There were well over 200 “game-winning” shots throughout the course of the 2018-19 NBA season, and many more in 2019-20. You probably cannot remember all of them, but you surely remember the incredible buzzer-beating shots by Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard in the playoffs.
Indeed, the playoffs have given basketball fans some of the most indelible moments in the history of the sport, including a number of series-clinching shots that will go down in NBA lore. While “game winners” are much more common, buzzer beaters are much more rare, making these moments even more special.
Here are the six most insane, clutch series-clinching buzzer-beater shots in NBA Playoff history.
6. John Stockton, 1997 Western Conference Finals
John Stockton and Karl Malone are the most famous pick-and-roll tandem in NBA history. Yet neither Stockton nor Malone had even so much as reached the NBA Finals in their first 11 seasons together.
But with the Jazz leading the Houston Rockets 3-2 in the 1997 Western Conference Finals, Stockton seized the opportunity to shed the “underachiever” label.
Utah had a side-out possession with the game tied at 100, and Stockton took the inbound from Bryon Russell and took one dribble before pulling up over Charles Barkley:
The shot not only sent the Jazz to the NBA Finals, but it also essentially closed the book on Barkley’s hopes to capture that elusive NBA championship. Utah went on to lose to Michael Jordan and the Bulls, but Stockton and Malone had finally reached the summit.
5. Ralph Sampson, 1986 Western Conference Finals
The Houston Rockets squared off against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference Finals a mere two seasons after winning just 29 games.
Led by the “Twin Towers” of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson–who were drafted in consecutive seasons–the Rockets won 51 games and entered the Conference Finals brimming with confidence.
Los Angeles won Game 1, but the Rockets took each of the next three games to take a 3-1 lead and put a stranglehold on the series. Still, they had to lose out the Lakers at the old Forum.
The two teams battled back-and-forth, but the Rockets had an opportunity to win the game with the score tied at 112 and one second remaining.
Houston threw the ball into Sampson, who stunned the Lakers by essentially flipping the ball behind his head in mid-air and watching it fall through the hoop as time expired:
Sampson would never quite be the same due to injuries that would devastate his career. But this moment will live forever in the annals of NBA history.
4. Damian Lillard, 2019 Western Conference First Round
The first-round series a year ago between the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder was never very close. If anything, watching Lillard jaw with Russell Westbrook was the most entertaining aspect of the first four games. Of course, Game 5 would change all of that with one stroke.
Oklahoma City led by 15 with under seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter after a 17-4 run to start the period. However, the Trial Blazers clawed back to tie the game with 32 seconds remaining.
Portland rebounded a Westbrook miss and immediately fed the ball to Lillard, who dribbled the clock down to the final seconds before heaving a ridiculous step-back jumper over Paul George to send OKC home:
The subsequent waving “bye-bye” and dog pile (plus all of the memes) cemented this moment as one of the greatest in recent NBA history, and it capped a 50-point night for Lillard.
3. Damian Lillard, 2014 Western Conference First Round
This is arguably the moment when “Dame Time” was born.
Lillard had developed into an All-Star just one year after winning the Rookie of the Year Award, but his Trail Blazers trailed the Houston Rockets 98-96 in Game 6 after an improbable scramble that led to a layup for then-Rockets forward Chandler Parson.
It seemed unlikely that the Blazers could get a clean look with just 0.9 seconds remaining, but Lillard caught Parsons napping as he raced around a series of screens, catching and shooting in a flash:
The shot gave Portland their first playoff series victory in 14 years. Not bad for a kid from Weber State.
2. Kawhi Leonard, 2019 Eastern Conference Semifinals
The two best words in sports: Game Seven.
What better way to cap off an epic series than with a buzzer-beater that bounced around the rim multiple times before falling through the cup? That is exactly what Kawhi Leonard gave NBA fans.
After Philadelphia 76ers wing Jimmy Butler tied the game at 90 apiece with four seconds remaining on a stunning coast-to-coast maneuver off a missed free-throw by Leonard, the eventual 2019 NBA Finals MVP took the ensuing inbounds all the way around the perimeter before arcing a shot over the top of 7-footer Joel Embiid.
The dribble, the bounce, the drama. This shot had it all:
Of course, the Raptors would go on to win their first NBA title, capping Leonard’s historic postseason. None of it would have been possible without this moment.
1. Michael Jordan, 1989 Eastern Conference First Round
So what could possibly top Leonard’s heroics? How about something known simply as “The Shot”?
Michael Jordan and the Bulls were up against it facing the Cavaliers in the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs. The Cavs had swept Chicago during the regular season, and it figured to be a ho-hum series.
Instead, the Bulls took two of the first three games, and the Cavs won Game 4 to face a winner-take-all Game 5 in Cleveland.
The two teams traded blows throughout the contest, with Jordan making a go-ahead jumper before Cavs wing Craig Ehlo made a driving layup to put Cleveland back up by one.
Unfortunately for Ehlo, Jordan was not quite finished. He split a double team to receive the ensuing inbounds pass, dribbling to the foul line and hanging in the air before stunning the Cavs:
This moment marked the birth of Jordan as the most iconic closer in the history of basketball, and it propelled the Bulls into a decade where they would win six NBA championships in eight seasons.