The NBA: Clutch

Because my good friend, and fellow Hoop Nut, Rolly Mendoza, has already been posting awesome stuff about previewing the 2012 NBA Playoffs (and because I’ve been swamped by this and that), I’ll simply share majority of this interesting article by Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY:

“Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant share a philosophy.

In clutch situations — defined as five minutes or fewer left in the game and a scoring margin within five points — neither player is paralyzed by fear of the result.
Each can live with failure in those situations.

Bryant's outlook is distinctly Kobe-esque.

"You kind of got to be somewhat of an (expletive) , to be honest, in terms of not having any concern whatsoever about what people may say, win, lose or draw," Bryant said. "I don't have that fear. I don't have that concern. Either we win or we lose, but I'm going to do what I feel is right for us to be successful."

Said Durant: "To be honest, I really don't care if I make or miss. You really can't think about it too much."

As the NBA playoffs begin Saturday, the next two months will be filled with games decided in the final minutes. Reputations for teams, players and coaches — the bad with the good — will be made off those late-game performances. Does Robert Horry come to mind?

It's difficult to have a discussion about clutch performance without mentioning Horry, who made his mark in the playoffs making 18 of 35 field goals, including 13 of 21 three-pointers, in clutch situations, according to

And the result from some of that clutch magic? How about seven NBA championships!

During the playoffs last season, 60% of games were decided in clutch situations. Who excelled in those situations? Two of the best were the Dallas Mavericks (11-5) and Miami Heat (10-4) on their way to the NBA Finals.

It's not a perfect predictor of playoff success or as widely cited as average margin of victory and defensive efficiency rankings. But it is telling.

The past four NBA champions finished in the top three in clutch winning percentage during the regular season. The top teams this season: Chicago Bulls (.733), Lakers (.721), Indiana Pacers (.700) and San Antonio Spurs (.700), according to's extensive statistical database.

In final minutes, who gets the ball?

Analyzing clutch teams is easier than breaking down the best clutch players. A team wins or loses, simple math. The discussion about clutch players is more polarizing.

An individual can score a lot of points in the clutch yet have a poor shooting percentage. Still, his team wins. Or a player can perform exceptionally well but his team has a poor record in clutch situations. Plus, sample size is small in one season.

But in general, a combination of metrics — wins, shooting percentage, points, rebounds, assists, steals — reveals players who one way or another get the job done in the final minutes of a close game.

In whose hands do you want the ball to take an important shot or make a play?

Heading into the playoffs, these players have proved themselves in the clutch this season: Bryant and Durant; Thunder guard Russell Westbrook; Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony; Mavericks guard Jason Terry; Pacers forward Danny Granger; Spurs guard Tony Parker; Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce and Heat forward LeBron James.

From interviews with players, coaches and TV analysts, success in crunchtime for teams goes beyond X's and O's and requisite talent to factors such as chemistry, trust, confidence, coaching, mental toughness and instinct — the split-second decision to make a play that leads to a basket.

Durant admits that he didn't always have that attitude.

"My first few years in the league, I would go to the bench and we'd be tied with a couple of seconds left — and I'd go to the bench and I'd be shaking," Durant said. "I was so anxious to want the shot and make the shot and I'd go out and miss."


"This year, I was like, 'I don't care. If I make it, cool. If I miss it, learn from it.' "

The inspiration for Durant's conversion from consternation to relaxation is not surprising.

"I heard Robert Horry say he doesn't care," Durant said.

Clutch reputations are earned unscientifically. Bryant is clutch. James is considered not. But in last season's playoffs, James epitomized clutch in the second round and Eastern Conference finals.

Against the Bulls in the Eastern finals, James shot 8-for-12, including 2-for-3 on three-pointers, and averaged 6.3 points in three games with clutch situations. He was similarly effective against the Celtics in the second round.

However, James was defined by his poor performance down the stretch against the Mavericks in the NBA Finals — 0-for-7 from the field, including 0-for-5 on three-pointers, with zero points in 18 minutes of clutch time in five games, three of which the Heat lost.

This season, James is better than Bryant in clutch situations — just as many points per game, higher shooting percentage and higher rebounding, assists and steals averages.

But the Lakers have a better winning percentage in the clutch than the Heat.

"At the end of the day, I'm comfortable with the criticism that may come my way," Bryant said. "If you're not comfortable with that, there's going to be a little apprehension."

Preparation proves key for Bulls

The Bulls have been successful with an obscene amount of preparation, guard-forward Kyle Korver said.

With five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of an April 12 game, the Bulls led the Heat by one point.

The Bulls got up by five points with 2:03 left, fell into a three-point deficit with 11.4 seconds to go and forced overtime on backup guard C.J. Watson's three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left.

In overtime, the Bulls were masterful, shooting 5-for-8 on field goals and holding the Heat to 0-for-5 shooting in Chicago's 96-86 victory, a combination of offense and defense burying the Heat.

"When you first come into this system, it's very demanding mentally," Korver said. "Thibs (coach Tom Thibodeau) says you can't just go out there at the end of the game and just expect to ball. You just don't play harder. You have to know what you're doing."

Chicago Bull chief tactician Tom Thibodeau is as demanding
as they come. Will it be enough for the Bulls to come
out of the East and enter the NBA Finals?
(image from the Associated Press.) 
"He's very thorough. It's definitely the most detailed shootarounds and preparations that I've been ever around."

Thunder rumbles with clutch duo

The Thunder are an interesting case study. They have two players — Durant and Westbrook — they can rely on in the clutch.

Both averaged 4.9 minutes in the same 30 clutch games this season. Durant averaged 4.8 points to Westbrook's 4.1. Yet Durant took 32 more shots and had a lower shooting percentage (39.3%) than Westbrook (43.5%).

Who has the better reputation in clutch situations?

"Sometimes we missed them, and sometimes we made them," Durant said. "At the end of the day, we've got guys who really enjoy that moment and enjoy wanting to take those shots."

The Bulls' Thibodeau is quick to point out, "People talk about the last five minutes. Sometimes, it's the first five minutes." And Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says the last five minutes are an important stretch, "but getting to that point matters."

All true. But in the last five minutes of a tight game, possessions become magnified, pressure greater, strategy more scrutinized and intensity burning.

"Three words: 'Have better players,' " ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. "If your article has to be more than that, I would say that teams who don't beat themselves are the teams who put themselves in position to win more of those games."

The Mavericks won 68% of the time when they got to clutch situations last season, winning 34 of 50 games. When the playoffs arrived, the Mavs not only were a tested team, but they also were confident they could win close games down the stretch.

Against the Heat in the Finals, four of the last five games were considered clutch, and the Mavs went 3-1, outscoring the Heat 39-20 in those situations. The Mavs were the superior offensive and defensive team.

This season, Dallas is 15-17 in clutch situations, a combination of championship hangover, the crazy lockout-shortened season and the loss of key players such as center Tyson Chandler and guard J.J. Barea.

Building clutch chemistry takes time

While the Heat found playoff success in the clutch last season, they had struggled during the regular season, going 22-20. Miami had almost a completely new team with the additions of James, Chris Bosh, Mike Miller and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the core of Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers.

It took considerable time for chemistry and trust to develop.

"Last year, we struggled for a large part of the season in those situations to even feel comfortable," Spoelstra said. "Then, at the end of the year, we started to become much more familiar and confident in those situations."

The Heat are a respectable 18-11 in the clutch this season. James is well aware of the improvement.

"Trust and chemistry are the No. 1 things in the last five minutes," James said. "Veteran ballclubs are going to be able to execute. Then it comes to the trust factor. Once you have that, it definitely helps.

"Last year was very tough on us because we were learning each other. We didn't know each other as a team. We struggled in that category. Last year helped us get to the point where we are now, where we can close out games."

Against the Thunder on April 4, Miami led 92-91 with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter. The Thunder shot 1-for-8 on field goals and were outscored 6-2 to end the game. The Heat won 98-93. Miami forced a 24-second violation and played outstanding defense.

"It took me a few years in Cleveland for us to get to that point. When we got to that point, we were very good. We knew what sets to be in, we knew where we were going to be," James said. "If you just close your eyes, you knew where guys were going to be on the floor."

Veteran trio clicks for Spurs

Few teams underscore the importance of chemistry, trust and familiarity more than the Spurs. Although the Spurs have made plenty of roster changes, the unflappable constant of guards Parker and Manu Ginobili and forward Tim Duncan has kept San Antonio relevant.

Parker, Ginobili and Duncan have been together for 10 seasons. There isn't a team in the league with a trio that has been together that long, let alone a trio of past and current All-Stars, with at least one (Duncan) headed for the Hall of Fame.

The Spurs earned the top seed in the Western Conference this season in part because of their 20-9 record in clutch situations.

"I have never analyzed it," Ginobili said. "What I can say is that the main three players are the ones who usually have the ball in their hands. We know each other very well."

The Spurs generally are not bothered by late-game situations. Coach Gregg Popovich believes success in close games starts with defense. If you can make stops, you give yourself a chance. Although Popovich says the Spurs might not be as defensively focused for 48 minutes as his teams of the past, they can still play defense when needed.

They have outscored opponents 276-231 and held foes to 41.8% shooting, including 25% on three-pointers, in 125 minutes of clutch time.

"We have probably been through every big situation possible, and that helps," Ginobili said. ‘Experience is an important thing.’”

April 26, 2012 Game Recaps:
SAS over GSW, 107-101
For the second straight night, Patty Mills showed San Antonio he's capable of scoring in bunches. The timing is good, too, with the Spurs racing into the postseason as the top seed in the West — even though Mills will be back in a reserve role. While Tony Parker joined Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili back in San Antonio to rest for the playoffs, Mills had career highs of 34 points and 12 assists to help the short-handed Spurs beat the Golden State Warriors 107-101 on Thursday night. DeJuan Blair had 22 points and 13 rebounds, and James Anderson added 19 points for San Antonio (50-16), which finished with the best record in the Western Conference despite having one of the league's oldest rosters.

HOU over NOH, 84-77
Houston Rockets lottery pick Marcus Morris didn't have the type of rookie season he had hoped for. The former Kansas star was able to end his disappointing year on a high note after hitting the go-ahead 3-pointer in Houston's 84-77 victory over the New Orleans Hornets on Thursday night in the season finale for both teams. Chase Budinger scored a season-high 27 points for the Rockets. Morris, who spent time in the NBA's D-League, appeared in just 16 games and averaged 2.1 points for the Rockets this season.

ATL over DAL, 106-89
Having already exceeded expectations, the Atlanta Hawks weren't about to let home-court advantage slip away in the final game of the regular season. Led by Josh Smith, Atlanta raced to a 23-point lead in the opening quarter on the way to a 106-89 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night, ensuring the Hawks will open the playoffs at home. The Hawks (40-26) wrapped up the fourth-best record in the East and host Boston on Sunday. The defending NBA champion Mavericks (36-30) begin the playoffs Saturday at Oklahoma City.

NYK over CHA, 104-84
The Charlotte Bobcats couldn't even beat a New York Knicks team resting most of its starters, finishing with the worst winning percentage in NBA history after a 104-84 loss on Thursday night. J.R. Smith scored 22 points for the Knicks, who pulled away in the second half to clinch the Eastern Conference's No. 7 seed and a first-round playoff matchup against No. 2 Miami beginning Saturday. Gerald Henderson had 21 points for the Bobcats, whose 23rd consecutive loss left them with a winning percentage of .106 (7-59) in the lockout-shortened season. The record was set 39 years ago, when the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers finished 9-73 (.110) in a full regular season.

CHI over CLE, 107-75
John Lucas III scored a career-high 25 points, Joakim Noah had 13 points and 13 rebounds, and Chicago Bulls clinched the top overall seed in the NBA playoffs. With the No. 1 seed in the East already in hand and the playoffs beginning on Saturday, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau took no chances in the regular-season finale. He rested Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kyle Korver. Tristan Thompson scored 13 points for the Cavaliers, who lost four straight games to end the season, their second straight last-place finish in the Central Division.

DEN over MIN, 131-102
JaVale McGee scored 19 points to help Denver lock down the sixth seed in the Western Conference. Arron Afflalo scored 18 points and Danilo Gallinari had 17 points for the Nuggets, who won their fourth straight game and eighth in their last 10 as they surge into the postseason. Nikola Pekovic had 18 points and 10 rebounds and J.J. Barea had 20 points and five assists for the Timberwolves, who will miss the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. The Wolves lost 13 of their last 14 games of the season.

BOS over MIL, 87-74
Paul Pierce scored all 12 of his points in the first half despite missing most of it with a sprained toe and Rajon Rondo had 15 assists for Boston. Avery Bradley added 14 points for the Celtics, who were nearly back at full strength in their final tuneup before the playoffs. Tobias Harris led Milwaukee with 17 points. Jon Leuer added 15 points and Brandon Jennings scored 12 for the Bucks, who were 28-28 on April 7 but never could return to .500, finishing the season at 31-35 with two straight losses.

WAS over MIA, 104-70
Playing without its Big Three, Miami suffered their worst defeat of the season. With their first playoff game just two days away, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra rested LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh for the second straight game. The Heat are locked into the Eastern Conference's second playoff spot and will open the postseason Saturday against the New York Knicks. Mo Evans had a season-high 18 points, Nene and Kevin Seraphin each scored 15, and John Wall had seven points and 12 assists for the Wizards, who closed the season with their first six-game win streak since Nov. 11-21, 2007.

MEM over ORL, 88-76
Marc Gasol scored 22 points, Rudy Gay added 20 and Memphis claimed the No. 4 seed in the West. O.J. Mayo had 15 points and Zach Randolph, returning to the starting lineup, finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds to help the Grizzlies win their sixth straight and 11th in 13 games. Memphis won a franchise-best 11 straight home games and will open the playoffs at home Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers, who dropped to the fifth seed.

TOR over NJN, 98-67
Ben Uzoh had 12 points, a career-high 12 assists and 11 rebounds for his first career triple-double, and Toronto handed New Jersey a loss that slightly improves the Nets' chances in the NBA draft lottery. Uzoh's triple-double was the first by a Toronto player since Alvin Williams did it against Atlanta on March 23, 2001. Ed Davis had a career-best 24 points to go with 12 rebounds, Gary Forbes had 23 points and Alan Anderson scored 20 as Toronto snapped a four-game skid and beat New Jersey for the ninth time in 12 meetings north of the border.

DET over PHI, 108-76
Ben Gordon scored 26 points, including eight 3-pointers, to help Detroit rout short-handed Philadelphia. The 76ers entered the game with a mathematical chance at the Eastern Conference's seventh seed, but didn't make much of an effort. Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams all sat out the game in order to rest for Saturday's postseason opener against top-seeded Chicago. Spencer Hawes led Philadelphia with 16 points, while Jodie Meeks had 15.

UTA over POR, 96-94
Rookie Alec Burks scored 18 points and NBA Slam Dunk champ Jeremy Evans led a 10-0 fourth-quarter run as playoff-bound Utah beat Portland. The Jazz finished the season on a five-game winning streak and will face top-seeded San Antonio in a first-round Western Conference matchup starting Sunday. J.J. Hickson scored 20 points and Jonny Flynn added 18 to lead the injury-depleted Blazers, who didn't qualify for the postseason for the first time since the 2007-08 season.

SAC over LAL, 113-96
DeMarcus Cousins had 23 points and 19 rebounds, Tyreke Evans scored 17 points and Sacramento beat the Lakers' backups in the regular-season finale for both teams. Kobe Bryant sat out along with four other Lakers' starters, conceding the NBA scoring title to Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant. Los Angeles opens its first-round playoff series Sunday at home against Denver. Josh McRoberts had 16 points and nine rebounds and Ramon Sessions scored 14 to lead Los Angeles, also playing without Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

Super Scorers (Top scorers of the night!)
Patty Mills (SAS) – 34
Chase Budinger (HOU) – 27
Ben Gordon (DET) – 26

Ragin’ Rebounders (Top rebounders of the night!)
Solomon Alabi (TOR) & DeMarcus Cousins (SAC) – 19
DeJuan Blair (SAS) – 13

Dynamic Dishers (Top playmakers of the night!)
Rajon Rondo (BOS) – 15
Goran Dragic (HOU) – 13
Too many with 12!

Terrific Thieves (Top thieves of the night!)
Morris Almond (WAS) – 5
Too many with 4!

Boomin’ Blockers (Top blockers of the night!)
Bismack Biyombo (CHA) – 5
Ryan Hollins (BOS), Taj Gibson (CHI), & Earl Clark (ORL) – 4

Sharpshooters (Top 3-point shooters of the night!)
Ben Gordon (DET) – 8
Too many with 5!

April 26, 2012 First Five
C – DeMarcus Cousins (SAC) – 23pts, 19rebs, 2asts, 1stl
F – Ed Davis (TOR) – 24pts, 12rebs, 2asts, 1stl, 1blk
F – Josh Smith (ATL) – 23pts, 9rebs, 7asts, 1stl
G – Ben Gordon (DET) – 26pts, 8 treys, 5asts, 2rebs, 1blk
G – Patty Mills (SAS) – 34pts, 12asts, 5rebs, 4 treys, 1stl, 1blk

Honorable Mention:
Chris Wright (GSW) – 25pts, 8rebs, 2blks, 1stl
John Lucas (CHI) – 25pts, 4asts, 3 treys, 2rebs, 2stls
JR Smith (NYK) – 22pts, 6asts, 3rebs, 3stls

*Game recaps were compiled and compressed from the Associated Press and the Sports Network.
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