Ranking the 21 Most Iconic NBA Playoff Moments Since 2000
With the 2021 NBA playoffs in full swing, we're ranking the 21 most iconic NBA playoff moments since 2000, from the Cavs 3-1 comeback to Kobe & Shaq.
Image via Complex Original
It’s the best the time of the year for basketball as we’ve hit the second round of the NBA playoffs. This year’s postseason has plenty of storylines to pick and choose from. We’ve seen the rise of the youth with young stars like Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, and Jayson Tatum elevating their games in postseason play. The Warriors have returned to form as they’re serious threats to reclaim the throne as the NBA’s best. From Giannis and the Bucks looking to repeat to longtime superstars James Harden and Chris Paul still aiming from their first NBA title, these playoffs are already setting up for a special ending, which is nothing new for the NBA. They have always been defined by iconic moments. It’s what they do. As the old commercial used to say, “It’s where amazing happens.”
We thought it was time to take a look back to some of the most iconic moments in NBA Playoffs history over the past 20 seasons. As always, these lists aren’t easy. There’s a ton of options and plenty of worthy moments that could be defined as iconic. That’s what makes it fun and challenging at the same time. So, without further ado, here are the 21 most iconic NBA playoff moments since 2000. Get ready to argue and enjoy.
42. Pistons Upset Stacked Lakers
Chalk one up for team basketball. All great runs must come to an end, but who thought the gritty, rugged Pistons would be the ones to end it for the great early 2000s Lakers in such empathic and vicious fashion? Only Pistons zealots, that’s who, because the idea that Detroit and its brand of physical ball was going to out-class the flashy Lakers—in search of a fourth title in five seasons and still led by the dynamic duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant—seemed absurd entering the 2004 NBA Finals. Of course that’s exactly what happened in just five games. Truth be told, the Lakers had been showing signs all season long that this was going to be it for them. Shaq would be shipped to Miami during the off-season, his rift with Kobe too severe to be repaired. And the Pistons, who played the epitome of old-school, team basketball under Larry Brown that really hung its hat on defense, were the perfect team to pick off LA. Led by Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, and Ben Wallace, that squad wasn’t anywhere near as talented individually as the Lakers. Detroit just played way more cohesively and cared way more about each other. And it showed. “They may have had better individual players, but we always felt we were a better team,” Billups, the Finals MVP, said after Detroit clinched the title in Game 5 and pulled off what’s easily considered the biggest upset in NBA Finals history. —AC
40. LeBron James Game-Winner Against Orlando Magic
This one is tricky because LeBron James and the Cavs ended up losing this series, but it really was a huge moment in James’ career. Up until that point, there were still a lot of questions about if LeBron could hit that big shot. Could he handle the pressure of a playoff moment and hit the big one. Well, he obviously could and as we’ve seen throughout his career, he’s been able to do it time and time again. But things were different in 2009 for James and for him to hit that shot in that moment was a very big deal. This shot is also bittersweet because it’s a reminder of how close we were to a Kobe vs. LeBron NBA Finals that didn’t happen because the Magic decided not to miss any threes during the series against the Cavs. Orlando robbed us of a potential all-time matchup. —ZF
38. Damian Lillard Sinks the Rockets
If Dame Time had an official start time, this was it. Entering the 2014 playoffs, the Blazers were still searching for the franchise’s first series win in 14 seasons. Damian Lillard, in just his second season in the Pacific Northwest, took it upon himself to deliver what Blazers fans had been dying to see. With .9 seconds left, Lillard took the inbound pass, quickly squared up his shoulders, and drained a three to give Portland a one-point victory and send James Harden and the Rockets home for good after six games. Houston actually had a foul to give on the play, but Lillard was so elusive running to the ball that the Rockets really couldn’t do much except watch Lillard drill the dramatic shot. The Rip City crowd, appropriately, went apoplectic as their young star stamped himself as a postseason performer. Lillard was 6-of-10 from beyond the arc that game, but of course none were bigger than the buzzer beater that ended the series, the first of his career. Only Lillard and Michael Jordan have two seris-ending buzzer beaters on their resume. But MJ never had an awesome nickname for his late game heroics the way Lillard does. —AC
36. Derrick Rose Saves the Day For Bulls
Much like LeBron James’ shot against the Magic, this one is a bit tricky because the Bulls ended up losing the series. Still, what a moment for Derrick Rose and the city of Chicago. After all of the injuries and a hard journey back onto the court, Rose stepped up and hit an insane shot to win this game for the Bulls. As we said, the Cavs ended up winning the series after LeBron hit a game-winner in Game 5, but this will be a moment that Bulls fans remember forever. D Rose is a Chicago guy and you could tell that this shot meant a lot for him and the city. It also spawned one of the greatest memes ever, so for that it is appreciated. —ZF
34. Kevin Durant NBA Finals Dagger Over LeBron James
Hitting a dagger 3-pointer over your idol that essentially seals your first NBA title isn’t exactly a relatable moment for any of us. But we were able to really appreciate what it really meant when Kevin Durant delivered Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals for the Warriors, ripping the net over the out-stretched arm of LeBron James, in an interview that dropped later that summer. “That was the best moment I ever had,” Durant told GQ. “I made the game-winning shot in the Finals against my fucking idol. Somebody that I really, really, really followed since I was a ninth-grade high schooler. I felt like he was passing the torch to me.” The whole passing of the torch thing didn’t quite hold up since we all know what happened to KD in the 2019 Finals and how LeBron picked up a fourth ring with the Lakers last season and could absolutely earn a fifth. But chances are when you think back on Durant’s legendary career this will be the shot remembered above ‘em all. One of the most lethal scorers in NBA history pulled up with zero hesitation from three with his team trailing by two and his hero sizing him up on defense. I don’t know if Durant ever dreamed of such a consequential moment precisely like that, but he looked so calm, cool, and collected during it that I’m guessing he did. —AC
32. Metta World Peace Game 7 Dagger
One of the many great things about the NBA Playoffs is that you never know who the hero is going to be. It’s a beautiful subplot that we often never see coming. In the 2010 NBA Finals, the unlikely hero for the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 was none other than Metta World Peace, the artist formerly known as Ron Artest. Up three with just over one minute left, Kobe Bryant faced a double team and passed the ball to Peace, who calmly hesitated and then launched a three from the right wing. “BANG!” The Mike Breen call still gives me chills. Peace blowing kisses still gives me chills. What a moment, especially since Peace was always known for his defense. Well, on that night, in that moment, it was his jumper that came up big and sealed the championship for the Lakers against the Celtics. “I love that moment. I look at it sometimes on YouTube. It’s the biggest shot of my career. What are you going to do?,” Peace later said. “I’m grateful for that moment and the fact that Kobe shared that moment with me. That was supposed to be his moment and he shared it with me.” —ZF
30. Klay Thompson Goes Crazy in Game 6
The other Splash Brother will forever be introduced as a three-time NBA champion when his impressive career is over and done with. But for my money the second thing that needs to be mentioned whenever the conversation turns to Klay Thompson is the 41 points he dropped in an elimination game on the road in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Thompson was the reason why the 73-win Warriors’ season did not end a series early. Hitting 11-of-18 from deep that evening in Oklahoma City, an NBA postseason record, Thompson knocked down 3-pointers like he was possessed by a demon or the Holy Spirit, depending on how you roll religiously.
Even if you aren’t the spiritual type, Thompson’s performance kind of felt miraculous. The Warriors, defending NBA champs, were trying to climb out of a 3-1 hole to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook-led Thunder that held an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter. We had no idea the layers Thompson’s shooting barrage would reveal as his 19 points in the final frame facilitated a resounding comeback, the Warriors would take Game 7, and KD would never play another game for the Thunder. Thompson, however, knew one thing. “I should have had at least 13 because I missed some wide-open looks early,” Thompson said after the game. —AC
28. Derek Fisher Insane Game-Winner vs. Spurs
Has a shot ever been studied or dissected or analyzed more than Derek Fisher’s game-winning prayer against the Spurs in 2004? I’ll say no since there was a ton of controversy over the point guard’s catch and shoot jumper with .4 of a second remaining in a pivotal Game 5 of the Western Conference semis. Fisher’s absurd swish, almost too good to be true, gave the Lakers an improbable victory and the lead in the series. It also spurred San Antonio to file a protest with the league claiming there was no way in hell Fisher could’ve done all he did in less than half a second and still gotten the shot up before time expired—the clock, they contended, had not started quickly enough. “I think it definitely started late,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said later. Fisher wasn’t the first or second option for in-bounder Gary Payton on the play following multiple timeouts, but Fisher was open just enough and Manu Ginobili’s defense couldn’t deter him from getting off the game-winner that ended San Antonio’s 17-game home winning streak. Lost in all this was the incredible fadeaway Tim Duncan hit over Shaquille O’Neal from the top of the key that had seemingly given the Spurs the victory. “One lucky shot deserves another,” O’Neal said after the game. —AC
26. LeBron James Goes Nuclear in Boston
It’s sort of crazy to think that at one point people thought LeBron James couldn’t deliver in the playoffs. Of course, that was partly based on LeBron’s own failures, especially the 2011 NBA Finals. But people really loved to push the narrative that he couldn’t get it done and wasn’t a winner. Well, a lot of those narratives changed on June 7, 2012 when LeBron led the Heat into Boston for a Game 6 while facing elimination. Who knows what would have happened if the Heat would have lost that game. What did LeBron do? Just a casual 45 points on 19-of-26 shooting. On the road. In Boston. The Heat would go onto win the title that year and the LeBron detractors had to get real quiet for a little bit. Sadly for those haters, it was just the start of LeBron’s championship quests, which he’s still not done chasing. —ZF
24. Kobe Hits Crazy Game-Winner vs. Suns
It’s still hard to watch Kobe Bryant moments after his tragic death last year. Like, really hard. But it’s also so awesome to go back and watch his crazy highlights. He really was one-of-a-kind and in this first-round series, we saw him attempt to put an entire team on his back and lead them. In the end, the Lakers came up short, but Kobe was putting up some of the wildest numbers of his career. He was showing that he could carry a team, which we saw later when he won two more titles in LA. Despite the series loss to the Suns, Kobe delivered one of his most epic playoff moments with this game-winning shot in Game 4. It was the most Kobe shot ever, too. Facing a double team, he faded back to his right and just drilled it. What many people forget is that he also tied this game in the final seconds for the Lakers. He was literally doing it all and then some. —ZF
22. Dirk & the Mavs Stun the Heat
A 15-point fourth-quarter comeback during the regular-season can sometimes feel cosmic. But pulling that stunt on the road in the NBA Finals—against the Miami Heat featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh—borders on the supernatural. Behind the heroics and grittiness of Dirk Nowitzki, who toughed it out with a torn tendon in one of his fingers on his non-shooting hand, Dallas changed the direction of the 2011 Finals that many assumed would just be a coronation for James with 7:15 of furious basketball. Trailing by 15 at that mark in the final frame, that’s when Dirk and company methodically began to dig themselves out of the hole. The Heat deserve some blame for playing so poorly here, but we all remember how Nowitzki took matters into his own injured hand down the stretch. The Dallas legend scored the Mavs’ final nine points, including the go-ahead layup with 3.6 seconds to go, to cap the miracle, handing the Heat its first home playoff loss of the postseason. Four games later, Nowitzki would earn his ring before LeBron. —AC
20. We Believe Warriors
Everyone loves an underdog and no NBA team captured that feeling like the “We Believe Warriors” who stunned the No. 1 seed Mavericks in the first-round 14 years ago. This was a team that barely finished above .500 in the regular-season, but caught lightning in a bottle during that series against Dallas. This was the first No. 8 seed to ever beat a No. 1 seed in a seven-game series in NBA history. Not only did the Warriors make history, but they did so in explosive fashion behind the stellar play of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Jason Richardson, and more. The electricity of the “We Believe Warriors” playoff games was truly insane. I’m still not sure we’ve seen a crowd that wild in an NBA setting. Let us never forget the magic of that Warriors team. —ZF
18. Robert Horry Shocks the Kings
If you didn’t get a chance to enjoy Lakers-Kings back in the day when Sacramento (briefly) had one of the NBA’s top squad and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were anchoring the purple and gold in the middle of their dynasty, you really missed out. Those two teams hated each other and loved to snipe and take shots in the media, adding an additional layer to what had become arguably the league’s most heated rivalry. It culminated in the 2004 Western Conference Finals where the Kings, forever a punching bag for the mighty Lakers, were on the verge of taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. Then Robert Horry, one of the league’s greatest clutch shooters, took center stage. His straight-away 3-pointer just before the buzzer shook Staples Center after a frantic few attempts at the basket by Bryant and O’Neal failed. Kings center Vlade Divac tipped the ball out of the paint after O’Neal’s miss only to watch it go straight to Horry with the Lakers trailing by two and the clock about to expire.
Firing in rhythm, was there any doubt Horry wasn’t going to drain it like he did so many times during his days with the Rockets and also the Spurs? That shot tied up the series at two games apiece (the Lakers would eventually win in seven). Divac, the once upon a time Lakers center who was traded for Bryant and missed a key free throw prior to LA’s final possession, called it a lucky shot. Horry clapped back in his post-game press conference. “If you go back and look at the shot, you know, a luck shot is one of those guys who has no form. If you look at the shot it was straight form,” Horry said. “He shouldn’t have tipped it out there. It wasn’t no luck shot. I’ve been doing that my whole career. He should know. He better read a paper or something.” —AC
16. Dame Waves Goodbye to Thunder
Unofficial NBA history was made that evening in Portland since the internet got an incredible meme out of a game-winner. Sure, I’ll buy that the most indelible image out of Damian Lillard sending the Thunder home from their first-round series in 2019 is probably the Blazers superstar waving goodbye to Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the Thunder squad that didn’t have a whole lot of love or respect for each other on the court. But the money shot came after Lillard was rushed by his teammates in a dog pile. Somehow the TNT cameras got right up into the mid-court celebration and caught Lillard mean-mugging in the middle of it. While the rest of the Blazers were grinning like giddy little children, there wasn’t a hint of elation on Lillard’s face.
He was all business, or more precisely his stoicism mixed with just a hint of smugness was a reminder to the rest of the NBA that that’s what Damian Lillard does. Buzzer beaters from 40-plus feet ain’t no thang. George, of course, would call Lillard’s game-winner a “bad shot.” Statistically speaking, he wasn’t wrong. But if you know Lillard then you know he’s practiced those long-distance bombs for years, extending his range to levels once thought to be ridiculous and to the point where he’s supremely confident they’re going in every time he pulls up from stupidly deep. Lillard had an opportunity to drive or get off a better shot or find an open teammate during that final possession, but it was Dame Time. Jokes on you if you thought he wasn’t taking the shot to end the series—no matter where on the floor—and if you actually believed it wasn’t good off his fingers. —AC
14. LeBron Explodes vs. Pistons
We talked about Dwyane Wade’s playoff “arrival” earlier in this list. Well, for LeBron James, Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2007 was that moment. It was one of the best performances in a playoff game that you’ll ever see. James scored the Cavs’ final 25 points to deliver an epic road victory that eventually propelled the Cavs to the NBA Finals. For James to put up this kind of performance on the road in the playoffs against that Pistons team is still crazy to think about. His 48 points seemed effortless at times. With no other real weapons on the court, the vaunted Pistons defense still couldn’t stop James. Everything they threw at him failed. Even though it felt like he was playing one-on-five it didn’t matter. Of course, James wouldn’t win his first championship for five more years, but this still remains as one of his best and most important playoff moments. Truly iconic. —ZF
12. Giannis' 50-Piece in Game 6
Giannis Antetokounmpo not only stamped himself as one of the greatest players of all-time with his championship, but he gave us one of the greatest individual performances the game has ever seen. 50 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks and in a season where he shot 68.5 percent from the free throw line, he shot 17-for-19 in the biggest game of his career. He essentially made one of his biggest weaknesses a strength when it mattered the most and that’s a quality only great players have. When you factor in that he wasn’t even playing at 100 percent after suffering a hyperextended knee late in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Hawks, it makes the performance that much more impressive. He became the first player in NBA history to average 30+ points, 10+ rebounds and 5+ assists on more than 60 percent shooting in the NBA Finals. He also became one of the most decorated 26-year olds to ever play and there’s a chance we could be talking about the Greek Freak finishing in the top 10 of the all time list when it's all said and done. Who can also forget Giannis going straight to Chick-Fil-A the next day and ordering a 50-piece?
10. Kobe & Shaq Connect for Legendary Alley-Oop
Of course Kobe and Shaq have a moment in the top-5 of this list. They were the iconic duo for a long stretch of NBA history and were actually so dominant that it’s hard to find moments that could fit our purposes here. They just steamrolled teams and series on a regular basis. But this was an easy call. The alley-oop against the Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals really is special. The way Kobe calmly knifed through the lane before floating the ball in the air for Shaq to grab with one hand and slam it is just still so amazing the watch. The way the crowd erupts. The way Shaq runs down the court pointing and yelling. We’ll likely never see another duo like Kobe and Shaq and whether you liked the Lakers or not, you have to appreciate just how dominant they were together. —ZF
8. Kawhi Leonard Sends the 76ers Home
Will we ever see that kind of emotion out of Kawhi Leonard again? Probably not since the current Clippers star is about as robotic of an athlete as we have today in sports, preferring to remain even keel and saying the least amount possible. But that day in Toronto, when he launched that impossibly high fadeaway jumper over the massive reach of Joel Embiid—then squatted to watch it rattle off the rim four times before the ball tumbled through the net—Leonard let out a mighty roar. How could he not? How many guys get to end a series, let alone a game, on a buzzer-beater? How many guys even get that shot on the rim under those circumstances?
Seriously, how the hell did he make that 21-foot prayer, over an excellent defensive center that put to bed the Eastern Conference semifinals, Leonard’s body twisting awkwardly, right leg extended, his follow-through exaggerated. Then the basketball world waited for what felt like forever to see if it was good, which it ultimately was after a breathless second or two while the physics of basketball toyed with everyone. Leonard’s never had a moment like that. Neither has Embiid. The disappointment of losing on that circus shot moved him to tears as he walked off the court, hands over his head. Leonard was the opposite. He was emotive, he was ecstatic. For once, he appeared human. All it took was hitting an out-of-this-world jumper. —AC
6. AI Steps Over Ty Lue and Lakers in Game 1
Some moments just stick with you forever. That’s how you know they’re truly iconic. For me, a young NBA fan, Allen Iverson’s performance in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals will always be fresh in my mind. The way that he put the 76ers on his back and carried them to a win against the stacked Kobe and Shaq-led Lakers left quite the impression on me and so many other basketball fans. In fact, it really made me love the game. After that I thought anything was possible. Even though the Sixers didn’t win another game that series, Iverson showed that on any given night and against the odds a star can carry his team to a win that nobody expected. The highlights, as you can see below, are just insane to watch back. Sorry, Ty Lue, but you’re just never going to get away from this one. —ZF
4. Ray Allen Saves Heat vs. Spurs
I have a lot of micro memories whenever I think about Ray Allen’s iconic game-tying corner three from Game 6 of the 2013 Finals. Mike Breen’s emphatic, euphoric “BANG!” after the ball ripped the net is one. The images of Heat fans who left AmericanAirlines Arena early because they thought the Finals were over and hilariously failed to get back into the building after Miami miraculously forced overtime is another. But maybe the one that stands out the most to me is Allen’s picture perfect footwork. We all know the shot from one of the greatest long ball launchers in NBA history was pure and bailed out the Heatles from losing a second Finals in three appearances.
But if Allen hadn’t spent hours upon hours actually working on that shot—or more precisely the footwork in order to get that shot off without committing a violation—we absolutely look at that 66-win Miami team in an entirely different light. Chris Bosh grabbing the offensive rebound off a LeBron James miss and finding Allen was obviously crucial, but Allen drilling it into muscle memory that it took just so many steps to get behind the arc in the corner without stepping out of bounds is PhD-level basketball. “My body at that point took over and said, ‘Hey, we’ve done this before. Let’s just go to what we know,’” Allen has previously said of the shot. With Tony Parker closing in on him, precious seconds dwindling off the clock, and a championship about to slip away, Allen wasn’t flustered. He was flawless. —AC
2. Cavs Complete Epic 3-1 Comeback Against 73-Win Warriors
When you think of iconic NBA Playoff moments in recent history, how could you land anywhere else but here as No. 1? And I’m not just saying that as a Cleveland Cavaliers fan. What LeBron James and the Cavs were able to do in 2016 is easily one of the greatest feats in NBA history. Think about it. Down 3-1 against the Golden State Warriors, with the unanimous MVP and coming off a 73-win season. The Cavs had to win two games on the road. The Warriors lost two games at home the entire season. Are you serious? The heroics of James and Kyrie Irving still seem sort of unreal, even years later. From each scoring 41 in game 5 to the “Block” and the “Shot” in Game 7, they put an entire city on their back and carried the franchise to one of the greatest titles in sports history.
That’s not to say it was only Kyrie and LeBron who won the title, but the moments led by those two will surely live on forever. With both still playing and chasing championships, it’s hard to believe either could top that run. Just a perfect sports moment in time that will last for eternity. —ZF