The Game: 2016 Finals, Game 7
The Series Situation: Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors tied, 3-3.
The Play: Just 69 seconds remained when the Cavaliers came out of a timeout, looking to get the ball into the hands of point guard Kyrie Irving. They did just that, using a pick-and-roll with J.R. Smith to get Golden State’s Stephen Curry switched defensively onto Irving in place of Klay Thompson. With the shot clock ticking away, Irving — unable to find a path past Curry — danced with the ball, then stepped sideways just beyond the arc on the right wing. His 25-footer banged through with 53 seconds left.
The Significance: The Cavaliers and Warriors had combined for 12 consecutive misses before Irving’s shot, with neither team scoring since the 4:39 mark. Then there was Irving — whose 2015 Finals had ended with a fractured knee in the series opener — rising up to beat Golden State with its preferred weapon of choice, the 3-pointer. There seemed to be time left for more heroics. But those final 53 seconds vanished in a blur of fouls, Kevin Love somehow staying in front of Curry for a failed attempt to tie at 33 seconds and LeBron James hitting one of two foul shots.
Irving’s shot not only proved to be the championship-winner, it was later deemed “the biggest shot in NBA history” by the Wall Street Journal. Bigger than Ray Allen’s Game 6 corner 3-pointer for the Miami Heat in 2013, or Michael Jordan’s series-ending shot against the Utah Jazz in 1998? More clutch than Robert Horry’s Game 5 winner in 2005 for the San Antonio Spurs, or Don Nelson’s back-rim bouncer for Bill Russell’s final title with the Boston Celtics in 1969?
Yes, the Journal’s analytics team argued, factoring in win probability, the urgency of Game 7, Golden State’s 73-victory awesomeness, Cleveland clawing back from a 3-1 deficit, the tension and tumult inside Oracle Arena, and the fact that the cumulative score of the ’16 Finals when Irving shot it — through more than 335 minutes of basketball — was 699-699. Said Cavaliers GM David Griffin on reflection: “I remember not breathing for a second. I thought, ‘God, this is the most important possession of our lives.’”
— Steve Aschburner
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