By Rahul Lal
This year has been one of the most memorable in NBA history. Legends like Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett retired in 2016. LeBron brought a championship home to Cleveland. And the first unanimous MVP, Steph Curry, recruited former MVP Kevin Durant to join him in The Bay Area.
Oh yeah, and some pretty amazing basketball gave us plenty of highlights. Here are the top five NBA plays of 2016 and why they matter.
5. 2016 NBA Slam Dunk Contest
Okay, okay. I know this isn’t really a game. But the Slam Dunk Contest on All-Star Weekend is just as important as any other NBA play not mentioned later in this list. Once a perennial highlight of All-Star weekend, the event had taken a nosedive in recent years. But the incredibly memorable duel between the Timberwolves’ Zach LaVine and the Magic’s Aaron Gordon changed all that. The two traded amazing dunks, each delivering a performance that would’ve won the contest in any other year. LaVine finally triumphed on a threw-the-legs dunk launched from just inside the foul line. With a rivalry in place and anticipation up, what should be an All-Star Weekend highlight will be again.
4. LeBron James Blocks Andre Iguodala In Game 7
Game seven. All tied up. Less than two minutes to go. This is the moment Cleveland Cavaliers fans had been dreaming of since Michael Jordan hit the shot on Craig Ehlo back in 1989. This time around, LeBron James was the one making lasting memories as he erased Andre Iguodala’s easy layup. The Warriors’ swingman had been creating a host of problems for the Cavs. This block reclaimed the momentum, and LeBron and Cleveland never looked back in their mission to “bring one back for The Land.”
3. Kobe Bryant’s Final NBA Points
How do you wrap up a career that spans 20 years and includes 18 all-star appearances, five NBA rings and much, much more? Dumping in 60 points and eking out a win with pure Mamba determination is a pretty good answer. Last year was the end for Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, and each legend went out in the appropriate way. It’s only fitting that Bryant’s final moments on the court were as dramatic as his storied career. And it was a great chance for the NBA’s younger generation of fans to get a taste of vintage Kobe Bryant.
2. Steph Curry Hits Deep Overtime Three To Beat Durant and Westbrook
Steph Curry had one heck of a year in 2016. The Warriors set a record for most wins in a season, and Curry was named the first unanimous MVP in league history. Though they blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals (#NeverForget), the Warriors reloaded during the offseason by picking up Kevin Durant. In this game, Curry put some doubt into OKC’s future by getting 46 points, 12 three pointers (tying an NBA record that he would later break) and a clutch playoff win. This shot also secured Curry his 288th three-pointer on the season, which broke the NBA record that he set just one season before.
1. Kyrie Clinches The NBA Championship
For all of the NBA’s great plays in 2016, this one is easily the best. It’s really not even close. Talk about clutch, talk about elite and talk about the ring. Kyrie has always been on the cusp of elite status. This shot, over Curry’s outstretched arm to clinch the 2016 NBA Championship in Game 7, solidified that status and ended Cleveland’s championship drought. Kyrie, LeBron and Kevin Love are now on a quest to defend their title heading into 2017.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.