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In a season defined by Stephen Curry’s boundary–destroying shooting, the conventional game–winner was left in the dust in favor of deep, unexpected and sometimes wacky shots.
Make no mistake: there were memorable game-winners in the same traditional, isolation “Michael Jordan shakes Bryon Russell” vein. Kevin Durant hit a pretty pull–up to drop the Clippers. Kawhi Leonard rocked the Magic to sleep off the dribble before burying a jumper. LeBron James worked one–on–one through traffic to set up a gliding push hook.
But those shots, delivered by three All–NBA First Team candidates, all failed to make the cut on SI.com’s “Top 10 Game-Winners of 2015–16” list. Here's a look at the other notable plays that failed to make the list:
Honorable Mention: J.J. Redick takes the nutmeg pass from Chris Paul to beat the Blazers | Kyle Lowry finishes career night with the winner over Cavaliers | Mirza Teletovic gets goofy to beat Bulls | Anthony Davis finishes the alley-oop to beat the Hornets | Archie Goodwin beats the Hawks from deep | Avery Bradley gets the corner three to top the Cavaliers |Andrew Wiggins finds Ricky Rubio for the three to beat Thunder
Now that the palette is whet and the terms are set, let’s run down the best of the best:
10. Dirk Nowitzki gets love from Kobe Bryant after signature turnaround
Nowitzki’s closing jumper to down the Lakers 92–90 might not have been the most important or impressive game–winner of the season, but it arguably produced the best post–shot exchange of the season.
With the clock ticking down under five seconds, Nowitzki deftly worked on Julius Randle, setting up his signature fall–away jumper from the right baseline. As the shot swished through, the 37–year–old Nowitzki backpedaled towards the Lakers bench, where his fellow aging legend, Kobe Bryant, was watching in street clothes. Before jogging back to play defense, Nowitzki reached out to tap the 37-year-old Bryant, who returned the favor and added an impressed nod for good measure.
This was “real recognize real” and “real old recognize real old” all at the same time.
• MORE NBA: Cowboy Way: Dirk Nowitzki still loving the ride
9. Joe Johnson banks in a three off one leg
Usually, “casual” and “borderline indifferent” aren’t phrases that apply to game–winning three–pointers. Johnson isn’t your typical player in late–game situations, though, as his extended track record of big shots has left him numb to human conditions like “anxiety” or “nerves.”
With 1.3 seconds left and Brooklyn trailing Denver 104-102, Johnson took an inbounds pass from the left sideline near the top of the key and used one dribble to work his way left and avoid Danilo Gallinari. The little side-step work, in part because Johnson launched off one leg rather than setting himself for a more traditional shot. The resulting chuck seemed to hang in the air forever before glancing cleanly off the backboard and into the net. Be sure to stick around for a rare moment of jubilation for Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov.
8. Mario Chalmers rumbles, bumbles and stumbles
This wasn’t the plan. There really wasn’t a plan. Not that it mattered.
With the score tied at 101 and 10 seconds remaining, the Grizzlies stripped Pistons forward Marcus Morris and took off for the races. The ball quickly worked its way to Mario Chalmers, who pushed the ball up the court rather than call timeout.
Chalmers milked some clock as he approached the three–point line, but then promptly lost control of the ball as he prepared to enter the shooting motion. Fortunately, Chalmers also happened to be the first person to realize the ball was up for grabs, so he rushed towards it, scooped it up, tossed up a heave and drew contact—seemingly all in one rushed motion. Against all odds, the jumper swished through, causing Chalmers to revel in the moment by high-stepping towards the sideline before his free–throw attempt.
As it turned out, both games between Detroit and Memphis this season ended in chaos (see No. 3 below for the other one).
7. Kevin Durant shakes Tobias Harris for the triple
File this one under “You reach, I teach.” Oklahoma City and Orlando were tied at 114 in the closing seconds, when Durant unleashed a vicious, rocking left–to–right crossover that sent Harris staggering backwards near the three–point line.
The 2014 MVP then made the most of his clean look, stepping into a quick-trigger three that swished through to the home crowd’s delight. In a season full of fourth-quarter collapses for Oklahoma City, this was a hero’s delivery that called back to the charmed late-game moments of Durant’s career. So cold.
6. Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler connect for brilliant tip
Before Bulls fans scrub the entire 2015–16 season from their collective memories, they should take a few looks back at this fantastic connection between Gasol and Butler. Chicago’s two All-Stars teamed up for more than their fair share of backdoor lobs this year, but none prettier than this game-winning effort against the Pacers.
With 3.7 seconds left in overtime and the score tied at 100, Gasol took the inbounds pass near the three-point line and tossed a perfect lob to a cutting Butler, who then deflected the ball into the hoop with a deft, soft-touch tip despite a swipe from Paul George. Gorgeous.
5. Jeff Green completes perfect inbounds lob with the slam
Is this great execution, terrible defense, or some combination of both? You decide.
With just 0.8 seconds left and the score tied at 93, Memphis lined up from the left sideline for a final possession against Phoenix. Using a series of distracting runs, the Grizzlies were able to free Jeff Green for an over-the-top lob to the front of the rim. As Green broke towards the hoop, the Suns didn’t have a single defender in the basket area. A late and unsuccessful recovery by Jon Leuer only managed to increase the highlight-reel quality of Green’s slam. After all, how many players can claim to have executed a game-winning, buzzer-beating poster dunk?
Meanwhile, Suns seven-footer Alex Len watched the whole sequence unfold while hugging Marc Gasol near the three-point line. Welp.
4. Deron Williams fakes, then drains three to win in double OT
Don’t blink: A whole heckuva lot happened in the 1.3 seconds it took Mavericks guard Deron Williams to dump the Kings in double overtime. Peeling towards the inbounder on the left sideline, Williams curled towards the near corner and receives the pass as he turns towards the hoop. That bit of body positioning and timing was key, as it let him throw in a quick pump fake to lose Rudy Gay, who came charging at him hoping to block the shot.
After the pump, Williams quickly reset his feet and put up an on-balance three with a clean look. The shot swished through for a 117-116 ending to a marathon game, and he celebrated by crashing to the court, where he was mobbed by his teammates. Owner Mark Cuban got in on the dog pile fun too.
3. Matt Barnes drills half-court winner, clock be damned
Who needs clock awareness when you can just pour in the winner from half-court? Barnes delivered one of the best “no-no-no-yes!” game-winners in recent memory for the Grizzlies against the Pistons.
Corralling the defensive rebound with just over five seconds remaining, Barnes took off up-court intent on getting up a host before time expired. Upon hitting the center stripe, he pulled up for a running, double-clutching heave that he inexplicably released with roughly three seconds left on the clock. No big deal: the shot swished through, giving Memphis a 93-92 lead. Barnes’ shot was so premature that he actually gave Detroit 1.1 seconds to work with, but the Pistons’ couldn’t deliver a counterstrike.
2. Emmanuel Mudiay hits a long-distance miracle
The Nuggets’ future clearly belongs to Mudiay, a 2015 lottery pick, but their present was held up a bit by the 20–year–old point guard’s long–term ankle injury, turnover problems and poor shooting. Ironically, the highlight of a rookie season filled with stumbles was a stumbling game–winning three against the Sixers.
With just seconds left, Mudiay tried to create an open look in transition, only to momentarily lose control as T.J. McConnell poked the ball free. Mudiay recovered by reaching down to pick the ball up off the court and then taking one step forward, thereby creating just enough daylight to fling a two-handed shot from chest level towards the hoop as he drifted hard to the left. The heave barely beat the buzzer, but it was pure.
1. Stephen Curry takes your breath away
Was there any doubt what shot would be number one on this list? N–O–P–E.
Curry’s long bomb—measured at roughly 37 or 38 feet—had every base covered. It was impossibly deep. It was impossibly calm. It took place in overtime and came against a high-profile opponent during a nationally televised game. It quieted a crowd, led to a memorable celebration, tied an NBA record for most three-pointers in a game, and encapsulated just how far away from the hoop defenses need to pick up Curry in transition.
On top of all of those factors, Curry’s missile launch perfectly distilled the might and magic of the Warriors’ dominant campaign. How do you defend a shot like that? How do you stop a player like this? How do you compete with a team like Golden State?