Posted Apr 17 2010 10:53AM
What happens in the playoffs? The games get closer, right? And the stakes rise, right? That produces situations where players are burdened with the responsibility of winning games for their teams. Often, it comes down to the last possession of the game and the coach draws up a play for one dude. That dude has one mission: take the shot, win the game.
A lot of players wilt under that pressure. Some just aren't skilled enough to succeed. Some players are forced into that role, some are merely willing. The Game Winners, however, salivate at the chance to take the game-winner. Some guys have limited games -- can't shoot, can't get to the bucket, can't go left, can't put the ball on the floor. Other dudes can do it all. The teams that advance in the playoffs are almost always teams that have Game Winners on their roster. Orlando, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Denver made it to the conference finals in 2009. All four of those teams had a player (or players) that thrive in last possession, clutch situations. The year before? Boston, Detroit, San Antonio and L.A.
Teams without last-possession assassins, Game Winners, get bounced. Not every game is won on teams' last possessions, but a lot of games are lost on teams' last possessions. To me, nothing is more important than being able to trot out a Game Winner dude at the end of games.
So, like I've done for the past three playoffs, 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 one or two points with around 10 seconds left, who do I want with ball?" (82games.com actually defines a Game-Winning Shot Opportunity as "24 seconds or less left in the game, team with the ball is either tied or down by one to two points.") 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?" As is usually the case with me, my rankings are not totally beholden to stats -- it's more of a gut-feeling, eye-test, "I've watched a ridiculous amount and/or covered basketball for the past 25 years" kind of thing.
Check it ...
(No. 16) Andre Miller: Brandon Roy is as clutch as they come. Without him, the Blazers lack that one dude that can not only make a game-winner, but actually get off an adequate shot for the game-winner.
(No. 15) Brandon Jennings: Other than Kevin Durant, I'm most intrigued by what Jennings will do in these playoffs, especially with Andrew Bogut out of the lineup. What I do know is that B.J. seems to have a zeal for big moments. If you gave me all the rookies and I had to pick one to take a game-winner, I'd pick Jennings, even though, for most of the game, he's Clang City.
(No. 14) Derrick Rose: Rose took his game to another level in April and won Eastern conference Player of the Month. This postseason, it'll be on him to take the game-winner, after the Bulls let Ben Gordon go to Detroit and shipped out John Salmons. Unfortunately, if Cleveland runs the Bulls out the gym in four straight games, Chicago might not even get a chance to put Rose in the position to work on his Game Winner chops.
(No. 13) Stephen Jackson: Stephen Jackson will take and make a big shot. He made them in San Antonio and Indiana and Golden State and he's taken and made them in Charlotte. If he has the ball on the game's last possession, Orlando fans should be concerned.
(No. 12) Deron Williams: No point guard can match D-Will's combination of size, strength and quickness. He's a great finisher and has one of the deadliest pull-up jumpers in the game. He's a monster. But he's had too few memorable clutch moments, thus far. It makes me wonder.
(No. 11) Vince Carter: Carter is top five when it comes to game-winners for active players. Everyone seems to think that Orlando will miss Hedo Turkoglu at the end of games, but Carter is a killer in those situations. I'm talking walk-off game-winners -- Carter has many.
(No. 10) Jamal Crawford: Finally able to put his game-winner mettle to the test in the postseason (when it really counts), I'm looking forward to watching my man Mally this spring. The question is whether he'll even get to take the shot, since the Hawks still design most end-of-game plays for Joe Johnson. I'd love to see Woody put the ball in Crawford's hand. Homeboy has the proverbial flair for the dramatic.
(No. 9) Steve Nash: The ageless wonder. He's not higher on the list because his height makes it tougher for him to get off good shots. If he gets a good look? Fuggedaboutit.
(No. 8) Kevin Durant: The first round is his stage. He's playing in the marquee series against the league's marquee team. Folks without League Pass Broadband don't know how preposterous this young dude is. What can you do to stop him from getting off the shot he wants, other than stopping him from getting the ball? Nada. And once he gets the rock, he's got that ice-water coursing through his veins. Because it's his first postseason, he's this low out of deference to some of the clutch vets.
(No. 7) Manu Ginobili: Mavs and Western Conference beware -- Manu's balling again. He remains one of the league's most feared assassins. Weeks ago, I saw a Greg Popovich interview where Pop said that everything that MJ and Kobe did/do for their teams, Manu does for the Spurs. That wasn't crazy-talk.
(No. 6) Dirk Nowitzki: Ever since Dirk submarined in the 2007 playoffs, his reputation as a clutch performer has taken unjust hits. He's among the leaders of game-winning shots for the regular season and postseason over the past six years. Let him take the game-winner at your own peril.
(No. 5) Paul Pierce/Ray Allen: I will remember Pierce and Allen as two of the four or five most clutch players of their generation. The aging process has taken its toll on both, but Boston is still in very capable hands. Whether it's an isolation for Pierce or running Ray off screens, the Cs have bankable options on the last possession. Need I remind you of last year's first round epic with Chicago?
(No. 4) LeBron James: LeBron is this low -- and not No. 2 -- because he insists on jacking up jumpers at the end of games as opposed to putting his head down and trucking to the basket. Then there's also his free-throw shooting. Ask yourself this: If LeBron is on the line with the Cavs down one and no time left, would you bet next week's check that he'd make both free throws?
(No. 3) Dwyane Wade: After a spectacular 2008-09 season, D-Wade has kind of underwhelmed this year. Don't get it twisted, though -- he's still a hit man.
(No. 2) Carmelo Anthony/Chauncey Billups: You can't lose with this combo. I know the stats say that Billups misses waaaaay more game-winners than makes, but when you combine him with the league's best scorer -- who also happens to have an incredible clutch resume in his own right -- then, were it not for the cat in L.A., the Melo/Chauncey duo would be No.1.
(No. 1) Kobe Bryant: Seven game-winners this season. 'Nuff said.
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