The best closer in sports history used to spend the first two thirds of every game getting a massage, taking a shower, grabbing a bite and watching his team on the clubhouse TV. He stretched and dressed and finally strolled to the bullpen in his navy-blue jacket, where he stretched some more, chatting with his legion of trusty setup men. Usually he only gripped a ball if the Yankees led, only threw it if they were three outs from a win and only jogged onto his home field to the strains of Metallica's Enter Sandman. He was successful more than 90% of the time. "Everybody in the NBA wants a closer like Mariano Rivera," says Reggie Miller, the Hall of Fame guard for the Pacers who's now a TNT analyst. "You want a stopper, a finisher, a guy who comes in last and shuts the door."
This is an article from the June 25, 2012 issue
But you can't have a guy getting rubdowns in the second quarter of a basketball game. The NBA closer logs 40 minutes a night, fights through double teams and junk defenses, plays multiple positions and guards them too. Still, he must be as fresh as Rivera at the end, when the coverage grows tighter, the pace slower and the crowd louder. He is a golfer on the 72nd green, a driver taking the white flag, a quarterback in the two-minute drill, blocking out 20,000 voices, including the ones in his own head. The difference between a closer and a choker, in this age of overreaction, can be one misguided fadeaway.
The 2012 Finals pit the two best basketball players in the world. That much everyone can agree on. Through the first three games, Thunder forward Kevin Durant was averaging 31.0 points, Heat forward LeBron James 30.3, and each often seemed to be the only one with a prayer of containing the other. "He can make any shot the game has to offer," James said of Durant, though Durant could have been saying the same of James. They expressed their brilliance in different ways—James plowing through the paint and Durant slithering around it, James muscling in putbacks and Durant launching moonbeams, both of them attracting mobs and dishing to open teammates. This is James's third Finals but the first in which he seems at ease. It is Durant's first Finals, but he might as well be back at Rucker Park in Harlem, where he famously scored 66 points in a game last summer.
The series will likely come down to stomach and stamina, and the winner won't necessarily be the most prolific player but the most resolute closer. In Game 1 at Oklahoma City, the fireman hat belonged to Durant, who watched coaches diagram a play on the bench with less than five minutes left and barked, "I've got it! Let me do it!" He promptly sank a 19-footer, part of a 17-point fourth-quarter barrage that lifted the Thunder to a 105--94 win. In Game 2, Durant tallied 16 in the fourth and had a chance to tie the score with 9.9 seconds left, but James bodied him into a miss along the baseline, then sealed the 100--96 outcome with his 11th and 12th consecutive free throws, while the crowd reached decibels never heard before by the Heat.
Back home in Miami for Game 3 on Sunday, James continued to hound Durant, and with less than four minutes remaining nearly leaped over Durant's shoulder while converting a finger roll en route to a three-point play. He added a reverse on which he couldn't see the rim, and the Heat prevailed 91--85 to take a 2--1 lead. Credit James with his second save.
In baseball the closer has been around since the late 1970s, when managers began designating a specialist to protect a late-inning lead. In basketball the position has existed much longer, though it didn't have a name. "It was just my job," says Hall of Fame guard Sam Jones, who won 10 championships in 12 seasons with the Celtics in the 1950s and '60s and was 9--0 in Game 7s. "At the end Coach [Red] Auerbach would call a play for me, and I would make the shot."
The best closers have always been the best players (see Michael Jordan), but the best players have not always been the best closers. "There are great ones who don't want the ball at the end," Jones says. "When you really need to score, they'd rather give it to somebody else." The closer is most comfortable when others are most rattled. "It's supposed to be quietest in the eye of the tornado," Miller says. "That's how it was for me."
The closer can appear bored at nervous times, nibbling on his mouthpiece and staring blankly at the stands. "He doesn't jump around," says Thunder assistant coach Mark Bryant. "He's done this before." The closer demands the ball for his team's sake as much as his own. "There's a certain selfishness involved, but it's not selfish," says William Parham, a sports psychologist who has worked with NBA players. "The closer has an uncompromising belief in his ability." He is desperate for the shot but not the basket. "A closer doesn't care about the result," says OKC's injured backup point guard, Eric Maynor. "He doesn't care what is going to be said the next morning. He just wants the moment." Sometimes he makes, but statistics show that more often he misses. "The key," Miller says, "is that you're shocked when a closer misses."
The term crept into the NBA vernacular only in the past few years, as a way to sort superstars into smaller categories. There are metrics to identify closers, but they tend to be evaluated empirically and judged viscerally. Kobe Bryant, who has won five championships, was the closer. James, who wilted in the playoffs, was not a closer. Durant, before this season, was a closer-in-training.
Synergy Sports defines a clutch situation as the last five minutes of regulation or overtime when the lead is five points or fewer. Using those parameters, the top closer this season was Hawks guard Joe Johnson, with 1.034 points per possession. Durant was second, with 1.012, and James third, with 1.008. As closers, they couldn't have been much closer. Durant shot 42.0%, James 42.2%. Bryant ranked a distant fifth, with .847 points per possession, and shot 34.9%.
"There are things a closer does other than score," says Heat forward Udonis Haslem. Durant scored more in the clutch than anybody this season, but according to NBA.com, James delivered more assists, snagged more rebounds and had a higher efficiency rating. James typically handles the ball at closing time, driving into the lane, where he can absorb contact or kick to an open shooter. Durant races around pin-down screens and stops at the top of the key, where he can catch and shoot, or free himself with one dribble. In the playoffs no one has as many points on jumpers as Durant, and no one has shot as high a percentage (56.5%) on pull-ups.
After a practice at American Airlines Arena last Saturday, James was walking to the locker room when Durant caught his eye. They didn't say a word, just slapped hands and exchanged knowing half-smiles. James then reflected on his mentality as a closer: simultaneously engaged and removed. "I'm trying to get to a place where it's quiet, where I can clear my head and be completely relaxed," he said. Even for the two best players in the world, that place has been difficult to find.
Durant spent one season at Texas, and early on, he didn't want to close. Teammates pleaded, "KD, you've got to take over." In December 2006 the Longhorns led Tennessee by eight points late in the second half, and Durant unleashed a three-pointer with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. He missed, then missed a layup, then another. After Texas fell in overtime, coach Rick Barnes told Durant, "You just cost us the game." Durant nodded. "I know," he said. When Durant returned from Christmas break, he told Barnes, "I want to learn everything I can." They worked specifically on clock management and late-game situations. In the Big 12 tournament Durant missed his first 12 shots against Baylor, then erupted for 24 points in the second half and obliterated a 20-point deficit. "He gets this look in his eye," Barnes says, "like he's in his own world."
After the Sonics hired Sam Presti to be their G.M. in 2007, a year before the team moved to Oklahoma City, he drafted Durant with the No. 2 pick and traded veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen to Boston. Presti wanted Durant to take the reps as the closer. In Durant's 10th game he beat Atlanta in double overtime with a three-pointer at the buzzer, then celebrated by skipping across the court and pounding his chest. The play was memorable because it was so rare. Durant lost 91 of his first 114 games, in part because he could not close. As recently as November 2009, against the Lakers, he tossed an air ball late in regulation and another in overtime.
"But you could never tell if we won or lost," Thunder coach Scott Brooks recalls. "He'd always be back at our facility the next day at 9:15." Durant was as slender as a flagstick and almost as flimsy, 215 pounds at the combine and unable to bench-press 185. He was most effective inside the arc, but defenses would not let him get there. "They'd grab him, push him, bully him," says OKC forward Nick Collison. "He had to post up around half-court."
On an off day in Phoenix in 2009, the Thunder and the Cavaliers overlapped before games against the Suns, and Durant spotted James in the weight room at US Airways Center. Watching James lift, Durant was inspired to do the same, and now he weighs 235 pounds. He is not going to win any bodybuilding contests, but he can hold his position when he has to.
In the fourth game of this season, Durant made a three at the buzzer to beat the Mavericks and did not pound his chest once. In the playoffs he drained a game-winner against Dallas, two against the Lakers, and scored 16 consecutive points in the fourth quarter against the Spurs. "Sometimes it's nerve-racking," Durant says. "I just try to calm down and go with my instincts." He is currently the league's marquee closer, but if he glances across the court, he will see how fleeting that title can be.
James was 22, a year younger than Durant is now, when he closed out Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals with a stunning flourish. He scored 25 straight points in Detroit, against the stingiest defense in the East. When he returned to the conference finals two years later, he hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Magic.
But as pressure mounted on James to win his first championship, he retreated in the clutch. In 2010 he made only three shots in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Celtics and then fled to Miami, where he reached the Finals last season but vanished in fourth quarters. "He was thinking too much," said Heat guard Dwyane Wade. In an April 2011 SI poll asking 166 NBA players whom they'd want to take a last-second shot, 74% chose Bryant, with Durant the runner-up. James didn't receive a vote.
"For me, it's all about aggression," James says. In the first three games of the Finals against Oklahoma City, he attempted 69 shots, and 44 of them were within nine feet of the basket. He took 29 free throws, more than in the entire series last year against Dallas, and he made 25. His driving bank at the end of Game 2 was the first shot he's ever made on the road in the Finals in a clutch situation. He added two more at home in Game 3 while Durant repeatedly misfired, another step in the evolution. "I'm going to shoot until my arm falls off in the fourth," Durant said. "That's what I do. I don't care if I miss it or if I make it. I believe in myself."
James understands the closer phenomenon but laments it. "That's a problem with our league sometimes," he says. "You evaluate the last minute of a game, or the last 30 seconds, and forget this is a complete 48-minute game." Says Heat forward James Jones, "It's funny because the best plays aren't even at the end. You usually wind up with a lot of long fadeaways and pull-up jumpers."
Coaches often feature their closers to the detriment of their teams. Synergy conducted a study at midseason for ESPN and found that isolation plays are 7% more common in the clutch than in the rest of games, even though they are only the fifth-most-efficient plays to run. Champions close as a group. Durant depends on a screener and a passer, and a screener for the passer. James needs a screener, a cutter and shooters to space the floor. Durant is buoyed by point guard Russell Westbrook, and James by Wade, sidekicks who can also take tough shots in big moments.
After Game 2 in Oklahoma City, James leaned on Wade all the way to the locker room, where they soaked their feet in ice tubs and reminisced about their routines when they were rookies. "I'd show up, get dressed, do some windmills and 360s, put my sweat suit back on and leave," James said. Rookie point guard Norris Cole asked, "What if you did that now?" James paused, considering all the stretching, rubbing and icing he requires in the course of a day. "I'd be inactive for Game 3," he replied. They all laughed.
"Always be closing," Alec Baldwin preaches in Glengarry Glen Ross, which might as well have been the motto for Mariano Rivera. The massage, the shower, the snack and the stroll were part of an intricate routine culminating in another triumphant finish. James has come to understand what the alltime saves leader knew so well. The closing begins long before the ending.