The most difficult part of organizing a ‘Decade’s Best‘ effort is figuring out what to call it. Several writers, Brad Graham especially, came up with great ideas about how SLAMonline could commemorate the past 10 years of basketball. In the end, there were so many things to talk about that we included not only the ‘Best’ but also the ‘Worst,’ ‘Craziest,’ ‘Most’ and a host of other categories preceded with superlatives. The plan is probably too bold and the scope is probably too large. But this decade of transition — from Golden Years to Lost Years to Rebirth — found itself deserving of two categories every day for the rest of 2009. That’s the plan, at least. For those who don’t want to do the math, that’s 50 articles before January 1.

Can something so broad have a single heading, like ‘Decade’s Best’? Well no, but that’s what we’re calling it until I think of something better. Buckle up!–Ed.

by Graham Flashner

The Back Story

Robert Horry averaged only 7 points over a 16 year-career. Not exactly Hall of Fame numbers, but come playoff time, something inside Horry snapped, and the man kicked his game up to historic levels. Horry had an unbelievable knack for hitting clutch three-point shots. In NBA playoff history, only Reggie Miller has more threes. In the NBA Finals, Horry leads all players with 53 threes, outshining even Michael Jordan’s 42.

During the regular season, Horry was an unassuming role-player, the kind of tough, resourceful guy who shunned the spotlight and did his grunt work while staying clear of the power struggle being waged by Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

But on the afternoon of May 26, 2002, Horry did what Kobe and Shaq could not: save the Lakers’ season and their bid at a third championship. “The Shot Heard ‘Round L.A.” came in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals between the Lakers and Sacramento Kings. Others have made more spectacular shots, but few have come with so much on the line: Had Horry missed, the Lakers would’ve fell into a dreaded 3-1 hole against a team that had outplayed them in nearly every phase of the game — and hated them to boot.

What made the shot even more amazing was its serendipitous nature. Unlike other last-second heroics — LeBron’s three to beat Orlando in the ’09 Finals; Derek Fisher’s miracle .04 turn-and shoot to beat the Spurs in ‘04 — Horry was not designed to get the shot; his was a look-what-I-found stroke oRobert Horryf luck that he turned into legend- the legend of Big Shot Bob.

Context

By Game 4, L.A. was fraught. After nearly running the table in ’01 with a 15-1 post-season, the Lakers were in a fight for their lives. After splitting two games in Sacramento, the Kings dismantled the Lakers early in Game 3, racing out to a shocking 27-point lead and winning a playoff game in L.A. for the first time in their history.

The Lakers were getting screened-and-rolled to death by Chris Webber and Mike Bibby. Vlade Divac flopped and frustrated O’Neal in the paint. With sharp-shooting, slow-footed Peja Stojakovic sidelined, the Kings were a quicker, more aggressive team.

O’Neal had already derided Sacramento as the “Queens.” Phil Jackson had poked fun of the cowbells. This was a time when hating the Lakers had just become fashionable. The unheralded Kings, who have never played in the Finals, thought their time had arrived.

No one believed the demolition of Game 3 could be repeated. Surely, the Lakers wouldn’t fall behind by 27 again. They didn’t. Early in the second quarter of Game 4, the Lakers trailed by a mere 24. Faced with the ugly prospect of having to win three straight games against a Kings team that hadn’t lost three in a row all season, the Lakers tightened up. Bryant put the clamps on the hot-shooting Bibby, and by halftime, the Lakers deficit was 14. By the end of the 3rd quarter, it was down to seven. With 11.3 seconds to go in the 4th, after a missed free throw by Divac, the Kings’ lead was down to two, 99-97.

The Shot

The inbounds went to O’Neal, darting out to the arc. He tossed to Horry, shadowed closely at the top of the key by Webber. Horry handed the ball off to Bryant for a clear-out on the right side. Bryant easily shook Doug Christie as he drove hard to the hoop. He was met in the lane by Divac, who forced Bryant to take an awkward, twisting one-hander that clanked off the opposite side rim. Waiting underneath was Shaq, with a putback that would’ve tied the game. Divac, seemingly everywhere, and Webber, who’d left Horry to shore up the lane, forced the Diesel to rush the layup. It rolled up the rim and back, falling short.

“I think I got a hand up in (O’Neal’s) face and contributed to helping his miss,” Webber said later. “Vlade tipped the ball out, something at that time I probably would have done, all of us would’ve done, I’m sure.”

Not wanting to risk another offensive board, and hoping a teammate would be in position, Divac back-tapped the ball away from the basket. But the Kings were all clustered inside. The ball landed in the hands of Horry, left unguarded just beyond the arc, dead-center to the basket.

“You cannot think in a situation like that,” Horry said. “A lot of guys, when the ball is coming, sit there and look at the clock, then it makes you rush your shot. I was like, `If I don’t get it off in time, we lose. If I do, it’s money.’ I was just worried about getting my form and getting my money shot down.”

Webber raced out to the circle, desperately trying to get a hand in Horry’s face, but it was too late. The shot was money – nothing but net. The Staples Center crowd exploded. PandemoRobert Horrynium reigned. The series was even at 2-2. The Lakers would go on to win in a Game 7 overtime thriller, then sweep the Nets for their third straight NBA title.

After the game, a sullen Divac dismissed the shot as pure luck. Webber was more circumspect. “”Horry shooting it wasn’t lucky,” he said. “That’s a big shot. I have to give him credit. That’s a big-time player, but that was a lucky play.”

For my money, it remains the playoff shot of the decade.