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For the Win! … The NBA’s All-Time Leaders in Game-Winning Buzzer-Beaters

Who’s the greatest closer in basketball history? We dug deep into the archives to find out who has made the most decisive shots at the buzzer.

Dan Evans

NBA basketball provides some of the greatest displays of individual athleticism in team sports, but the ultimate moment is the buzzer-beater: when a player calls game and ends the affair as time runs out. Some of the most indelible moments in basketball history are buzzer-beaters: Jerry West’s 60-footer in the 1970 NBA Finals, Michael Jordan’s “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo, Derek Fisher’s fallaway with 0.4 left vs. the Spurs, Kawhi Leonard’s quadruple-doinker to eliminate the 76ers in last year’s Game 7 of the Eastern semifinals, Damian Lillard’s “bad, bad shot” over Paul George to end last year’s Thunder series, etc. It’s basketball’s version of the walk-off.

But while baseball fans can tell you that Jim Thome is MLB’s all-time leader in walk-off home runs (13), NBA fans have had to settle for assumptions. Until now.

I have compiled a database of every buzzer-beating, game-winning basket in NBA history (including the BAA years, from 1946-47 to 1948-49, since those are included as part of “official” NBA history; ABA years, however, are not included) over at Basketball-Reference.com, one of the websites for which I am the managing stathead. There have been 772 such shots, which I’m defining as shots (a) taken with the shooter’s team trailing or tied and (b) that won the game while leaving no time left on the clock. (For more on the specifics of the methodology, please see this blog post.) From that, we’re able to determine the NBA’s all-time leaders in buzzer-beaters. We’ll start with 13 players who are tied for 11th most all time with four buzzer-beaters apiece:

Four Career Buzzer-Beaters

Carl Braun

Position: G
Seasons: 13 (1947-50, 1952-62)
Teams: Knicks, Celtics

From 1950 to 1954, Braun won four games at the horn for the Knicks. Two of the four shots were described in game recaps at the time as “one-handers,” and the only one with a distance given was a 35-foot set shot he hit after catching an inbounds pass from Ernie Vandeweghe (father to future NBA star Kiki Vandeweghe and a medical student at the time) against the St. Louis Bombers in 1950. Braun was the first NBA player to reach two career buzzer-beaters (1950), and also the first to three (1953) and four (1954).

Cliff Hagan

Position: F
Seasons: 10 (1956-66; later played three seasons in ABA)
Team: Hawks

Hagan, known as Li’l Abner, would be the first of many to match Braun’s record. Perhaps best known as one of two players (along with Easy Ed Macauley) traded by the Celtics to St. Louis for Bill Russell, Hagan had a Hall of Fame career and helped lead the Hawks over the Celtics to win the 1958 NBA title. His first buzzer-beater (in his rookie season) also happened to be the first buzzer-beater in the history of the NBA playoffs. Hagan tipped in Bob Pettit’s miss to win Game 6 of the 1957 NBA Finals, forcing a Game 7 with the Celtics. Unfortunately, it was a Game 7 against Bill Russell, so I don’t have to tell you that Hagan and the Hawks lost.

Jerry West

Position: G
Seasons: 14 (1960-74)
Team: Lakers

No surprise to see Mr. Clutch on this list. West became the first player to have multiple playoff buzzer-beaters. In fact, at the conclusion of the 1963 playoffs, the Logo had half of the four playoff buzzer-beaters in league history.

One of the best things about West’s pair of postseason buzzer-beaters is that they were opportunities he created. In both instances, he stole the ball from a Hall of Famer (Sam Jones inbounding to Bob Cousy in the 1962 NBA Finals and Hagan in the 1963 Western Division finals) and then scored at the horn to win the game.

Ironically, West’s most iconic shot, in the 1970 Finals, does not count here, since it forced OT instead of winning the game. West also famously won the 1972 All-Star Game at the buzzer, but that one doesn’t count here, either.

World B. Free

Position: G
Seasons: 13 (1975-88)
Teams: 76ers, Clippers, Warriors, Cavaliers, Rockets

To no one’s surprise, all four of the Brownsville Bomber’s buzzer-beaters were unassisted, and three of the four were from 20-plus feet. Two of them were after Free grabbed offensive rebounds—which Free did, on average, just 1.1 times a game.

The Free buzzer-beater that I most relish was one that did not qualify for the list. On December 21, 1977, against the Suns, he dunked the ball in the final seconds of an already decided game so everyone in attendance could win free hamburgers. So it’s settled: The “B.” stands for “Burgers.”

Greg Ballard

Position: F
Seasons: 11 (1977-87, 1988-89)
Teams: Bullets, Warriors, SuperSonics

Ballard, while a productive player, is the first big surprise to join the four-buzzer-beater club. He’s not a Hall of Famer, and unlike Free, he was never even an All-Star. Nonetheless, he won four games at the buzzer from 1980 to 1985. Ballard’s game-winners came from an average of nearly 23 feet, and he was the first player to have four buzzer-beaters from 20-plus feet (something that would become more common as the 3-point shot gained prominence). While he hit just 93 3-pointers during his career, he was the first NBA player to hit two buzzer-beating 3s.

Larry Bird

Position: F
Seasons: 13 (1979-92)
Team: Celtics

Only four buzzer-beaters feels a little beneath Larry Legend, but these were some truly special ones. Each of Bird’s buzzer-beaters came in games in which the Celtics were trailing at the time of the shot. Before Bird, no one else had more than two such shots.

But perhaps the most astounding thing about Bird’s buzzer-beaters is that they came in games that he dominated. He averaged 41.3 points in these four games: 38 at Phoenix in 1983, 48 vs. Portland in 1985, 32 vs. Detroit two days later, and 47 at Washington in 1987. No other player has multiple 45-plus-point games with a buzzer-beater. And no other player has ever won consecutive games at the buzzer like Bird did on January 27 and 29, 1985. Legendary.

Bill Laimbeer

Position: C
Seasons: 14 (1980-94)
Teams: Cavaliers, Pistons

When you think of Laimbeer, you probably don’t think of buckets. But he had a very soft shooting touch to complement his rugged game. Lambo became the first center with four-plus buzzer-beaters, all of them coming from 10-plus feet. His first career buzzer-beater came April 10, 1984, against the Pacers from 15 feet. His third career buzzer-beater came exactly a year later, also against the Pacers, from nearly the exact same spot.

John Stockton

Position: G
Seasons: 19 (1984-2003)
Team: Jazz

The NBA’s all-time leader in assists and steals, Stockton was also one of the deadliest shooters in NBA history (his 60.8 true shooting percentage is 15th best in NBA history). Stockton’s first career buzzer-beater came in 1989, when he took an inbounds pass 55 feet in 3.6 seconds and finished a layup over Michael Jordan (!).

His fourth and final career buzzer-beater was a 3-pointer over another Hall of Famer from the 1984 draft class: Charles Barkley. That one sent Stockton’s Jazz to the 1997 NBA Finals. And since you’re probably curious: Stockton’s pick-and-roll partner Karl Malone had just one buzzer-beater in his career. It was not assisted by Stockton, but it was a tip-in of a Stockton miss in 1985 (the Mailman’s 15th career game played).

Chuck Person

Position: F
Seasons: 13 (1986-96, 1997-00)
Teams: Pacers, Timberwolves, Spurs, Hornets, SuperSonics

The Rifleman’s four buzzer-beaters were spread out over 14 years (1986, 1989, 1995, and 2000). The first pair were with the Pacers, for whom he was the leading scorer for several seasons before the ascendance of Reggie Miller. The third came in his instant offense bench role for the pre–Tim Duncan Spurs. The fourth was perhaps the most interesting. Person, then in his final NBA season, had played just three minutes (and not attempted a single shot) for the Sonics in their game against the Nets before being reinserted into a tie game with 1.7 seconds left. Nets star Stephon Marbury saw Person’s 29-footer coming. “They put Chuck Person in the game for one reason: to take that shot. It’s no secret. It’s like when it rains, you are going to get wet,” he said after the game. Person is one of just four players to hit a buzzer-beater on their only shot of the game.

Buzzer-Beaters on a Player’s Single Attempt

Player Team Date Opponent
Player Team Date Opponent
Milt Palacio Celtics December 28, 2000 Nets
Chuck Person SuperSonics January 26, 2000 Nets
Ed Nealy Spurs March 25, 1988 Pistons
Barry Clemens Cavalier March 15, 1974 Celtics

Jerry Stackhouse

Position: G/F
Seasons: 18 (1995-13)
Teams: 76ers, Pistons, Wizards, Mavericks, Bucks, Heat, Hawks, Nets

To date, Stackhouse is the only player to hit buzzer-beaters for four different teams. The well-traveled wing hit one for the 76ers (1997), Pistons (1999), Wizards (2002), and Mavericks (2008).

Mo Williams

Position: G
Seasons: 13 (2003-16)
Teams: Jazz, Bucks, Cavaliers, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, Hornets

The most notable thing about Williams’s buzzer-beaters is their distance. Three of the four were 3-pointers, while the other was a 15-footer. But these weren’t short corner 3s. All three of the triples were from 27-plus feet. Only one other player (who we will get to later) has hit as many from that far.

Monta Ellis

Position: G
Seasons: 12 (2005-17)
Teams: Warriors, Bucks, Mavericks, Pacers

Ellis’s first buzzer-beater came in 2007, when his 17-footer off a pass from Baron Davis sank the Nets.

It’d be six more years before Ellis got another. He then hit buzzer-beaters in three straight seasons for the Bucks (2012-13) and Mavericks (2013-14, 2014-15). Ellis scored 20-plus points each time he won a game at the horn and each shot came from 17-plus feet, though just one of them was a 3-pointer.

Rudy Gay

Position: F
Seasons: 14 (2006-present)
Teams: Grizzlies, Raptors, Kings, Spurs

Though his trade to Toronto kicked off some glory years for the Grit and Grind Grizzlies, Gay remains the franchise’s all-time leader in buzzer-beaters, with three (no one else besides Pau Gasol has more than one). His ability to get his shot off any time with his high release has been an asset for Gay late in games. He might not be done climbing these charts, either. Last season he hit his first buzzer-beater in more than eight years, giving the Spurs a win over the Suns.

Five Career Buzzer-Beaters

Kevin Garnett

Position: F/C
Seasons: 21 (1995-2016)
Teams: Timberwolves, Celtics, Nets

KG is the only player 6-10 or taller in NBA history to make at least five buzzer-beaters. He did most of his damage in this regard for the Timberwolves, for whom he hit four buzzer-beaters. He added a fifth as a member of the Celtics when he beat the Knicks with a 19-footer in 2009.

All five of Garnett’s buzzer-beaters were 2-point jumpers, ranging from 12 to 21 feet.

Vince Carter

Position: G/F
Seasons: 22 (1998-present)
Teams: Raptors, Nets, Magic, Suns, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Kings, Hawks

You don’t play in the NBA in four different decades by being just a dunker. Carter is the only player in NBA history with five buzzer-beating 3-pointers. In fact, no one else has more than three.

Most 3-Point Buzzer-Beaters in NBA History

Player Shots
Player Shots
Vince Carter 5
Gilbert Arenas 3
Kobe Bryant 3
Kevin Durant 3
Moochie Norris 3
Mo Williams 3

His buzzer-beaters have also averaged 28.8 feet in distance, with three of them coming from 30-plus feet.

Most Buzzer-Beaters From 30-Plus Feet

Player Shots
Player Shots
Vince Carter 3
Vince Boryla 2
Devin Harris 2

Carter’s team was trailing at the time all five were taken. Additionally, three of the five came when his team trailed by two, so a 3 was the only way to secure the win. This includes his most recent one: a corner-3 dagger to give the Mavericks a 2-1 series lead over the top-seeded Spurs in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.

Gilbert Arenas

Position: G
Seasons: 11 (2001-12)
Teams: Warriors, Wizards, Magic, Grizzlies

Before his career fell apart because of injuries and questionable decision-making, Arenas seemed destined to rise to the top of this leaderboard. Late in his first season in Washington (2003-04), he knocked off the 76ers from 27 feet. The following season, his 14-footer toppled the Bulls in the playoffs. His fourth season in D.C. (2006-07) is when Agent Zero made his buzzer-beating legend, though. On January 3, 2007, his 32-footer beat the Bucks. Twelve days later, his 25-footer at the buzzer capped a 51-point performance in a win over the Jazz; it’s the second-highest point total in history by a player who ended the game with a buzzer-beater.

Most Points in Game with Buzzer-Beater

Player Team Points Date Opponent
Player Team Points Date Opponent
Fred Brown SuperSonics 58 March 23, 1974 Warriors
Gilbert Arenas Wizards 51 January 15, 2007 Jazz
Damian Lillard Trail Blazers 50 April 23, 2019 Thunder
Russell Westbrook Thunder 50 April 9, 2017 Nuggets

Two months after that, he beat the Sonics with a layup at the buzzer, becoming the first player in NBA history with three game-winning buzzer-beaters in a season. But about two weeks later, he suffered a season-ending knee injury. He was never the same, averaging just 27 games over the next five seasons.

Dwyane Wade

Position: G
Seasons: 16 (2003-19)
Teams: Heat, Bulls, Cavaliers

While Arenas hit his handful of buzzer-beaters in a compressed window of time, Wade’s five came during a 14-year span. He hit his first in November 2004, early in his second NBA season, defeating the Jazz with an unassisted 20-footer. His final buzzer-beater came almost a year ago, when he was blocked by Jordan Bell and then recovered the ball just in time to bank in a one-footer from 25 feet away to beat the Warriors.

Of note, all five of Wade’s buzzer-beaters were unassisted, including his epic strip of John Salmons followed by a running 3 at the horn to defeat his hometown Bulls in 2009.

Andre Iguodala

Position: G/F
Seasons: 16 (2004-present)
Teams: 76ers, Nuggets, Warriors, Heat

If you were told that one player from the Warriors’ recent dynasty would be on this list, you probably wouldn’t guess Iggy. Three of Iguodala’s buzzer-beaters came as a member of the 76ers, which ties him with Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes for the most in franchise history. His pair for the Warriors are tied with several others for second most in franchise history (only Rick Barry has more). Four of his buzzer-beaters came on the road, and three came with his team trailing. Though he’s back on the court with the Heat, he hasn’t hit a buzzer-beater since January 3, 2014, at Atlanta, which was before he’d won the first of his three rings.

Seven Career Buzzer-Beaters

Paul Pierce

Position: G/F
Seasons: 19 (1998-17)
Teams: Celtics, Nets, Wizards, Clippers

Pierce isn’t the all-time leader in buzzer-beaters, but no one has been involved with as many buzzer-beaters as the Truth. His seven buzzer-beaters tie him for the fourth-most makes all time, and his five buzzer-beater assists are the most ever. That’s 12 buzzer-beaters he either scored or assisted on; no other player has more than 10. Despite being known for his 3-point shooting prowess, all seven of Pierce’s game-winners were 2-pointers (which is tied for the most).

Most 2-Point Buzzer-Beaters

Player Shots
Player Shots
Joe Johnson 7
Michael Jordan 7
Paul Pierce 7
Kobe Bryant 5
Kevin Garnett 5
LeBron James 5

Six of the seven were unassisted, and two of them were in the playoffs.

LeBron James

Position: F
Seasons: 17 (2003-present)
Teams: Cavaliers, Heat, Lakers

Once ridiculed by some for not being a willing closer—like when he committed the grave sin of passing to Donyell Marshall for a great look—or for lacking the supposed “clutch gene,” James has built up quite a buzzer-beater résumé despite getting off to a bit of a late start. It wasn’t until his sixth season that he hit his first, a 19-footer at Golden State on January 23, 2009. He followed that up with a 25-footer to beat the Magic in a playoff game that season:

Four years went by before James sneaked one past Paul George for a layup off an inbounds pass in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. He’s added four more since (in the 2015 playoffs vs. Bulls, a 2018 regular-season matchup with the Timberwolves, and two in the 2018 playoffs). His five career postseason buzzer-beaters are as many as any two other players combined.

Most Postseason Buzzer-Beaters

Player Shots
Player Shots
LeBron James 5
Michael Jordan 3
Damian Lillard 2
Paul Pierce 2
Jerry West 2
Jo Jo White 2

Additionally, LeBron and Russell Westbrook are the only two players to twice pair a buzzer-beater with a triple-double.

Most Times With a Triple-Double and a Buzzer-Beater in the Same Game

Player Games
Player Games
LeBron James 2
Russell Westbrook 2
Elgin Baylor 1
John Havlicek 1
Magic Johnson 1
Hakeem Olajuwon 1
Andy Phillip 1
Micheal Ray Richardson 1

Eight Career Buzzer-Beaters

Kobe Bryant

Position: G
Seasons: 20 (1996-16)
Teams: Lakers

While LeBron has dominated the postseason buzzer-beater category, Bryant’s seven regular-season buzzer-beaters are tied for the most ever.

Most Regular-Season Buzzer-Beaters

Player Shots
Player Shots
Kobe Bryant 7
Joe Johnson 7
Michael Jordan 6
Kevin Garnett 5
Andre Iguodala 5
Paul Pierce 5
Dwyane Wade 5

Throw in his one postseason game-winner (in the first round against the Suns in 2006) and he has one more career buzzer-beater than James. One interesting note about Kobe’s buzzer-beaters is that his team was trailing at the time he made six of them. No other player had more than five in this situation.

Most Buzzer-Beaters Made With Team Trailing

Player Shots
Player Shots
Kobe Bryant 6
Vince Carter 5
Larry Bird 4
Michael Jordan 4

Bryant hit four buzzer-beaters from 2002 to 2004 and then added the fifth in the 2006 playoffs, but he wouldn’t hit another for more than three years. Then from December 4, 2009, to January 1, 2010, Kobe hit three buzzer-beaters in less than a month—with the Lakers trailing at the time he shot each of them. The run of winners cemented his legacy as one of the most dramatic finishers in the history of the game.

Joe Johnson

Position: G/F
Seasons: 17 (2001-18)
Teams: Celtics, Suns, Hawks, Nets, Heat, Jazz, Rockets

Die-hard NBA fans know that Iso Joe could cook up some magic in late-game situations, but it’s still incredible to look at this list and see him ahead of the likes of LeBron and Jerry West.

True to his nickname, seven of Johnson’s buzzer-beaters were unassisted (tied with Michael Jordan for most ever).

Most Unassisted Buzzer-Beaters

Player Shots
Player Shots
Joe Johnson 7
Michael Jordan 7
Paul Pierce 6
Gilbert Arenas 5
Kobe Bryant 5
Dwyane Wade 5

Johnson did most of his damage in his three and a half seasons in Brooklyn, where he hit five buzzer-beaters. He’d previously hit two for the Hawks and added one more for the Jazz in Game 1 of a 2017 first-round series against the Clippers; it was the only of his eight to come in the postseason.

Nine Career Buzzer-Beaters

Michael Jordan

Position: G
Seasons: 15 (1984-93, ’94-98, 2001-03)
Teams: Bulls, Wizards

It should come as no surprise that the all-time buzzer-beater king is Jordan. His shots were all jumpers, ranging from 14 feet (1995 in Atlanta) to 26 feet (1992 vs. Detroit). Six were in the regular season (trailing only Kobe and Johnson), and three were in the playoffs (trailing only LeBron). Two of those three even ended the series. Seven were unassisted, which is tied for the most with Johnson. Jordan also averaged 34.4 points per game in the nine games he won at the horn, which is the highest average among the 11 players with five-plus buzzer-beaters (beating LeBron by a fraction).

Buzzer-Beaters That Ended Playoff Series

Player Team Series Opponent
Player Team Series Opponent
Kawhi Leonard Raptors 2019 Eastern Conf Semis 76ers
Damian Lillard Trail Blazers 2019 Western Conf 1st Rd Thunder
Damian Lillard Trail Blazers 2014 Western Conf 1st Rd Rockets
John Stockton Jazz 1997 Western Conf Finals Rockets
Michael Jordan Bulls 1993 Eastern Conf Semis Cavaliers
Michael Jordan Bulls 1989 Eastern Conf 1st Rd Cavaliers
Derrick McKey SuperSonics 1989 Western Conf 1st Rd Rockets
Ralph Sampson Roockets 1986 Western Conf Finals Lakers
Jo Jo White Celtics 1974 Eastern Conf Semis Braves
Tom Heinsohn Celtics 1960 Eastern Div Finals Warriors

When Jordan retired for the first time, after the 1992-93 season, his four career buzzer-beaters were tied for the most all time. When he retired for a second time, five years later, he had twice as many buzzer-beaters as any other player in NBA history. And when he retired for a final time, after the 2002-03 season, he had nine career buzzer-beaters; no other player had more than four.

Jordan may one day lose this record—LeBron certainly has a chance to catch him. But no other player stood above his contemporaries quite like His Airness in this particular statistic. I spent dozens of hours researching every close game in NBA history and learned what we already knew: MJ is the greatest closer of all time.

Mike Lynch is managing stathead at Sports-Reference.com.

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