It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.
This adage applies to many things in life, but it seems to rings truer in athletics. Whether it’s an individual event or a team sport, finishing is the most important feature of the competition. You want to peak later rather than sooner. You want to end on a high note. You want to have enough left in the tank to finish with the very best of your performance.
Closing anything—let alone a sporting competition—is not an easy task. There aren’t many professional athletes who have the acumen, mettle and skill to perform when the lights are shining brightest, when the heat is at its hottest, or when pressure is at its heaviest. That’s why the ones who do achieve greatness down the stretch are held in such an elevated regard by the general public.
We tend to place them on a pedestal—even higher if they demonstrate continued ability to come through during the clutch. Those who are deemed clutch performers are seen as athletes who are possibly more legendary than they really are, and typically the best of the best athletes need to have been clutch performers themselves in order to be considered peerless. Joe Montana, Mariano Rivera, Kobe Bryant, Serena Williams, Michael Phelps: The greatness of these athletes is defined by their ability to finish strongly and finish on top time and time again. They are some of the most dominant closers of their respective games.
On the other side of the coin lie the faces of those athletes who unfortunately cannot be depended upon to close the deal—to preserve the win or to seal the victory. And one player who has demonstrated an inability this season to pull through in the clutch is Golden State Warriors guard Monta Ellis.
Yes, Ellis is considered one of the league’s more exciting and offensively gifted players; and as a top-10 scorer in the league, he is certainly Golden State’s go-to guy when they most need a basket. However, despite his 23.3 points per game, it’s clear that Ellis won't be considered as one of the great players this season. Why? Because of his penchant for being un-clutch during the most important moments for the Warriors.
According to 82games.com, Ellis has statistically performed miserably for the Dubs during clutch situations (defined as in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, neither team ahead by more than five points.) He has shot 42 percent from the field during those moments. While this alone isn’t completely horrible, his effective field goal percentage during crunch time falls to an abysmal 16.7 percent. But it’s Ellis’ ball handling—or ball fumbling—that has been the most damaging to not only his team but also his own stature.
In recent losses to the Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz and a victory against the Miami Heat, Ellis has demonstrated some questionable anti-clutch performances, particularly in final seconds of each game. Starting with the matchup versus the Jazz on January 7th, Ellis had two opportunities pull out a victory for Golden State. With the game tied at 87 with less than 20 seconds to go, Ellis mishandled his dribble through the lane, got caught in midair and passed the ball to a Jazz player, who streaked to a fast break opportunity. Then, down one point with 11 seconds left, Ellis was in a similar position—the ball in his hands with a chance to win the game. But he only began his move to the basket with less than three seconds left. His subsequent running bank shot rimmed out at the buzzer.
In the team’s next game, against the Heat, Ellis seemingly repeated his offense of waiting too long to get off a shot. The score was tied at 96 with 14 seconds remaining, and Ellis tried to attack an All-NBA Defender in Shane Battier. He took too much time to shake Battier and ended up dumping off one of his patented airborne kick-out passes. This time there was no turnover—the game clock expired instead. The Warriors went on to win the game in overtime, but Ellis’ late-game inefficiency was on display again.
It was déjà-vu in last Friday’s loss to the Pacers. Game tied. Ellis dribbling at the top of the key. His attempt to crossover George Hill with six seconds to go (instead of two or three seconds) was stymied. Hill stole the ball (with the help of his foot) and raced down the other end for a three-point play, sealing the victory.
Clearly, handling the ball isn't regarded as one of Ellis’ strengths. But he has had to do a lot of it this season because of the absence of point guard Stephen Curry for multiple games. Ellis has had to man the point in Curry’s stead. This is not good for Golden State, as Ellis sadly cannot run the team effectively. He is averaging 5.6 turnovers per 48 minutes while operating the point guard spot so far this season. He has had four turnovers during clutch moments and four additional bad passes.
Even when he actually gets a shot off, he has been inefficient, either eating too much clock to get a good look or having his shot blocked. Having to work so hard to get a mediocre scoring opportunity is so stale—especially when everyone in the building knows that nine times out of 10, Ellis is not passing the ball off. Though he has provided some game-winning buzzer-beaters in the past, Ellis hasn't show that this is his season to be the closer.
With Curry back in the lineup, Ellis shouldn't have to shoulder all of the workload. Consequently, Curry needs to be the one handling the ball in those situations. Yes, Ellis can create his own shot off the dribble; and he isn't the prototypical shooter who Curry can kick out to for a spot-up jumper but Mark Jackson has to see that Ellis’ tendency to make the wrong decisions in the clutch is hurting the team’s overall chances during tight games. Ellis is like that closer in baseball who comes in with a three-run lead and gives up two runs before finishing off the save.
This season Ellis has been worse: He’s the closer who comes in with the game tied and gives up the winning run in the top of the ninth.
If the Warriors are to make a serious run at competing for a playoff spot, they’ll have to finish the season strongly. And unfortunately that will depend on Ellis not finishing games with the ball in his hands.
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