Basketball is the sport in which people take flight. When we picture basketball in our minds, we imagine someone soaring gracefully through the air, like when Jayson Tatum attempted his game-tying dunk in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. But there’s another kind of action that happens on a basketball court that I think is more impressive, like when Bam Adebayo rose to meet Tatum and blocked his attempt. Basketball may be the sport in which people take flight, but it’s also the sport in which those flying people get sent back to earth, harshly.
The play begins like it’s going to be the greatest highlight of Tatum’s career. With the Celtics trailing by two points with under 10 seconds to go, Tatum ditches his defenders and heads toward the rim at full speed. He soars and cocks the ball back with his right hand, on a path to glory. Half-a-second later he’s on the ground, his body slumped and his hopes deflated. (The ball may have been partially deflated, too, by Adebayo’s rejection.) Tatum slides backward dejectedly like a kid having a terrible time riding the bumper carts at the amusement park. I’ve watched the video from every angle a million times: At no point does any part of Adebayo’s body touch any part of Tatum’s. Tatum put his force into the ball; Adebayo absorbed that force with his hand and pushed back on the ball, throwing Tatum off his equilibrium. Blocking a dunk is maybe the only way to put someone on their ass without ever making physical contact with them.
But a block as masterful as Adebayo’s isn’t simply a feat of physical brilliance. The Heat forward saw Tatum sprinting toward the rim and realized that he had to leave his man, Marcus Smart, a choice that could have led to Boston hitting a game-winning 3. Adebayo had to know in that instant that Tatum was determined on powering his way to the rim. Despite being on the other side of the lane when Tatum left his feet, Adebayo still met Tatum at the rim and overpowered him.
We invented planes in 1903. That was easy. We didn’t invent guided surface-to-air missiles to home in on planes and destroy them until the 1950s. It’s infinitely more complicated than just getting an object into the air. And that’s what a blocked shot is: A targeted attack that finds and eliminates an object sailing through the sky.
Game-winning blocks are significantly rarer than game-winning shots. According to Basketball-Reference, there have been 106 go-ahead shots in the final 10 seconds of playoff games (regulation or overtime) since 1996. But there have been only 34 blocked would-be go-ahead shots in the same scenario. This makes a lot of sense: This year, NBA teams averaged 40.9 made field goals per game, but just 4.9 blocks per game.
There are a million ways to make a shot, but seemingly only one to block them: You have to get your hand in between the ball and the basket. But great blocks are unique displays of agility, athleticism, and detective work, sleuthing out which shot type is coming and when, and somehow speedily maneuvering one’s body to get in the way.
Adebayo’s block instantly enters the small and spectacularly cool pantheon of the greatest game-winning blocks in NBA history. The greatest block in postseason history is rightfully LeBron James’s chasedown of Andre Iguodala in the 2016 Finals:
It has everything. James is one of the greatest players of all time, the chasedown block is his signature defensive play, and the Cavs’ comeback on the 73-win Warriors in the 2016 Finals to win their first championship is probably the greatest playoff series of all time. I’ve always been stunned by James’s ability to read the play—at full speed, he diagnosed that the ball was going to Iguodala, weaved through traffic, and got the ball before it hit the backboard. But James’s block came with more than a minute remaining in the game. It doesn’t really count as a game-winner.
The most impressive game-winning block of all time is probably Tayshaun Prince’s chasedown of Reggie Miller to preserve a two-point lead in the 2004 Eastern Conference finals:
While Prince making up all that ground is pretty impressive, let’s be honest—Miller took forever to release his layup. This is like a cheetah chasing down the oldest, sickest gazelle in the pack.
The clutchest block in NBA history is Horace Grant’s championship-winning block on Kevin Johnson:
Grant seems hopelessly defeated by Johnson, but knew the Suns guard had to get a shot up before the buzzer, so he stuck out a hand and swatted Johnson from behind. It shares a lot of similarities to my personal favorite game-winning postseason block—Manu Ginobili’s block on James Harden in the 2017 playoffs.
It’s not exactly physically impressive, but it’s so slick. Harden is probably the craftiest scorer in the NBA, but Ginobili was craftier: 39 years old and a year away from retirement, Ginobili let himself get beat, then deftly removed the ball from an unsuspecting Harden’s hands, like a champion Jenga player.
Every block tells a story, and the story of Adebayo’s block is sheer domination. Most great game-winning blocks are on layups or 3s; many great blocks are only deflections. Adebayo completely erased a powerful dunk attempt right at the rim. I think it’s the greatest game-winning block of all time—and game-winning blocks are perhaps the most impressive play in basketball.