Playoff-series-winning buzzer beaters are exceptionally rare in the NBA. We were lucky enough to get two of them this year, courtesy of Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard. Let’s look back at all nine series-ending walkoff shots in league history:
1. Kawhi Leonard vs. 76ers, 2019 Game 7 Conference Semi-finals
Sorry Trail Blazers and Bulls fans, but this shot by Kawhi Leonard, then with the Raptors, is the best of the series-winning buzzer beaters. It’s the only clincher that both occurred in a game 7 AND eventually led to a championship. Given that the Raptors may have ended the Warriors dynasty, this is arguably the biggest non-finals moment in league history.
2. Damian Lillard vs. Thunder, 2019 Game 5 First Round
You’ll have to search a long time for a more poetic shot. Lillard’s dagger capped a 50-point night (franchise playoff record!), effectively ended the Russell Westbrook era for the Thunder, and led to Paul George’s infamous “bad shot” quote.
My only critique: Can it be a clutch shot if the shooter feels no pressure?
3. Damian Lillard vs. Rockets, 2014 Game 6 First Round
Lillard’s 2019 shot may have been perfect, but his 2014 shot was way more clutch. After jumping out to a 3-1 series lead, the Blazers were in imminent danger of heading back to Houston for a game seven against a Rockets team that had found its groove. If Dame misses this shot the Blazers lose the game and probably the series. Only Jordan’s 1989 buzzer beater (see below) compares on the “win or go home” scale.
4. John Stockton vs. Rockets, 1997 Game 6 Western Conference Finals
Lillard wasn’t the first player to tear out the Rockets’ hearts — John Stockton also did it 17 years earlier. Try to ignore Karl Malone’s moving screen on Clyde Drexler to free up Stockton.
5. Michael Jordan vs. Cavaliers, 1993 Game 4 Eastern Conference Semi-finals
Michael Jordan’s shot against the Cavs from 1993 stands out for two reasons: 1) It was Jordan’s second time burying Cleveland at the buzzer of a playoff series. Ouch. 2) It shouldn’t be on this list. There was clearly time on the clock when Jordan’s shot clears the net.
Along with the 2019 Raptors and 1960 Celtics, the 1993 Bulls are the only team to win a series at the buzzer and go on to a championship.
6. Derrick McKey vs. Rockets, 1989 Game 4 First Round
FOUND IT! Video of Derrick McKey's buzzer beating, series clinching shot for the Sonics vs. the Rockets in 1989.— Eric Griffith (@EricG_NBA) April 25, 2019
Sager says it was Xavier McDaniel but newspapers all say McKey, w/ quotes from McKey, so likely a mistake identifying "34" vs. "31" jerseys. https://t.co/4hI1CRgoNe pic.twitter.com/lHxIyhut6W
The Rockets just can’t catch a break. They’re the only team to lose three playoff series at the buzzer, the first time coming at the hands of the Sonics’ Derrick McKey in 1989. Seattle was swept by the Lakers in their next series.
7. Michael Jordan vs. Cavaliers, 1989 Game 5 First Round
Jordan’s first playoff walk-off against the Cavaliers is the only true “win or go home” shot on this entire list. Lillard’s is the next closest as the only other shot on the list that wasn’t attempted with the game tied, but Jordan’s came in the last possible game of the series.
8. Ralph Sampson vs. Lakers, 1986 Game 4 Western Conference Finals
Sampson gets some bonus points for hitting the weirdest shot in the list. After upsetting the Lakers, the Rockets would lose to the Celtics in the 1986 Finals.
9. Tom Heinsohn vs. Philadelphia Warriors 1960 Game 6 East Division Finals
There’s no extant video of this one, so here’s how Heinsohn described the shot to ESPN in 2010:
JM: You had some other great playoff moments, and we are in the playoffs right now with the Celtics, I was reminded about a 1960 playoff game (deciding game of Eastern Conference Finals) against Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia Warriors where you had a game winning basket, can you describe that a little bit?
TH:Well, if the fans nowadays don’t remember Convention Hall. Convention Hall was a pit, and it was a snake pit, and what would happen in that place is that they would get on a player for an entire season. And it happened to be my season one year and we ended up playing the Warriors with the great Wilt Chamberlain and we ended up where the game was tied and I tipped in the winning basket at the buzzer (to win the series) and they went “it’s good” and 11,000 Philadelphians shut up all at once and that’s the fun moment of all time for me.
The Celtics would go on to win the 1960 NBA championship.
BONUS: Jojo White vs. Buffalo Braves 1974 Game 6 Eastern Conference Semi-finals
Should free throws count on this list? If so, add Jojo White and the 1974 Celtics.
- Some Blazers fans remember Audie Norris’ clincher against the Mavs in 1985 as a buzzer beater, and the clock does appear to hit 0:00 in the video. But news sources indicate that the refs added a second back on to the game clock, robbing Norris of buzzer beater status.
- There were no series-winning buzzer beaters in ABA history, as far as I can tell. Nine playoff series in ABA history finished with a single possession margin in the final game.
- Methodology: NBA historian Todd Spehr tweeted (since deleted) a list of every buzzer beater in NBA history after Lillard’s shot this year. I also scoured NBA box scores for every decisive playoff game that ended with a margin of three points or less and then searched for the circumstances of those finishes. Prior to 2019, 150 series qualified but none of them, other than the list above, appear to have ended on a buzzer beater.
- Motivation: I tweeted an incomplete version of this list after Lillard’s shot. That tweet was picked up by some national media accounts and even though I corrected my mistake in subsequent replies, the original and incomplete list gained a modicum of viral traction. In the interest of not spreading false information, I wanted to write a comprehensive post about this subject to further correct my previous oversight.