They’re the moments we remember forever.
When the game is at its tightest and heroics are the only thing remaining, that’s when basketball is at its most pure, most magical. That’s when it transcends being just a sport, and morphs into something more, something ineffable and yet entirely understandable.
Recently, we’ve had two such moments, with the Toronto Raptors‘ OG Anunoby hitting a remarkable buzzer beater in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics, and the Los Angeles Lakers‘ Anthony Davis draining his own in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets.
What follows is a comparison of the two shots, and a think-piece about which one may have a slight arbitrary edge on the other in terms of quality.
Degree of difficulty on the shot
When the ball found Anunoby, he was already parked in the corner with a glut of space around him. He shot 37.1 per cent on a decent volume of catch-and-shoot looks during the small sample size of the playoffs, and a red-hot 46.2 per cent on attempts from the left corner specifically. With Kyle Lowry’s pass being so exemplary and nestling itself perfectly in his hands such that he didn’t have to shift his preparative stance, Anunoby’s look had about as high a rate of success as could be hoped for in that situation, despite there being a mere 0.5 seconds remaining.
To be fair, Jaylen Brown’s recovery from the middle of the paint to soar out towards the shot was incredible, and he nearly got a finger on the ball. Credit to Anunoby for being generally unflappable, but especially in that instance.
While Anunoby had the luxury of catching the ball in a set stance, Davis (although admittedly the beneficiary of more than 0.5 seconds; in this case, 2.1) caught his pass from an inbounding Rajon Rondo on the move. Stuck in the space between the top of the arc and the corner (not a particularly comfortable place for any shooter), Davis had to bring the ball all the way up from low to the floor thanks to Rondo’s dish being a bounce pass, and in that span the plodding Nikola Jokic was able to make the turn from the baseline to heavily contest the shot.
Of course, it didn’t matter, and Davis’ shot didn’t even touch rim, silkily snapping the mesh as the buzzer sounded.
Adding to the difficulty here, Davis isn’t an exceptionally lethal three-point shooter, having averaged 33 per cent for the season and, more granularly, 33.3 per cent on above-the-break looks this post-season.
ANTHONY DAVIS CALLS GAME!
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) September 21, 2020
Degree of difficulty on the inbounds pass
There’s no room for debate here: Lowry’s pristine, floaty pass to Anunoby was as vital, if not more so, than the actual shot itself.
As previously noted, Anunoby had to do hardly any work to get his attempt off, and that’s all thanks to the recognition, timing, and otherworldly control of Lowry. The point guard saw the first option of the play dissolve, then the second, and ultimately made his own call which, unsurprisingly, proved to be the best decision possible.
Beyond that, Tacko Fall is an enormous seven-foot-five, and did a pretty good job of following Lowry’s gaze and moving around with his hands raised. Lowry, by comparison, is listed at six feet (a fairly generous number), and yet somehow, some way, managed to launch a two-handed overhead dime past the tips of Fall’s spindly outstretched fingers that hit Anunoby smack-dab in his shooting pocket.
Undeniably, this is one of the greatest overall passes, not just inbounds passes, in history, and may also be the best of Lowry’s career.
Even though this is the most lopsided category, Rondo did still execute his part of the Lakers’ play quite well. He waited patiently as things developed, and didn’t hesitate once the sliver of space became available for Davis, delivering a sure-handed bounce pass that found its target (if a bit low) on time.
He also had to get the ball past Jokic, who, even though he’s perhaps not as imposing from a pure height standpoint as Fall, is still listed at seven feet. And though Fall was waving his arms and moving around to try and deter Lowry’s dime, Jokic was wildly leaping and flailing himself all over the place.
Rondo made a solid, crisp pass. But it’s not one people will remember.
What the player did to get open/play that was run
Nobody thought (except for maybe the man himself) that Anunoby was going to wind up with the ball in his hands when the Raptors and Celtics lined up on the floor for the final play.
Boston sat in a zone, and with Fall guarding Lowry on the inbounds, loaded up on the strong side. Toronto initially had Marc Gasol set a screen for Fred VanVleet (as Anunoby left the strong side corner to trot over to the weak side) at the top of the arc, who then dove towards the corner where he was cut off by Daniel Theis and Jayson Tatum.
With this option gone, Gasol moved into the middle of the paint to screen Pascal Siakam’s man in an attempt to get him open at the three-point line, but Marcus Smart was there waiting to take that away, too.
Then, Gasol recognized what Lowry was about to do, and attempted to set a screen on Brown (who, again, wound up contesting well anyway) to buy Anunoby more time as the ball came sailing towards him.
This play is made almost entirely possible by the brilliance of Lowry, and Anunoby himself didn’t have to do too much aside from fall back as a potential release-valve option.
Unlike the Raptors’ final play, which hadn’t been drawn up for the 23-year-old Anunoby, the look for Davis went pretty much exactly as planned. With the Nuggets playing man defence, the Lakers lined up with LeBron James essentially isolated on the strong side. Once the whistle blew, and with every defender’s peripheral vision locked on James, Davis cut away from his spot between the arc and the elbow, and came at a wide angle (to be certain he was behind the three-point line) around James, who held off his own man as well as Davis’ trailing one, leaving the big man just enough time and space to fire away.
At the same time that Davis moved into action, Danny Green blazed towards the baseline, keeping his man stuck to him, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope slid up along the perimeter as another potential option (Jamal Murray’s attention was hardly on him), although from where Rondo was standing it would’ve been supremely difficult to get him the ball.
Not only was Los Angeles’ play executed well, but Davis did have to do a little more work than Anunoby did in his situation, and Davis also brings the added factor of extra attention as one of the team’s two superstars.
Stakes of each individual game/series in the moment
Trailing in their series to the Celtics 2–0, the Raptors were on the brink of, essentially, getting swept. No team in the league has ever come back from being down 3–0, and it’s unlikely that Toronto, despite its trademark resiliency and championship-induced confidence, would’ve been the first.
Anunoby, then, in this eternal moment, saved Toronto’s season.
Beyond that, the shot’s injection of newfound momentum reinvigorated a team that was beginning to slip beneath the surface such that it was able to burst back upward going forward, determined to ride the surge. The Raptors, of course, went on to push the series all the way to a Game 7, a contest they nearly won, too.
At this point in the series, the Lakers were already up 1–0 on the Nuggets, and while losing the game certainly wouldn’t have been the ideal outcome, it also wouldn’t have forced them into a scenario worthy of panic. Especially when one considers that Los Angeles lost Game 1 in each of its prior series and eventually won both of those matchups in five games.
Davis’ shot is certainly comparative in terms of individual stakes, but the overall weight attached to Anunoby’s look is overwhelming.
Reaction to the shot from the player/teammates
In a picturesque moment, Anunoby’s reaction to his buzzer-beater was simply to stride towards the locker room, an iconically stoic look grafted onto his face. To many, this response may warrant dinging him here, but it perfectly encapsulates Anunoby’s mindset and modus operandi as a player.
His teammates, however, weren’t quite as enigmatic, with Gasol and Siakam raising their arms in triumph and VanVleet letting loose a roar before tackling him, followed closely by Lowry and the remainder of the bench. In an instant, they had consumed Anunoby with hugs and victorious yells, and their collective happiness oozed through the screen in recognition of how close they’d been to a nail-in-the-coffin defeat.
More akin to what is archetypal of a buzzer-beater reaction, Davis made no bones about what he was feeling, crying out in joy and half-skipping back towards the Lakers bench after his shot splashed home, where he was mobbed relentlessly by his electrified teammates. Similarly to Gasol and Siakam, both Green and James raised their arms skyward before racing back to join in on the celebrations.
Throw in some extra brash trash talk at the end while pounding his chest, and Davis’ reaction, along with his teammates’, was one seen time and again in the NBA, though that certainly didn’t make it any less special.
Each category was clearly won by one player or the other until it came down to the reactions at the end, and purely because Anunoby’s own response was so uniquely placid and, therefore, memorable, it is he who comes out on top here by just a smidgeon.