The first round of the NBA HORSE Challenge saw everything from a five-letter sweep to the tournament favorite being upset by an impressive comeback victory. Will the semifinals and finals be able to match the drama of the opening round?
NBA champion and Detroit Pistons legend Chauncey Billups will face Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley Jr., and two-time slam dunk champion and Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine will face two-time WNBA 3-point shootout champion and Chicago Sky guard Allie Quigley. The semifinals and finals of the NBA HORSE Challenge take place Thursday (9 p.m. ET) on ESPN and streaming on the ESPN App.
While the four contestants come up with their plans to win, our NBA analysts suggest some inspirational in-game shots that could be helpful in landing the title.
Kobe Bryant's off-hand corner 3
Flashback: Krystal Thomas' shot from the floor
Relive Krystal Thomas scoring a basket while sitting on the floor below the hoop.
When you think about Kobe Bryant and the Dallas Mavericks, two things come to mind immediately: the time he outscored the team personally, 62-61, through three quarters in 2005 and the time the Mavs swept Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers out of the playoffs in 2011 to end Phil Jackson's coaching career.
Mostly forgotten in Bryant's history with Big D is the left-handed 3 he hit during the 2004-05 season in the fourth quarter of a comfortable Mavs win at Staples Center. It was so ridiculous that it got Dallas owner Mark Cuban out of his seat to applaud Bryant.
It was a mostly meaningless game. L.A. was already eliminated from postseason consideration. Dallas, featuring Dirk Nowitzki smack-dab in his prime, was still jostling with the San Antonio Spurs for the Southwest Division title but had already secured home court in the first round.
As the game was seemingly being salted away by the Mavs, Bryant chased a loose ball into the corner and corralled it with three seconds on the shot clock. Dallas guard Jason Terry, smartly, defended him by cutting off the wing, leaving Bryant precious little room to operate where the sideline meets the baseline.
Left with no other choice, Bryant, seeing that Terry wasn't giving him an inch, pivoted away from him and launched what can best be described as a left-handed floater from 24 feet out that fell through the hoop and snapped the net.
The score brought the Lakers to within 11 with 3:59 remaining. Bryant went on to score or assist on 17 of L.A.'s final 20 points, making a game of it. The Lakers bounced back, trailing by four with one second left when Bryant was fouled on a 3-pointer. He drilled the first two freebies and intentionally missed the third, hoping to get an offensive putback to tie things up and force overtime, but the Mavs held on.
Bryant nearly pulled a rabbit out of his hat to get the win, and it all started with a magical shot.
-- Dave McMenamin
Trevor Booker's volleyball set
There are some circus shots that fall in an NBA game that carry an extreme degree of difficulty but go down because these are the greatest basketball players in the world, and some just have a knack for making wild shots. It isn't so hard to believe that Steph Curry can hit another running 70-footer or Kyrie Irving can spin in a no-look layup with his left hand over two 7-footers. They just do that kind of stuff.
But there are a few shots that carry Dude Perfect levels of impossibility and are unlikely to ever be replicated, even if tried intentionally. Trevor Booker's shot -- if we're willing to call it that -- against the Thunder in 2015 is one of those.
With two-tenths of a second on the shot clock late in the second quarter, the Jazz faced a futile situation. It was a side out, reducing the chances of a lob or tip play. By rule, there isn't enough time to catch and shoot when under three-tenths. Gordon Hayward was inbounding, and it seemed likely he would toss it up and hope Rudy Gobert might get a hand on it. But Quin Snyder made a late substitution, right before referee Gary Zielinski handed the ball to Hayward. Against all sensible logic, out came Gobert and in came Trevor Booker. Snyder pointed and instructed Booker where to go. Booker nodded.
A down screen by Trey Burke on Booker's man forced a switch, putting the smaller Russell Westbrook behind Booker. Booker flashed toward the right block and held up his hands, calling for the ball. Hayward bounced it to him. Booker's back was to the basket. Westbrook stood idly by, knowing the play had no chance. Booker was standing the wrong way; there was no time. Booker set both hands under the ball and popped it over his head, like setting up a volleyball teammate for a spike. Nothing but net.
After the game, Booker confessed that all the nodding he was doing toward Snyder was an act. He didn't know the play. He just went toward the rim for a lob, and after it wasn't there, he made himself available for Hayward to get it into someone.
"I know you won't believe me," Booker said, "but I really do practice those shots. It's kind of funny, my cousin texted me after the game and was like, 'They probably won't believe it, but you practiced those shots all the time growing up.'
"I guess you could say the hard work finally paid off."
-- Royce Young
Michael Jordan's eyes-closed free throws
"Hey, Mutombo," just before closing his eyes and letting the ball go. "This one's for you, baby!"
Michael Jordan's seven words uttered at the end of an otherwise uneventful game almost 30 years ago added another layer to his near-mythical legacy.
At the end of a road game against the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 23, 1991, Jordan stood at the free throw line with the game in hand and a smile on his face. After exchanging a little trash talk and draining the first attempt, he looked toward then-rookie center Dikembe Mutombo, delivered the message for the ages and closed his eyes.
Jordan proceeded to swish the free throw, adding to his lore during a season in which the Bulls would win their second title. This wasn't the first time that Jordan knocked down a no-look free throw, but it was probably the most memorable.
-- Nick Friedell
Blue Edwards and Krystal Thomas take a seat
Believe it or not, some basketball players have perfected shooting while lying on their backs as a way to work on their form without a hoop. In the case of a game of HORSE, shooting while sitting on the floor could be a simple but effective idea. This trick shot worked in an actual game in 1993 for Milwaukee Bucks swingman Blue Edwards on the famous Boston Garden parquet floor. Edwards even used the glass for a bank shot, which surely would have gone viral today.
In 2017, the unconventional, on-the-floor shot worked for Washington Mystics center Krystal Thomas, as she banked it in while lying on the ground against the Dallas Wings. That shot made SportsCenter's Top 10. The toughest thing about making this shot during a game is having the audacity to attempt it. In HORSE, being audacious is an effective path to victory.
-- Eric Woodyard
LeBron James goes over the backboard
In decades past, the NBA used thick, three-sided shot clocks on top of the backboards, and those served as props for trick-shot attempts by NBA players, including LeBron James.
James spent years trying to perfect the off-the-top-of-the-shot-clock bank shot from various angles behind the basket, as there might or might not have been stakes on these shots with teammates. Over the course of an average season, James has attempted several hundred high-arcing shots from out of bounds near the team benches, where players dress before leaving.
Fast-forward to this moment in Miami. This was an extreme little slice of a game: the end of the shot clock with James cornered and no place to turn. In front of him was journeyman 7-footer Aaron Gray, a significant impediment.
In the moment, it was just muscle memory. A key to making an over-the-backboard shot, whether you're aiming to bounce it off the shot clock or going straight for the goal, is loft. The ball has to be high because it needs to have an acute angle to drop straight down to accomplish the feat. In an unexpected way, having a giant in front of you actually helps force the correct launch angle.
LeBron, as you can see, executes the challenge perfectly.
As for the jumping, spinning and midair setting to get the shot off? Well, there's no explanation for that other than that he's LeBron James.
-- Brian Windhorst
Steven Adams goes QB1 from half court
It doesn't matter how many attempts -- or how many air balls. When Steven Adams is practicing wild, HORSE-style shots after practice and finally makes one, he will yell, "First try!" with an emphatic fist pump. Maybe it was the shock of this one actually going in on the first try -- and counting for points! -- but when Adams drilled a 56-footer with a one-handed, overhead football toss, he went with a hyper-charged, Steph Curry-like shimmy.
Two games before, against the Celtics, Adams had gotten a pass with the clock winding down at the end of the first quarter. Out of his comfort zone, he dribbled a few times and went with a full jump shot from about 42 feet away. Chris Paul walked over to Adams, tapped him on the shoulder and motioned an overhead football style. Clearly, Paul knows how to coach.
Or ... maybe Adams had been instructed by his sister, Valerie, a four-time world champion and two-time Olympic champion shot-putter, and Paul was reminding him that it was in his blood.
Adams threw the ball like he was lobbing a tennis ball back over his neighbor's fence and made a name for himself as maybe the NBA's best quarterback. He had the pinpoint, full-court Hail Mary to Dennis Schroder to force overtime against the Timberwolves in the untucked jersey game. He found Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on a full-court go route for a layup. A couple of seasons ago, he threw a frozen rope through coverage to Andre Roberson that would make Baker Mayfield jealous.
But when Adams had to dial one up from deep for himself, he read the defense, diagnosed the coverage, set his feet and let it fly, hitting his target in stride. That's quite a way to hit your first career 3-pointer.
T-Mac off the backboard
It wasn't the first time Tracy McGrady pulled this off -- and it wouldn't be the last -- but this dunk from the 2002 All-Star Game was certainly the most memorable.
(Before we go any further, the rules for the official HORSE competition strictly prohibit dunking, so this exact McGrady play can't be used. However, it could happen as a layup. Anyway, back to the play.)
McGrady, who was 22 years old at the time, was playing in his second All-Star Game in his second season with the Orlando Magic. In his first All-Star Game the year before, things didn't go McGrady's way. He finished with just two points on 1-of-4 shooting, despite being a starter.
This time, coming off the bench, McGrady made sure his impact was felt. The slam in question was worth just two of his team-high 24 points, though it felt like it should have been worth more.
Off a Peja Stojakovic miss, Jermaine O'Neal got the rebound and gave it to McGrady. From there, it was his show. Before he got to the 3-point line, McGrady knew his move. He tossed it off the backboard with his left hand, maneuvering around then-Dallas teammates Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki. He threw it off the left side of the backboard perfectly, so it went to the middle of the lane, where he grabbed it and jammed it with his right hand.
Off-the-backboard self-lobs are common in dunk contests, but McGrady pulling this off in a game was something else. Anyone looking to dish out an easy letter might want to go this route. But remember: No dunking allowed.
-- Andrew Lopez