Issue 28: Historical Moments from NBA Lore

We’ve made it to the weekend — let’s give ourselves a big pat on the back! The NBA season is behind us, but the NBA Draft is still a few weeks away, so we’ve got a bit of time to kill.

Now, you could certainly twiddle your thumbs and no one would blame you. But I’d like to offer an alternative: looking at some of basketball’s finest moments from this century. These are tidbits you can have on hand the next time you find yourself in conversation with someone, whether in person or over a Zoom call.

The conversation doesn’t even have to be related to basketball for you to jump in. After all, who wouldn’t get excited about times like when…

Vince Carter Leaps Over a Very Tall Man in the Olympics

Date: September 25, 2000

The Moment: Vince Carter completely jumps over a helpless Frenchman in the Olympics, destroying him (and really all of France) with one dunk.

Why It Matters: Nicknamed the “Dunk of Death,” this is perhaps the most vicious display of leaping ability the world has ever witnessed. The United States was playing France during the 2000 Summer Olympics. The U.S. won the gold medal, but the only team we know for sure they beat is France. And that’s only because of Vince Carter’s dunk over a poorly placed Frenchman named Frederic Weis.

Carter stands at 6 feet, 6 inches tall. Certainly not short by any means, but next to Weis, who is 7-foot-2, Carter looks like…well, like me standing next to an average NBA player. That didn’t matter one single bit on this day. Early in the second half, Carter stole a pass and took one dribble toward the basket. Then he leapt…and he just kept rising into the air. He ended up jumping entirely over Weis — who again, it must be stated, is over seven feet tall — before slamming the ball through the hoop.

The entire crowd gasped. Carter understandably yelled in excitement. His teammates were pumped. In particular, one teammate (Kevin Garnett) ran over to shove Carter, as teammates often do when a really amazing play happens. Carter, who was still so amped up because he basically dunked over a U-Haul van, punched the air, nearly connecting with Garnett’s face as he ran over. All of these things combine to make this dunk my favorite moment of any Olympics ever — past, present, or future.

How Fast Can You Shoot A Basketball? The Answer: 0.4 Seconds

Date: May 13, 2004

The Moment: With 0.4 seconds left in the 2004 Western Conference semifinals, the Lakers’ Derek Fisher makes a buzzer beater to gift L.A. a victory.

Why It Matters: In 2004, the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers met in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. These two teams had dominated basketball over the past five years, with the Lakers winning three championships in that span, and the Spurs winning the other two. It’s no surprise, then, that this was an intense, super close series.

In fact, Game 5 was SO close that it was 72-71 with just a few seconds left in the game. San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, who is perhaps the most skilled player ever at making a shot off the backboard, instead made an incredibly difficult shot with only 0.4 seconds left, giving the Spurs a one-point lead.

And I am not overstating the degree of difficulty here — Duncan, who’s right-handed, was falling to his left and shooting over a seven-foot defender. He tumbled to the ground like a scared puma, but the ball went through the net. For all intents and purposes, this game was over.

Tell that to Derek Fisher. After a timeout, the Lakers had one last chance to win the game. If you’ve ever wondered how much time you need to catch a ball, turn around and shoot it at a basket, Fisher answered that question: it’s 0.4 seconds.

But not only did he get the shot off before the buzzer, but it also went straight through the hoop. Swish. Lakers 74, Spurs 73. As one naturally does when making a ridiculous game-winning bucket, Fisher ran around the court while the rest of his team chased him. It was one of those moments where fans of both teams were just standing around, mouths agape and holding onto their heads in complete disbelief. ­

Robert Horry Body Slams the Suns

Date: May 14, 2007

The Moment: San Antonio’s Robert Horry hip checks Phoenix’s Steve Nash into the scorer’s table. A fracas ensues.

Why It MattersThe Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs were locked up in an intense Western Conference semifinal matchup. These were probably the two best teams in the league that year, yet thanks to some bad luck and quirky scheduling, they were facing each other in the second round.

The Spurs were winning the series two games to one, but the Suns were about to even things up in Game 4. However, the Spurs had a secret weapon on hand: Robert Horry.

In the closing moments, San Antonio’s Robert Horry hip-checked Phoenix’s Steve Nash with the force of someone trying to knock a stuck Kit Kat out of a vending machine. Nash, who is barely taller than you or me, went flying into the scorer’s table, suffering a pretty nasty gash across his nose.

Naturally, Nash’s teammates ran to the rescue. Unfortunately, that included Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, who were both on the bench. The NBA has a rule that if you get up off the bench and come onto the court, you’re suspended for a game.

So, the Suns lost two of their top players for Game 5. As you may expect, the Spurs won that game. They then won the following game, taking the series in six games. Despite a roster filled with immense talent, Phoenix never won a championship, making this is one of the greatest “what if” moments in NBA history.

Namely, what if Robert Horry didn’t ruin perhaps the most entertaining team to ever play’s shot at history?

Kawhi Leonard’s Four Bounce Game-Winner

Date: May 12, 2019

The Moment: It’s Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals. The Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers are tied at 90. Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard gets an inbound pass and shoots a ridiculous fadeaway from the right corner just before the buzzer sounds. It bounces on the rim four times before dropping through the net. The Raptors win and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, and one month and one day later, they won the NBA championship.

Why It Matters: Kawhi Leonard is perhaps the most interesting specimen in the NBA. I say specimen because it’s unclear if he’s a human or a robot. Either way, he is very good at basketball. Leonard spent the first seven years of his career in San Antonio, and his time there ended in turmoil. Leonard had a mysterious injury that limited him to just nine games during his final season in Texas, and the Spurs were DISPLEASED. As a result, they shipped him off to Toronto (arguably the NBA’s coldest city, and the only team not in the United States). Hopefully, Leonard had an updated passport.

Luckily for the Raptors, Leonard reminded everyone that, oh yes, in addition to being a fun guy and having massive hands, he’s fantastically skilled at all areas of basketball. The Spurs barely made the playoffs while the Raptors finished with the second-best record in the whole league. The Spurs lost in the first round of said playoffs while the Raptors won the NBA championship.

Even if you’re not a sports fan, you probably know that winning a championship is generally considered a better accomplishment than not winning a championship. No Canadian team had ever made the NBA Finals before, let alone win the title, and the Raptors largely rode the back of Leonard to get there. But I haven’t even gotten into why this buzzer-beater was so cool.

First, let’s dissect the phrase “buzzer-beater.” When it happens, it’s one of the most exciting parts of a basketball game. It’s a player shooting just before time runs out; they release the ball, the buzzer sounds, and the shot goes in. What made Leonard’s buzzer-beater extra spectacular was that it didn’t even beat the buzzer.

From the time Leonard released the ball until it went in the basket, 3.8 seconds elapsed. It hit the rim, bounced over the hoop, hit the rim again with some incredible backspin, then bounced two more times before trickling through the net. During that time, the buzzer stopped sounding. You just heard the entire arena collectively holding their breaths.

There are some terrific photos of this shot, including one just before it goes in where everyone’s mouth is agape in a mix of awe, horror, and edge-of-your-seat excitement, much like mine was during the conveyor belt scene of Toy Story 3.

This photo carries two main highlights. Leonard is squatting right in front of his bench, the momentum of his shot carrying him to the ground. Meanwhile, Philadelphia center Joel Embiid – a tall behemoth of a man – is peering at the hoop like he’s trying to covertly sneak through a museum after hours. Everyone else has that “ohhhhhh!” face as the realization of what’s happening sets in. It’s perhaps the pinnacle of jubilation.

That’s all ’til next time. Thanks for reading!


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