Standing a foot outside the three-point line, you dribble the ball under your right hand and look up at the imaginary clock.
“3…”, you say to yourself.
You cross the ball over from your right to your left hand, swiftly taking a step diagonally forward, trying to dribble past your imaginary defender.
You shift your left shoulder forward, but in the next instant, crossover again to your right hand, leaving the imaginary defender dumbfounded and moving ahead to find yourself in open space.
You time your jump perfectly, releasing the ball from your fingers in the nick of time. You know that the ball is going in the moment it leaves your hand.
“RIIIIIIINNGGGGG” goes the buzzer in your head.
The ball swishes through the basket, touching nothing but net. Your imaginary teammates crowd around you: some lift you up and some give you high fives. Your silent playground momentarily becomes an NBA arena as the home fans cheer you on for hitting the game-winning shot.
Every kid who picks up the basketball lives through the ‘game-winner’ fantasy, of hitting the last, buzzer-beating shot of the game to lead their team to victory, to be the hero of the night, to be Michael, to be Kobe. For NBA fans, there are ample other examples of these heroic moments, of the biggest players coming up at the biggest moments. And even those NBA players were once kids like you and I, dreaming of having the ball in their hands in the final seconds, with the game on the line, and being a jump shot away from becoming a legend.
A few weeks ago, LeBron James, who has been the best player in the NBA this season, was in one such moment. He had scored 17 of his game-high 35 points in the fourth quarter, leading his team back from an 18-point deficit against the Jazz. But with his team down by one with 4.5 seconds left, James, surprisingly, decided to pass the ball to Udonis Haslem to attempt the game-winner. Considering that he found Haslem open for a shot made it a smart decision by James. But he drew flak for his decision – not necessarily because Haslem missed the shot and Miami lost the game – but because like many NBA heroes before, it was his chance to hammer in the final nail in the coffin by taking the shot himself. But he passed it away, adding to an alarming number of passive decisions in recent 'clutch moments'.
In the larger scheme of the season, it was no disaster that LeBron James passed the last shot away to Haslem, but it would certainly be disastrous if he didn’t wish to relive that ‘game-winning fantasy’ anymore. He seemed to bounce back well enough, hitting a 3-pointer against the Pacers a few days ago with 10 seconds left in the game to help his team take the game into overtime.
LeBron’s critics will conveniently forget his efforts in making the game against Utah ‘winnable’ and only remember his final decision. But this is the curse of being an alpha dog in the NBA. For the biggest players, there is no better moment than the last shot, the shot that becomes a difference between a win and a loss. Michael Jordan did it over and over and over again. Kobe Bryant has had game-winning heroic moments too. LeBron’s teammate, Dwyane Wade, has never shied from the moment, either, hitting iconic game-winners, including one just a few days ago. Ray Allen, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, and Paul Pierce have all had their moments over the past decade. Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose are starting to gain a ‘clutch’ reputation, too. Kevin Love hit this year’s best game-winning shot so far. Gilbert Arenas was so confident about his game-winners that he celebrated them even before they went in. Twice.
Funnily enough, LeBron has quite a high percentage when it comes to the clutch shots, much higher than Kobe, who otherwise enjoys the reputation of being a better player with the ball in his hands in the dying seconds. LeBron had his own moment a few years ago hitting a huge game-winner against the Orlando Magic in the playoffs. But, as a result of subsequent recent failures in big moments, it seems that the criticism may have hurt his confidence a little. On the other hand is Kobe Bryant, who has made up for lacking in shooting percentage by simply being a master of the moment. Kobe takes more clutch shots than anyone else, and so when he makes a few, especially ones in more important games, they tend to be remembered more.
In a poll taken of 166 NBA players last year, an incredible 74 percent voted for Kobe to take the last shot with the game on the line. Durant, Wade, Ray Allen, and Dirk Nowitzki were next in line. If we went back in time and conducted the same poll around 15 years ago, I predict it would be Michael Jordan that most players would choose to put their faith in, and his closest competitor would probably be the great Reggie Miller.
All of these clutch players – past and present – have had the same personality trait in common: they have allowed that child inside them to thrive, not shy away, when the pressure on them has been the greatest. Some say that these players, with the inherent skill to rise to the moment, have the ‘clutch gene’. They have allowed themselves to relive that moment from that lonely playground in the NBA arena. Some are great at creating a shot for themselves (Jordan, Kobe, Wade) and some at moving adebtly without the ball so that they have the best open look at the basket (Allen, Miller). It’s not that they haven’t failed at these moments, it’s just that they have kept coming back to them so that we remember them more.
It is these unpredictable last few moments of a close game that help make basketball one of the most exciting games to witness. And sometimes, when a Jordan, a Kobe, a Miller, or a Wade have that last shot, that inner-kid springs up again, imaginging the perfect sequence in their fantasy even before it ever happens. The defenders dissapear and the crowd grows silent. It's just them, the basketball, and the hoop. 3... 2... 1... RIIINNNNGGGGGGG
And it's over. The ball swishes through the net. Your team wins. Your teammates high-five you and carry you on their shoulders. The crowd chants your name. You've done it before and you'll do it again. But this isn't the playground anymore, it's an NBA game. And this time, the fantasy is real.