This is easy, because it’s the best play I’ve ever covered, but as Gregg Popovich told me months later, it wasn’t really one play as much as it was 29 seconds. So that’s how I remember it. There was the timeout with 28 seconds left, and the Heat trailing by five points, when Chris Bosh saw his wife clapping in the stands and thought: “How sweet. She doesn’t know we’re going to lose.” There was the LeBron brick, off the bottom right corner of the backboard, that took such a wild ricochet Dwyane Wade was able to tip it even though three Spurs had superior position. There was LeBron’s second-chance three, Kawhi’s missed free throw and all the fans who’d left the arena pounding on the doors trying to get back in. Then there was the actual play, unfolding between the yellow ropes that ringed the court: Bosh screening Tony Parker and Parker leaving Bosh to join Boris Diaw on LeBron; the miss by LeBron off the left side of the rim, the rebound by Bosh, the backpedal by Ray Allen; the way Manu Ginobili fell down, the way Ray shouted “CB! CB!” and the way he wedged his size-15s between the perimeter and the sideline without looking. Mike Breen yelling “Bang!” and Shane Battier yelling “We’re here!” and Allen yelling “Get those mother—— ropes out of here!” There was still an overtime to go, and a Game 7, but all anybody remembers is “Get those mother——- ropes out of here.” I do hope they fit that line on his Hall of Fame plaque.
It's impossible to choose just one favorite play—does the whole Sleepy Floyd game count?—but this one is certainly up there. No human watching that game, live or on TV, thought Tayshaun Prince was going to get to that ball. I'm not even sure Tayshaun did. In a game that set a playoff record for blocks, the whole sequence is glorious: Jermaine O'Neal snuffing Rasheed, then Reggie pitter-pattering to get his steps just right for what really should have been a dunk, then Tayshaun hurtling out of the ether at the last second. Unlike a LeBron chasedown block, predicated on elite athleticism, this had to be absolutely perfect for Prince to have a chance: the run-up, the lift-off, the left-hand swipe. That he manages to not only cleanly block the ball, but both avoid the goaltend and keep it in bounds, is amazing. The postscript—Prince crashing into the stands, Reggie incredulous, Prince rising like a prizefighter, Doc Rivers getting hoarser by the second—only makes it better.
Even some of the great, seven-game series in NBA history have ended in a trickle. Not so for the Mavs’ classic second-rounder against the Spurs in 2006, when the two best teams in the conference traded haymakers and adjustments to the very last horn. What first had the appearance of a Game 7 anticlimax was punched up with a 20-point San Antonio comeback. Tim Duncan powered through defender after defender for 41 points. Jason Terry and Manu Ginobili traded high-leverage plays. The Spurs climbed their way back into a game that should have been lost, and with 32 seconds remaining in a tie game, set up a simple play made heavy by its context. The ball entered to Duncan on the right block on a night when he couldn’t be stopped. Terry sank down to crowd him. Duncan pitched the ball out to Ginobili at the three-point line for a confident make—and for what should have been the rapturous end to an amazing revival. San Antonio had come back from the death knell of trailing a series 3-1 and back from a 20-point deficit in Game 7.
Then Dallas got the ball back. There was no question where the ball would go, only how. Dallas chose to set up Dirk Nowitzki on the right wing for a clear-out against Bruce Bowen. When he started to back Bowen down, all involved must have expected the fadeaway. Nowitzki turned the corner instead, surprising Bowen and enticing Ginobili. The young Argentine was at the height of his powers, then, and still bouncy enough to meet a seven-footer at the rim. He got there just as Nowitzki did, but Ginobili’s reach stopped at Dirk’s wrist. The ball sat on the rim. As the whistle blew, it rolled down, deflating the Spurs where they stood.
This play has everything: basketball artistry, narrative weight, high stakes, genuine surprise, and a fatal misstep. “This is the best series I've ever played,” Duncan said after losing Game 7. And it was Dirk who sealed it.
Is it sad that this is my favorite playoff moment of all time? Of course it's sad. It's borderline heartbreaking. Beating Andres Nocioni, Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon shouldn't feel like winning a title. But it did, and Gilbert Arenas felt like a revolution for about 24 months of my formative years. I'll always remember this shot and that Bulls series as one of the high points.
(For my least favorite play in playoff history, and truly my least favorite thing ever on YouTube, see here.)
Not only is this my favorite play, it might be my favorite movie. Having seen it regularly for the past 22 years (oh my god), I've pretty much got it memorized. The lines, the choreography, the chaos, the confusion. It's what I think about when I think of “playoff basketball.” Thanks to the supernatural forces known as LeBron and the Warriors, this postseason hasn't come close to matching this level of drama. The Pacers are down six with 18.7 seconds left—in other words, “Grab your coat, we're leaving” time. But then Reggie drains a quick catch-and-shoot three to cut the lead in half. It's suddenly a one-possession game and you can hear Madison Square Garden beginning to tense up.
And then, utter chaos: Charles Oakley can't find anyone to inbound the ball to. Byron Scott is literally hugging Greg Anthony as he tries to get free, and Reggie comes over for the double-team. Anthony falls over (OK, Reggie pushed him), but Oakley inexplicably passes him the ball anyway, only for it to be intercepted by the guy who just hit a three (Oakley could have thrown the ball at Dolan and it would have been a better play). Reggie catches the ball in disbelief, instinctively scampers behind the three-point line, and hits another three-pointer from the exact same spot. Tie game. Spike Lee staredown. All the feels.
There was so much confusion over what had just transpired that the Pacers fouled John Starks even though it was a tie game. Starks, bless his heart, choked at the free-throw line and missed both free throws. Twisting the knife even further, Patrick Ewing corralled an offensive rebound and missed a put-back he makes 80% of the time. The ball careened off several players' fingertips before landing in the hands of, of course, Reggie Miller. Whistle blown, foul.
Reggie sank two free throws on the other end to cap his eight points in nine seconds. With apologies to Billy Joel, it was the best show the Garden has ever seen.
Michael Jordan was superhuman. He had an ideal build, a perfect midrange jumper and a ferocious will to win that remains unmatched. If there was anything he lacked, it was a three-point shot. That’s why I loved his performance against the Trail Blazers in Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals. It was peak Jordan. When given the opportunity to prove others wrong, he just can’t help himself. And Jordan, a 27% three-point shooter in '91-92, found that moment when Cliff Robinson chose to deny him the lane and give him the long-range shot. “They dared me early,” Jordan later said. He obliged, knocking down six three-pointers, scoring 35 first-half points (39 in the game) and introducing ‘The Shrug” when he spotted Magic Johnson, an NBA commentator at the time, on the sidelines.
I know there were other moments that maybe defined Jordan’s career better. This wasn’t his first or last title, and it wasn’t the Flu Game or the Bryon Russell crossover. But this one sticks out to me because it was so unexpected. You never doubted that Jordan could win a series, and you knew he would pull off insane heroics along the way. Yet this game fits Jordan’s personality more than any other in my eyes. This was the guy who golfs all morning, plays cards all night and sleeps with one eye open.
Larry Bird remains the most popular Celtics player of all time and this play will go down as his most memorable. But for me, it marked the first time I heard an s-bomb. And an f-bomb. And every other bomb in the English language. These came courtesy of my dad, a lifelong Celtics fan, who was just really excited about Bird’s steal. He just started yelling. Cursing. But in a good way. It wasn’t anger but rather pure joy. He came up with the most expressive words he could find at that moment. So while see cursing as a bad thing, I always associate it with good memories. Great f***ing memories, actually.
This is the moment I will hang onto for the rest of my life as a distraught, decreasingly involved “fan” of the Chicago Bulls. I was actually at this game, and there was no cheering in the press box, but there were a billion emotions that were hard to untangle at the time that are probably better left unsaid. Regardless, this was the last sliver of hope for the Thibs-Rose-Noah Bulls, and though it’s ultimately meaningless over the course of history (because I also had to watch LeBron James hit this shot one game later, it’s cosmically weighty and both starkly depressing and somehow symbolic at the same time. It’s not a coincidence that all three of those descriptors apply nicely to the overall arc of Derrick Rose’s basketball career. After a billion playoff downers at the hands of LeBron, Chicago deserved this one shot. And it’s all been downhill since.
Less than a second remained in Game 2 of the 2009 NBA Finals and the Lakers and Magic were tied at 88. Hedo Turkoglu had just swatted Kobe Bryant's game-winning attempt as the clock began to expire, saving a sliver of time for Orlando to call timeout and run one final play. As Turkoglu inbounded at half court, Courtney Lee broke free of Bryant thanks to Rashard Lewis's screen just above the foul line. The lob pass met Lee airborne at the rim. He should have finished the tough layup. The Magic and Lakers should have been tied 1-1.
“When I passed it to him, he came running over to me like, ‘I’m sorry, bro. I’m sorry. Great pass,’” Turkoglu told SI recently. Had Lee converted, Orlando would have returned home, the league still utilizing the 2-3-2 format, with a chance to championship at home. “Man, we could have finished the series,” Turkoglu said. I'll always wonder, What if Courtney Lee finished that lob? If Orlando won that series, would Dwight Howard have stayed and formed a dynasty in Disneyland that would have preceded The Heatles all together? The Sixers never would have acquired Andrew Bynum in Howard's four-team trade to, L.A. of all destinations. Sam Hinkie and The Process may have never been born in the aftermath. Andre Iguodala may have never joined Golden State to form the Death Lineup. The entire NBA landscape shook just as Lee's layup crashed off the glass and skipped off the rim.