The NBA Playoffs have a reputation, at times, for being a little predictable. Unlike, say, March Madness, where the single-elimination tournament factor gives each game a do-or-die intensity, the NBA Playoffs feature a progression of best-of-seven series. In a best-of-seven, the better team usually ends up winning, no matter how many wild things happen along the way.
That predictability has a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg argument to it though. Michael Jordan, for example, made it to the NBA Finals six times over the course of his career, and he won the series all six times. History has made those wins feel inevitable, but — as you will see if you continue reading — there were occasional moments where things were far more up-in-the-air than you’d think.
Last season’s playoffs provide another interesting case study. The Milwaukee Bucks won the Championship, cementing their star player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, as one of the all-time greats at the age of just 26. Looking back, Antetokounmpo’s hold over the moment feels like it was always going to be that way, but along the way, anything could have happened. Perhaps the most iconic shot of the Finals was Jrue Holiday’s alley-oop pass to Giannis for the dunk at the end of game 5. When that dunk happened, the series was tied at two games apiece. If Giannis didn’t catch that pass or finish that dunk, who knows what would’ve happened?
And that play isn’t even iconic enough to make the cut on this list! What follows are my picks for the five greatest clutch shots in NBA Playoffs history.
5. Larry Bird’s Put-Back in Game 1 of the 1981 NBA Finals
In the interest of not letting this list be too one-dimensional, I wanted to make sure I chose at least one shot that wasn’t a buzzer beater. This play — from Bird’s second season in the league — is also the only one on this list that also includes a missed shot. Coming down the stretch of game 1 of the 1981 NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets, Bird’s Boston Celtics were down three points with seven minutes to play. That’s when Bird flew around a pick from Robert Parish and took a 20-foot jump shot that bounced off the rim to the right.
What he did next was something legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach called “the greatest play I’ve ever seen.” Bird tracked the miss — almost behind the backboard on the right side — and jumped to grab it. With his momentum carrying him out of bounds, he laid the ball in without coming back down. The Celtics, of course, went on to win the game and the Championship.
Most clutch shots are just that — a single player taking and making a shot in a huge moment. What made this play by Bird so special is that it combined so much of what made Bird great in one key moment: his preternatural sense of court awareness, his improvisational flair, his nose for angles as a rebounder. Doing it in the fourth quarter of a Finals game is what makes it clutch. Bird was one of the greatest shooters of all-time, so it’s extra special that his perhaps greatest playoff shot came immediately after a shot he himself missed. As the spark that led to the first Championship of his career, it’s hard to imagine what might’ve happened without it.
4. Kyrie Irving’s Pull-Up Three-Pointer in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals
The 2016 NBA Finals are now famous for the 3–1 advantage the Golden State Warriors gave up in losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games. Game seven was a slugfest, with neither team leading by more than seven points at any time in the game after a series in which each of the previous six games were decided by more than 10 points.
Things reached a fever pitch when — with the game knotted up at 89–89 after a Klay Thompson basket for the Warriors with 4:39 left to go in the fourth quarter — neither team managed to score a single point for almost four full minutes of action. Then, with just over a minute left, Kyrie Irving had the ball at the top of the key, and the Cavaliers screened to get him matched up against Stephen Curry. Irving went to work, jabbed at Curry, launched a step-back three-pointer from the right wing, and nailed it.
Neither team made another basket, and the Irving shot was enough to get the win. Like most clutch shots, it’s the moment that made the play great more than the play itself — Irving getting into his bag and pulling up for a step-back is something you can see any night he plays basketball. This shot though — coming as it did after nearly four minutes of nervous misses and mistakes from both teams in the highest-pressure situation possible — is one of those plays that alters the league itself: the Warriors responded to the loss by adding Kevin Durant to their team and ripping off two consecutive championships.
3. Michael Jordan’s Foul-Line Jumper at the Buzzer in Game 5 of the 1989 Eastern Conference First Round
No list of clutch basketball shots can exist without including this one, which history has auspiciously named “The Shot.” It has its own Wikipedia page and everything. In some ways, it should be overkill at this point: this was a year in which Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls didn’t win the title or even make it to the Finals. The Shot, though, has taken on an almost biblical quality over time. If Jordan is — as The Last Dance documentary seemed to suggest — a kind of superhero, then The Shot is his origin story.
It’s also just a really awesome play. With only a few seconds left, the Bulls were down by a single point. Jordan navigated multiple Cleveland Cavaliers defenders to get himself open for the inbound pass, then — with all nearby defenders still leaning toward the passer — he sprinted with the ball to the spot he wanted to shoot from, stopped on a dime, and rose up. There’s something so aesthetically pleasing about the way Craig Ehlo — Jordan’s closest defender — glides past Jordan, who seems to hang briefly in mid-air.
If Jordan hadn’t gone on to be the greatest basketball player of all-time, this would have just been a kind of cool moment — a young player winning just the second playoff series of his young career on a sweet buzzer-beater — much like in his college days. Was it already inevitable in May of 1989 that Jordan was going to have the career he did? It wasn’t — and that’s what makes a moment like this so clutch and so meaningful.
2. Ray Allen’s Corner Dagger to Force Overtime in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals
On a personal note, this shot absolutely killed me. Tim Duncan — the all-time great big man for the San Antonio Spurs, who lost this game — was one of my few favorite players ever, and I was deeply rooting for his Spurs to beat LeBron James’ Miami Heat superteam, a.k.a. “The Heatles.” Famously, in the action leading up to the moment of this shot, the Spurs went up by 5 points on a Manu Ginobili free throw with 23 seconds left. Even the arena crew started getting ready to bring out the Championship Trophy for the end of the series.
That’s not what happened, though. LeBron cut the lead to two with a three-pointer, and then Kawhi Leonard missed one of two free throws, so the Heat got the ball back with 19 seconds remaining and down just three points. LeBron took another three with eight seconds left and missed it, and that’s when the magic happened. Chris Bosh grabbed an absolutely monstrous rebound despite being surrounded by three Spurs players, and kicked it out to Ray Allen, who was furiously back-pedaling to make sure he was behind the three-point line. Allen nailed the shot to tie the game, and the Heat won in overtime to force a Game 7 that they also went on to win.
Winning this series cemented the Heat — and LeBron James — in the pantheon of the all-time greats, but it was also the culmination of everything that was great about Ray Allen, a hall of fame-level player in his own right. The awareness of time and score, the ability to shift from being in the rebounding action to dashing out to the three-point line, and the ability to set his feet and knock down the shot — it’s all the product of years of practice for one of the greatest shooters ever. The shot literally swung the championship itself; it belongs in this spot.
1. Michael Jordan’s Jumper Over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals
Nearly a decade after his first entry on this list, Jordan took this shot. At the time, we thought it was the last shot of his career. Even though he ended up coming out of retirement to play for the Wizards three years later, it still kind of feels that way. The poetry of this being the last great moment in the career of the greatest basketball player of all-time is just too much to pass up on a list like this. You can’t beat it.
What’s gotten lost over time is how miraculous the whole sequence leading up to this shot was. The Utah Jazz led Jordan’s Chicago Bulls for most of the game, and after Jordan made two free throws to tie the game with 59 seconds remaining, legendary Jazz point guard John Stockton nailed a three-pointer to give the Jazz a three-point lead. Then it was Jordan Time.
First, Jordan beat Bryon Russell off the dribble and then evaded Karl Malone to finish a tough layup, cutting Utah’s lead to one point. That alone was a huge play, but we barely even remember it because of what happened next. Up one with 37 seconds left, the Jazz worked deliberately to get Karl Malone — also one of the greatest players of all time — the ball on the left block. Jordan, of course, snuck up behind Malone as a help-defender and stole the ball. Then, after all that, comes the famous shot. You’ve seen it a million times: Jordan set up Bryon Russell, gave him a little shove as he went into his crossover dribble, and rose up for the game winner.
When it was all said and done, Jordan scored the last eight points of the game for the Bulls and made the key defensive play to get the ball back when they needed it most. It’s the greatest clutch shot in the history of the NBA Playoffs, but it’s definitely the mystique of the moment and the total, absolute control Jordan exerted over the deciding moments of the game that make it special in a way that lives on even now.