Posted by Mike Lynch on February 17, 2020
After years poring over play-by-plays, watching videos (tough, I know) and reading thousands of game stories in newspaper archives, Basketball-Reference has compiled the first comprehensive list of every buzzer-beating game-winning shot in the history of the NBA and the BAA. To date, there have been 772 such shots in NBA history, including free throws with time expired. I'm defining game-winning buzzer-beaters as successful shots taken with the shooter's team tied or trailing which left no time on the clock after going through the net. These are true game-enders leaving no opportunity for the opponent to respond. As Tim Duncan knows, there are no such thing as game-winning buzzer-beaters that leave even 0.4 seconds on the clock.
This list was constructed by using the Team Game Finder to find every game decided by three points or fewer and then used the above mentioned resources to determine whether or not a true buzzer-beater had occurred. Video was available for most of the shots back to the early 1980s for confirmation purposes. For shots from the first 30-35 years of the league, though, I was mostly reliant on the quality of the game stories. Fortunately, the quality of the reporting was excellent for most of the league's history. However, from 1946 to roughly 1955, most of the shots required me to make my best educated guess based on the available materials. The buzzer and the clock were not always properly aligned, which led to mass confusion at the end of many close games in the early days of the NBA/BAA. Players themselves, let alone the writers, weren't always certain how much time was left in games, as some of the gyms weren't even outfitted with digital clocks. So my rule of thumb for the first decade or so of NBA action was to include shots that were the final action of a game as far as I could tell from the best available sources.
There is some potential that I missed a buzzer-beater or two that occurred under strange circumstances that prevented the final margin from being three points or fewer. I'm 99% certain there's never been a three-point 'and-one' at the buzzer to win a game (though Ed Conlin had a 2-pt 'and-one' at the buzzer for the Warriors in 1961), but that's one possible scenario. Another is if there was a buzzer-beater followed by a series of technical fouls and free throws taken with time expired that caused a four or five-point final margin. If you happen to know of any shot we're missing, which was a true buzzer-beater and left no time remaining, please let us know.
You'll also notice that the table of shots includes some tertiary data on each, such as distance and who assisted on the shot. The distance and assist data are official via play-by-play back to 1996-97. For earlier seasons, that data is unofficial and based off of video review and newspaper reports. Oftentimes there was conflicting data on the shot distances. In those cases, the most thorough recap won the tiebreaker (this was generally via the beat reporter for the home or winning team). You'll also notice that some shots have no listed distance and/or a '?' in the assisted column. This indicates that we've been unable to locate reliable data. Assisted data is missing for fewer than 5% of all shots and distance is missing for ~2% of all shots. If you have access to footage of any of these shots, please let us know.
I should also mention that crediting assists is often more art than science. For instance, somehow DeMar DeRozan was not officially credited with an assist on this Cory Joseph buzzer-beater. For games that pre-date the availability of official play-by-play data I've done my best to ascertain whether an assist was warranted or not, but I'm certain at least some of my decisions deviate from the official record of the time (for better or worse).
All of the columns in the table are sortable, so you can find things like most points in a game with a buzzer-beater, most rebounds in a game with a buzzer-beater, best FG% in a game with a buzzer-beater and longest buzzer-beaters. Please note that while scoring totals are available for all games, rebounds, assists, field goal attempts and some other stats are mostly complete, but missing some data. You'll also notice that the table has been marked up so you can identify players with more than one career buzzer-beater.
We hope you enjoy this new feature.