Posted Oct 4 2010 9:58AM
If Jerry West didn't already enjoy a status that trumps almost any other possible NBA honor -- he (or at least his silhouette) is the league's logo, for crying out loud! -- he would be the perfect choice to have his name and image on an award presented annually to the game's most accomplished performer in high-stakes, heavy-pressure, dwindling-clock, make-or-break moments.
Y'know, a Mr. Clutch Award.
The NBA doesn't actually present one of those. Most of the acclaim for those types of dramatics comes instead via NBA TV, SportsCenter or YouTube. But West -- whose other nickname, Zeke From Cabin Creek, gives no inkling of the ice water that ran through his veins in crucial situations -- was known as much as anyone for the way he played the 48th minute of a game as well as, or better than, the first 47.
"I'm surprised when the ball doesn't go in the hoop," the former Los Angeles Lakers great said late in his career. "I think I should make every shot." That included 60-foot desperation heaves with NBA Finals games on the line, apparently. When West let go with his famous shot from beyond mid-court that forced Game 3 of the 1970 championship series against New York into overtime, Knicks guard Walt Frazier recalled thinking, "The man's crazy. He looks determined. He thinks it's really going in!"
They all do, those players taking most of the last shots.
There were clutch players before Jerry West got to the NBA in 1960, and there have been clutch players since his retirement in 1974. West himself, while running the Lakers' basketball operations, maneuvered in 1996 to land one of the game's all-timer "closers" in Kobe Bryant. By sheer dint of frequency, through good results or bad, Bryant has gained a reputation as the guy most coaches and players would want taking a potential game-winner in a tied or close contest.
"Everybody in our league thinks about Kobe Bryant and what he can do at the end of games," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy told me recently. "LeBron [James], I think, is great late in games. It's the list -- you just go down the same list if you were talking about the best players in the league. Because they also get the opportunities. Their coaches have confidence in them, their teammates have confidence in them and they get the ball in those situations."
Many fit Van Gundy's definition -- like Bryant, James, Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant and Joe Johnson. They are the NBA's great players, All-Stars who have earned the opportunities to determine outcomes through makes or misses.
Some, though, are more specialized, rising up more often in tough times than in calm. Chauncey Billups didn't get his nickname "Mr. Big Shot" for nothing. Manu Ginobili might not be the scorer San Antonio will look to in the first, second or third quarters, but he sure seems to be that guy in the fourth. Derek Fisher is keeping the spirit of Robert Horry alive in the postseason. And other players with keen offensive touches -- Jason Terry, Richard Hamilton, Jamaal Crawford, Andre Iguodala -- have thrived in clutch situations without necessarily being first-team all-NBA performers.
"Someone who absolutely thrives in the deepest moments of pressure," is how Miami coach Erik Spoelstra defines it. Spoelstra now has at least two of those guys in James and Dwyane Wade, stars whose reputation for late-game heroics is backed up by empirical data as well.
The Web site 82games.com tracks "clutch" stats along these criteria: fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left, neither team ahead by more than five points. On that scale, James ranked No. 1 in 2009-10 by averaging a pro-rated 66.1 points per 48 minutes of "clutch" time. Wade, with 32.6 was down the list at No. 22, but he ranked fourth in 2008-09.
Together, James (151) and Wade (144) played a total of 295 minutes in "clutch" situations last season -- which could drop significantly if they and the rest of the Miami Heat are as dominant as many anticipate in 2010-11. If all goes according to Pat Riley's plan and the rest of the NBA's fears, "garbage" time will replace clutch time at the end of most Heat games.
Still, when it does come down to a last shot, who will take it? Good question. It's the same thing Miami's opponents will be asking themselves in huddles with six seconds left. (Wade did average 10.0 assists in "clutch" time last season, so having him set up James might be Spoelstra's best option.)
Coaches tend to remember not only the players who win games for them but those who beat them in clutch situations -- while dreading those who might.
Washington's Flip Saunders sees Chicago's young point guard, Derrick Rose, developing into one of those late-game assassins, especially if his jump shot improves as planned this season.
Van Gundy has been on both sides of the Wade experience. "I had Dwyane his first years in the league, and he loved being in the big moment," the Orlando Magic coach said. "He had that when he came into the league. He developed it somewhere along the line -- high school, college, wherever -- but by the time he got to the NBA, he was one of those guys."
Van Gundy doesn't agree with those who talk about "rising to the occasion" of a pressure-packed shot. He thinks the best "clutch" players gain their reputations by avoiding the flip side of that, otherwise known as "choking." There are plenty of players in the NBA -- and there have been some well-known stars, too -- who suffer from Costanza-like shrinkage at critical times.
"What you really mean are guys whose performances can stay the same," Van Gundy said. "Their performance doesn't decline in those situations, the pressure doesn't get to him. It's people who can relax. To me, what it comes down to is that guy has to realize that he's going to fail a lot of times in that situation. And that can't bother him. Those are the guys who want to have the ball in their hands. They want to become known as the great clutch players in this league."
Philadelphia's Doug Collins had Michael Jordan for three seasons in Chicago, worked against him for three years in Detroit, then teamed with Jordan for his last two seasons in Washington. He saw, up close, the consummate, conscienceless clutch player. "The one thing they all have in common is they never think of the consequences if they miss," Collins said. "They don't ask, 'What happens if I miss?' because I don't believe in their minds they're going to. And if they do miss, I don't think there any hesitation to want to do it again the next night.
"You have to have a very short memory. And you have to have that feeling of, 'I'm going to live with the results whether it goes in or not.' Michael even made a commercial about game-winners, about how nobody ever looks at the shots that he missed."
Funny, but those don't burn themselves into our brains (Craig Ehlo) quite like the ones (Bryon Russell) Jordan made. Same goes for these guys, the members of our All-Clutch Team:
Nash's shooting percentages dipped across the board in the clutch time defined by 82games.com, but his scoring went up (43.6 per 48 minutes, fifth-best in the league), his turnovers went down slightly (from 3.6 overall to 3.4) and his assists bumped to 13.4 -- better than Nash's average in any of his 14 seasons. And it happened thanks in part to one simple ingredient: Breathing.
In the September issue of Men's Journal, Nash talked about performance advice the Canadian national team got from its psychologist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. "[He] explained that when people get nervous, they tend to hold their breath or not breathe as frequently as they should, which only causes the nervous system to get even more out of whack," Nash said. "So in order to focus -- and forget about the referee, the last play, the crowd and our opponent -- we'd remind each other to breathe normally and to take deep breaths when we were feeling a lot of pressure."
Bryant makes a lot of game-winning shots because he takes a lot of (potentially) game-winning shots. Last season, he had a half dozen stellar clutch moments, most memorably his 3-pointer at the buzzer over Wade and the Heat in a December game. But as 82games.com noted in a study of "game-winning shot opportunities" -- defined as 24 seconds or less left in the game, team with the ball trailing by one or two points -- Bryant missed a league-high 42 such shots from 2003-04 through the first half of 2008-09, playoffs included. So his actual success rate isn't as grand as his reputation.
But there's a chicken-or-egg element to this, too, because Bryant gets to talk a lot of L.A.'s late-game shots because he has made many in the past. "You see that and go, 'Wow, this guy rises to the occasion most nights. And completes,' " Toronto coach Jay Triano said. But Bryant's low assists number (3.6) in the clutch suggests he could grow as a decoy and creator for others.
'Melo is so good in the clutch that you wonder why he'd rather play for the Nets or the Knicks than the Nuggets, since he probably would go backward (at least initially) in the number of big games and clutch moments. Of course, wherever Anthony plays, he figures to be The Man in the closing seconds of any game still to be had. Said Collins: "Carmelo has had a ton of game-winners for George [Karl, Denver coach] the last few years."
Last season, the Nuggets forward averaged 47.0 points per 48 clutch minutes and averaged 21.7 free throws -- compared to his lifetime pro-rated average of 10.4 free throws per 48. In 2008-09, Anthony was even better, producing at a rate of 54.4 points in the clutch with 24 trips to the line. And the 80 percent lifetime foul shooter has been better, late than early, both years.
OK, we're fudging here. But James not only has the size to play this position, Riley and Spoelstra have talked about using him here at times, with Chris Bosh shifting to center. Shaky early in his career in clutch moments, James has grown into the role more recently.
In the study by 82games.com, the former Cleveland star succeeded just four times in 19 opportunities from 2003-04 through 2005-06. But in the next two-plus seasons, he was 13-of-31. In 2009-10, James also averaged 15.9 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 3.2 blocks in clutch situations.
Look, Nowitzki has the size to play center on this squad -- we're talking last shots, so we're not worried about blue-collar banging for the first 45 minutes or so -- and he definitely has the resume. Over the past three seasons, the Dallas sharpshooter has ranked third, eighth and third in points production, topping 40.9 each time while shedding doubts about his work in that role. "Now he wants that shot," Dallas owner Mark Cuban has said.
If you're looking for a more traditional pick here, it might be San Antonio's Tim Duncan, though he dislikes the "center" label. Said Washington coach Flip Saunders: "For a big man, Tim Duncan always has made big shots. He isn't known for that because he does it in a very non-flamboyant, very methodical way."
Wade has to be on here somewhere, right? The Miami guard creates shots for himself or for teammates and he's willing to tie or win games from the line if he can't launch a clean shot. To hear Spoelstra tell it, his guy goes into a zone that cuts across sports, known similarly by Alex Ovechkin, Peyton Manning or Albert Pujols.
"At those times, you can see an absolute calm," the Heat coach said. "Dwyane may be able to play at a faster speed even, but you can see his brain is slowing down. You always hear that expression, 'The game is slowing down' or 'It was like we were playing in slow motion.' That's Dwyane in pressure situations, even when it might look physically like he's going fast-forward."
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