Top 20 game-winners of the season
After a few hours of intensive research, a simple conclusion: It's impossible to narrow down a list of this season's best game-winners to a top 10 list. There are just too many candidates, both of the traditional variety (deep jumper at the buzzer) and the non-traditional variety (a dunk, a layup off a cut, a diving save inbounds, a crazy scramble and, yes, a goaltending violation).
Here's a countdown of the top 20 game-winners of the season. Any omissions are accidental.
The boneheaded play of the year. Suns center Jermaine O'Neal reached into the net and the hoop to earn a defensive goaltending violation after a Harden three-point attempt had already bounced high off the rim. In a case like that, O'Neal's only job was to stand there and watch fate unfold. What was he doing? Replays confirmed the violation and awarded Harden three points on the play, ending the game on the spot because the buzzer sounded after the ball hit the rim. What's more, the resulting win pushed Houston into the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Remarkable and ridiculous. Rockets 101, Suns 98.
Fewer feelings are more satisfying than beating the Spurs, and Williams made it happen with a deep right angle three over Danny Green after milking the clock. Jazz center Al Jefferson knew it was good before it went in, raising both of his arms as Williams coolly backpedaled after the release. Swish. Pandemonium. Jazz 99, Spurs 96.
Beal, the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft, spent the first few months of the season in relative obscurity; this shot might have changed all that. Taking advantage of a switch in the game's closing seconds, Beal worked against a lumbering Kendrick Perkins at the top of the key, expertly pump-faking him into the air before stepping through to swish a leaning mid-range jumper. The shot, which went home with 0.3 seconds remaining, gave Washington just its fifth win of the season. This was one of the biggest underdog shots of the season and a sign of promising things to come over the next few months for Beal, who blossomed down the stretch. Wizards 101, Thunder 99.
Minnesota answered a beautiful step-back three to tie by George Hill with a Budinger layup that resulted from a hard cut from outside the three-point line and a well-timed pass from Andrei Kirilenko. The Pacers, currently ranked No. 1 in the league in defensive efficiency, were left befuddled as Budinger delivered untouched with 0.8 seconds remaining. Timberwolves 96, Pacers 94.
An insane, back-and-forth game went to double overtime after a Batum jumper was waved off at the end of the first overtime period. The Frenchman would be back for more, working himself free using a LaMarcus Aldridge screen on a nicely designed inbounds play to catch, pivot and launch a corner three-pointer, which splashed in with 0.2 seconds left. His toes were just outside the three-point line, preventing a third overtime period. Blazers 118, Cavaliers 117.
15. Wizards' Jordan Crawford against the Blazers, Jan. 21, 2013
Crawford, who was traded to the Celtics at the deadline, recently said that he "doesn't recall" playing for the Wizards. Hopefully he remembers this moon ball, which capped a 13-point fourth-quarter explosion. With the score tied and less than four seconds remaining, Crawford came clear after a series of screens on a sideline inbounds play, using one dribble to create space against Wesley Matthews before launching a deep, deep three that touched nothing but net. A Wizards dog pile ensued on Portland's home floor. Wizards 98, Blazers 95.
So, so, so much going on here. Down two, Charlotte's final possession was an absolute mess. After nearly turning the ball over three times and retreating all the way into the backcourt, Charlotte's Kemba Walker mounted a second wave of attack, swinging the ball to Henderson with less than five seconds remaining on the shot clock. Using a crossover dribble and a pump-fake, Henderson got a clean look at the rim from the left angle, burying the game-winning three with 4.6 seconds remaining. Just like coach Mike Dunlap drew it up. Bobcats 102, Timberwolves 101.
Catch, turn, fire, all in 0.7 seconds. Jennings broke a deadlocked game with a pretty quick-trigger, buzzer-beating three that he got off over two defenders. Everything was textbook about this one: the pitter-patter of his feet, the smooth shooting stroke, the home crowd explosion and even Bango the mascot losing his mind. Bucks 105, Cavaliers 102.
DeRozan has been better known for his high-flying acts at the rim rather than his shooting touch, but he nailed a tough, off-balance jumper going to his left over two Magic defenders to keep the Raptors from going to overtime. Set up by a nice inbounds play that took advantage of the open space on the far side, DeRozan didn't hesitate once he was fed by Jose Calderon, using two dribbles and an emphatic jump stop to find his daylight. Raptors 97, Magic 95.
This might very well have been the defining sequence of a never-say-die Bulls season that unfolded without Derrick Rose. With the game tied and less than 15 seconds to play, Belinelli missed a long jumper and the rebound caromed into the baseline seats. At least it would have, had a jumping Joakim Noah not extended a go-go-gadget arm to retrieve it and save the ball inbounds. Belinelli then beat the Pistons to the loose ball, cutting quickly to squeeze off an off-balance leaner that put Chicago up for good. Belinelli had a great fallaway jumper to save a broken play and beat the Celtics, too. Bulls 85, Pistons 82.
10. Spurs' Tony Parker against the Thunder, Nov. 1, 2012
Has anybody seen Russell Westbrook? Parker completely lost Westbrook as he worked open along the baseline, popping free on the left side of the court as Westbrook got lost all alone on the right side. Oklahoma City's big men stepped out to defend Parker but he had the daylight, and he used it to full effect by knocking down an assassin-like mid-range jumper as time expired. The win offered San Antonio a measure of early-season revenge after being eliminated by the Thunder in the 2012 Western Conference finals. Spurs 86, Thunder 84.
9. Nets' Joe Johnson against the Pistons, Dec. 14, 2012
Johnson was one of the NBA's clutch kings this season and this was probably his best all-around effort. With the score tied in double overtime, Johnson worked against Tayshaun Prince, leaving him for dead with a behind-the-back, pump-the-brakes dribble move and then rising into a long two, which he buried at the buzzer. Pretty. Johnson beat the Wizards in double overtime as well. Nets 107, Pistons 105.
8. Blazers' Damian Lillard against the Hornets, Dec. 16, 2012
For those who hadn't yet caught on to Lillard's Rookie of the Year campaign, this shot served as an introduction. Inbounding the ball with less than five seconds remaining and the game tied, Lillard quickly retrieved the ball and stepped behind a Luke Babbitt screen to knock down a deep three over Ryan Anderson. The usually reserved Lillard let out some barks as his teammates mobbed him. Blazers 95, Hornets 94.
The Mavericks, trying to salvage their season with a late playoff push, found themselves in must-win mode against the Bulls, trailing by one with the clock ticking under 10 seconds. Moving up the court quickly, Vince Carter fed Mike James, who passed to Nowitzki, who passed back to Carter. Did anyone want to shoot it? A Carter pump-fake, drive-and-kick combination created space for Nowitzki, who lurked outside the three-point arc at the left angle. After receiving the pass with five seconds left, Nowitzki stepped easily into a game-winning three-pointer that went through with 2.9 seconds remaining. His triumphant smile and raised arms recalled the good old days of 2011. Mavericks 100, Bulls 98.
Best celebration of the season, bar none. With the score tied, Lawson used a high screen to get a switch as he milked the clock, sizing up Thabo Sefolosha on the perimeter. After faking a few probing moves, Lawson stepped back into a deep two that he drained, all net, over Sefolosha's challenge. Denver's pint-sized point guard then backed up and did the Bernie Lean, shaking his arms as if he was the dead man in the 1980s movie Weekend at Bernie's. Nuggets 105, Thunder 103.
James' shot didn't go all the way down to the wire but it carried major significance in that it extended what would become a 27-game winning streak for Miami. Operating one-on-one against Jeff Green (who exploded for 43 points against the Heat) James pulled up just inside the three-point line to rattle home a jumper with 10.5 seconds remaining. That it was another blow against arguably Miami's biggest rival made it that much sweeter for the Heat. James had another game-winner during the streak, knocking home a lefty driving layup against the Magic. Heat 105, Celtics 103.
After hitting an absurd series of long-distance shots to get the Lakers to overtime, Bryant broke a tie game by turning the corner on Aaron Gray at the top of the key and attacking the empty space in the middle of Toronto's defense. As no one stepped up to disrupt his drive, Bryant kept going and going and going, all the way to the rim, where he finished a two-handed dunk to send Staples Center into hysterics. Vintage Vino, as Bryant would say. Get well soon, Mamba. Lakers, 118, Raptors 116.
3. Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving against the Raptors, Jan. 26, 2013
Irving is out here playing freaking video games. So confident, so young, such a pure stroke. Down two as the clock ticked down in regulation, Irving calmly brought the ball up court, milking the clock to three seconds before stepping into a three-pointer that was at least two steps behind the arc. Bang, with just one second left. Ball game. Maybe try guarding that guy next time? Cavaliers 99, Raptors 98.
Smith has never met a shot he didn't like; that's especially true when the game is on the line. Against Phoenix, the degree of difficulty was just absurd. Slipping as he came open on the inbounds play, Smith righted himself in time to step into the pass, catching it as he drifted at high speed into the left corner. With his momentum carrying him away from the court, Smith launched a crazy falling shot as his right leg kicked out and his arms splayed in the air. Somehow, despite a contesting effort, it went down. Earlier in the season, he hit a similarly tough fallaway game-winner against the Bobcats. Knicks 99, Suns 97.
1. Bucks' Monta Ellis against the Rockets, Feb. 27, 2013
In a season full of top-notch winners, nothing is beating Ellis' circus effort. With the score tied, Brandon Jennings worked on Jeremy Lin to no avail, opting to bail out by passing to Ellis outside the three-point arc with less than two seconds remaining. The pass carried away from Ellis' body somewhat, causing him to reach out and extend to his right as the clock ticked down to a single second. Rather than dribble or truly set himself, Ellis simply went with the flow, stepping back off one foot to launch a nutso-angle fallaway over Chandler Parsons. The buzzer sounded shortly after the release and the shot, much to everyone's surprise, rolled around the rim and in to give the Bucks an improbable road win. Celebration time: Ellis ran straight off the court with his jubilant teammates not far behind him. What more could you want? Bucks 110, Rockets 107.