The NBA playoffs are where the legacies of many players are made and, there is perhaps no better stage on which to craft your greatness than by ousting another team for good from the postseason.
The 2019 playoffs have produced a pair of series-clinching shots already. First, we had Damian Lillard’s 37-foot shot in Game 5 of the first round that eliminated the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then, in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Kawhi Leonard stepped up in Game 7 with a 15-foot fadeaway jumper that ousted the Philadelphia 76ers.
That all said, here’s a look back at some iconic series-clinching game-winners from recent NBA history.
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1986 Western Conference finals – Rockets vs. Lakers
In the early 1980s, the Houston Rockets paired 7-footer Hakeem Olajuwon with 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson on the front line. Both were All-Stars, and in 1986 they led Houston to a berth in the NBA Finals.
En route to The Finals, the Rockets beat Sacramento and Denver before meeting the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
Houston came into the series as a distinct underdog to a Laker team led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy. Yet Los Angeles was able to take only one game from the surprising Rockets.
Los Angeles attempted to extend the series with a strong effort in Game 5 on May 21, 1986. But with the score tied in the closing seconds, Sampson got the ball to the left of the lane and nailed a jumper at the buzzer for a 114-112 victory that eliminated the Lakers 4-1.
1989 Eastern Conference first round – Bulls vs. Cavs
On May 7, 1989, Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan delivered one of the most legendary moments of his career when he hit “The Shot” to eliminate the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the 1989 first-round NBA playoffs series.
With the series tied 2-2, the Bulls needed to win Game 5 to advance in the best-of-five series. The pivotal game was tight throughout, with six lead changes in the final minutes of regulation.
Cavaliers guard Craig Ehlo gave his squad the lead 100-99 with 3.0 seconds left. That was just enough time for Jordan, though, who created space over Ehlo to hit the iconic foul-line jumper at the buzzer. Jordan finished the game with 44 points on 17-for-32 shooting.
1993 Eastern Conference semifinals — Bulls vs. Cavs
The Cleveland Cavaliers were still a legit contender in the 1992-93 season, boasting a core of players consisting of Brad Daugherty, Mark Price and a host of others. But, in the ’92-93 season, the Chicago Bulls were a team seeking to become the NBA’s first three-peat squad since the Boston Celtics of the 1960s.
Not to be denied on any stage, Bulls star Michael Jordan made sure no team that postseason had confidence against the Bulls. Chicago had built a 3-0 edge in the 1993 Eastern Conference semifinals, but the Cavs had showed resolve in Game 4 on May 17, 1993. The score was tied at 101 with 18.5 seconds left … and then Jordan worked his magic.
Scottie Pippen brought the ball up, passed it to B.J. Armstrong on the right wing, who then got it to Jordan (who was guarded by Gerald Wilkins) with roughly 7 seconds left. Jordan then methodically worked his way to the right of the free throw line and drained a jumper as time expired from nearly the same spot he sunk the Cavs in 1989.
1997 Western Conference finals — Jazz vs. Rockets
This win, which came on May 29, 1997, will always be special to Jazz fans. It not only moved them on in a series, but moved the franchise on to its first-ever NBA Finals.
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.
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.
2014 Western Conference first round — Rockets vs. Blazers
In his first playoff run with the Portland Trail Blazers, second-year guard Damian Lillard made a lasting impression in Game 6 of the Western Conference first round. And he did it all in 9/10ths of a second, too.
On May 2, 2014, the Houston Rockets had built a 98-96 lead thanks to a reverse layup by Chandler Parsons with :00.9 left. The Blazers called timeout to advance the ball to half court, where Nicolas Batum hit Lillard, who came off a screen at the top of the key with Parsons trailing him. Lillard let go of the shot from a step behind the 3-point line and it drew all net.
In doing so, Lillard became the first player to make a buzzer-beating shot to win a playoff series since Stockton’s shot against Houston in 1997.
“It was a hell of a win. I don’t know that it could have been any more dramatic.” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said after Game 6.
2019 Western Conference first round — Thunder vs. Blazers
Five years since he last powered Portland to a first-round series win, Damian Lillard was at it again with some late-game heroics on April 23, 2019. First, his Trail Blazers had to climb from a 15-points, fourth-quarter deficit with 7 minutes, 45 seconds left to tie the game at 115.
Then, fortune was on their side as the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook missed a layup with 18.3 seconds left. That set the stage for Lillard, who dribbled the clock out to just under 2 seconds before taking his shot. Lillard lifted up for a 3-pointer a few steps ahead and to the right of the Blazers’ halfcourt logo and drained the 37-footer in Paul George’s face.
From there, bedlam ensued and Lillard, who had just sealed the series, waved goodbye to the Thunder bench as he was mobbed by teammates.
2019 Eastern Conference semifinals — Sixers vs. Raptors
The Toronto Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard in hopes he could tap into his vast postseason experience and fuel a long playoff run North of the border. He showed he still has that ability in spades in Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Leonard hit a 15-foot shot from the corner over Joel Embiid at the buzzer that bounced off the rim four times before falling to give the Toronto Raptors a 92-90 victory in Game 7 of the East semifinals. Not only did it do that, but it was the first winning buzzer-beater in a Game 7 in NBA history.
After Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler tied it with a driving layup with 4.2 seconds left, Toronto used its final timeout to draw up a play for Leonard, who dribbled toward the right corner and launched the high-arching shot.
It bounced to the top of the backboard, hit the near side of the rim again, then the other side twice before going through, setting off a wild celebration as the Raptors advanced to the conference finals for the second time in four seasons.
”I ended up finding a spot that I like, that I work on. I just knew I had to shoot it high,” Leonard said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.