Every kid dreamed of hitting the game-winning, buzzer-beating shot in the championship game in their driveway. You learn about multipositional basketball because you’re simultaneously the shooter, play-by-play man, crowd and teammates. It couldn’t be a more valuable teaching moment.
Naturally, your buzzer-beater is for all the marbles because — let’s be honest — hitting the game-winner is an adrenaline rush that can only be compared to watching pizza rolls cook in the microwave. But, our kids are learning that the buzzer-beater is the only shot that matters. To me, that’s a failure of society. What about the shots that gave you the opportunity to hit a buzzer-beater?
We can use the NBA Finals as the perfect teaching opportunity. Unlike any other form of championship basketball, the Finals are a grueling best of seven-game series. You hit a buzzer-beater to win Game 1 or 2? Great, but you have to refocus again in a couple of nights. It’s all about the journey, and throughout the 75-year history of the NBA, the Finals has given us clutch shots that not only have won the whole dang thing, but others that prove coming up big in one game isn’t enough.
For the sake of preventing a societal collapse and giving our kids a fighting chance, let’s take a look at the most clutch shots in NBA Finals history game-by-game.
The Most Clutch Shots in NBA Finals History, By Game
Game 1: Allen Iverson’s Jumper After Crossing Ty Lue in 2001
There’s an argument to be made that Allen Iverson crossing Ty Lue, hitting the 16-foot jumper, then disrespectfully stepping over Lue on his way back down the court is the most iconic shot in NBA history. Iverson was the NBA MVP that year and led a less-than-impressive Philadelphia 76ers bunch to the NBA Finals against the mighty Los Angeles Lakers. LA had Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, of course, but as a team, they were already champions and in the midst of a 19-game winning streak that extended back to the regular season. A repeat looked inevitable.
However, the Sixers took the Lakers to overtime in Game 1 behind Iverson’s 48 points. His 47th and 48th points were his jumper over Lue, which extended Philly’s lead to four, and they miraculously took the opening game in Los Angeles. The Lakers ended up winning the series in five, but for a split second there was a “Holy shit, can AI actually lead the 76ers over the juggernaut Lakers?”
Peak Iverson was the best.
Game 2: Gerald Henderson’s Steal & Layup in 1984
The first NBA Finals meeting between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird was what every basketball fan had been waiting for since the two entered the league. Magic had two titles to his name, but the head-to-head matchup with Bird would determine who the NBA’s best player was.
In Game 2, with the Los Angeles Lakers holding a 1-0 series lead and a 113-11 advantage with 18 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Lakers forward James Worthy threw an errant pass that was intercepted by Boston Celtics guard Gerald Henderson. Henderson scored a layup off the play to send the game into overtime, where the Celtics would win 124-121.
Boston won the series in seven, and Bird got his revenge on Magic for the 1979 NCAA Championship game.
Game 3: Kevin Durant’s Pull-Up 3 in 2018
I wasn’t a fan of the Golden State Warriors from 2016-19, and I’m not afraid to admit it. It was entertaining to watch the combination of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green play, though. I mean, how often will we get to see an offense of that magnitude on the court together. It was a a 1-percent love, 99-percent hate relationship.
In 2018, Golden State met the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals for the fourth-straight season. It was more or less a done deal the Warriors were going to win again. The Cavs were fried, and it was the first year sans Kyrie after he forced his way to the Boston Celtics. The Cavs gave Golden State all they could handle in Game 3, however, and were within three points with just under a minute remaining.
Then, Kevin Durant pulled up from the parking lot to put the game away for good. The guts to take the shot is one thing, to actually hit it is another. The Warriors won 110-102 and swept the Cavs to defend their title.
You could easily put Jerry West’s 60-foot heave against the New York Knicks in 1970 here, but, to me, a desperation shot is more lucky than clutch.
Game 4: Magic Johnson’s “Junior, Junior” Sky Hook in 1987
Larry got the first Finals matchup against Magic, but Magic evened up the series in 1985. Two years, later Magic wasn’t going to lose the rubber match. He made sure of it with his legendary skyhook in Game 4.
The Lakers came back from a 16-point deficit but were still down 106-105 with seven seconds remaining in the game. Magic received the inbound pass from Michael Cooper, got by Celtics forward Kevin McHale, and released a baby hook that barely cleared McHale and help defender Robert Parish.
The hook shot, called the “junior, junior” shot by hook-shot master Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, gave the Lakers a 107-106 win. LA would go on to win the series in six games.
Game 5: Michael Jordan’s Go-Ahead 3-Pointer Caps the “Flu Game” in 1997
One of the few times the Chicago Bulls of the ’90s looked vulnerable was in the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz. The Bulls won the first two games, but the Jazz answered by winning Games 3 and 4. And what do you know, the Jazz had a prime opportunity to take the series lead because Michael Jordan fell ill before Game 5 in Utah.
But, Michael Jordan wouldn’t be Michael Jordan if he keeled over and sat out like any of us regular mortals would. No, he still scored 38 points in 44 minutes despite looking miserable every dead ball. His final three points came with 25 seconds left in the game and the score tied at 85. Scottie Pippen found MJ open for three at the top of the key, and he buried it to take the lead.
The Bulls won this game and Game 6 for ring number five, and the “flu game” remains one of the NBA’s most legendary individual performances.
Game 6: Ray Allen’s 3-Pointer in 2013
There are a billion choices for Game 6, particularly from the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls. John Paxson hitting a three to close out the Phoenix Suns in 1993; Steve Kerr hitting an 18-footer to beat the Utah Jazz in ’97; Jordan crossing Byron Russell and hitting a 17-footer to complete Chicago’s second three-peat in ’98. All iconic.
But….there’s always a but…Ray Allen’s three-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals is the epitome of do or die. The Heat were down 95-92 to the San Antonio Spurs, who held a 3-2 series lead, with 17 seconds remaining. LeBron missed a three coming off a screen and Chris Bosh miraculously grabbed the offensive board and dished it to Allen behind the arc. The sharp-shooter rose up without any hesitation and nailed the game-tying three. Miami ended up beating the Spurs in overtime and forced a Game 7, which they ended up winning to defend their title.
Allen saved the Heat’s season, and without this shot, we look at Miami’s Big 3-era very differently.
Game 7: Kyrie Irving’s Dagger in 2016
The Golden State Warriors were virtually unstoppable during the 2015-16 NBA campaign. They got their 73rd win of the regular season — a NBA record — the same night Kobe Bryant dropped 60 in the last game of his career. They cruised through the postseason and looked to be on their way to completing the all-time year with a 3-1 series lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers heading into Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love kickstarted a comeback for the ages by winning Games 5 and 6 and forcing a Game 7. The two teams traded punches throughout the deciding contest, but LeBron and Kyrie gave us two of the greatest plays in NBA Finals history. James famously blocked Andre Iguodala with under two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the game tied at 89.
And with 53 seconds left, Kyrie Irving went into isolation mode against Steph Curry and sunk a ballsy three-pointer that gave the Cavs a 92-89 lead. The Cavs won the game 93-89, completed the miraculous comeback and thwarted the Warriors from a historic year.
Kyrie’s three is one of the best “No, no, yes!” shots you’ll ever see. To do it against this Warriors team is icing on the cake.