The 2014 NBA Playoffs series between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Houston Rockets will always be remembered for the shot that ended it—Damian Lillard’s incredible three-pointer at the buzzer. But earlier in the series, there was another game-winning shot that took people’s breath away. Or made them shout. Or got them really excited, at any rate.
And that one was made all the more amazing because of who hit it: Troy Daniels, a little-known rookie shooting guard who had spent most of the season on Houston’s D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of Hidalgo, Texas. After he had been waived by the Charlotte Bobcats and the Rockets. And after he’d gone undrafted out of VCU, where, in four seasons, he never averaged more than 12 points per game. He also didn’t appear in the first two games of the series and had logged just 75 minutes total in his NBA career. It all felt a little like a Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial playing out in real life.
Not long afterward, we caught up with Daniels to talk about the play that temporarily saved the Rockets’ season, led to his throwing out the first pitch at an Astros game and maybe, just maybe, launched a long, successful NBA career. (So far, so good, as he has appeared in 90 games for Charlotte over the past two seasons and is averaging nearly 12 points per game this month.) With the 2016 playoffs tipping off this weekend—including a matchup between Charlotte and Miami—we could think of no better time to revisit our very first Game Winners column.
“I was cut by Charlotte, then I ended up hitting the game winner in the playoffs. What are the odds of that?”
So, Game 3. It was tied 116-116 with 30 seconds left in overtime, and Houston had the ball. Can you describe the play?
We didn’t really have a set play. It was just to get the ball to James [Harden] and let him work. James ended up getting the ball knocked out of his hand, and then it was just a loose ball. Jeremy Lin dived on the ground and picked up the ball and drove to the lane. My man helped a little bit, and I happened to be open. I had my hands straight up in the air, wanting the ball, like, “Hey, right here, right here,” and he threw it to me. I just shot it, you know, like I shoot every shot. And it went in, and that ended up putting us up three and eventually winning the game.
Putting your hands up in that situation. That takes guts for a rookie.
It does. But as a shooter, you can’t really look at yourself as a rookie. You gotta always have confidence within yourself and believe that every shot that you take is going to go in.
Did you know it was good when it left your hand?
Yeah, I actually did. Every time I shoot, I think it’s going in, but as soon as it left my hand, it felt great. It didn’t have any reason to not go in.
So after you hit it, what went through your mind? How did you feel?
I was really emotional at the time. But as soon as I hit it, the first person I looked at was James, and he reacted like, “Let’s go!” He got really excited and hyped. So I just did the same thing and fed into that emotion.
Did any of the stuff that had happened to you the entire year—playing in the D-League and getting cut by teams—cross your mind?
Not at the moment. When I sat down and actually just thought about the shot, shooting it and making it, it did go through my mind. I compared the beginning of the season to now, where I was at. You know, I was cut by Charlotte, then I ended up hitting the game winner in the playoffs. What are the odds of that? But it just felt good to be that guy. And to be a poster child for the D-League, so guys can use me as an example now.
Is that the greatest basketball moment of your life so far?
Oh yeah. That takes the cake, man. I’m playing in the best league in the world, in the playoffs, as a rookie, not expecting to do anything in the game. I didn’t even expect to be in the game.
Is it the greatest moment of your life so far?
It is the greatest moment of my life. It is the greatest moment of my life so far.
And a rookie shall lead them: When his clutch-ness emerged, Daniels’ teammates got amped.
So if that’s the high point, what’s the lowest moment of your basketball career?
The lowest moment was when I was cut by the Charlotte Bobcats. At the beginning of the season.
How did you pick yourself up? Did anybody say anything that really helped you?
I just stayed around family and friends, kept my circle really, really tight. But at the end of the day, it’s a business. I understood what they were doing. I just dealt with it and used it as motivation within my workouts right after that. So even though it was the lowest moment in my life, it kind of helped me to become a better person and a better player.
By the way, I thought Jeff Van Gundy had a great line about your shot. Have you heard what he said?
What did he say?
He said, as your teammates were congratulating you, “I don’t even know if they all know his name yet… but they love the result.”
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I heard that.
Is that okay with you, that comment?
It’s not okay with me, I’m going to be honest with you. I’m going to use that as motivation too. Because, I mean, I’m in the NBA, I’m on the NBA team, so obviously they have to know my name. But it just shows that I have to work even harder to let Jeff Van Gundy know my name. Stan Van Gundy or Jeff Van Gundy, whichever one.
So are you coming back on the Rockets next season?
That’s the plan. You know, the offseason, you never know what’s going to happen. You never know if you’re going to get traded or released or whatever. So the best thing I can do right now is just keep working out and getting better and keep outworking everybody.
You spent most of last season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. What kind of attendance did they normally get?
I would say we would be lucky if we had a thousand people at the game.
Yeah… I had to pay my dues. I had to pay my dues.
Did you get any sort of monetary bump for that shot?
Not that I know of.
Finally, it’s worth noting this three wasn’t a fluke. It’s what you do. You shattered the D-League record for three-pointers in a season with 240 (old record: 152). And you hit ten threes in one game against the Idaho Stampede. What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten on shooting?
“Don’t worry about the shot that you just shot. Worry about the next shot.” In other words, if you miss it, you miss it. On to the next one. You know?