Final Shot: The Best Of The NBA Finals’ “TieBreakers”
J.R. Smith almost added to one of the select groups of NBA stars: Those who have scored at the buzzer to give their team an NBA Finals victory. Those select shots are tiebreakers, and that’s what we love at TieBreaker.com. So no J.R. Smith on this list. But how about Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Dirk Nowitzki and Jerry West? Yeah, those are true NBA legends, and these tiebreakers are truly legendary.
Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers (1962)
When it came to facing the Boston Celtics in the Finals, even the great Jerry West, “The Logo,” could not catch a break. But for a brief, shining moment (a few of them, in fact), it appeared the West and the Lakers were actually going to start their rivalry with the Celtics with a series win. The first-ever Celtics-Lakers finals came in 1962, and West was the author of the first dramatic finish in the series’ long history.
In Game 3, with the series tied at 1-1, West literally stole the show to give the Lakers a series lead. With just three seconds remaining in a 115-115 game in Los Angeles, West stole an inbounds pass by Sam Jones and cruised in for the game-winning layup with no time left. It was one of four times in NBA history that a Finals game was decided on a shot at the buzzer, and all four were … tiebreakers!
The Lakers would take a 3-2 series lead after Elgin Baylor scored a Finals record 61 points in Game 5, and the Lakers were on the verge of the first-ever Game 7, series-winning tiebreaker when Frank Selvy got open for the winning jumper. But Selvy missed, the Celtics won in overtime, and Jerry West would have to wait 10 more years to claim his only NBA championship as a player.
Larry Bird, Boston Celtics (1984)
Larry Bird’s buzzer-beating heroics are what made him the Legend. But in the NBA Finals, such heroics from Bird proved elusive. The closest he ever came to a true game-winner as time expired came in Game 4 of the 1987 Finals — after Magic Johnson’s “junior-junior” sky-hook gave the Lakers the lead — when Bird’s shot at the buzzer back-rimmed by the slimmest of margins, and the Celtics lost the pivotal game by one point. But three years earlier, Bird broke a tie in different Game 4 that helped the Celtics beat Magic’s Lakers for the only time in three tries.
The Celtics trailed the Lakers 2-1 in the 1984 Finals when Game 4 went into overtime. The game was a true slugfest, featuring Kevin McHale’s clothesline tackle of Kurt Rambis as the Celtics scratched and clawed to stay alive in the series. Finally, late in the overtime session and the score tied at 123, Bird found himself at the edge of the foul lane with Magic trying in vain to deny him position. Then the ball went into Bird, and with the shot clock winding down, Bird knew exactly what to do.
Utilizing his trademark step-back move, Bird created just enough space to loft a 15-foot jumper over Magic and right into the bottom of the net. The shot put the Celtics ahead for good, and after Bird exploded for 34 points in Game 5, then led the charge in Game 7 back in Boston, the Celtics had the 15th title in franchise history and raised their record over the Lakers in the Finals to 8-0.
Dennis Johnson, Boston Celtics (1985)
The matchup was the same as the year before, but the outcome was decidedly different, as the Los Angeles Lakers finally broke through and beat the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals – winning the clinching Game 6 in Boston Garden, no less. But before the Lakers were finally able to put the Celtics away for good, they got another dose of buzzer-beating medicine as the Celtics made a last-gasp effort to stay alive in the series.
The Celtics won Game 1 by 34 points before Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson led the charge in wthe next two games to take a 2-1 series lead. In Game 4, the Lakers appeared poised for another blowout win at the Fabulous Forum, but the Celtics rallied in the fourth quarter behind the stellar play of Larry Bird to turn Game 4 into a white-knuckler. The Lakers trailed by two with less than a minute to play when Magic rebounded a Kareem miss and scored the putback to tie the score at 105.
Playing for the final shot, the Celtics went to Bird, and the Lakers defense, quite naturally, followed Bird toward the lane as he started to drive with just five seconds left. Bird sensed the double-team coming his way and realized that guard Dennis Johnson was left all alone about 20 feet from the basket. With the clock down to three seconds Bird passed the ball to the open DJ who launched his signature flat-footed jumper as the clock expired. Nothing but net! And the Celtics had a 107-105 win a series tie at 2-2. But the Lakers, for once, were not fazed, winning the next two games to win the title.
Vinnie Johnson, Detroit Pistons (1990)
They called him “The Mircowave.” It was Danny Ainge who coined the nickname for Vinnie Johnson in 1985, after the Pistons’ guard torched the Celtics for 22 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The name was truly on the mark, as Johnson excelled at heating up instantly from the outside with devastating effect. Once Vinnie got hot, he would score from anywhere on the floor virtually every time he touched the ball.
Johnson’s amazing shooting touch finally led Detroit past the Celtics in 1988, as the “Bad Boy” Pistons reached the Finals for the first of three consecutive seasons. In the final two appearances, the Pistons won the title, and in 1990, the final shot of the final game went to the Microwave. The Portland Trail Blazers had led by two in the final minute of Game 5, looking to force a Game 6 back in Detroit. But Detroit scored to tie it, then got the ball back on a turnover with 20 seconds left, allowing them to set yp for the final shot.
What happened next was the first and only time in NBA Finals history a team clinched the championship with a buzzer-beater — or more specifically, a shot made within the final second of regulation, as 0.7 was still showing on the clock when the ball snapped the twine. Regardless, Johnson did what he always did best, posting up his defender, dribbling the clock down to next to nothing, then launching a fadeaway jumper that was pure.
Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets (1995)
Very few NBA Finals games feature dramatic shots at both the end of regulation and overtime. Game 5 of the 1976 Finals between Boston and Phoenix is the most dramatic example, with buzzer-beaters and clutch shots littered all over three overtimes. But none of them were “Tiebreakers,” like we saw with the Rockets and Magic in Game 1 in 1995.
This game is remembered best for Nick Anderson and his unfortunate four consecutive missed free throws at the end of regulation that would have clinched a victory for the Magic. Instead, Anderson’s misses left the door open for the Rockets to force overtime, and Kenny Smith was happy to oblige, hitting one of his (at the time) record seven 3-pointers with 1.6 seconds left to tie the score at 110.
The nightmare for the Magic was a Dream for the Rockets in the overtime session. With the clock winding down in a 118-118 tie, Clyde Drexler attempted a scoop shot for the win, but his shot bounced off the rim. No worries for the Rockets, as Hakeem “The Dream” Ojajuwon tipped the ball back into the basket with three-tenths of a second left for the pivotal Game 1 win. The demoralized Magic never recovered, and the Rockets went on for a series sweep and a second straight NBA title.
Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls (1997)
We could do a list of just Michael Jordan’s NBA Finals heroics, and it’s possible this entry might not even make the list. So why is it here? Because it’s a TIEBREAKER! Forget the Flu Game, or the Shrug Game, or even the Final Shot game. Two weren’t close and the other wasn’t tied. But against the Utah Jazz in Game 1 of the 1997 Finals, Jordan added “buzzer-beating game-winner” to his ridiculous list of championship heroics.
Jordan was at the end of his second full season after his brief retirement, and the Bulls were the defending champions, coming off their 72-win season in 1996. This was the first trip to the Finals for Karl Malone, John Stockton and the Jazz, and they appeared poised to deal the Bulls a stunning loss in Chicago in Game 1, as Malone, known as “The Mailman” for delivering thundering dunks and scores of all varieties, went to the free-throw line in a tie game with 9.2 seconds left.
But as Malone went to the line, Bulls forward Scottie Pippen walked past and whispered in Malone’s ear, “The Mailman doesn’t deliver on Sunday.” Sure enough, Malone missed both shots, giving Jordan a chance to break the tie and win the game. And, of course, Jordan delivered on every day of the week, hitting a pull-up jumper from the left side of the key for an 84-82 win. But this would turn out to be only be the second-biggest “Tiebreaker” of this series.
Steve Kerr, Chicago Bulls (1997)
Kerr is on the verge of winning his third NBA title as head coach of the Golden State Warriors, but he was certainly no stranger to winning championships as a player. Kerr owns six rings for his time with Bulls (3) and Spurs (3). Kerr holds the unique distinction of being one of two players with at least four rings to win titles in consecutive seasons with two different teams.
But the championship that featured his direct involvement the most came in 1997, with the Bulls. Chicago took a 3-2 series lead back to Chicago for Game 6, in part because of Michael Jordan’s heroic, flu-ridden performance in Game 5. Jordan had also hit a tie-breaking game-winner at the buzzer in Game 1, but not it would be Kerr’s turn to play the hero, joining John Paxson from the 1991 and ’93 Bulls title teams as the Chicago role player who delivered the series-clinching dagger after Jordan turned down the big shot and instead passed to the open man.
In Kerr’s shining moment, the Bulls took possession of the ball with 28 seconds left and score tied at 86. As is always the case with the Bulls, Jordan took control of the ensuing possession and the Jazz double-teamed him, content to let a lesser player take the big shot, rather than let Jordan beat them. But as was the case with the Lakers in 1991 and the Suns in 1993, the lesser man left open was the one who would deliver. Jordan passed the ball to Kerr, who calmly hit a mid-range jumper with five seconds left to break the tie. Then the Bulls knocked the ball away on Utah’s final possession and Kerr had his second straight title (also, Jordan’s 5th).
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks (2011)
The big story entering the 2010-11 was all about LeBron James and his “Decision,” to take his talents from Cleveland to South Beach and team up with buddies Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. The “Decision” was met with derision as a PR nightmare, but the Heat delivered as promised and reached the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. But once there, it was the Mavs, not the Cavs, who stole the show.
Dirk Nowitzki had been the face of the Dallas franchise since his arrival in 1999 and unlike LeBron, he was destined for a nearly 20-year career as a one-team player. One thing that had eluded Nowitzki and the Mavs was an NBA title, reaching the Finals in 2006 but losing to Wade’s Heat. And after Miami took Game 1 in 2011, it seemed like history was set to repeat itself. But in Game 2, Nowitzki delivered a tiebreaker the proved a heartbreaker for Miami and a title-maker for Dallas.
The Mavs put themselves in position for the win by erasing a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter, the second biggest comeback in finals history. After Nowitzki and Miami’s Mario Chalmers traded three-pointers in the final minute, the score was tied at 93. Then Nowitzki made his career-defining shot, hit a driving layup with 3.6 seconds left to put the Mavs ahead to stay. The series now tied at 1-1, the Mavs would go on to capture the title in six games.