Coming Up Clutch
D.J. Foster, January 17, 2011

Time is running down on the clock. You’re down to your last possession. The whole game has come down to this, and you need a bucket to win it.

Who do you go to?

The best teams in the league have the answer to that question.

“Your top players have to bring you home,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “That’s what the best players do. Against Atlanta, Joe Johnson had the basketball. Deron Williams had it against Utah. Dwyane Wade had it against Miami. The top players, that’s what they do.”

For a long time, the Clippers struggled to close out tight games. But like many other things around these parts, that’s beginning to change.

Who should get the ball with the game on the line for the Clippers? Coincidence or not, the answer to that question is becoming more defined as their record continues to improve. After wins against two top-shelf opponents in the Heat and the Lakers, it’s safe to say the Clippers have found their go-to guy when the game gets down to the nitty-gritty.

Baron Davis is the veteran leader, and Blake Griffin is one of the most electrifying players in the entire league, but when crunch time rolls around, it’s usually Eric Gordon closing up shop.

Maybe you’re not used to hearing Gordon mentioned with the one-named assassins in the league – Kobe, Manu, Dirk, LeBron, Melo – but he belongs right there in the conversation.

Perhaps it would help to first explain what clutch time is. 82games.com defines it as follows: “4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points.” By those standards, Gordon is showing that his increased aggressiveness is paying huge dividends this season.

Gordon ranks 15th in the league in points per 48 minutes in the clutch – maybe not the most impressive number, but there’s more to it. Of those players ahead of him, Gordon is 5th in field-goal percentage, 4th in free-throw percentage, and 3rd in 3-point field-goal percentage. As far as efficiency goes in the top tier, only two players – Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry – have been better than Gordon this season. The percentages across the board speak for themselves: 52 percent shooting, 40 percent from 3, and 91 percent from the free-throw line.

Compare those numbers to Kobe Bryant’s. Widely considered the most “clutch” player in all of basketball, Bryant is shooting 38 percent overall, 21 percent from 3, and 89 percent from the free-throw line. That’s not to say Gordon as a whole is more clutch than Kobe, who obviously has hit plenty of big shots and continues to hit big shots. But at the very least, the numbers do show that Gordon is much more efficient with the game on the line than Kobe has been this season.

It’s dangerous to read too much into one game, but let’s look at what happened when the two met up with the game on the line this Sunday. Check out each player’s line when the game was within 5 points with 6 minutes left, and keep in mind that Gordon and Bryant covered each other for a good portion of this time:

Bryant: zero points, 0-for-1 from the field, 1 assist and 1 turnover.

Gordon: 8 points, 3-for-3 from the field, 2-for-2 from behind the arc, 2 assists, no turnovers and 1 steal.

This is obviously an extremely small sample size, but it gives you an idea of what Gordon has been able to do consistently in the Clippers’ latest victories.

The efficiency is impressive on its own, but don’t forget that there’s more to being clutch than just scoring. Gordon’s contributions on the defensive end have changed the outcomes of games as well. Two of the more memorable examples are the blocked shot against Utah’s Deron Williams to force overtime and a game-clinching steal against Phoenix’s Mickael Pietrus, but Gordon does a lot away from the ball late in games, often denying the opposing team’s star quality looks or the ball altogether.

As a result of Gordon’s heady play defensively, he ranks 10th in the league in steals in clutch situations. Gordon’s efforts offensively and defensively expand beyond just those final minutes, of course – he scores 23.2 points per game, but 13.3 of them come in second half, when teams are more focused on getting stops.

Gordon still has plenty of room for improvement as the Clippers’ go-to-guy. He currently leads the league in a less-than-flattering category – turnovers per 48 minutes in the clutch. Better ballhandling and recognition of collapsing defenses will help, but Del Negro probably put it best when asked what Gordon needs to reach that upper echelon of crunch-time scorers:

“Time,” Del Negro said. “He’s made strides this year, and he’ll continually improve.”

It may take the 22-year-old some time to earn a reputation as being clutch, but if he keeps putting up performances like he did against the Lakers, it will happen sooner rather than later.

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