Following Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo’s remarkable block of Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum’s dunk to prevent a second overtime in his team’s Game 1 victory of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday, Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson called it “the best defensive play I’ve seen ever in the playoffs.”
Bam Adebayo’s block on Jayson Tatum’s dunk attempt was the best defensive play I’ve seen ever in the playoffs!!!!
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) September 16, 2020
Based on degree of difficulty, Adebayo’s block was absurd, especially given how close Tatum was to throwing down a vicious game-tying dunk, but when you consider the playoff stakes, I am not sure it was the best defensive play of the past week, let alone the history of the playoffs. (More on that in a moment.)
You could also argue there was a defensive play Magic Johnson witnessed firsthand that was more pivotal. In Game 2 of the 1982 NBA Finals, Johnson watched in horror as Celtics guard Gerald Henderson’s picked Lakers forward James Worthy’s pass with the shot clock turned off and converted the game-tying layup. Boston went on to win in overtime, tying a series Henderson and company ultimately won in seven games.
But Johnson does raise an excellent question: What are the greatest defensive plays in playoff history? We trimmed the list down to 10 stops, narrowly leaving off Horace Grant’s championship-sealing block in 1993 and Jerry West’s game-winning steal and layup in Game 3 of a 1962 Finals the Lakers ultimately lost.
The Adebayo block really is ridiculous. Tatum had Jimmy Butler beat off the dribble, and he cocked a poster dunk like he was flashing back to LeBron James in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals. But Adebayo somehow got his hand on the ball at the last possible second. It requires astounding skill, strength and self-confidence to trust Tatum will not snap your wrist in half, and Adebayo has it all in spades.
9. “And it’s blocked by Smart”
Adebayo’s block may have technically been tougher, but Celtics guard Marcus Smart saved a series against Toronto Raptors counterpart Norman Lowell in Friday’s Game 7. With Boston’s offense reeling late, Powell had a clear bath to the basket — a scenario that resulted in a three-point play opposite Smart late in Toronto’s Game 6 victory — but this time Smart denied a game-tying transition layup. He bided his time, snaring a block just before the ball kissed the glass, all but clinching Boston’s spot in the conference finals.
8. The Dream blocks John Starks
The New York Knicks were a John Starks three-pointer away from winning the 1994 title, less of a scary thought then as it is in retrospect. Starks was an All-Star that season and had already made five of his eight attempts in Game 6 of the Finals opposite the Houston Rockets. With his team leading the series 3-2 and trailing the game 86-84 with 7.6 seconds left, Starks worked a switch onto Hakeem Olajuwon, got a step on The Dream and rose for his potential ring-winning attempt — only Olajuwon got a piece of the shot.
Houston won Game 7 three nights later, ending New York’s best shot at a championship since the early 1970s. Why working a switch onto one of the greatest defensive players in history seemed like a good idea to Knicks coach Pat Riley is beyond me, but perhaps it was a learning moment that led the current Heat president of basketball operations to trusting Adebayo as a foundational piece of his switchable defense.
7. Tayshaun Prince denies Reggie Miller
The Detroit Pistons trailed the 2004 Eastern Conference finals 1-0 and were clinging to a 69-67 lead in Game 2 when Indiana Pacers guard Reggie Miller broke out in transition for a potential game-tying layup with the clock winding below 20 seconds remaining. Detroit’s Tayshaun Prince came out of nowhere to wipe away Miller’s attempt a millisecond before it kissed high off the backboard. It was breathtaking.
The block swung momentum in the Pistons’ favor. They won four of the final five games of the series to advance to the Finals, where they knocked off Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers for a ring.
6. “Havlicek stole the ball”
Believe it or not, Bill Russell almost blew a Game 7. With his Celtics leading 110-109 in the deciding game of the 1965 Eastern Division finals, Russell’s entry pass off the guide wire gave Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers the ball back with five seconds remaining. Only John Havlicek intercepted Hal Greer’s ensuing entry pass, clinching the series for Boston. The Celtics advanced to win a seventh straight title.
5. Charles Smith gets smothered
Sorry, Knicks fans, but Charles Smith had four chances inside of three feet in the final 15 seconds to win Game 5 of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals and swing the series in New York’s favor, and he was denied every single time. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant swarmed Smith and simply would not let him get a clean look at the basket. It was really four game-saving blocks in one, a startling team effort.
4. Bill Russell chases down the Hawks
We can be swayed by recency bias, and there are surely many plays deserving of consideration for this list from bygone decades, but Russell’s title-saving block in Game 7 of the 1957 Finals stands the test of time. He had just given the Celtics a one-point lead with less than a minute left in regulation when the St. Louis Hawks found Jack Coleman streaking down the court. Russell pinned the would-be go-ahead layup, and the Celtics ultimately won in double-overtime, 125-123, the first of their 11 championships in 13 seasons.
3. The Strip before The Last Shot
Utah Jazz star Karl Malone inexplicably forgot about Michael Jordan with his season in the balance in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. Utah led 86-85 when John Stockton found Malone in the post. Defended by Dennis Rodman, Malone never saw Jordan, who stripped the ball with 20 seconds left, setting up The Last Shot — a title-winning step-back jumper over Byron Russell that overshadowed the glory of his steal.
2. “And now there’s a steal by Bird”
Larry Bird pulled victory from defeat. The Pistons had the ball up 107-106 in the final seconds of Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference finals. The game was over, but for a roaming Bird, who stole an entry pass aimed for Bill Laimbeer and found Dennis Johnson streaking for the game-winning layup with one second left. Boston took a 3-2 series lead and survived in seven games, as Johnny Most’s call echoed into eternity.
1. The Block
The Cleveland Cavaliers needed every possession to pull off a 3-1 comeback against the vaunted Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, and LeBron James gave them one of the greatest. Andre Iguodala had J.R. Smith beat after Stephen Curry had found him on the break, but James elevated over everyone for “The Block,” pinning the score at 89-89 with 1:50 remaining. Neither team scored for a three-minute stretch late in the deciding game, and Iguodala’s look was the best anyone got, and that includes Kyrie Irving’s game-winning three-pointer two possessions later. It was a legacy-defining play for a legend.
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