The buzzer beater is perhaps the most thrilling play in a basketball game. A series-winning buzzer beater in the NBA playoffs, on the other hand, is a different animal altogether. While other game winners with time left on the clock count the same in the end, the ability to walk off the court a winner without giving the other team a chance to respond remains one of the best ways to ensure that a shot is remembered for years to come. That’s why Damian Lillard is already an NBA playoffs legend.
There have been series-defining moments which have made their places into the basketball lexicon — Michael Jordan’s shot over Bryon Russell and LeBron James’ block on Andre Iguodala — but only four players have beat the buzzer to put an entire series away.
Ralph Sampson: May 21, 1986
At 7-foot-4, Ralph Sampson was a giant among men during his 12-year NBA career. While he was among the best big men in college and at the professional level, some may forget just how good he was. When people think of legendary Houston Rockets big men, they probably think about Yao Ming or Sampson’s teammate, Hakeem Olajuwon.
Although Olajuwon was immediately a star upon arriving in the NBA, he was not on hand in 1985 when the Rockets attempted to put away the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. He had been ejected earlier in the game. That meant that with one second left and the score locked at 112-112, the Rockets could not go to their young star.
Sampson stepped up, taking the inbound pass and awkwardly flinging the ball toward the basket. It went in, and the shot went down as one of the most memorable buzzer-beaters in NBA playoffs history.
Michael Jordan: May 6, 1989
Michael Jordan had a history of hitting game winners and ending games with miraculous shots, but he only ended a team’s season at the buzzer once. It is, perhaps, one of the career-defining shots of Jordan’s early years, and it is a shot so infamous in Cleveland that it is simply referred to as, “The Shot.”
Down one in the final possession of the fifth and final game of a first-round series between the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Bulls needed a basket to move on. The Cavaliers were the No. 2 seed and favored to win the series due to their great regular season. Jordan had other plans, and after playing with the Cavaliers, he put them away in one play. Before the ball was inbounded, Jordan faked right, then moved left to evade defenders and hit the buzzer-beater in the face of Craig Ehlo.
Jordan’s shot and ensuing celebration cemented themselves into the minds of fans, players, and media alike for years to come.
John Stockton: May 29, 1997
John Stockton might be best known for being one of the best playmaking point-guards of all time. In 1997, however, that was not what the Jazz needed from him during the closing moments of Game 6 in the Western Conference Finals.
Although he was not known for his shooting as much as he was his playmaking, Stockton was always adept at getting the ball into the basket when need be. When he took the ball with a little more than two seconds left on the clock, the Rockets had reason to panic. With the score tied at 100-100, Stockton dribbled once, and with Charles Barkley on him created just enough space to shoot the three in his face and send the Jazz to the 1997 NBA Finals.
Damian Lillard: May 2, 2014 and April 23, 2019
Damian Lillard is the only player to have sent teams home at the buzzer twice in his career. His first time came during the 2014 playoffs after Rockets forward Chandler Parsons put his team up two with just 0.9 seconds left on the clock. With a 3-2 lead in the series, Lillard didn’t want to extend it. He caught the ball behind the 3-point line, launched it immediately, made the shot over a trailing Parsons, and sent the Rockets packing.
Although it was already a legendary shot on its own, Lillard wasn’t content just sending one team home like that. This year, after a dominant performance in which he had 47 points late in the fourth quarter, Lillard once again refused to extend the series, this time at the expense of the Thunder.
With the score tied and time winding down, Lillard calmly dribbled the ball at the Blazers logo. With time running out, and Paul George closing in on him, Lillard casually pulled up from the tip of the Blazers center-court logo and drilled the buzzer-beating three in George’s face, sending the Thunder home stunned. Lillard waved goodbye before he was tackled by his celebrating teammates, further building his legend as a final-second assassin at the end of a playoff series.
Kawhi Leonard: May 12, 2019
Even though Kawhi Leonard already had a Finals MVP award in his trophy case, he added to his resume in the second round of the 2019 NBA playoffs. That’s when he drained one of the most heart-stopping NBA playoffs buzzer-beaters ever just as Damian Lillard had earlier in the postseason.
With 4.2 seconds left in Game 6 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto set up for the last shot. Marc Gasol inbounded to Leonard near the top of the 3-point arc, and Leonard dribbled to his right around the perimeter toward the baseline. After shedding defender Ben Simmons, Leonard launched an off balance shot over Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. The ball bounced around and touched every part of the rim before falling through the hole after the buzzer sounded to give Toronto the series win.