By Vincent Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 21 2009 5:30PM
I've always considered Paul Pierce to be the clutchest player of his generation -- other than Kobe, of course -- so even though Ray Allen, a clutch player in his own right, was on fire in the second half of the Bulls-Cs Game 2, there was still a possibility that Pierce could have taken Boston's last shot. That's how it goes with clutch players. Didn't matter that Pierce played like a retired police Sergeant in a PAL scrimmage, for most of the game. He's clutch, so there's a sense that he'll rise to whatever occasion and win the game.
But then I thought back to that ESPN Sunday Conversation with KG, Ray and Paul from last season, when, toward the end, Michelle Tafoya asked them who takes the game-winner and told them to respond on the count of three. Their answers? Both KG and Paul said "Ray," and Ray said "the open man." That one exchange prompted me to write a SLAM column a day or so later called the Game Winners.
That's what it's all about this time of year. It separates contenders from pretenders and truly dangerous insurgent squads from enigmatic darkhorses. As players, coaches, media and fans, that's the main question when it's winning time: Who's going to take the shot? Who's the Game Winner?
At the end of the day, what should scare coaches and fans is that some squads don't have legitimate, trustworthy Game Winners, they simply have a guy that will "most likely take our last shot." That's when you know you're in trouble. The squads with true Game Winners win championships.
The venerable stat geeks at 82games.com have compiled some numbers for this situation. Based on their criteria (Game Winning Shot Opportunity = 24 seconds or less left in the game, team with the ball is either tied or down by 1 to 2 points), since they started tracking game-winners in '03-'04, LeBron James is the league-leader for the regular season and he's tied with Kobe for the Playoffs. I don't necessarily see it that way. So, like I did last season, I took all 16 playoff squads and identified the Game Winners by asking the simple question, "If I'm a fan of this team and they're down 1, 2 or 3 points with around 10 seconds left, who do I want with ball?" Once I identified each team's Game Winner, I ranked them 1 through 16, by asking this question: "If this player is on the road and has the ball with a chance to win, how scared should arena fans be?" It's not totally beholden to stats or actual numbers. There's a feeling that I get during these situations that I've taken into consideration, too.
16) Andre Iguodala, Sixers: Yeah, Dre hit the Sixers' game-winner, last Sunday. I loved his reaction -- the mean mug, the heavy breathing, the controlled rage/exuberance. But let's be real. Who out there was thinking, "Iggy's knocking down this shot. No question"? Exactly.
15) Ron Artest, Rockets: This is where Houston misses T-Mac. Ron-Ron is not exactly Mr. Creativity. He'll take the game-winner, but we haven't yet reached Game Winner status on this list.
14) Hedo Turkoglu, Magic: Last year, Hedo was No. 11 on my list, the first of the kats that I truly considered a Game Winner. He's hit plenty of clutch shots in his career, but he's hobbling this season. You saw what happened to Orlando in Game 1 -- Hedo couldn't answer Iguodala. Had Jameer Nelson been healthy, he'd be a legit Game Winner for the Magic.
13) Rip Hamilton, Pistons: No more Chauncey, which means two things. 1.) Someone else is taking the Pistons' last shot, 2.) Someone else is going to have to get Rip the ball at just the right moment as he's curling off about 13 picks/screens. Rip is far from a choker, but you won't see any defenders' lips quivering if Rip has the ball, down one with five seconds left.
12) Ben Gordon, Bulls: BG is gonna go down as one of those peculiar players in his generation that inspire an odd awe from fanatic fans. His game lacks in so many ways, but he's prolific and clutch in an ignored way. I was not surprised, whatsoever, by the clutch hurting he put on the Celtics. If he has the ball with a chance to win, be afraid.
11) Deron Williams, Jazz: Deron is unstoppable when he wants to be and he takes and makes big shots. What worries me is that he's so placid and, almost, ambivalent while he's doing it. Sometimes you need a near-manic quality to really take those game-winners.
10) Tony Parker, Spurs: Count me as one of the guys that thinks the Spurs can accomplish as much without Manu Ginobili as they supposedly could with the Argentinian. That is to say, they can still get to the Conference finals and get beat by the Lakers with or without Manu. Reasons? First, no matter what goes down, if Popovich and his system are there with Duncan as the anchor, they're fine. But more important, Parker has evolved into a seriously clutch scorer. Because he is so frighteningly unstoppable with the ball and his years of Playoffs success have imbued him with a Game Winner's ego, Tony is lethal.
9) Chris Paul, Hornets: According to 82games.com, CP3 ranks high in "Clutch" stats and he's one of the true Game Winners of the past three years. Because Chris lacks an explosive, quick-release pull-up jumper -- like the other smaller guys on the list (Parker, Deron, Gordon) -- you can fall victim to thinking that it'd be easier to bother him on last second plays. Then you remember that Chris is an ice-cold magician, a modern-day Houdini, and you see how he hit eight game-winners within the past three seasons.
8) Joe Johnson, Hawks: He can get off a shot on anyone, at any time, and he's displayed the clutch gene on more than a few occasions, including last season's Playoffs series against the Cs.
7) Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs: Dirk is consistently killed for being "soft" and a "shrinking violet." And that's fun and amusing. It's not accurate, though. He consistently takes and makes big shots, many of which have effectively won the game. The same snarky fan that calls him a pansy is probably wetting his pants if Dirk has a shot to send his squad home with a loss.
6) Ray Allen, Celtics: Boston vs. Chicago. Game 2.
5) LeBron James, Cavs: I know it seems counterintuitive to have LeBron at No. 5, but here's what worries me about him in game-winning situations -- he always seems to take a bad shot. It used to be that he'd pass the ball to someone else and let him decide the Cavs' fate, but now I have this running image of LeBron pounding the ball with the clock ticking away and bailing out the defense with a hurried, off-balance, head-scratching jumper. I'll say this, though -- I can't wait for the inevitable Lakers-Cavs faceoff.
4) Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets: Here's why I'd put him over LeBron: Carmelo might be the most efficient dude in the league when it comes to getting a good shot He doesn't always take the best shots, but when it's time to pull off a good look, only Kobe has Carmelo's repertoire and know-how. Oh, and the boy is clutch. He shoots 48 percent in game-winning situations. His peers are mostly in the 30s.
3) Brandon Roy, Blazers: I want to see what the youngster does against Artest and Battier when the game's on the line and the Blazers have a chance to win. My money would be on him canning some mid-range jumper and then scowling while his teammates mob him. I think Roy hit, like, 2,395 game-winners this season. He's every bit the clutch franchise player that the elite of the elite are.
2) Dwyane Wade, Heat: He's taken two game-winners in his Playoffs career and nailed both. Ditto for game-winning free throws. At some point, I hope he has a chance to win the game against the scrappy Hawks. The Hawks, however, do not.
1) Kobe Bryant, Lakers: Yes, Kobe misses a lot of game-winners. But you are lying to yourself if you say anyone -- other than DWade, in a reach -- is a bigger cinch with the ball in the clutch. In that classic Game 4 against the Suns in 2006, you knew the shot was good as soon as the Spalding flicked off his fingertips at the end of regulation. As I've said before, I think he'll go down alongside MJ, Bird and Jerry West (or Reggie Miller) on Mount Clutchmore.
Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites you to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter at twitter.com/VinceCAThomas.
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