Something hit me this morning while I watched a trailer for Hugh Jackman‘s upcoming Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots movie. (I hear Ryan Reynolds is working on a Slinky biopic for Summer 2011.)
As much as writers like using inhuman metaphors to describe elite athletes, be it cold-blooded snakes or steel-veined robots, what makes clutch performances so impressive is that these are real people stepping up their already world-class talents to another level when many would fold under a fraction of the same pressure. I saw an interview with five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson recently where he said he believes the common thread among the greatest athletes in the world is that, in pressure moments, they can forget it’s the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, or Game 7 of the World Series, or the last lap at Daytona, and go to a place where they’re simply throwing a football, hitting a baseball, or driving a car.
In basketball, the greats either block out the pressure, or embrace and thrive in it. Whatever their method, they set themselves apart from the pack by getting the job done when everybody is watching and the stakes are highest.
Who do you want your offense to run through with the game on the line in today’s NBA? Going with the framework that, with only one basketball in play, every team has one established go-to guy, here are the top five in the League:
(REMINDER: One player per team.)
5. CARMELO ANTHONY, Nuggets
Even in a down year (22.8 ppg, 42% FG), Carmelo is one of the last guys opposing defenses want to see with the ball in his hands. His most recent game-winner was on Nov. 26, when he stuck his patented pull-up J from the right wing to beat the Bulls at the buzzer. “I came to the huddle and I told everybody, regardless of the play, I’m popping out and getting it,” Carmelo said afterward. “If we lose the game, it’s on me. If we win the game, it’s on me. I accept that. … Whether (the defender) contested it or not, whether he got a hand in my face or not, once I get a good look at the rim, I don’t really think there’s nothing nobody can do.”
More than just a scorer, though, ‘Melo is underrated in his ability to make clutch plays all over the court. In Denver’s one-point win over Memphis on Dec. 5, ‘Melo made one of the biggest plays of the game on an inbounds pass in the final seconds where he surveyed the defense and hit Nene in-stride for a dunk when the Grizzlies were threatening to take the lead.
Last season, ‘Melo was fourth in the NBA in “clutch time” scoring, averaging 47.0 points per 48 minutes of clutch time (according to 82games.com, 4th quarter or overtime, 5 minutes or less on the clock, 5-point margin or less) and made 87 percent of his clutch-time free throws. Arguably the League’s most talented pure scorer, ‘Melo is also arguably its top clutch scorer.
4. DIRK NOWITZKI, Mavericks
One of the biggest NBA misconceptions of the last decade is that Dirk isn’t clutch. In a League where coaches come and go, rosters turn over every summer, and the power balance shifts constantly, you can’t have a franchise win 50-plus games every single year for 10 straight years — and going on an 11th — unless its superstar is clutch.
Ask anybody who’s had to guard Dirk, and a few words become thematic: “Unblockable” and “tough shots.” It’s not just that Dirk can shoot, it’s that his size as a 7-footer and ability to keep his same form at different angles allows him to drill those jumpers over anybody. His pull-up jumper from the foul line area is as unstoppable as any go-to move by any player in the League, and he hits it regularly in clutch moments.
Last season, Dirk was third in the NBA in clutch time scoring, where he shot 98 percent from the line and 66 percent beyond the arc. His 5.3 assists per 48 minutes of clutch time also placed him higher than noted scorers like Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Joe Johnson, Monta Ellis and Kevin Durant.
This season, Dirk has already beaten the Celtics with a fallaway game-winner on Nov. 8, scored eight in the fourth quarter to lead Dallas to a win over the Hornets on Nov. 15, and his free throws down the stretched helped seal a win over the Hawks on Nov. 20. At 32 years old he’s putting together another MVP-caliber campaign, and maybe he’ll even dead the notion once and for all that he’s not clutch.
3. LEBRON JAMES, Heat
Unless it’s possible to lose pieces of your basketball talent on a three-hour flight from Ohio to Florida, LeBron is still the best player on the Miami Heat and their No. 1 go-to guy. Of course, Dwyane Wade is no lower than No. 1A and it could easily be argued that he’s really the top dog — but if I have to pick one Miami rep, it would be LeBron. And let’s be honest: If D-Wade and Bosh had decided to sign with the Cavs, this wouldn’t even be an argument. But some people seem to believe geography somehow made D-Wade better than LeBron.
Look at it this way: Miami has been able to stay close and have a shot at winning games against Boston (twice), Orlando, Memphis and Dallas in which Wade either sat out or didn’t play well. LeBron? I’m not sure he’s had a bad game this season. On those nights where Wade was off, LeBron (24.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 7.3 apg) had to carry the offense. And on the nights when Wade has been on, LeBron was still often the top option. That makes Wade the League’s ultimate X-factor, but LeBron is the go-to guy.
That said, I did rank Wade higher than LeBron on this list last season. But that was before LeBron won his second league MVP, put up 37-12-11 in a must-win playoff road game in Chicago, put up a triple-double (27 pts, 19 rebs, 10 asts) in an elimination game against Boston, and early into this season established himself as the most viable option to lead Miami team through rough stretches with his all-around game.
One flaw in the “LeBron chose to join forces rather than compete” school of thought: Wade never stood in LeBron’s way of a championship. Neither did Bosh. If anything, LeBron stood in their way, as his Cavs were the No. 1 seed in the East back-to-back years. Wade is the one who hadn’t been past the first round of the playoffs since ’06, and Bosh was teetering on the edge of the Lottery. If anything, Wade and Bosh needed LeBron in their lives more than the other way around.
LeBron was the No. 1 clutch time scorer in the NBA last season, averaging 66.1 points per 48 minutes during clutch time. The next-highest scorer, Kobe Bryant, averaged 51.2 points per 48 minutes. Obviously LeBron is playing with more talent now in Miami and doesn’t have to do everything he did in Cleveland, but the offense still runs through him more than anyone else. He’s still his team’s most talented player, still the best scorer, and still the best playmaker.