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Franchise-Altering Shots Are Rare: The Last Four NBA Seasons Have Had Five of Them

Damian Lillard’s Game 5 bomb to beat OKC was the beginning of the end for the Russell Westbrook–Paul George Thunder. But that wasn’t the only shot that permanently altered the future of a team.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

My song of the summer is Damian Lillard’s series-clinching shot in Game 5 against the Thunder. I revisit the replay so often that YouTube is desperate for me to watch any other highlight. And sometimes, out of pity for the algorithm, I do. But I always come back to this:

The specific execution of the shot was superfluous: Lillard took the shot from 37 feet out with 2.4 seconds left in a tied elimination playoff game. (Key words: 37 feet, 2.4 seconds, tied, elimination, playoff.) It gave him an even 50 points. As if all that weren’t enough, Lillard hit that shot while one of the best defenders in the NBA—Paul George, four-time All-Defense, second runner-up for the 2018-19 Defensive Player of the Year award—was guarding him. But George was just a fraction of a second too late contesting the shot. Their fingers almost touch in Dame’s follow-through, like man and God in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. (I’ll let you decide which one is God in this analogy.) The shot is also technically perfect. Perfect side hop to the right, perfect release, perfect stroke, perfect arch, and perfect little love tap on the left inside of the rim. The reaction is somehow better. Lillard waves goodbye to the Thunder, whom he’s just sent home. Portland teammates pile on top of him, and he stares at the camera with a look that says, “Why yes, I did do that. I did ruin a franchise.”

That was the end of Oklahoma City as we knew them. Russell Westbrook reportedly asked for a trade after the loss. He was with the organization for 11 seasons and his entire career. Later that summer, George requested to leave as well. OKC obliged and dealt them both. Though Oklahoma City’s long-term outlook isn’t terrible, the current Thunder are a bubble team at best and unidentifiable from the group that went to the Finals in 2012. In a macro sense, the collapse was a long time coming. OKC hadn’t made it past the first round of the playoffs in three years. But without Lillard’s shot, there’s a chance they’d have run it back.

Lillard’s shot got me thinking about which other shots fundamentally altered a team. Franchise-destroying shots are rare, and the aftermath isn’t always so immediate, but there’s been at least one each postseason for at least the past three years. Not all are as storybook as Dame’s. After Lillard’s classic, here are the four most recent shots that led to a team imploding:

2018 NBA Finals, Game 1

The end of the LeBron-era Cavaliers (which, it could be argued, was the end of the Cavaliers) was likely in motion long before Game 1 of the 2018 Finals. But the last couple seconds of regulation can be identified as Cleveland’s last chance to take that series, and as the most obvious tipping point for LeBron.

I replayed this shot, too, for months on YouTube, but it’s a much harder watch: J.R. Smith rebounds George Hill’s missed free throw with 4.2 seconds left in regulation. The score is tied, 107-107, but instead of shooting or passing right away, Smith dribbles out to the scorer’s table, as if Cleveland already has the lead. After realizing his error, Smith finds Hill on the wing and passes off the ball. Hill takes a 3, but it’s too late. Golden State won handedly in overtime, 124-114.

Cleveland probably would’ve lost the series even if the shot was good (or if the shot had happened when it was supposed to), but the Cavs deflated after Smith’s blunder like a popped balloon. LeBron left for the Lakers that summer. There wasn’t much to Cleveland’s roster even when he was on it, so after James, the Cavaliers were done.

2017 Western Conference Finals, Game 1

The shot that ultimately torpedoed the Spurs was taken by one of their own. It was the third quarter of Game 1 against the Warriors, and San Antonio was enjoying a cushy 21-point lead. Kawhi Leonard took a step back to create separation on a long 2, but Zaza Pachulia managed to close in on him anyway. Leonard’s foot landed on Pachulia’s, which was planted underneath the shooter and impeded his landing path. Leonard had already tweaked his left ankle earlier in the contest, and this twisted it for good. Leonard took two free throws and missed the rest of the game, which the Spurs blew, losing 113-111. The series played out in similar fashion: Leonard sat the entire time, and Golden State swept San Antonio.

Leonard wouldn’t play again until December 12 the next year because of a quad injury. Reports indicate that the ankle and quad issues weren’t related, but a healthy Leonard would’ve given the Warriors a fight. (This really isn’t speculation anymore, and I can point to a recent Finals run to prove it.) It was the quad injury that eventually sparked distrust between Leonard and the Spurs organization, but the Zaza shot was their last game of peak Kawhi.

It’s worth noting that Leonard’s absence in 2017-18 and his departure ahead of 2018-19 didn’t ruin San Antonio on paper. The Spurs finished well above .500 both seasons—though their ability to contend with the NBA’s best was immediately snuffed out. After a limping version of Kawhi led the Raptors to their first championship in history, it was obvious Leonard’s leave shorted Gregg Popovich’s team of true competitive potential.

2016 Western Conference Finals, Game 6

Klay Thompson didn’t dismantle the 2016 Thunder—yes, the poor Thunder again—with one shot. He scored 41 points in Game 6, going 14-for-31 from the field and 11-for-18 from deep. With his 11th and final 3, Thompson made history. It was the most made 3s in a single postseason game ever. That shot broke the record, and it broke the Thunder.

As was the case with Dame’s 3, the stakes were rather dramatic: The score was tied, 101-101, with less than two minutes remaining. If the Warriors lost Game 6, they’d be eliminated from the postseason. Andre Iguodala forced Russell Westbrook into a turnover, pushed the ball in transition, and found Thompson spotted up on the right wing. It took less than a second for Thompson to catch Iguodala’s chest pass and release his shot, which he swished. Naturally. The basket pushed Golden State ahead for the final time.

Thompson’s 3 didn’t force Kevin Durant to choose the Warriors in free agency that summer, but Durant did leave, because, in his own words, Golden State gave “the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth.” Had the Thunder won that series and advanced to the Finals, he might’ve felt differently. Instead, KD spent the next couple years as the NBA’s Ephialtes of Trachis. (Except it worked out much better for Durant.) OKC, as aforementioned, never recovered.

2016 NBA finals, Game 7

The pull-up 3 that Kyrie Irving made over Steph Curry in Game 7 will be remembered for saving a franchise, not destroying one. It won the Cavaliers their first title, though the Warriors would still go on to win two more. But I’d argue Irving’s shot triggered a ripple effect.

Draymond Green started recruiting Durant the moment Golden State lost. KD joining the Warriors ruptured the rest of the Western Conference. Championship dreams were put on hold for three years. The Rockets decided that they needed Chris Paul to counter, and the Lob City Clippers were fractured as a result. Plus, in a much happier sense, Irving’s shot resulted in LeBron finally giving his city a ring. He had returned, and, thanks in part to Irving, he did what he promised he’d do. If anything gave LeBron permission to leave Cleveland again (and leave it in shambles), it was that.