NBA Stars Who Get Better in Close-Out Games

Daniel O'BrienFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2013

NBA Stars Who Get Better in Close-Out Games

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    NBA fans love players who find another gear when the stakes are high. 

    It's one thing to pile up regular-season records or torch opponents in a playoff series opener.

    Thriving in close-out games? That's tough to do, and not everyone is cut out for it. There's a rare breed of hoopsters who get better when they face elimination or have a chance to eliminate others.

    Who are the best close-out performers in the NBA and why? We break down the stars who take it up a notch when the pressure is on.

    *Close-out game stats gathered from ESPN.com, "clutch" stats gathered from NBA.com.

    **"Clutch situations": last five minutes remaining in game, team ahead or behind by five or fewer points.

Jason Terry, Boston Celtics

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    Whenever Dallas Mavericks opponents saw this jet flyover, it meant Jason Terry had just burned them for a late-game barrage.

    Although he wasn't the Mavs' top scoring option during his time there, he was their closer and savior in tight games, especially during the playoffs.

    He had a host of clutch moments over the years, but his 2011 championship slate of close-out games was impressive: 22 points and eight assists to close out the Trail Blazers, 32 points and four assists to close out the Lakers, and then 27 points to close out the Heat in the finals.

    Terry didn't stop cruising in crunch time once he moved to Boston. As a Celtic, he helped his club avoid elimination twice with back-to-back 17-plus scoring outings. In "clutch" situations, he shot 75 percent during the 2013 playoffs.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

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    With five titles under his belt, Kobe Bryant has a truckload of signature close-out games on his resume.

    So we don't need to convince you he gets better under pressure.

    However, the Los Angeles Lakers' underwhelming 2012-13 campaign may cause some folks to forget that he was clutch right up until his achilles injury.

    In fact, he led all 2012-13 NBA players in "clutch" situation points with 156 in 140 minutes. He did this while shooting 43 percent and committing just 10 total turnovers.

    Talk about staying relevant.

LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    Early in his career, LeBron James earned the reputation of being an underachiever in the postseason, as he came up small during several instances with the Cleveland Cavaliers and in the 2011 NBA Finals with the Miami Heat.

    He has since changed the perception of him by dominating the basketball world for 23 straight months.

    Lately, he has mastered the ability to produce massively in the scoresheet and on the boards in close-out games.

    During his 2012 championship run, LeBron encountered five close-out scenarios, including one in the conference finals when his Miami Heat faced elimination. In those five games, he averaged 31.8 points and 10.4 rebounds.

    Now that we know he can deliver in big games, we look back at his young Cavs days more favorably. Games like his 24-point, 10-assist effort in the 2007 NBA Finals Game 4 loss make more sense within the context of his career, and they’re now seen as a reflection of his true basketball DNA.

San Antonio Spurs Big Three

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    This mainstay trio in the Southwest doesn't turn it up a notch in glorious superstar fashion.

    You don't see LeBron James or Kobe Bryant-esque performances from these guys.

    So how do Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili get better in close-out games? By doing whatever it takes to win, no matter how thankless or boring it may be. It's what won them three titles together.

    We saw all three of them demonstrate this "whatever it takes" approach to close out the Golden State Warriors.

    Duncan's job was to work the mid-range and then wait graciously while his comrades finished the job. Parker's challenge was to keep shooting even though he's been shooting poorly all game, and it paid off with two huge buckets in the fourth quarter. Ginobili's task was to work the pick-and-roll and facilitate. He scored just five, but dished 11 back-breaking assists.

James Harden, Houston Rockets

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    He's just a young buck, but James Harden already seems to have a grown-man's savvy in pressure-packed games.

    The Houston Rockets shooting guard's clutch ways began during the playoffs of his sophomore season (2011) with the Thunder, when he unleashed 23 points and seven assists on the Dallas Mavericks in the conference finals. OKC lost the game (and therefore the series), but not because of Harden.

    He followed that up with a series of brilliant elimination games in 2012. Harden's 15 fourth-quarter points earned revenge against the Mavs, then his 17 points and eight assists off the bench downed the Los Angeles Lakers. After a 16-point effort in the conference's final close-out, he scored 19 in a season-ending loss to the Miami Heat.

    The young assassin translated these talents to Houston. He calmly drilled seven triples in Game 5 to keep the Rockets alive in their first-round series against his old club.

Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics

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    Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo brought glory back to the Boston Celtics, and their clutch play in close-out contests fueled multiple trips to the NBA Finals.

    The quartet raised its game on countless occasions, but the only one who consistently elevated himself in elimination games was Pierce.

    Celtics fans fondly remember Pierce's 2008 duel with LeBron James. He posted 41 points in a conference semifinals Game 7, sinking just enough buckets to get Boston past the Cleveland Cavaliers. That performance wasn't the outlier, but rather a high-scoring version of his constant clutch play.

    Ben Watanabe of NESN illustrates Pierce's clutchness and value to Doc Rivers:

    Not all of Pierce’s clutch plays are shots. Sometimes they are well-placed back picks to free teammates for open layups, but most of the time they should be easier to detect for even casual fans. Sure, those final, grinding possessions might be agonizing to watch, but there is a reason Rivers keeps putting the ball in Pierce’s hands. The coach knows that chances are, good things for the Celtics are still more likely to happen than not.

    Will we ever see him in green with the time winding down again?

Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Despite a sour ending to the 2013 playoffs, Kevin Durant is still one of the best elimination-game ballers in the association.

    His 2012 title pursuit is prime evidence of his knack for stepping up.

    One common theme we saw was his increased rebound production in elimination games. He crashed the boards with an extra hunger in those tilts.

    Durant's average stats in four 2012 elimination games: 28.8 points, 11.5 boards. The rebounds are particularly impressive. It shows that he wants it more than the average player.

    His latest clutch exploits include more trips to the free-throw line. During the 2012-13 season, he led the NBA in free-throw attempts (75) in "clutch" situations.