The Psychology of an NBA Closer

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The Psychology of an NBA Closer

There's a certain mystique about the Brenda Leigh Johnson's of the NBA—the closers, that is.

Guys who come through in the clutch. Guys who aren't afraid to take over in the fourth quarter when their teams need them to do so. Guys who relish the opportunity to take the last shot. 

From Sam Jones and Jerry West, through Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, and up to Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and now LeBron James (among others), the league's history is littered with superstars who stepped up their respective games in the biggest moments.

But what is it that sets these elite shot-makers apart from their peers? Is it something innate? Is it something that these players developed through years of hard work and perseverance? Is it a combination of factors?

With all the talent on tap in the ever-widening world of basketball, why aren't there more players who succeed in crunch time? And is it possible to rectify that by turning serial choke artists into clutch kings?

To get a better idea as to the mental makeup of the typical crunch-time performer, I turned to Art Rondeau, a peak performance coach and certified trainer of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). Rondeau deals primarily with the mental side of the game and has worked directly with players on the collegiate and pro levels.

In his estimation, there's one particular tie that binds many closers—one that's evident in these (and a host of other) clips of Michael Jordan hitting game-winning shots:

Jordan's flurry of furious fist pumps after hitting that iconic shot over Craig Ehlo of the Cleveland Cavaliers is indicative of what Rondeau describes as a "very high emotional payback":

When we feel something that good, we want to feel it again. And so, people who do something significant physically that ties into a powerful positive emotion, more than likely, are going to be able to hit the big shot over and over again.

Thus, when a clutch situation arises, those who derive the most pleasure from hitting such shots or are, in some ways, actively searching for that emotional payback—as it appears Michael Jordan was throughout his career—are more likely to step up in those moments. Rather than fearing the consequences of failure, they embrace the potential for success.

Of course, not all closers are exuberant in the aftermath of hitting a big shot, much less as exuberant as "His Airness" so often was. Tim Duncan, for instance, has fashioned a Hall of Fame career out of taking and making important shots, though not always with the same gusto one might see from an MJ or a Kobe.

Sure, the "Big Fundamental" has had his more emotive moments, like when he hit this game-tying three against the Phoenix Suns back in 2008:

But ardent observers of the game understand how subdued Timmy usually is, even after he comes through with a big play in a key moment, as he did during the San Antonio Spurs' wobbly win against the Dallas Mavericks on March 14:

Rondeau noted the apparent disparity between Duncan and Jordan in this respect:

Their emotional makeup determines how they go about their business, but also how they go about their business determines what sorts of emotional paybacks they get. If someone values being in control, hits a clutch shot, and acts stoically, inside they’re feeling great because their actions and values stayed in sync when he hit the game winner.

Even so, coming through in the clutch requires more than just deep desire or an emotional trigger. For Rondeau, it's a matter of belief. A player must believe that he can and will make a big shot, and, more often than not, must have proof to corroborate that particular belief:

It starts out that they believe it because someone important said they could do it. Maybe their father or their coach or some player they respect said, 'I know you’ve got it in you. You’re going to be a great clutch shooter.' So that gets them over the hump to make their first big shot.

Now they’ve got evidence, so when it comes time for their second big shot, it’s not like, 'Oh, I wonder if I can do this. Was Coach Smith right about this?' They don’t have to worry about whether Coach Smith was right or not because they've got evidence that says 'I can hit a big shot.' Now they already know Coach Smith is right. 

Sometimes the coach is forced to inspire a player who’s been thrust into being clutch, even though his game seemingly isn’t up to the task. Sometimes, it’s the calm assurance of the player who knows he’ll hit the big shot that does the inspiring.

"Clutchness," then, is something that is often developed over time and, for some, from a young age. It's the product of experiences creating and/or confirming belief, of turning an abstract notion of late-game ability into a concrete one.

As such, it's something that Rondeau thinks can be taught:

I think we could certainly teach the players in the NBA—more of them, many more of them—to be clutch shooters. And I think we could also teach so many of these great clutch shooters to be more consistent and be at their best in non-clutch times, such as the first quarter when the team’s already ahead by 20.

And, in turn, while some players may have some sort of inborn "clutch gene," those without one aren't necessarily doomed to lay bricks when the game is on the line:

There certainly could be a predisposition [toward being clutch]. That doesn’t mean that everybody that’s got that predisposition is going to be clutch. But I do believe that if such a clutch gene exists that using other methods, like the mental techniques I’m talking about, that we could take somebody who doesn’t have the clutch gene and turn him into a clutch player.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Clutch, then, may well be more a product of "nurture" than of "nature." Consider the cases of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett in tandem. Both rank among the greatest power forwards of all time, with Duncan gaining an edge in the basketball zeitgeist due in large part to his superior count of championships, MVPs and other accolades.

The fact that these two are talented contemporaries has given rise to a discussion as to whether KG might have been as prolific as Duncan had they wound up in each others' shoes—a discussion to which Grantland's Bill Simmons draws attention in The Book of Basketball. As Simmons writes:

KG fans defend his unclutchness because he never got clutch reps in his formative years (whereas Duncan did). Decent point. Think of KG's career like a video game: spend a ton of time playing Grand Theft Auto and you're more likely to complete a mission than someone who doesn't own a PlayStation, right?

Rondeau tends to agree:

I definitely think that if Garnett had been in more playoffs early on, that would’ve been a help to him. When he went to Minnesota, first of all, Minnesota was a horrible team for a lot of years. He was the man coming out of high school, which is pretty amazing.

Tim Duncan, on the other hand, came in and had David Robinson playing ahead of him, or next to him, in essence. He eventually replaced Robinson at center, but early on, Duncan and Robinson were playing side-by-side. So if Duncan made a mistake, he had Robinson to rely on...By the time he had to be 'the man,' he’d had the chance to grow into it.

In comparing Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, the two best wing players to ever go from preps to pros, Rondeau hits upon another important point about NBA closers: External expectations can play a significant role in determining whether a given player comes by his clutch ability "naturally" or has to develop it over time:

Kobe, I think, became more clutch earlier in his career than LeBron did because their games were different. What was expected of them was different. Kobe was a shooting guard, and Kobe wasn’t really shy about putting up 20, 30 shots.

But, you look at LeBron, he was this creator. He was a 6'8" point guard, in essence, or a point forward...When you're getting the pat on your back for giving the ball up, and then, all of a sudden, you're being asked to make the clutch shot—that is, not give the ball up—that's a big difference.

Which brings us back to an earlier point: that "clutchness" isn't necessarily innate and can be incubated over time. LeBron has certainly grown into a reliable closer, as seen in the shot he hit to beat the Boston Celtics and extend the Miami Heat's winning streak to 23 games on March 18th:

James' emergence as a crunch-time killer has some of roots in the physical realm. He's worked diligently over the years to refine his jump shot to the point where he and his teammates can trust it at any time and from anywhere on the court.

Moreover, LeBron now has a full bank of past successes in pressure situations on which to draw. A player who isn't already "clutch"—and who has already missed a number of crunch-time shots—isn't likely to believe that he's clutch until he demonstrates as much to himself. 

A coach can tell that player whatever he wants, but if the evidence says otherwise, those words of wisdom are likely to either fall by the wayside in big moments or fall on deaf ears from the get-go.

Such played into Rondeau's approach when he worked with current (and former) New York Knicks big man Marcus Camby on his free-throw shooting during the 1999 playoffs:

Marcus came to me after Game 4 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers. This was the year that the Knicks went to the NBA Finals against the Spurs. Indiana had just beaten the Knicks by two at the Garden and Marcus went 4-for-8 from the line. So, obviously, 75 percent (6-of-8) would’ve put them into overtime.

Marcus came up to me and asked if I could help him. I asked him how much time we had and he said that the team was leaving for the plane in about 15 minutes, so I had him put down the bag and I showed him a physical exercise that would fix a large part of his free throw problem. But I also knew that I had to change his belief about himself as a free-throw shooter.

He’d shot in the low 50s all season and he was shooting the same percentage in the playoffs. My guess was that, based on experience, he believed he was a 50 percent free-throw shooter. Since we didn’t have time for me to investigate this, I waited until he was distracted by someone calling over to him and then used an NLP technique to install a belief that he was a 70-percent free-throw shooter.

From Game 5 against the Pacers through the Finals against the Spurs, Marcus shot around 69 percent (68.8 percent, to be exact) from the line.

Rondeau saw even greater success when working with Allan Houston, Camby's teammate with the Knicks. With Rondeau’s help during the 1999-2000 season, Houston enjoyed one of the finest campaigns of his career and earned the first of two All-Star Game selections. Here's what Houston's numbers looked like with and without Rondeau's help prior to the 2000 All-Star Game (per Art Rondeau's website):

  Points Per Game Field Goal Percentage Three-Point Percentage
Houston w/ Rondeau (24 games) 24.5 Points 57 Percent 53 Percent
Houston w/o Rondeau (23 games) 17.2 Points 40 Percent 38 Percent

 

To be sure, Rondeau didn't turn Allan Houston into a late-game assassin. What he did do, though, was show Houston how to access more consistently the same zone that clutch players seem to find so easily with the game hanging in the balance.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Similarly, in some "clutch" players, like Carmelo Anthony—who's been known to hit big shots as a matter of routineRondeau sees both the individual accessing his "zone" in certain situations and the potential that individual leaves untapped by not accessing that same "zone" during the rest of the game:

I see Carmelo, some of his shots and some of his moves, and I think ‘This guy should be shooting 60 percent every night. He’s got the skills.’

But then he’ll go 10-for-25 and people will say he’s a scorer and not a shooter. Well, I’ve seen him. He’s a shooter. He’s got that kind of talent. So, for him to score 30 points really doesn’t require him to take 30 shots, but often that’s what happens.

If you’re good under pressure and you’re good in a crisis, what do you need to excel? A crisis. So, what do you get if you miss a bunch of shots and all of a sudden you’re down by five with 2 minutes to play? You’ve got a crisis.

I think that part of the situation right there is he’s not equally as good in some circumstances without pressure as he is in circumstances with pressure.

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As interesting as it may be to think, or even to know, that a player can develop that affinity for pressure with hard work, dedication and time, there's still something irresistible, if not romantic, about the notion of clutchness-by-birth.

There may also be some truth to this idea, given how difficult it is to find an NBA player ready, willing and able to close. Along those lines, Rondeau relayed an anecdote about former Nets and Clippers coach Don Casey, who claimed that having more than one player of such aptitude on a 12-man roster was a rarity:

'Obviously, players will take the last shot. If you draw the play up for them, they will take it, but that doesn’t mean they wanted to. I think with that, when we start looking at clutch, not everybody’s ready for it.'

There seems to be a certain mindset that's a prerequisite to being great in the clutch, one that's able to ignore the risk associated with taking the last shot and focus with far greater intensity on the potential reward.

Such was the case with Michael Jordan, whose thick skin and single-minded focus on success allowed him to accept that he wouldn't always hit the big shot if he took it, but that he'd never enjoy the upside of making them if he didn't take them at all:

If we were to go through all of Michael’s games, we would find that he missed some big shots. But my guess is, if I sat down and did an NLP (neurolinguistic programming) profile with Michael, he didn’t let those misses bother him. It’s not that he wanted to miss those shots, but he knew that it was a possibility, he knew that somebody had to take the shot, and he knew that he was the best equipped to do so. Most times they went in. Sometimes they didn’t.

For Rondeau, though, the difference between a consistent closer and an unreliable one in the NBA is a matter of belief. If elevating one's game to fit the gravity of a particular time and place is a matter of belief, and if, as Rondeau says, beliefs can be changed, then really, the league's ranks of closers are only limited in scope by the minds behind those shots.

Whether somebody will take it or not or wants to take it or not doesn’t always have to do with their ability to make it or not make it. ... With all the work that we do, physically, the supplements that we take, the years of training, it’s amazing how the difference between a guy succeeding at a top level and a guy that just doesn’t make it can turn out to be a belief, and sometimes that belief is based on no real facts.

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