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Iconic NBA Moments: Historic Plays and Record Breaking Performances

Publish Date: 17.05.2024
Fact checked by: Jackson T. Pierce

The NBA is one of the largest sports leagues in the world, not just due to its exciting plays and high-profile players, but because of its long and storied history. The league goes back a long way, and has always been marked by a series of what are now iconic moments.

There have always been big moments in the NBA, but a few stand out from the pack. Such occurrences aren’t just game winning shots or clutch players, they are specific happenings that, no matter how far the league has come, all fans know in some respect.

Such plays can win games, create rivalries, or cement certain athletes in the annals of history. Either way, everyone who witnessed them happen knows exactly where they were when they occurred.

Early Game-Changers

The NBA has always had pivotal moments that changed the game or set a new bar, even in the beginning. While players weren’t as big or athletic as they are now, some of the most iconic NBA moments occurred during the league’s first days.

One such example was when superstar Bill Russell added to his rapidly-growing legacy by grabbing 32 rebounds in a game. Though that record would quickly be broken, it rewrote what players could do and how much talent they could have.

In addition, Jerry West cemented his own legacy by making a dramatic half court shot in the 1970 NBA Finals to send the game into overtime. That is still considered the most clutch long shot ever made, which is why it’s still remembered to this day.

The Magic of Michael Jordan

There have been a range of big shots taken throughout NBA history, but perhaps the biggest ever, notably dubbed “The Shot” occurred in 1989 during a playoff game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls.

Down by one with three seconds left, Michael Jordan caught an inbound pass, drove to his left, jumped up and nailed a game-winning shot from the free throw line. The shot itself, as well as the iconic image of Jordan jumping in celebration, is cemented in NBA lore.

However, the Bulls legend didn’t stop there. Another one of his most legendary plays, which put him among the most iconic NBA moments, occurred during the 1997 Finals when he caught a nasty flu before the game.

Many doubted if he would play. Not only did Jordan suit up, he put on a legendary 37 point, 7 rebound, and 5 assist performance that would give the Bulls the win. It was such an impressive display, the “Flu Game” is still known as one of the greatest performances of all time.

The legend’s last shot with the Bulls is iconic too. During the 1998 Finals, Jordan knocked down a midrange jumper to give the Bulls the lead with 5.2 seconds left.

After the Jazz missed their final attempt, the Bulls won their sixth ring. That made Jordan’s final basket with the franchise, not just a great play, but a perfect way to cap off an amazing career.

Kobe Bryant’s Scoring Prowess

Similar to Jordan, Kobe Bryant was another megastar who had a long list of impressive plays that belong among the most iconic moments in NBA history. The one that stands out, however, is his game against the Toronto Raptors in 2006 where put up an incredible 81 points.

That’s the second most points ever scored in one contest, second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point performance, and it was the first time a player broke 70 since 1994.

Even with some recent games where players put up more than 70, 80 is still an achievement that nobody has been able to match.

LeBron James’ Defining Moments

It’s impossible to mention anything iconic in NBA history without bringing up LeBron James. The King is the all time leading scorer, an incredible talent, and has athletic abilities unlike anything the league has ever seen.

Arguably his most notable moment, however, occurred during the 2016 NBA Finals. The Cavaliers, facing insurmountable odds and down 3-1 against the 73-9 Warriors, were in the midst of what would become one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history.

With less than two minutes left in a tight game seven, James chased down an Andre Iguadola layup and blocked it from behind. That kept the game tied and allowed the Cavaliers to go on to win the Championship.

The defensive play isn’t just one of the most iconic moments in NBA history, it’s considered one of the most clutch moments in the history of sports.

Unforgettable Shots

As the NBA continued to evolve, players hit more and more big-time shots. There are many buzzer beaters that have occurred over the last few decades, but two of the biggest happened during the postseason on the game’s biggest stage.

The first was when Ray Allen’s clutch three with the Heat. Down by three, the guard hit a falling away jump shot to tie game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. That sent the contest into overtime, which allowed the Heat to win the game and eventually the series.

Another similar moment that is now immortalized in history occurred in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals when Kawhi Leonard hit a fade away as time expired.

The ball bounced around the rim before falling in, giving the Raptors a trip to the next round. They would eventually move onto the Finals and bring the first ring ever to Toronto.

Individual Brilliance and Record-Breaking Performances

There are a range of iconic NBA moments, but the best stand out because of either their circumstances or records. One example is when Isiah Thomas hurt his ankle and then went on to drop 25 points in a single quarter during the 1988 Finals.

Everyone remembers that game because the guard overcame incredible odds and put the team on his back. The same goes for Wilt Chamberlain, who dropped 100 points in a game and cemented a record that will never be touched.

Another incredibly rare feat is the elusive quadruple double. Only four players, Nate Thurmond, David Robinson, Alvin Robertson, and Hakeem Olajuwan, have ever done it. As it’s so rare, those games are seen as some of the best individual performances of all time.

Innovative Moves

For the most part, iconic NBA moments revolve around huge shots or special nights. Still, special shots can immortalize players too. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar is still known for his unblockable sky hook, while Stephen Curry changed the three pointer forever.

However, perhaps the most iconic move of all time is Hakeem Olajuwon’s dream shake. The signature post move was a huge part of his hall of fame career and became so well known that it quickly built his legacy as one of the best centers of all time.


The NBA is a global league with a huge fan base. Its iconic moments are a big part of that. Players, media, and fans all live for exciting sequences, and the ones listed in this guide helped create the league everyone knows and loves today.

Seeing any of the above events for the first time created many basketball fans and brought about a sense of wonder or awe that professional sports are supposed to do. They weren’t just an event, they were historical occurrences that many still reference or call upon today.

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