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Ranking the 10 Best Buzzer Beaters in NBA History
There isn’t a much more exciting instance in sports than an NBA buzzer-beater. It’s hard to match the thrill of hitting a game-winner. Making that shot in front of a home crowd makes it that much better.
The NBA has seen countless buzzer-beaters throughout its history, but only the best of the best can make the top 10. We’ll factor in significance, meaning the best NBA buzzer beaters come from the playoffs.
Here is my list of the greatest buzzer beaters in NBA history.
10. Robert Horry, 2002 Western Conference Finals, Game 4
Unfortunately, most people remember the 2002 Western Conference Finals for the controversy surrounding the refs rigging Game 6. However, none of that was an issue in Game 4.
The Sacramento Kings were looking to take a 3-1 series lead over the Los Angeles Lakers. Sacramento looked strong early, holding a 20-point lead after the first quarter. Los Angeles steadily chipped away, with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal leading the way.
Los Angeles faced a two-point deficit with 11 seconds remaining. Bryant drove to the basket but missed. Then, O’Neal missed a put back attempt. The ball bounced perfectly to Robert Horry on the three-point line.
(2002) 16 years ago today, Robert Horry hit one of the most memorable shots in Laker history to tie up the WCF 2-2. pic.twitter.com/CLY5H7giMA— Timeless Sports (@timelesssports_) May 27, 2018
“Big Shot Bob” hit the game-winning three-pointer over Chris Webber to give the Lakers a 100-99 victory. The Lakers crowd went into a frenzy as the Lakers tied the series. It gave them new life in pursuit of a third straight championship.
Ultimately, we know how the series ended. Los Angeles forced a Game 7 after a controversial Game 6. The Lakers won Games 6 and 7 to advance to the NBA Finals. They defeated the New Jersey Nets to pull off a three-peat.
It likely wouldn’t have happened without Horry’s buzzer-beater.
9. Kobe Bryant, 2006 First Round, Game 4
There’s no way we could talk about the best NBA buzzer-beaters without mentioning Kobe Bryant. Bryant was so clutch that we dedicated a page to his greatest buzzer beaters and clutch moments.
The Los Angeles Lakers were the underdog in the first round of the 2006 NBA playoffs. However, they held a 2-1 series lead, with a chance to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
It was a close battle between the Lakers and Phoenix Suns. Los Angeles trailed by five with 11 seconds remaining. Smush Parker hit a three-pointer before forcing a steal. Bryant hit a runner to send the game to overtime.
In overtime, the Lakers faced a one-point deficit with six seconds remaining. Los Angeles won the jump ball, giving Bryant a chance at a game-winner.
Was there any doubt? Bryant hit the jumper from the right elbow to give the Lakers the victory. He hit many game-winners in his NBA career, but this is his most memorable buzzer-beater.
Unfortunately, it was all for not as the Lakers blew the 3-1 series lead, losing in the first round. Still, Bryant’s buzzer-beater remains one of the best of all time.
8. Damian Lillard, 2014 First Round, Game 6
Damian Lillard has earned the reputation of being one of the most clutch players in the NBA. He began to earn that reputation with his buzzer-beater in the 2014 NBA playoffs.
The Portland Trail Blazers entered Game 6 with a chance to win their first playoff series since 2000. Game 6 was extremely competitive, as the first three quarters were decided by one point. That set up an exciting fourth quarter.
A clutch layup by Chandler Parsons gave the Houston Rockets a two-point lead with 0.9 seconds remaining. That should’ve been enough to force a Game 7, but not with Lillard.
Lillard came off the screen, clapping his hands to signal he was open. He caught the ball and hoisted the game-winning three. It was nothing but net, giving the Trail Blazers their first playoff series victory in 14 years.
It didn’t mean much for the Trail Blazers’ playoff hopes, as they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round. However, the thrilling NBA buzzer-beater was an iconic moment for Lillard and the Trail Blazers franchise.
What’s crazy about this shot is it’s not the best buzzer-beater of his career. Keep that in mind for later.
7. Derek Fisher, 2004 Second Round, Game 5
The Los Angeles Lakers love their playoff buzzer-beaters. We’ve already talked about Robert Horry and Kobe Bryant, but Derek Fisher’s buzzer-beater in the 2004 NBA playoffs tops those shots.
Los Angeles dropped the first two games of their playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs, but back-to-back wins brought them back into the series.
Game 4 was a defensive battle, as neither team scored over 25 points in a quarter. The Lakers held a one-point lead, but Tim Duncan hit a crazy fadeaway over Shaquille O’Neal with 0.4 seconds remaining. That shot should’ve given the Spurs the win, but 0.4 seconds was enough for Fisher.
San Antonio wouldn’t let Bryant take the last shot. Fisher flashed open, caught the ball, and turned to hit the game-winner. It was close, but the ball was out of his hands to give the Lakers the Game 5 victory.
The shot propelled the Lakers to a series victory. They made the NBA Finals, losing to the Detroit Pistons.
Fisher’s shot will go down as one of the craziest NBA buzzer-beaters. It’s impressive he was able to turn and make the shot in 0.4 seconds.
6. Michael Jordan, 1989 First Round, Game 5
We often hear people debate if Michael Jordan or LeBron James is the G.O.A.T. One of the bigger arguments for Jordan is his ability to step up in the clutch. He hit many clutch shots in his career, but his best NBA buzzer-beater was in the 1989 playoffs.
In 1989, the first round of the playoffs was a best of five. The Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers each won two games, making Game 5 a win-or-go-home matchup.
Jordan had a great performance, but the Cavaliers held a six-point lead in the fourth quarter. Chicago trailed by one with three seconds remaining. They tried to keep Jordan from getting the ball, but that wouldn’t be possible.
Jordan double-clutched before hitting the game-winner to send the Bulls to the second round. He jumped into the air, pumping his fist after the game-winner. This was the first time a buzzer-beater decided a winner-take-all game in NBA history.
Chicago advanced to the Eastern Conference Final, losing to the Detroit Pistons. However, that can’t discount “The Shot” from being one of the greatest NBA buzzer-beaters.
5. Damian Lillard, 2019 First Round, Game 5
I mentioned that Damian Lillard’s buzzer-beater in the 2014 playoffs wasn’t the best of his career. That honor belongs to his game-winner in the first round of the 2019 NBA playoffs.
The Portland Trail Blazers held a 3-1 series lead, but the Oklahoma City Thunder weren’t going down without a fight. They jumped out to an eight-point first-quarter lead, but Portland quickly erased the deficit.
Lillard was on his way to an historic performance. He dropped 19 points in the first quarter and had 34 in the first half. He hit a layup with 32 seconds remaining to tie the game. A Russell Westbrook miss gave the Trail Blazers the final shot.
He was well beyond the three-point arc, but Lillard was comfortable enough to take a 36-footer to win the game. The rest was history.
Lillard knocked down his 10th three-pointer en route to a 50-point night. It was a crazy buzzer-beater, as Lillard was nearly on the Trail Blazers logo. The game-winner sent the Trail Blazers to the second round.Portland advanced to the Western Conference Final, losing to the Golden State Warriors. This remains an iconic moment in Trail Blazers’ history.
4. Jerry West, 1970 NBA Finals, Game 3
We haven’t talked about many top buzzer-beaters from back in the day. We’re going back to the 1970 NBA Finals to find one of the best buzzer beaters of all time.
Big surprise, the Los Angeles Lakers make another appearance on this list. This time, we’ll focus on their NBA Finals matchup against the New York Knicks. Both teams were aiming for a 2-1 series lead.
Los Angeles held a 14-point lead at halftime, but New York mounted a second-half comeback. The Knicks had a two-point lead in the final seconds, but Jerry West wasn’t letting the Knicks win in regulation.
West hit a 60-footer from beyond half court to tie the game. That would’ve been a game-winner in today’s NBA, but the NBA didn’t have a three-point line in 1970. The long-distance shot makes it one of the most unbelievable NBA buzzer-beaters.
Unfortunately, the shot didn’t change the outcome as the Knicks won in overtime. New York won the 1970 NBA Finals in six games.
I believe people forget about this buzzer-beater since it’s the 1970s, and it wasn’t a game-winner. However, there’s no denying it was one of the craziest NBA buzzer-beaters.
3. John Stockton, 1997 Western Conference Finals, Game 6
The Utah Jazz entered the 1996-97 season, finally looking to make the NBA Finals. They lost in the Western Conference Finals in three of the previous five seasons, but it was looking good for Utah. They held a 3-2 series lead over the Houston Rockets.
Houston had an eight-point lead at halftime, but Utah cut it to three at the start of the fourth quarter. The Rockets were up double-digits in the fourth quarter, but the Jazz continued to fight back.
Clyde Drexler missed a go-ahead jumper, giving the Jazz two seconds to win the game. That was more than enough for John Stockton.
Stockton had a clean look, swishing the game-winning three-pointer to send the Jazz to the NBA Finals. The Houston crowd was shocked as their season came to a sudden end. Shots like this are why Stockton is the best Gonzaga player to play in the NBA.
The Jazz failed to win the NBA Finals, but the crazy buzzer-beater was important for the Jazz’s franchise. They finally overcame the roadblock that prevented them from making the NBA Finals.
2. Ralph Sampson, 1986 Western Conference Finals, Game 5
Eleven years before John Stockton’s buzzer-beater sent the Utah Jazz to the NBA Finals, there was Ralph Sampson. The Houston Rockets held a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals as they played Game 5 in Los Angeles.
It wouldn’t be easy to close out this Lakers team, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy. After the first quarter, Los Angeles held a 12-point lead, but Houston steadily chipped away.
It was a tie game with one second remaining. Houston inbounded the ball to Sampson. Sampson caught the ball, turned, and shot the ball in midair.
The ball bounced off the rim and into the net to give Houston a Game 5 victory. More importantly, it sent them to the NBA Finals. It’s one of the most amazing buzzer-beaters in NBA history.
Sampson did everything in one motion. He caught the ball in the air and shot it over Abdul-Jabbar. That capped off a 29-point performance for Sampson. He became the first player in NBA history to send his team to the NBA Finals on a game-winning buzzer-beater.
Houston lost the NBA Finals in six games.
1. Kawhi Leonard, 2019 Second Round, Game 7
You don’t have to be a new NBA fan to remember the best NBA buzzer-beater. The Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers had a thrilling playoff series in 2019, with the series going to a Game 7.
Toronto held a four-point lead at halftime, but the 76ers refused to go away. The two teams continued to go back and forth. Jimmy Butler’s layup tied the game with four seconds remaining.
The Raptors had the final shot with a chance to win the series. Everyone knew Kawhi Leonard would get the ball. Leonard caught the ball, dribbled to the corner, and fired the game-winner.
Still hard to believe this is shot by Kawhi Leonard. Game 7. Game winner. 😳 🤯 pic.twitter.com/4B3AUp51i6— Hoops ON Tap (@SONTHoops) January 16, 2021
The ball bounced on the rim four times before going through the basket. Toronto’s crowd went into a frenzy as Leonard’s game-winner sent them to the Eastern Conference Final. Leonard scored 15 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter.
Almost every buzzer-beater we’ve discussed has ended in a playoff disappointment. However, Leonard earned the No. 1 spot because the Raptors went on to win the NBA Finals.
Leonard won NBA Finals MVP after leading the Raptors to their first championship in franchise history. There’s a good chance that doesn’t happen without the greatest buzzer-beater in NBA history.
Recapping the Best Buzzer Beaters in NBA History
There isn’t a much better feeling in the NBA than hitting a buzzer-beater. NBA players know that shot is why their team picked up a crucial victory. The best NBA buzzer beaters helped teams pick up marquee playoff victories.
There’s no doubt we’ll continue to see more memorable buzzer-beaters. It’s only a matter of time before one joins this list.
Buzzer beaters have a significant impact on the betting market. Feel free to check out our guide to NBA betting.