As we approach the end of the 2010s -- I feel obligated to write "twenty-tens" for pronunciation clarity -- there's a lot of looking back to do across the NBA landscape. Naming an All-Decade team, for instance. We should all be able to agree that LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are locks. Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook have legit cases for the final two spots. Educated debate is a worthy endeavor.
As is the debate I'm about to frame: The 10 biggest shots of the last decade. It's a tough list to crack. Considering stakes, stage and circumstance, you could argue the two biggest shots in NBA history came in the last decade. In fact, I will make that argument. You can decide for yourself, and surely not everyone will agree with me. But this is my list. The 10 biggest shots of the decade.
Note: In Game 2 of the 2011 NBA Finals, Dirk Nowitzki beat Chris Bosh off the dribble and converted a layup with just over three seconds to play. It won the game, and it swung the Finals, which the Mavericks eventually won. It was a giant bucket, no question, but it was a layup, so I decided not to put it on the list of biggest shots. I understand fully if you disagree. Dirk created that layup. He beat his man in a huge moment and converted. But again, it was a layup. LeBron James also converted a game-winning layup vs. the Pacers in the 2013 conference finals on a Paul George overplay, and I didn't include that one either. I drew the line at layups. That's my explanation.
Now, without further qualification, here's the list.
10. Manu stuns upset-minded Warriors
Before the Warriors were The Warriors, they were a No. 6 seed taking the 2013 playoffs by storm. After upsetting the third-seeded Nuggets in the first round, they had the Spurs on the ropes in Game 1 of the conference semis -- up 16 with under five minutes to play. Then San Antonio went on an 18-2 run to close regulation and the game ultimately wound up in double-overtime, where the Warriors looked to have won the game -- again -- on a Kent Bazemore (of all people) streaking layup that put the Warriors up one with 3.9 seconds to play.
Then Manu Ginobili did this:
The Warriors came back to win Game 2 of this series, and anyone who had watched both games knew Golden State looked like the superior team. "We looked at the tape, and out of 106 total minutes in the first two games, we had won 100 of them," Darren Erman, who was an assistant on that Warriors team, recently told CBS Sports. "We really felt like we were going to win that series."
If Manu doesn't hit that shot, there's a good chance Erman and the Warriors would've been right. But he did hit it. And Curry wound up spraining his ankle later in the series. And Harrison Barnes suffered a concussion. And Gregg Popovich put on a coaching clinic. And the Spurs were the Spurs and wound up winning in six and going on the Finals, where they were one iconic Ray Allen 3-pointer (which we'll see later on this list) away from winning it all.
Manu was terrible in this game -- 4 of 19 before that shot. But all anyone remembers is the one that went down.
"I went from trading him on the spot to wanting to cook him breakfast tomorrow," Popovich said of Ginobili after the game. "That's the truth."
9. Steph Curry daggers OKC
As regular-season shots go, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more iconic game-winner than Curry's 40-foot pull-up to stun Oklahoma City in 2016.
Moments after this shot went down, Dwyane Wade tweeted:
Curry is UNREAL!!!!— DWade (@DwyaneWade) February 28, 2016
Then LeBron James:
The entire NBA was on fire after this shot, which capped a 46-point barrage for Curry on a night when he also tied the single-game record for 3-pointers with 12, and broke his own single-season record of 286 3-pointers ... in February. Curry, of course, would go on to make 402 3-pointers en route to being named the first unanimous MVP in history.
A few months later it was Klay Thompson who saved Golden State's hopes of a second straight title with a legendary Game 6 performance on that same court in Oklahoma City, which included a monster 3-pointer with under a minute to play. In the grand scheme of things, that was a much bigger shot than this regular-season Curry bomb. Curry himself hit far bigger shots than this on numerous occasions throughout the decade.
But this is the one etched in our memories. The one that ESPN still uses in its intros. This was the height of the "are you kidding me" Stephen Curry experience, when he was doing things on a nightly basis that was leaving the collective jaw of the entire basketball world on the floor. We will very likely never witness another season like that, and in that context, we may never see another shot like this. It will live forever.
8. LeBron goes glass, ends Raptors
It was 2018, the year after Kyrie Irving left Cleveland, and for the Raptors, ever LeBron's bridesmaid, the East was supposed to be as open as it had ever been to them. Then the Cavs went up 2-0 in the conference semis, and then, just when the Raptors looked like they might actually make a fight of it, LeBron did this in Game 3:
For as tough a shot as this was, there's a very clear reason why it's not higher on the list: There was a sense of inevitability to this series. This was the ninth straight playoff loss to LeBron for the Raptors. The Game 4 sweep made it an even 10. Whether LeBron hit this shot or not, the Raptors weren't winning that series.
Indiana took Cleveland to seven games in the first round, and Boston, without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, did the same in the conference finals. But there was never any sense of danger for the Cavs vs. Toronto. This was just the final LeBron insult for the Raptors, and in that lies the true significance of this shot. Toronto finally had to give up on the DeMar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry duo.
The Raptors, collectively, were a better team than Cleveland in 2018. But the Cavs had the best player. The Raptors knew they could not continue to lose the superstar battle. They needed one of their own. One who could stand up to, and even above, the game's top players. Insert Kawhi Leonard. Insert a Toronto championship in 2019.
LeBron killed the Raptors one last time, and in doing so, in a sense, gave birth to the version of them he'd always kept them from achieving. Of course, Toronto could've made it just a little tougher on him. I still can't understand how they let LeBron get that pass so easily. In that situation, you have to double him and deny hard and force someone else to go the length of the floor and make a play. Toronto gave him the pass with zero resistance, then backed completely off to give him about 70 feet of runway to get going downhill.
Good luck stopping that.
7. Lillard grounds the Rockets
In one of the most entertaining playoff games -- and series -- nobody ever talks about, Damian Lillard eliminated the Rockets in the first round of the 2014 playoffs with the first of his two game-winners that show up on this list:
As you can see, Portland was down two on the inbound. This series was all but headed for a Game 7, and Houston had all the momentum going back home. But Dame is just a flat-out monster, particularly in the most clutch of moments. Always has been.
After the game, Nicolas Batum, who was inbounding the ball, admitted the play was not designed for Lillard. Rather, the hope was to get the ball on a direct post-entry pass to LaMarcus Aldridge, who had been torching Houston all game and was positioned near the left block. But Lillard broke free around the top of the key and was clapping his hands fiercely for the ball, and indeed there was enough daylight for Batum to audible on the original call.
"He was too open," Batum said after the game. "I had to."
Even for a guy with the range of Lillard, not enough people realize how difficult that shot is -- going to his weak hand, on a catch-and-shoot with no time to set, with all his momentum going away from the basket, from 26 feet, with your team trailing by two. It's one thing if you're tied. You can hoist away with nothing to lose. But to rip the net when you're losing, from that position, under those circumstances, not just to win a game but to close a series, that's something else entirely.
That's Dame Time.
6. LeBron corner pocket in Chicago
Consider the circumstances. In 2015, LeBron had been to four straight Finals with the Heat before making his King's return to Cleveland, which had thrust itself into Championship-or-bust mode. If the Cavs would've lost in the second round in LeBron's first year back? Yikes. And it almost happened. The Bulls were up 2-1 in the conference semis and had an 11-point lead late in the fourth quarter of Game 4. The Cavs erased the lead, tied the score at 84, and then LeBron did this at the buzzer:
Cleveland, of course, went on to make the Finals, where even without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love it was able to take a 2-1 lead on the Warriors behind a herculean effort from LeBron. Golden State won the next three to take the championship, but one year later the Cavs would get their revenge on the strength of another historic shot we're about to see on this list.
5. Chris Paul opens Game 7 bank
In 2015, the Clippers and Spurs played one of the best playoff series I've personally ever seen. It came down to one of the greatest Game 7s ever: 31 lead changes, 16 ties, the last of which was 109-109 with under 10 seconds to play. That's when Paul, on a gimpy hamstring that left him basically playing on one leg for the final three quarters, got the ball at the top of the key.
If Paul's career were to end tomorrow, this would probably go down as the biggest shot he ever hit. It's unfortunate it was only to win a first-round series, but such is life in the Western Conference. This was a conference-finals worthy matchup, and Paul was brilliant all series, particularly when it counted most -- 9 for 13 for 27 points, 22 of which came after he went to the locker room in the first quartered with the hammy pull.
Three years later, it would be another hamstring injury that caught Chris Paul at the worst time. This one against the Warriors in the conference finals, and this time he couldn't come back from it. There's a good chance it cost Paul and the Rockets and trip to the NBA Finals, where they would've been favored to win the title against the Cavs.
It's unfortunate that, to this point, Paul hasn't had the type of overall playoff success that his talent and decade-plus Hall of Fame production deserves. He has been far better in the playoffs than the lazy narrative that he somehow shrinks from the big moments would suggest. But one thing nobody can debate is that on this night vs. the Spurs, we got the very best of Chris Paul. And it was something to behold.
4. Lillard waves goodbye to Thunder
If this seems like too high a ranking for a first-round shot, you didn't watch this series. Portland and OKC, and specifically Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook, were at each other's throats, talking trash on and off the court, taunting each other at every turn. It was the most electrifying of basketball theatre to watch Lillard shut up everyone in his path, everyone who had ever questioned his superstar status, for five games of sheer shot-making brilliance. He was so incredible, averaging 33 points and six assists on 48-percent 3-point shooting for the series -- all of which he capped with 50 points in Game 5, including this series-clinching dagger:
That's a damn-near 40-foot sidestep jumper off the dribble, folks. That is stupid. And somehow the shot wasn't even the best part. The dude waved goodbye! Here's a better look at that:
Seriously, this man is a legend. He literally waved goodbye to a team. The Thunder as they existed in this moment are gone. Paul George called this Lillard bomb a "bad shot," and now he plays for the Clippers. Russell Westbrook is in Houston. Damian Lillard sent the whole organization packing, then proceeded to lift Portland past Denver in the second round -- with a lot of help from C.J. McCollum and Enes Kanter -- for a berth in the conference finals.
I will never forget where I was when this shot went down. I was rolling on my floor in all my journalistic objectivity trying with all my might not to wake up my wife and four-year-old daughter. I was unsuccessful.
3. Kawhi's time-freezing teardrop
For the sheer suspense of it, Kawhi's 2019 Game 7 rim-roller to oust the Sixers in is one of the all-time game-winners. It bounced on the rim four times, like the dude was playing Plinko, then the ball sat on the rim in time-freezing suspension for what felt like an eternity. By the time the thing fell through the net, it felt as if you'd been watching sand slip through an hourglass. Ballgame.
I've never seen a shot like that in my life, and I suspect I never will again. That Kawhi even had time to turn and get to the far corner after catching the ball at the top was kind of remarkable in itself. But the shot is nuts. Fading away in the deep corner, off the dribble, over Joel Embiid, hitting every square inch of rim, literally having time to sit in a catcher's stance on the baseline and watch the ball fall through with the rest of the world ... you can't even write that stuff in a script. Nobody would believe it. You'd say, "OK, just have him make the shot normally. A ball would never bounce in like that in real life."
Except it did. And the Raptors won the series. And then the next series. And then the championship. And it was all that close to never happening. That was Game 7. If that ball leans even half an inch the other way, that game was headed for overtime, where anything could've happened. If the Raptors would've lost in the second round, AGAIN, that Kawhi trade would've looked completely different. If Philly had made it to the conference finals, or perhaps even the Finals, maybe Jimmy Butler stays. Like the Lillard shot, it can be a thin line between success and failure in the NBA. Kawhi's shot sat right on that line, and fell the right way for Toronto.
2. Kyrie ends Cleveland's drought
Deciding between No. 1 and No. 2 on this list is nearly impossible, but I'm going to put Kyrie's Game 7 winner to beat the 73-win Warriors in the 2016 Finals a fingernail outside the top spot. Three reasons for this: First, the game was tied. If the Cavs had been losing, there would've been a lot more pressure on that shot. Second, it didn't feel like the biggest play of the game. That, in my opinion, would go to LeBron's block on Andre Iguodala. Third, it wasn't a buzzer-beater. It put the Cavs up three with less than a minute to play, but Stephen Curry still had a look to tie the game at the other end.
Admittedly, these are all hair-splitting qualifications, but against the No. 1 shot on this list, we're talking about tiny separators. Still, Irving's shot was an obvious all-timer to beat an all-time team and end an all-time championship drought.
I have to admit, I'm a Warriors fan. I grew up in Northern California. I had allowed myself to get lulled into the belief that this Warriors team was inevitable, that in the end they would always make enough shots to win, that no deficit was too large, that they were just too great to lose. This shot tore me to absolute pieces. To blow a 3-1 series lead after a 73-win season was, and still is, impossible to stomach.
Still, I remember, even in the moment, having enough objective awareness to appreciate what had just happened. For my money, that Cleveland championship, for the LeBron-coming-home factor and the Cleveland championship drought and the fact they beat arguably the greatest team ever from a 3-1 deficit, is the most awesome NBA championship of my lifetime. Only the 2004 Red Sox that came back from the 3-0 hole to beat the Yankees to end an 86-year World Series drought tops it.
1. Ray Allen's Miami miracle
Unlike Kyrie's Game 7 shot, Allen's Game 6 shot did not come in a tie game. The Heat were losing by three with under 10 seconds to go and down 3-2 in the series. This was the definition of do-or-die.
So many things about this shot were so close to being different. For starters, had Kawhi Leonard made both free throws on the other end, the Spurs would've been up four, but he missed one to keep the lead within one possession. Then, knowing Miami was going to be in search of a game-tying 3-pointer, Gregg Popovich subbed out Tim Duncan for Boris Diaw during Leonard's free throws, with the idea being that a smaller lineup could switch everything and keep Duncan from having to guard out on the perimeter.
But Duncan is one of the greatest rebounders of all-time, and sure enough, after LeBron missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer, Chris Bosh grabbed one of the biggest offensive rebounds in history and kicked it out to a backpedaling Ray Allen, who is just an obsessive enough preparer that he had actually worked on this EXACT shot -- backpedaling to the corner off a miss and offensive rebound -- for years.
Think about all that. Kawhi misses a free throw, Duncan gets subbed out, Bosh gets a rebound, Allen, on sheer feel for the court and a near genius-level memorization of the number of steps necessary to reach the corner (in the tiniest of NBA-court nooks between the 3-point line and the sideline), retreats into position and releases in a split second. And this is to say nothing of making the actual shot. Three defenders rushing at him. A championship on the line. And again, Miami was losing. Shooting a shot like that when the game is tied and when you're losing is two completely different things.
And now consider the fallout. Had Allen missed that shot, the Big 3 super-team that was supposed to win "not one, not two, not three, not four..." but like a hundred titles, would've actually only won a single championship in four tries. As it was, they only won two, but two is a lot different than one for a team that tried to stack the deck as the Heat did.
In fact, let's take it back to the 2016 Kyrie shot in Game 7. That's another title that could've eluded LeBron without the heroics of a teammate. It's not to take anything away from LeBron, who was extraordinary in both those series. It's just a reality: Had Kyrie and Allen missed two of the most pressurized shots in NBA history, LeBron would be, at best, 2-7 in career NBA Finals, and possibly 1-8 depending on how the last minute of that Golden State game would've played out with the game still tied at 89.
And that, right there, is the minuscule difference between Irving's shot and Allen's shot. Had Irving missed, we don't know that the Cavs would've lost. Had Allen missed, we KNOW the Heat would've lost. That's enough, barely, to get the No. 1 nod.