There’s shots in the NBA Playoffs that vaporize teams and send franchises scrambling into an instant rebuild. Shots that keep their victims up at night, tossing and turning. Ball hitting net burned into their retinas everywhere they look. Grasping at a ring stolen out of their fingertips.
1) Ray Allen rescues ‘The Decision’
Imagine spending a year’s worth of salary on a Tiffany’s engagement ring, only to have it snatched just before you propose. The Spurs’ Manu Ginóbili once commented, ‘It’s not the blowout losses that keep me up at night but the games that were decided on one or two plays.’ Better to lose the race early than get edged out at the finish line. The San Antonio Spurs were so close to victory they could taste it… Only to pause and rewind the moment a Larry O’Brien vanished from their trophy case for eternity. The squad would go on to achieve retribution in 2014 but the chance to tie Michael Jordan, even non-consecutively, will always elude the arena Tim Duncan built.
Ray Allen’s iconic shot not only devastated one franchise… It pulled one teammate’s off the court ‘Decision’ from the quicksand of lifelong scrutiny. In an alternate timeline where Allen misses, the last visual from 2013 NBA Finals would have been LeBron James missing a crucial shot as time winds down. Going 1 of 3 in the NBA Finals after boasting “Not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7!” during a Miami Heat debut press conference. Along with a calamitous defeat against an overmatched underdog on paper during the 2011 NBA Finals. Perhaps, LeBron never goes back to the Cleveland Cavaliers, feeling intense pressure to prove South Beach was the right choice…
2) Kyrie Irving changes landscape of the NBA with a single shot
Kyrie Irving’s fancy ball handling into a rhythm 3 in the 2016 NBA Finals set the course for an arms race. An NBA Cold War. Make no mistake, if the Warriors win this series, it’s a good bet Draymond Green never calls Kevin Durant in that parking lot. Or at all. There would be no need to fix that which isn’t broken. The chances for Durant signing onboard with the Warriors in the summer are drastically reduced. Maybe Durant even remains in OKC, signs a speculative 1+1 deal.
It was this Irving 3-pointer fueling a Championship comeback that left the Warriors scrambling for answers. A 3-1 series lead squandered. Enter the era of the Big 4. Rolling tanks into every game against the equivalent of volunteer infantry on horseback. The years following would see the NBA lose even a hint of parity as the Warriors became unstoppable, a literal regular season All-Star team. Crowned champions before pre-season barring injury.
3) Damian Lillard sends the Thunder into an instant rebuild
Fatality. Flawless Victory. Damian Lillard uppercutted the Thunder franchise out of the sky and descending into an unforgiving pit. The series winning buzzer beater not only put an end to the Thunder’s playoff hopes, it single handily sent its two franchise players onto two different teams. Leaving the most meager of remnants of Thunder DNA behind.
Miles away from the NBA Finals trip of yore. Lillard would ominously wave good bye, leaving a franchise crumbled under the weight of one shot. As The Prodigy’s Keith Flint once sang, “I hear Thunder but there’s no Rain.”
4) Kawhi Leonard raises Raptors, makes opponent shed tears
Kawhi Leonard made time stand still, and went it came back a 7-foot phenom was reduced to uncontrollable tears. The young 76ers paid the collective dues of hard earned agony. When your very best is still not good enough. When giving it your all, 110%, does not match what you envisioned in your mind.
The Raptors would go on to win the NBA Championship and though Kawhi left, the franchise will always look back fondly at The Klaw. While the 76ers play catch up to what could have been…
5) Stephen Curry ends ‘Grit and Grind’ from half court
There are times when a shot can demoralize and gut punch an opponent onto the ropes before a fourth quarter even commences. Stephen Curry’s buzzer beating 3 from half court made the boulder the Grizzlies had been working so hard to push forward, roll right back. Despite a valiant comeback by a returning face masked Mike Conley in Game 2 and 3 of the series, team adrenaline was starting to wear off.
It was the best the Grizzlies had looked since the 2011 and 2013 playoffs… And it still wasn’t enough to put the Warriors away. ‘Grit and Grind’ would never fully recover after this playoff loss, losing two years in a row to the Spurs. Full circle. The team they’d once vanquished from Championship aspirations in 2011 returning the favor. The roster would slowly be disassembled as the era of the last traditional big man-led team concluded. Postups traded in favor of standing behind the 3-point line.
6) LeBron James shows there’s no stopping momentum in the NBA
The invisible hand of momentum is dually deceptive. To the ones caught in its crosshairs, there’s no leaving the containment zone, to outsiders it feels nonexistent. Equal opportunity. Another game, another chance. Manu Ginóbili once commented following Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals to USA Today, “I have no clue how we’re going to be re-energized. I’m devastated. But we have to. There’s no Game 8 afterward.”
Ray Allen’s championship sinking 3-pointer had demoralized the Spurs to the point of no return. LeBron’s Game 7 winner would finalize the Spurs’ fate for the Finals. One that had already been written before tipoff. Just look at Tim Duncan uncharacteristically slapping the court, every possession gone wrong playing before his eyes in one flash.
7) Kevin Durant returns Finals pain experience, full circle
When you’re constantly fighting the tide, you end up being swept up. The Cavaliers’ hopes of living another day were dashed as a Great White’s fin thwarted their exhausting escape. With one 3-pointer, Kevin Durant closed the book on any divine comeback and effectively ended the series. One lion can only dominate the savannah for so long before his hungry peers team up to oust him from his throne.
8) Lillard takes franchise mantle with one shot
Damian Lillard rise to prominence after ending the Rockets’ postseason hopes would led to an unexpected consequence… The perception by the Trail Blazers’ franchise big man LaMarcus Aldridge to feel underappreciated according to USA Today. Aldridge would depart to the San Antonio Spurs, leaving a Trail Blazers team that until this day, is always one Aldridge level big man from contending. Jusuf Nurkić being the first to show what could have been until suffering a season ending injury.
Ironically, Houston would make a deep run in the playoffs the season after, while the Trail Blazers were eliminated quietly in the first round. Only winning one game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
9) Metta World Peace/Ron Artest makes Lakers History
There are few rivalries as iconic as the Lakers/Celtics, spanning multiple generations. An unlikely hero rose in the midst of the Celtics’ infantry swarming General Mamba. The Lakers’ Ron Artest/Metta World Peace would launch the most clutch 3-pointer of his career to put the squad up 6 with one minute to go. Following up with kisses blown to the crowd. The pendulum would swing the Lakers way to another Championship parade. Redemption tour complete.
10) Paul Pierce exposes Raptors’ foundations
Before LeBronto, Paul Pierce was already exposing the Raptors to the basketball world. Pierce sank a late fourth quarter 3 to put the Wizards up 3-0 against the Raptors with signature worthy ease. In many ways, this game should have served as a warning sign to the franchise that for whatever reason the Lowry/DeRozan 1-2 punch didn’t quite work together. Despite their great individual talents as players and friendship off the court, the duo appeared to repeatedly lose confidence in the face of adversity. Lowry would go 5-22 and DeRozan 11-29, making most of his 32 points at the free throw line (7 of 7) in their Game 3 loss.
While the Raptors would make a deep run the following year, LeBron would end their hopes, and do the same the following two seasons. Sometimes a single shot is an exposé.
Bonus #1: Zach Randolph’s statement on playoff seeding
There is no greater basketball pain for a #1 seed than to be sent home in the first round. The drudgery of the regular season proven fruitless in the end. Zach Randolph’s 3 put the Grizzlies up 2-1 but it was already crystal clear where the tide was turning.
Randolph had previously led a rebellion against the Mavericks after being down 0-3 in the 2003 NBA Playoffs as a Trail Blazer. Taking the Mavs to the brink of humiliating defeat in an unprecedented Game 7. He scoffs at being the underdog having any meaning. The Grizzlies eliminating the Spurs would cement Grit and Grind as a movement in Memphis. ZBo, their Shepard.
Bonus #2: Vince Carter’s alternate timeline 3
For many years, Vince Carter was disparaged by the media for attending his college graduation ahead of Game 7 of the 2001 Raptors/76ers series. Detractors bringing up the final missed shot and loss as a supposed result of not staying linearly focused. In reality, according to Ball Is Life, Vince Carter only stayed for 20 minutes of the ceremony and was already in Philly “5 hours before the game.” While VC had no regrets about attending the ceremony, he was able to reconcile the moment with a corner buzzer beating 3 in the 2014 NBA Playoffs. Goes to show, every career is one shot away from critical acclaim or eternal criticism.
Free throws that changed the game:
It’s not always the whirlwind buzzer beaters from behind the the 3-point line or the shake and bake rhythm shots that change the game. Sometimes two free throws immeasurably change the league’s trajectory. In 2013, Kobe Bryant suffered a season ending achilles tear in a regular season game against the Golden State Warriors. Mamba never quite had the same lift upon returning, understandably so.
The basketball world was robbed of enjoying superhuman, Hollywood-esque feats like Kobe’s 2006 Game Winner against the Phoenix Suns. Of course, Kobe being Kobe, left the game on his own terms with 60 points and the W for his retirement game against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center. Hollywood-esque indeed.
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Read Laker Lore: Kobe Bryant hits 2006 Game Winner against Phoenix Suns and relive one of the NBA’s most iconic moments!