Larry Bird, Hall-of-Famer and three-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, once said that a true basketball “assassin” is someone who is not afraid to shoot when the game is on the line. Bird explained that it is easy to shoot a potential game-winning shot when the game is tied, and the worst thing that could happen is overtime. But, it takes a truly special individual to be able to knock down shots when your team is behind and the final shot will determine the outcome of a game.
Very few players in the world have that sniper’s mentality. Jerry West had it and so did Reggie Miller. Magic Johnson was not a sniper like Bird, Miller or West but the Magic Man always found a way to make that all important basket.
Steve Kerr and John Paxson are not Hall-of-Famers, but their shooting prowess are legendary. Both have had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of ending an NBA Finals series with one shot. Chuck Person called himself “The Riffleman,” not for carrying a concealed weapon but for being able to shoot down the enemy from long range. Isiah Thomas looked like a choir boy, but everybody sang the same sad tune when the leader of the Motor City Bad Boys delivered one of his clutch moments.
But the top gun in the history of the Association is and always will be Michael Jordan. If you poll the entire league on who should take the last shot to win a game, Jordan would be on top of that list. Jordan did in college. He did it numerous times during the NBA’s regular season. And he has delivered the fatal blow in the NBA’s biggest stage – the playoffs. His legend grew with each game-winner. The shot over Craig Ehlo in 1989 runs on a loop in the NBA video archives. The Jazz were on the receiving end of two devastating Jordan moments. He secured a Game 1 Bulls victory over the Jazz with a pull-up jumper over Bryon Russell in 1997. Then, in probably the greatest series-clinching shot in NBA Finals history, he drove right, gave Russell a love tap, rose up and buried a cold-blooded shot down the throat of 18,000 screaming Jazz fans in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. Now that’s a true NBA assassin.
Joel Huerto, editor and publisher of OneManFastbreak.net, examines the 10 best current crop of NBA assassins who are not afraid to pull the trigger when the game is on the line – especially in the playoffs.
10) CARMELO ANTHONY (aka “Melo”) – Carmelo Anthony is a pure scorer. TNT’s Kenny Smith affectionately calls him a “bully” because of the way he can score on anyone at any time. Anthony uses a textbook jab step to create space and he also has the ability to put the ball on the deck and drive to the rim with force. His signature moment came in the 2009 Western Conference semifinals on the road against the Dallas Mavericks when he dropped a game-winning 3-pointer in front of the Dallas bench. The shot helped the Denver Nuggets advance to the conference finals.
9) KEVIN DURANT (aka “Baby Ice”) – Former NBA stud and current NBA TV analyst Steve Smith gave Kevin Durant the nickname “Baby Ice” because his game compares favorably with the legendary George “Iceman” Gervin. Like Gervin, Durant possesses a very cool demeanor on the court even during tense moments. His facial expression hardly changes and you hardly see him get flustered. And he’s only 22 years old! The Oklahoma City superstar showed his mental toughness during the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey when he nearly carried Team USA to a gold medal by himself. There is no better test than FIBA competition, and Durant passed with flying colors. Durant is No. 9 on this list only because he doesn’t have the body of work yet, but give him a few years and he should climb up this list, and maybe even challenge for No. 1.
8) CHAUNCEY BILLUPS (aka “Mr. Big Shot) – He earned the moniker “Mr. Big Shot” with his big-game heroics when he was a Detroit Piston. The Pistons went to the Eastern Conference finals six consecutive times because of Mr. Big Shot. Since Detroit ran him out of town, the Pistons have become a lottery team while Billups continues to thrive wherever he lands. He helped turn the Nuggets into a power in the West and now he’s leading the New York Knicks back to prominence with a big hand from Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire.
7) DIRK NOWITZKI (aka “The Big German”) – Many observers will argue that Dirk slotted at No. 9 is far too low for the MVP of the 2011 NBA Finals. But if you look at Nowitzki’s body of work, he didn’t become a cold-blooded scorer until later in his career. In fact, for much of his career he was regarded as “soft” and mostly remembered for shrinking in the 2006 and 2007 NBA playoffs. But Nowitzki conquered all his playoff demons with a remarkable 2011 playoffs, including two big-time clutch baskets against the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
6) DWYANE WADE (aka “The Flash”) – Former Miami Heat teammate Shaquille O’Neal gave him the nickname because of his uncanny ability to get to point A to point B in a flash. He nearly became a flash in the pan with an injury plagued 2007. But after going back to the lab with renowned trainer Tim Grover, D-Wade got back to elite status in a hurry. His coming out party came during the 2004 playoffs when Wade (then a rookie) dropped a floater in the paint over Baron Davis at the buzzer.
5) MANU GINOBILI (aka “Euro”) – He proudly wears and carries the flag of Argentina but … he looks like a Euro, plays like a Euro and smells like a Euro. Therefore, he’s all Euro! They even invented a name for his favorite basketball move: The Euro Step. It’s the one where he runs straight at his defender and then changes direction with one cross-over step to avoid a charging call. The Euro Step is the hottest move in the Euroleague. All the kids a doing it. Manu is the only Euro who is not afraid to be a hero. Most international players (i.e. Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol) tend to soften up in the playoffs, but not Ginobili. Tim Duncan may be the heart and soul of the San Antonio Spurs, but Ginobili is the oxygen that pumps air into the Spurs’ championship hopes.
4) RAY ALLEN (aka “Jesus Shuttlesworth”) – Whether it is on the hardwood or Hollywood, Ray-Ray is a prime-time player. He set an NBA Finals record with eight 3-pointers in Game 2 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Lakers. His performance in “He Got Game” may not have earned him an Oscar, but how many NBA superstars can hang with Denzel Washington? In Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals against the Lakers, Allen sized up Sasha Vujacic, got to the rim and scored on a left-handed layup over Pau Gasol to ice the game and the series for the Celtics. ABC commentator Mark Jackson said this on the air: “Ray Allen says I want to play one-one-one with Vujacic…and it’s time to dance! This is for all the marbles.”
3) DEREK FISHER (aka “D-Fish”) – Fisher is one of the physically and mentally toughest players in the league. Lakers coach Phil Jackson says he never worries about Fisher because he trusts that he will always make the correct play. Fisher’s career is defined by three moments: 1) his game-winning shot with 0.4 seconds left against the San Antonio Spurs in the 2004 playoffs; 2) his inspirational return to a playoff game in Utah the same day his daughter had emergency eye surgery in New York; 3) and his two clutch 3-point shots in Game 4 against the Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals.
2) PAUL PIERCE (aka “The Truth) – When the game is on the line and the Celtics need a big shot, they turn to The Truth for answers. Time and time again, Pierce has delivered for Boston and has earned the reputation for being a big-game player. He is a fearless competitor who has the entire repertoire of shots. He can stick the 3-pointer, create his own shot, get to the free throw line and has one of the best mid-range games. The 2008 NBA Finals MVP also saves his best for last, as in the fourth quarter. His performance in Game 7 against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the ’08 Eastern Conference semifinals and his game-winning shot in Game 5 against the Chicago Bulls in the ’09 Eastern Conference semifinals are prime examples of his ability to rise to the occasion.
1) KOBE BRYANT (aka “The Black Mamba”) – A black mamba can strike in rapid succession. That’s Kobe Bryant. He can kill you off the dribble with either hand, he can post you up, he can posterize you, he can drop a floater in the paint, he can cross you over, he can pull up for a mid-range jumper (something 90% of the league can’t do) and he can step back and stick a 3-point dagger into your heart. Basically, if you are a defender, all you can do is pray he misses, which does not happen very often. Suns coach Alvin Gentry calls Kobe “the best player in basketball,” and it’s not even close.
A Sports Illustrated poll was taken in 2008 to rank the most feared players in the league. Kobe was rated No. 1. Michael Jordan always told his Bulls teammates that if they can keep the game close for three quarters he can win it in the fourth. Kobe operates the same way. If the Lakers can negotiate a game for three quarters, Kobe will most likely close the deal in the fourth. He did it six times during the 2009-10 regular season, and three of them were at the buzzer. LeBron may be the two-time reigning MVP, but Kobe has five championship rings and working on No. 6.