Rex Chapman. Eddie Johnson. John Stockton.
All were smart, seasoned veterans, but none was designated the "go-to" player on his respective team. With the game on the line, however, all three delivered buzzer-beaters that made the 1997 postseason a memorable one in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Seattle SuperSonics led Chapman's Phoenix Suns by as many as 12 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of their first-round series when the Suns began to respond. The team closed the gap to three points in the final seconds, thanks largely to Chapman, who had already scored 10 points in the period. Danny Ainge drew up the play for the man with the hot hand, and he delivered a shot nothing short of miraculous.
The inbound pass from Jason Kidd hit a running Chapman on the right wing, with Seattle guard Hersey Hawkins on him step-for-step. In stride, Chapman heaved the ball toward the basket with his right hand as momentum led him out of bounds. The prayer was answered with a perfect rainbow that fell right through the middle of the hoop, tying the game at 107-107 with 1.9 second left.
Somehow, the Sonics overcame the momentum shift to win in overtime, but the shot was the lingering image of the postseason. "I'm sure it's exciting to watch but it doesn't feel good to be on the wrong end of a game like that," said Chapman. Johnson, a 16-year veteran, wasn't even a member of the Houston Rockets until being signed as a free agent in March. A prolific scorer in his prime, Johnson had found a niche late in his career as a lethal sharpshooter off the bench. Johnson's presence sparked the Rockets to a 19-5 finish and playoff series wins over Minnesota and Seattle.
The West finals pitted the Rockets against the Utah Jazz. Though he had just celebratd his 38th birthday, Johnson still had plenty of energy to give the Jazz fits. He scored a game-high 31 points in Game 3 and delivered the Game 4 game-winner for an encore.
Johnson was stationed behind the 3-point line at the top of the key with the game tied at 92-92 and time for one play. Johnson took a pass from Matt Maloney, set, and fired a strike through the hoop as the buzzer sounded. An animated Johnson hi-stepped off the court as the celebration began at the Summit. "I have never hit a bigger shot in my career. If we lost we would have to go back to Utah down 3-1. But winning this game is huge."
Johnson and the Rockets would not win another game, for Utah had a sharpshooter of its own in Stockton, whose heroics not only propelled the Jazz to victory in Game 6, but into the Finals for the first time.
The Jazz trailed by 13 points with less than seven minutes to play, but Stockton scored 15 of his game-high 25 in the final quarter, including the team's final nine points -- none more dramatic than the series-ending 3-pointer.
With the game tied at 100-100 and time for one play, Stockton took the inbound pass from Bryon Russell behind a pick from Karl Malone and had a wide-open look from the top of the arc. Rockets forward Charles Barkley was too late coming over and Stockton's shot swished through at the buzzer.
"At the end of the game, it's easy for everyone to get helter-skelter," Stockton said. "I thought everybody did what they were supposed to do. Bryon made a great pass to me to get the ball to me quickly and I just got rid of it. I was free for a second and I felt comfortable shooting it."