Closers are the proverbial cream of the NBA postseason.
The time to shine in the NBA is in the playoffs, and the time to shine in the playoffs is in the clutch. It’s where stars are made and where star status can be ruined. The closers are what make the playoffs special.
This season there are some players who would be expected to be here and some who are surprises.
First, though, a little bit about how the list was compiled.
As always, there has to be some statistical basis. The starting point was looking at what players did when the score was within five, with five minutes or fewer on the clock, either in the fourth quarter or overtime.
This has become the standard fare for “clutch-time” stats.
It can’t simply be a popularity list. And when you’re dealing with things like this, small sample sizes can skew things wildly. You end up with something like Nazr Mohammed being the top closer in the postseason, and you can’t have that.
So to avoid that, a minimum of 12 combined points, rebounds and assists has been set. As a result, players like LeBron James are not on the list because there just haven’t been very many close games the Heat have been in. You can’t really be a “closer” when you’re up by 15 or 30 points.
That knocks out the entire Heat team, so you won’t see them on the list because they just haven’t had enough games that came down to the wire. That also applies to the Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks.
Other criteria taken into consideration were points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Plus/minus numbers were factored in (after all, part of being a closer is that your team is either coming back or shutting down the other team). Both accrued stats and per-minute stats were weighed.
In essence, if a player has 30 minutes of clutch-time performance and another has 11, and they are roughly the same, the player who sustained his level of production for more minutes was given the edge.
“Crunch-time field goals” which tied or took the lead with less than 24 seconds left (because at the point, it is potentially a last possession) were considered.
Finally, subjective analysis was also applied. How much did that player mean to the team? For this reason, a cap was put on two players from the same team. Did the team win or lose? Did the team win or lose the series? Not everything is visible in box scores.
For the purpose of this article, all stats listed are clutch stats unless otherwise stated. All clutch stats used were obtained from NBA.com (media account required).
Brook Lopez’s teammate Joe Johnson might have made the biggest shots for the Brooklyn Nets this postseason, but it was Lopez who was the biggest clutch-time player. He logged 20 points and 9.3 rebounds per 36 minutes for the Nets.
His 22 overall points were the fourth-highest total of anyone this postseason.
Particularly impressive was his sudden interest in rebounding, as he was holding his own with the likes of the Chicago Bulls frontcourt of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. His 9.3 rebounds per 36 minutes are well above his normal rate of 8.2.
Stephen Curry is blowing up this postseason, proving himself as one of the elite players in the league. But be careful in thinking that means he has been blowing up in the clutch. He barely makes the list.
On the one hand, only four players have more combined points, rebounds and assists, but a part of that is that he’s played a lot of minutes. He’s averaging 21.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 4.3 assist per 36 minutes.
Those numbers aren’t bad, but they are actually off his non-clutch numbers. His production is down, in particular his shooting at just .278.
The reason he still makes the list, though, is that what the numbers don’t show is how the attention he draws from defenses helps his teammates. Draymond Green and Jarrett Jack both have fantastic clutch stats.
Stephen Curry has become a superstar for the Golden State Warriors this postseason, but it is Jarrett Jack who has been doing the most during the clutch.
Jack has averaged 20.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.9 swipes during the playoffs. He is also shooting .667 from the field compared to Curry’s .278.
Curry may be carrying the team for the first 43 minutes, but when the Warriors need a closer, they know Jack will step up and fill the void. The video above shows Jack in action against the San Antonio Spurs.
Mike Conley has been having a tremendous postseason at point guard for the Memphis Grizzlies.
In the 14 qualified minutes he’s played, Conley has averaged a clutch triple-double per 36 minutes of 20.6 points, 15.4 rebounds and 10.3 assists.
While that’s a very small sample size, the averages are impressive enough to make the list. If he can maintain that kind of play through more clutch minutes, he will move up in these rankings.
Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs haven’t had a lot of games that came down to the clutch, but Parker stepped up when he had a chance. Boris Diaw and Manu Ginobili had some big moments too, but Parker has been the captain of the ship.
He’s averaging 27.7 points, 2.8 boards and 2.8 assists, and the Spurs have won both their close games as a result.
Parker is one of the most underrated postseason players in history. There are only 10 players who have ever scored 3,000 points and registered 800 assists. All but one (Scottie Pippen) have won a Finals MVP, indicating just how important those players are to their team's postseason success.
Parker is probably the one player you wouldn’t guess to be on that list.
James Harden didn’t shoot well in the clutch, hitting only 37.5 percent of his field goals, but he did shoot often. And based on pure volume, he was tied for the most points per 36 clutch minutes. He also had only one assist and two turnovers.
A lot of this is understandable. He’s fairly young, and he is leading a team of youngsters. In fact, the Rockets are the youngest team in the league.
They were going up against the defending Western Conference champions in the first round. While Harden was on that team, being a sixth man and being the man are entirely different situations. Harden has to grow into his role of go-to guy, and the Rockets have to grow into their role of contender.
All things considered, for a club that had the sort of tumultuous offseason the Rockets did, a first-round exit with some exciting playoff games is commendable.
You take the good with the bad with Carmelo Anthony. You take the made shots with the missed ones. As a result, when you’re compiling a list like this, it’s hard to know where to place him.
On the one hand, he’s using entirely too many shots to get his numbers. Anthony is shooting a mere .385 in the clutch, has missed on all four of his threes and is only hitting .625 from the charity stripe
Anthony, like James Harden, is high on the list because of his total production but not higher because that production has been inefficient.
Joakim Noah has finally gained recognition as an elite player in the league, and justifiably so. What he has done this postseason while battling plantar fasciitis is crazy. What he’s done in the clutch is even crazier.
Noah is averaging almost 20 points, 20 rebounds and five blocks per 36 minutes, with a pair of dimes thrown in as well. With the Bulls missing Derrick Rose, Noah has become the man on this team, and this postseason is proving it.
Too small, too strong, too fast, too good. He’s the Midget Mamba. He has the heart of a 7’9” man wedged into the chamber of a 5’9” one. He chases down and “LeBrons” LeBron James. He is Nate the Skate Robinson. He is also clutch.
Robinson shares the lead for most total clutch-time points (22) this postseason, and he’s averaged 30.5 points per 36 minutes.
When the Chicago Bulls outscored the Miami Heat 12-3 down the stretch for their improbable win in Game 1 of the series, Robinson scored the last nine points and assisted on the other three. He scored or assisted on 15 of the 17 clutch-time points that the Bulls scored in the game.
And that was his second-biggest clutch performance of the postseason.
His insane Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets, where he led the 14-point comeback with 3:15 left and eventually culminated in a historic triple-overtime win, was even better.
Robinson’s Bulls are a plus-20 while he’s on the court in the clutch, a full nine points better than any non-Chicago player and the best clutch number of any player in the Association.
Mighty Mouse can save the day.
Kevin Durant has been an absolute superstar since Russell Westbrook went down with his season-ending knee injury. Well, technically he was a superstar before that too, so whatever comes after superstar is what Durant has been. Supernova? He is kind of blowing up.
Durant is tied for the NBA lead in most clutch-time points with 22. He has averages of 33.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 7.5 assist per 36 minutes. He's shooting .615 from the field, .400 from deep and .800 from the charity stripe.
And then, of course, there was that little matter of the shot that put the Oklahoma City Thunder up by one with 11.1 seconds left against the Memphis Grizzlies.
What’s so impressive is how much he does by himself. While most teams have two players sharing the load (Nate Robinson and Joakim Noah, for example), the Durantula is doing it all by himself.
Listening to the broadcast one night was pretty much just the repetition of Durant’s name, which gave me this epiphany. Here’s a little fun thing you can try. Sing the Pink Panther theme using his name.
Durant Durant Durant Durant Durant.