By Rob Mahoney
The organic drama that sprouts at the end of a close game is the NBA's most precious commodity -- a worthy climax, doused in high-stakes unpredictability that sucks the air out of a room and makes hairs stand on end. It's those moments that basketball fans anticipate and cherish most of all, and, as a result, any player who can elevate his game in clutch situations is enshrined in a holy subset of the basketball pantheon.
Such players pull in platitudes and clichés by the truckload, as a single shot or single miss serves to somehow validate or indict a game and career that came before it. There's ridiculous weight and emphasis placed on those dramatic moments, even if they represent just a microscopic fraction of all the basketball played over the course of a season.
But we just can't help ourselves. The iconography of the clutch -- the ticking clock, the halting buzzer, the gasps and flashbulbs and unfettered emotion -- has drawn us into its web and, by extension, countless conversations over the merits of certain "closers." I won't go as far as to say that players have some inherent quality that makes them clutch, but I will indulge with a survey of the top clutch* performers this season -- an endeavor made possible thanks to the exhaustive compilation of clutch statistics now publicly available.
(*For the purposes of this examination, "clutch" is defined as the game's final five minutes and the score within five points. All rankings refer to players who have played at least 100 clutch minutes this season and all stats are per 36 clutch minutes.)
The topic of clutch performance has a knack for inciting heated debate, but this season brings little in the way of arguable gray area. Miami is very definitively the best team in the NBA in clutch success, as the Heat outscore opponents by an unbelievable 32 points per 100 possessions in those scenarios. That's more than double the pace-adjusted margin of the second-ranked team (Oklahoma City, +13.8), and it's built on a dominant offense and stifling defense that both individually rate as the best in the league in clutch situations.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra sifts his lineup down to the bare essentials as the fourth quarter draws to a close, replacing stopgap parts with the masterful shooting and powerful influence of Ray Allen. The sample size is too small for clutch lineup data to register any significant impact, but the fact that LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Allen rank as four of the top five in clutch plus-minus should offer some idea of that foursome's power.
But, of course, it's James who provides the primary engine for crunch-time production in Miami -- a fact made abundantly clear by his averages of 29.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 11.2 assists in the clutch. James leads the league in total clutch assists and rebounds, exercising his command in the clearest fashion possible.
No player comes remotely close to matching James' comprehensive splendor. Even some of the most versatile players become single-minded scorers or neglect the possibilities of a full-team offense in the clutch, but James does a marvelous job of imposing his will without ignoring his teammates. The corresponding production of Wade (19.6 points), Bosh (16.9), and Allen (17.8) corroborate that notion. Further, with James doing much of the ball handling and finding open shots for his teammates, Wade is able to maintain one of the best shooting percentages (50 percent) among mid-to-high-usage clutch scorers, Allen converts at a rate a few ticks higher than his season average (48.9 percent) and Bosh has maxed out his shooting efficiency (77.1 percent) on fewer shot attempts. Abandon hope, all ye who face the Heat in crunch time.
The High-Volume Scorers
Miami may make for the best clutch collective and James the best all-around end-game performer, but there are three others who rate a clear cut above the rest of the field in late-game scoring proficiency: Kyrie Irving, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. None should come as much of a surprise. All three have forged reputations as steely fourth-quarter scorers, and that esteem is validated by strong per-minute scoring numbers in clutch situations. Irving paces the league with 41.3 clutch points per 36 minutes, but Durant (38.6) and Bryant (38.2) aren't far behind.
Still, that roughly three-point margin doesn't fairly indicate the discrepancy between Irving and the rest of the field. Although all three players have comparably ridiculous usage rates in clutch situations, Irving does his damage while shooting 47.8 percent overall. Neither Durant nor Bryant makes more than 42 percent in the clutch. That, ladies and gentlemen, is bonkers.
A handful of players surpass Irving's shooting marks while maintaining respectable scoring numbers, but most of those players have attempted shots in the clutch at roughly half the rate that Irving did this season. Irving's squirrelly driving style and slick pull-up game are just too much for defenses to handle on possession after possession, and Cleveland coach Byron Scott has every reason to funnel his entire offense through Irving down the stretch.
Bryant has a similar green light, if only because he refuses to let it extinguish. Fantastic though Bryant is, there's no question that he does himself and his team a detriment by gunning so relentlessly in crunch-time situations. Though, to his credit, he does pick up 4.5 assists per 36 clutch minutes (noticeably more than Durant and slightly more than Irving). Still, because Bryant's late-game audacity knows no bounds, his shooting percentage (41.6) sags. Durant (39.4 percent), too, tends to get a bit too eager to fire up a quick, contested jumper, though he counteracts that tendency by drawing more fouls in clutch situations than anyone.
The Rest Of The Top Tier
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks: It took some time for Nowitzki to ready himself physically for the load of clutch scoring that the Mavs desperately needed him to bear, but his impeccable footwork and impossible release are now back in full force. Nowitzki is the only player in the top 10 in clutch scoring to shoot at least 49 percent (he's dropping a tidy 45.5 percent of his three-pointers), all while piling up free-throw attempts at a solid rate. He also leads the league in crunch-time snarls.
James Harden, Houston Rockets: Harden has offered plenty of SportsCenter fodder with his clutch shooting, but his trips to the free-throw line likely haven't been included in any highlight packages. Only Durant has drawn more fouls in clutch situations, and from those freebies Harden has surged his way to fourth in overall crunch-time scoring. He can get jammed up by longer defenders in his attempts to isolate at times, but a quick high screen has proved to be a reliable tool in freeing up Harden in the clutch.
Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers: One of the more surprising clutch standouts, to be sure, but Holiday is a statistical marvel who has outscored James, Nowitzki, Russell Westbrook, Wade and Tony Parker in crunch time (again, per 36 minutes) while averaging 8.1 assists. Holiday has made an incredible jump this season with his decision-making off the dribble, and he's become very effective at splitting defenders and working through tight quarters. His handle is low and deceptive enough to juke a defender out of a driving lane, and from that point Holiday does a fantastic job of sealing his out-of-position man from recovering by maneuvering directly into his path. He still settles for jumpers when he shouldn't a little too often, but it's hard to argue with his 48.7 percent shooting in the clutch.
Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors: Another surprise, and, admittedly, a player who could be replaced on this list with any number of capable candidates. But hear me out: Jack has become a fixture in the Warriors' closing lineups, and he winds up doing a lot of the ball handling even when he shares the court with Stephen Curry. As a result, it's Jack who winds up keying much of the team's late-game offense, and his production in clutch situations justifies the hefty responsibility.
Jack has scored at the same rate as Westbrook (24.9 points), gotten to the free-throw line (13.8 attempts) as frequently as Bryant, notched more assists (5.5) than Parker or Deron Williams and converted from long range (40 percent) better than Curry. Strange as the notion may seem for a player with so plain a game, there have been plenty of occasions this season in which Jack seems utterly unstoppable come crunch time -- an everyman point guard cast in the role of a lifetime. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.