you need to know. —M.P.
Jordan: “I’m back”
It feels like missing the point to wax poetic about the two-word statement Jordan dropped on the NBA to announce his first unretirement. For all the mythmaking and narrative building that goes into NBA superstardom, Jordan’s terse statement was a microcosm of why everyone wanted to be like him: he was effortlessly cool. —R.N.
Reggie Miller scores eight points in nine seconds
The math and the odds are mind-blowing, no matter how many times you replay the clip. Eight points in nine seconds? Miller did it in May 1995, leading the Pacers to a stunning 107–105 playoff victory over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. First, a Miller three-pointer with 16.4 seconds to play. Then, a Miller steal on the inbounds and another three, tying the game with 13.2 seconds left. The Knicks gagged (two missed free throws by John Starks, a missed jumper by Patrick Ewing), Miller got fouled and finished his scoring spurt with two free throws. The Pacers won the series in seven games. —H.B.
Hakeem Olajuwon’s ‘Dream Shake’ on David Robinson
Robinson won MVP in 1994–95, but there was no question as to who was the best big man alive after the ’95 postseason. Hakeem Olajuwon pulverized Robinson & Co. to the tune of 35.3 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in the Western Conference finals, including his iconic Dream Shake in Game 2. —M.S.
Once upon a time, the NBA had real rivalries—and they were nasty. The Knicks and Heat clashed in the playoffs for four straight years (from 1997 to 2000), and we do mean clashed: elbows, forearms, shoves, punches, tackles … and a coach clinging to an All-Star center’s leg. They brawled in ’97 and again in ’98, prompting suspensions that marred each series. —H.B.
Allen Iverson crosses over Michael Jordan
It isn’t the prettiest or most devastating crossover in NBA history, but when Iverson caught MJ leaning the wrong way with a smooth left-to-right hang dribble, it felt like one generation had just slapped another across the face. Thank goodness he made the shot. —M.P.
“The Flu Game”
Whether it was the flu, tainted delivery pizza, or … something else, MJ’s Flu Game—his 38-point effort in Game 5 of the 1997 Finals, was an iconic moment for an icon whose career itself is iconic. Phew. Though it happened nearly 25 years ago, the image of Jordan walking off the floor collapsed in Scottie Pippen’s arms remains as visceral today as it did in 1997. —R.N.
MJ's last shot
The most famous shot in basketball history needs no exposition, nor need we question whether Michael Jordan pushed off. It wasn’t quite the end of MJ’s career, but it was his last moment in a Bulls uniform, and arguably his greatest, deciding title No. 6. It’s hard to imagine ending anything, much less the Jazz, on a better note (pun intended). —J.W.
With less than 10 seconds left and New York trailing by three in Game 3 of the 1999 Eastern Conference finals, Larry Johnson corralled a tipped inbounds pass 30 feet from the basket, pump-faked Antonio Davis in the air, took one dribble toward the sideline and let fly a prayer … just as the referee happened to be calling what color commentator Bill Walton deemed “a phantom foul” during the broadcast. Contact or not, it’s one of Madison Square Garden’s most electric sequences. —M.P.
Vince Carter: “It’s over”
There are magical moments that lead one to run around in a giddy fit of glee. For me, one of those was watching Carter in the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest. Remember, Steve Francis and Tracy McGrady got it started with great dunks. But then Vince took it to another level with the greatest display in contest history, finishing slams that left his peers in disbelief. It was over, indeed. (Well, until this happened in the 2000 Olympics.) —R.L.
Jason Williams’s elbow pass at All-Star 2000
Everyone I knew was trying to make this pass after Jason Williams did it in the Rookie Game. Bold teenagers who didn’t even possess a thimble of Williams’s singular flair and dexterity impersonated it at full speed. The ball would fly out of bounds, into bushes or the street. But every attempt was worth it. No move could be more relaxed and audacious at the same time. There really hasn’t been anything like it since. —M.P.
The Lakers were tied, 3-3, in the Western Conference finals against an exceptionally talented Blazers club. Portland had won the last two games—shaken the Lakers’ confidence, really—and had gone up by 15 at the Staples Center with just over 10 minutes left. But then the Lakers, not yet champions at that point, showed they could be. They punctuated their furious comeback with Kobe’s right-to-left crossover and lob to Shaq, who slammed home the offering. On the strength of that mercurial duo, Los Angeles went on to win not only that year’s title, but the next two crowns as well. —C.H.
Iverson steps over Ty Lue
Allen Iverson played with a chip on his shoulder, and it was his step over Tyronn Lue that is the defining image of his career—not only because it encompassed what he was all about, but because Iverson willed an overmatched Philly team to a victory against the mighty Lakers. —R.L.
Big Shot Bob beats the Kings
Premise: Robert Horry is the greatest clutch-shooting role player in NBA history. And this was his greatest moment: the Lakers down 2–1 to the Kings in the 2002 Western Conference finals, and trailing 99–97 in Game 4, with seconds to go. Kobe misses. Shaq misses. Vlade Divac slaps the rebound out to the arc, where Horry casually scoops it up and drills a three-pointer to win the game and tie the series. Two weeks later, the Lakers would seize their third straight title. —H.B.
Derek Fisher’s game-winner with 0.4 seconds
The Game 5 matchup in 2004 was nearly remembered for Tim Duncan’s heroics after The Big Fundamental’s miracle jumper over Shaquille O’Neal with less than a second remaining. But we know what happens next. Fisher received an inbounds pass from Gary Payton, flung a prayer from the left wing, then sprinted to the visitor’s locker room in celebration. Are we sure the clock operator in San Antonio kept his job after that one? —M.S.
Tayshaun Prince chases down Reggie Miller
The 2004 Pistons squad was one of the few champions to win with a collection of All-Star-level players rather than superstars. To this day, they may be the best defensive team I've seen, with Tayshaun Prince delivering their signature moment with his epic chase-down block of Reggie Miller in the Eastern Conference finals. —R.L.
Kobe’s 81-point game
Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game lives forever as a meme, but for many of us from a certain generation the defining scoring performance is Kobe Bryant’s 81 in January 2006. The best difficult-shot-maker of all time was in his bag that day, including dropping 55 in the second half! The late, great Black Mamba has many memorable performances, but that bucket-getting display is right at the top of the list. Just ask Jalen Rose. —R.L.
Baron Davis dunking on Kirilenko
Before the “Strength in Numbers” Warriors, there was the ’07 “We Believe” team. No other moment encapsulates that team like Baron Davis’s disrespectful dunk against a well-respected defender in Andrei Kirilenko. Golden State would go on to lose the series, but that moment sent a wave of excitement across Oracle Arena that will never be forgotten. —W.J.
LeBron scores the final 25 points against the Pistons
Determined not lose to the Pistons in the 2007 East finals, James scored 25 points in 16 minutes in a pivotal Game 5. The Cavs won Games 5 and 6 and James led the franchise to its first Finals trip. Said former Pistons guard Chauncey Billups at the time: “We just couldn’t stop him.” —W.J.
Gerald Green’s cupcake dunk
Green had a cupcake with dark-pink frosting and a lit candle placed on the back of an NBA rim, 10 feet in the air during the 2008 dunk contest. He then caught a bouncing lob pass, blew the flame out and dunked the ball, all in one motion without disturbing the cupcake’s position. It was technically a dunk, sure, but also qualifies as performance art. —M.P.
Kevin Garnett’s “Anything is possible!”
The NBA is a cold business. It’s also deeply emotional. Those two realities intersected when Garnett closed his eyes, craned his neck and yelled, “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!” at the top of his lungs. After years of first-round exits with the Timberwolves, Garnett accepted a trade to the Celtics and finally won the ring he’d been dreaming about his entire life. It’s pure. It’s raw. It’s more than a decade of disappointment and frustration and pain rippling through one man’s vocal chords on national television. It’s priceless. —M.P.
2010s and beyond
With nine words—“I’m going to take my talents to South Beach”—LeBron James changed the NBA, and superstar free agency, forever. His partnership with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh birthed a superteam that made four straight Finals and won two titles. A wave of stars followed James’s lead—switching teams via free agency or forced trades, forging new superteams and creating what’s now known as the Player Empowerment Era. —H.B.
Wade and LeBron’s alley-oop and pose
Few people remember Miami’s 88–78 win over the Bucks on Dec. 6, 2010, but Dwyane Wade’s no-look alley-oop pass to LeBron James that night has become one of the most defining images of the Heat Big Three’s tenure together. The picture, captured by Associated Press photographer Morry Gash, was recreated in tattoos and in Space Jam: A New Legacy. Wade’s agent asked for a copy to get it signed for James. Even Woody and Buzz got in on the fun. —B.P.
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Dirk’s fever game
An intense fever and nasty sinus infection didn’t stop Dirk Nowitzki from showing up in the 2011 Finals, as he overcame illness (and LeBron and Dwyane Wade mocking his condition pregame) to anchor a nine-point fourth-quarter comeback in Game 4, evening the series. Dallas went on to win the title, cementing Dirk as a Finals hero. —J.W.
For three weeks in 2012, Jeremy Lin—an undrafted, twice-waived, previously anonymous guard from Harvard—was the biggest basketball star on Earth, and the Knicks’ momentary savior. He outplayed Deron Williams, outshined Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki, and became a global phenomenon. He even graced back-to-back covers of SI. —H.B.
Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy’s awkward interview
Honesty goes a long way in NBA press scrums, where spin, conjecture and tedious questions met by insipid answers are the lifeblood of most interactions between the media, coaches and players. Then there’s what Stan Van Gundy did in 2012 when asked by a reporter whether Howard had gone to the Magic front office and asked for his coach to be fired. It was even more refreshing than Van Gundy’s Diet Pepsi. —M.P.
LeBron’s legendary “face” game
It’s hard to understate the importance of LeBron’s performance in Game 6 of the 2012 East finals. His mean mug has since become a meme, but at the time, that game was perhaps the biggest referendum on James’s career yet. A loss would have devastated both the Big Three experiment and James’s credibility as one of the all-time greats. Instead, he turned in a legendary performance that changed the course of his career, and ultimately league history. —R.N.
Kobe tears Achilles, takes free throws
Few superstars crafted their own folklore as meticulously as Kobe. That doesn’t mean he never backed it up. Bryant was never the same after tearing his Achilles late in his accomplished on-court career. Still, even with his Achilles snapped in 2013, he calmly stepped to the free-throw line and sunk two shots. Even if he never reached his previous heights, Bryant never stopped pushing his body to its most precarious limits. —R.N.
Ray Allen’s clutch three that saved Miami
“Get those motherf---ing ropes off the court!” A Disney executive would laugh at the melodrama if you tried to explain the journey leading up to Ray Allen’s miracle three-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. It was a backbreaking shot for San Antonio, and played a major role in the legacy of legends like Allen, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich, Kawhi Leonard, and more. Few shots in the history of the game have carried as much weight as Allen’s did. —R.N.
Derrick Rose banks in winner
All the weight of Rose’s exhilarating and injury-fraught Bulls career seemed to culminate in a banked-in Game 3 winner against LeBron James’s Cavs in the 2015 East semifinals, providing a sliver of hope for a Chicago team that was past its expiration date. James answered with a winner of his own at the buzzer in Game 4 that swung the momentum of the series, but Rose’s moment still resonates. —J.W.
DeAndre Jordan “hostage situation”
To this day, nobody knows exactly what happened at Jordan’s house during 2015 free agency. After the center agreed to a reported new deal with the Mavericks, his Clippers teammates descended on Jordan’s home and announced their intentions with a series of vague emoji tweets and, most memorably, Blake Griffin’s photo of a chair barricading a door. The greatest sleepover of all time ended with Jordan re-signing in L.A. NBA Twitter was never the same. —J.W.
Paul Pierce: “I called game!”
Foreign as it was to see Paul Pierce in a Wizards uniform, it wasn’t strange to see Pierce (banking) in a game-winner to beat Atlanta in the first round of the 2015 playoffs. Asked by an ESPN reporter if he called the bank shot, Pierce offered up a quote that quickly went viral: “I called game.” —C.M.
Klay Thompson's 37-point third quarter
In front of a sellout Oracle Arena crowd, Thompson produced perhaps the greatest quarter in basketball history in March 2015 against the Kings. His 37-point barrage, an NBA record, came on perfect 13-of-13 shooting from the field and prompted teammate Draymond Green to point out that, “You don’t get that hot in ‘2K.’ ” —B.P.
LaVine, Gordon put on a dunk show
The 2016 Slam Dunk Contest was one of the greatest shows in league history. Both dunkers showcased incredible physicality and creativity in their slams. Gordon soared with an under-the-legs finish over the franchise’s mascot. LaVine took off from the free throw line for a between-the-legs jam and ultimately won. Together, the duo cemented their place in dunk history. —B.P.
Steph Curry pulls up from deep to beat OKC
This is the greatest shot in regular season history. And it was disrespectful as hell. Curry didn’t have to pull up from damn near halfcourt to beat the Thunder—the Warriors’ most threatening conference rival during their 73-win season—that day. He did it because he not only wanted to win, he wanted to win demonstrating just how unstoppable a force he had become. —R.N.
Kobe’s final game
“Surreal” is still the only word to describe Kobe Bryant’s wild farewell game on April 13, 2016. Sixty points, 50 shots and 20,000 people at Staples Center cheering every attempt, right down to the final seconds, when a giddy, breathless Bryant could barely even jog on those creaky legs. It was a perfectly indulgent and thrilling sendoff for one of the game’s greatest scorers, capped by a two-word signoff: “Mamba out.” —H.B.
Klay Thompson’s legendary Game 6
One of the great what-ifs in league history hinges on Thompson’s transcendent night in Oklahoma City, where his 11 three-pointers swung the arc of the 2016 West finals. After Thompson helped force Game 7, the Warriors eliminated Kevin Durant and the Thunder before famously blowing a 3–1 lead and falling to LeBron and the Cavs in the Finals. Nursing their respective wounds, Durant and the Warriors found one another in free agency that summer, shifting the balance of power in the league as we know it. — J.W.
Arguably the most breathtaking defensive play in recorded basketball history. LeBron James’s block in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals somehow wasn’t even the biggest play on a night filled with dramatic moments—that distinction goes to Kyrie Irving’s go-ahead three. But it’s a worthy image to signify Cleveland’s historic comeback for its first NBA title. And in a career filled with captivating moments, James finally produced his most memorable image. —R.N.
KD signs with the Warriors
This was the equivalent of the Thanos snap in the NBA. All the other teams were looking at each other asking, “Did we just lose?” Kevin Durant’s powerplay was bold and earned him many critics as the Warriors put a chill on the rest of the league. Detractors will say the following seasons weren’t very fun, Golden State was too dominant, and the playoffs were robbed of intrigue. Durant, meanwhile, can rest easy with his two rings and two Finals MVP trophies. —R.N.
James Harden drops Wes Johnson
There has been no love lost between the Rockets and Clippers over the past decade, with emotions boiling over in a postgame confrontation (aka tunnel-gate) in January 2018. When Houston returned to Staples Center one month later, its star was out for blood. Harden led the Rockets to a 31–7 first-quarter lead, adding an ankle-breaker for the ages while his bench danced in delight. —M.S.
Dame waves goodbye to Thunder
Damian Lillard is one of the greatest clutch players in NBA history. Just ask Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Lillard sparred with Oklahoma City during the 2019 playoffs, erupting for 50 points in the final game, capping it off with a game-winning three from way downtown and waving goodbye. —M.S.
Kawhi Leonard’s bouncing buzzer-beater
Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beater in 2019—the first in NBA history in a Game 7—bounced four times on the rim before falling through. The improbable shot propelled the Raptors to their first title and the image of Leonard crouching in the corner became immortalized in Toronto, with photographer Mark Blinch’s shot winning an award. —B.P.
Giannis’s 50-point clincher in 2021 Finals
After suffering a nasty knee hyperextension during the conference finals, it was unclear whether Giannis Antetokounmpo would be himself in the Finals. Turns out, he was all that and then some, swatting key lobs as he helped bring Milwaukee back from a 2–0 deficit. Giannis also saved the best for last, with a monster 50-point, 14-board, five-block performance to help the Bucks to their first NBA title in 50 years. —C.H.
More NBA 75th Anniversary Coverage:
• Ranking the Top 75 Basketball Sneakers Ever
• 75 Years of NBA Coulda-Beens
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