Unlike most casual fans say, NBA games don't always come down to the final two minutes. The 46 preceding minutes are usually just as important.
Then again, there is a reason that many of the most iconic moments in league history have come as the clock nears zero: End-of-game play is critical.
There is more to winning a game than just making shots, of course. Running the proper sets, spacing, getting the ball to open teammates and defense cannot be discounted.
But buckets are what everyone remembers and, for better or worse, the way fans define "clutch."
So far this year, many of the league's marquee players are the ones who have scored the most in the clutch (defined as anything that happens in the last five minutes of regulation or overtime when a team is ahead or behind by five or fewer points). But there are a few who have proven unable to shoot a high percentage while doing so.
To start off, let's look at the players who have put up the most clutch points so far this season (as of March 7).
Interestingly, Durant is the one who stands out, but not in a good way.
His 40.5 percent shooting is the lowest among the top nine clutch scorers, and he has laid bricks from beyond the arc as well (33.3 percent). Surprising results from a guy who prides himself on efficiency.
If you look at the free-throw numbers, however, he makes up for it. Nobody has earned more attempts from the stripe than his 61, and his 90.2 percent free-throw shooting ensures that he is putting up points late in close games, even if he can't hit a high rate of his shots during live play.
Meanwhile, Paul Pierce would probably kill for his shooting numbers.
Pierce has made just 29-of-91 in the clutch this year, giving him an embarrassing 31.9 percent field-goal percentage. There is no way to spin that into anything other than ugly, but it is interesting that he has made clutch threes at a high rate—something very few players have been able to pull off.
Among those who have shot at least 20 clutch threes, only Pierce (38.2 percent), O.J. Mayo (37.9 percent), Danilo Gallinari (41.7 percent) and Ray Allen (36.1 percent) have hit at least 35 percent. (Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews, not listed, also qualify.)
Still, while this is commendable for Pierce, it also means that he only made 16-of-57 (28.1 percent) two-pointers in the clutch this season. In a word: Yikes.
But while Pierce is looking up at Durant, Deron Williams (not shown on the chart) could look at Pierce's numbers as something to aspire to.
Williams has hit just 9-of-43 (20.9 percent) clutch shots so far this season—earning the lowest percentage among players with at least 50 clutch points.
Speaking of shooting percentages...
(This ranking only includes player who have scored at least 50 clutch points so far this season.)
Most of the headlines Chris Bosh has earned this year have been for photo-bombing and failing to rebound. What this chart shows, however, is that people should stop complaining.
While Bosh (barely) failed to make the cut as a top-25 clutch scorer in total points (he is 28th with 69 points), he has been far and away the most accurate late-game shooter. He has made an insane 24-of-31 clutch shots so far this season.
The only way to analyze that number is with a standing ovation.
Also of note: Bosh has grabbed 36 rebounds in his 142 clutch minutes, good for an average of 9.1 rebounds per 36 minutes—which is a significant jump from the 7.6 per 36 he averages on the season.
No matter what metric you look at, Chris Bosh has performed at his best this year when the games have mattered most.
In second place we have Jamal Crawford, a guy who has traditionally been lumped into the NBA gunner club with the likes of Monta Ellis, Jason Terry and J.R. Smith (who have clutch field-goal percentages of 42.9, 40.9 and 37.0, respectively).
This could be a statistical blip, but it seems meaningful for a player who has found the best role of his career with the Los Angeles Clippers. Playing next to Chris Paul, Crawford usually only uses his powers for good these days.
You can say all those things about Kobe Bryant, too.
There are many, many, many reasons to mock the Los Angeles Lakers right now. But Bryant's general efficiency—particularly late in games—is not one of them. Scoring this many points at this rate is astounding at his age.
One other perimeter player with a quirky clutch number is Ty Lawson.
He struggled mightily to start this season, so it is surprising to see him on this list. Moreover, his 50.0 effective field-goal percentage could be even higher if he wasn't 5'11''. Of the 38 shots he has missed in the clutch this year, 17 of them have been blocked.
That is an unfortunate stat, but it is a good thing for the Denver Nuggets. Presumably, he isn't getting jumpers swatted, so it shows his commitment to getting into the lane late in close games. That can lead to layups, dump-offs, kick-outs, free throws and offensive rebounds.
Lawson needs to make better decisions once he penetrates so his efforts are more likely to lead to points. But that is secondary to putting pressure on the defense by driving.
The other stat that leaps off the page is the crunch-time dominance of the Miami Heat.
In 148 clutch minutes, James has a plus-115.
That is utterly insane. I believe all the people who used to criticize his late-game play have stopped talking out loud in public, but if there are any left, please show them this number.
And one final individual line that merits attention is that of Irving. Looking at his late-game efficiency is all the proof we need that this is the season Kyrie becomes a top-10 player.
Even stuck on a lowly Cleveland Cavaliers team, he has managed to lead the NBA in clutch scoring—and with a 52.8 percent effective field-goal percentage.
Somebody give that man a max contract.
Ultimately, when we look at all these numbers, it isn't an end-all, be-all of somebody's late-game ability. A sense of the moment—like knowing when to push the tempo, when to use the shot clock—can be as vital to leading a team to victory as shot making.
And while it would be nice for teams to run more real plays in the final two minutes of games rather than going into isolation or two-man-game mode all the time, most coaches today favor a strategy in which the team's best perimeter player is asked to create.
Since the defense knows what is coming, it stands to reason that even the world's best scorers won't be as successful as they are throughout the game in the clutch. The game just tends to slow down, and teams move toward a more risk-averse, no-turnover mentality.
See: Durant, Kevin.
It would be fantastic to see more teams do what Doc Rivers did recently when the Boston Celtics beat the Indiana Pacers right before the buzzer: Use his two marquee players as decoys as Paul Pierce set a back screen to free Jeff Green for an open layup.
Until they do, however, we will likely continue to see a lot of misses in the final minutes of games.
And players like Rudy Gay, Joe Johnson and J.R. Smith—who have made game-winning shots this season but generally struggled to score efficiently late in games—will continue to earn undeserved reputations as players who come through in the clutch.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com.
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