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The Top 10 Closers of the 2014 NBA Playoffs

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 12, 2016

The Top 10 Closers of the 2014 NBA Playoffs

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    It's unbelievable how many games have been nail-biters during the 2014 NBA playoffs. And when nails are bitten, legends are made. 

    Players are forced to step up as closers, ones who are capable of taking on heavy offensive loads and sealing the deal for their squads. We've seen Vince Carter and Damian Lillard knock down impressive game-winners, a pair of Oklahoma City Thunder stars hit crucial four-point plays and so much more. 

    But which standouts have emerged as the premier closers? That's where math comes into play. 

    For the purposes of this article, "clutch" or "crunch-time" situations, the ones when players can start closing, will be defined as the last five minutes of games separated by five points or fewer. That's enough time left for teams to put games out of reach or draw closer during a tight contest, but it's also close enough to triple zeros that the pressure is truly on. 

    Blake may have claimed in Glengarry Glen Ross (NSFW language in the link) that you should always be closing, but that's simply not possible in the NBA.

    Unfortunately, our minds often lie to us when we're figuring out which players perform at the highest level in the clutch. We're swayed by volume rather than effectiveness, which tends to create warped and inaccurate perceptions. 

    To counteract the misleading attempts of our brains, it's time to turn to the numbers. That's why I'm using what I call "closer rating," a new metric that combines efficiency with time on the court. 

    To calculate it, three steps are required: 

    1. Make sure the player in question qualifies for the rankings. To avoid the effects of small sample size (which are inevitable with this little action in the books), I'm arbitrarily setting cutoffs as follows: at least five minutes played in crunch-time situations and at least 10 shots attempted. 
    2. Calculate points produced per possession finished, which you can do by multiplying assists by two, adding points, subtracting turnovers and then dividing that result by the sum of field-goal attempts, turnovers and assists. Unfortunately, there is an inherent flaw—assists leading to three-pointers and passes leading to free-throw attempts don't get extra credit. 
    3. Multiply the result by minutes played, which gives players their due for maintaining efficiency while spending more time on the court in high-pressure situations.

    Remember, these rankings are objectively determined. Players aren't receiving bonuses for game-winning shots or anything of that sort, and only the numbers matter. 

    It's also worth noting that you will not be seeing LeBron James appear in these rankings. Again, you will not be seeing LeBron James appear in these rankings. 

    Please, for the love of my sanity, refrain from asking about him.

    The four-time MVP has spent only two minutes on the court during crunch-time situations, thanks to the Miami Heat's penchant for blowing out the Charlotte Bobcats and Brooklyn Nets. Seriously, that's it. 

    Let him serve as the poster boy for the group of players who have stellar pasts, will likely stand out in the future but haven't done enough to qualify for these rankings, whether due to lackluster performances in small sample sizes or a sheer lack of minutes. 

     

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are current as of May 10 and come from NBA.com's statistical databases. Large portions of this explanation were lifted—and subsequently adjusted—from a previous article of mine, one that ranked the season's most "clutch" players.

10. Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks: 25.88 Clutch Rating

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    After Game 6 against the San Antonio Spurs, there was no doubt that the fourth quarter belonged to Monta Ellis. Here's what he had to say following his standout performance, via ESPNDallas.com's Jean-Jacques Taylor, though a boneheaded turnover almost let the Spurs back into the contest: 

    My teammates told me to be aggressive throughout the game. They told me we were going to keep it close and the fourth quarter was mine. Mark Cuban told me the same thing. Coach (Rick) Carlisle and my team believed in me. All I had to do is respond.

    And respond he did. 

    During the final five minutes of that 113-111 victory over the team that would eventually advance out of the first round, Ellis dropped a dozen against the vaunted Spurs defense. He was hitting jumpers, driving aggressively and knocking down those trademark shots from around the hoop that seem too difficult for anyone but him to finish effectively. 

    Ultimately, Ellis' late-game heroics weren't enough to carry the Dallas Mavericks through to the second round. But in just one series, he played 20 crunch-time minutes (less than five minutes remaining with the teams separated by five points or fewer). 

    During that time, he went 8-of-16 from the field, 1-of-4 beyond the arc and 6-of-7 from the charity stripe. More involvement from his teammates would've been nice, but there's no knocking what Ellis could do as a scorer. 

9. LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers: 26.25

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    LaMarcus Aldridge, unlike Monta Ellis, was actually able to advance past the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. But there are no bonus points for that, only extra opportunities to rack up crunch-time minutes. 

    Then again, Rip City hasn't been able to hang with the San Antonio Spurs thus far, so that's completely irrelevant for Aldridge's closer rating. 

    During a memorable six-game series against the Houston Rockets, Aldridge played 35 relevant minutes. Yes, that's more than five minutes per contest, simply because overtime threw a wrench in what seemed like every single game. 

    And while Aldridge was by no means efficient down the stretch—25 percent shooting from the field and three turnovers to go with his sole assist—he was incredibly involved. In those 35 minutes, Aldridge took 16 field-goal attempts, but he also went to the line 11 times and knocked down eight of the freebies. 

    Remember, closer rating is based both on the efficiency with which a player produces points and how much time that player is involved. Aldridge, though he was less efficient than Ellis as a closer, spent an additional 15 minutes on the court in these clutch situations. 

8. James Harden, Houston Rockets: 30.48

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    James Harden is another player who benefited from spending an insane amount of time on the floor during these crunch-time situations. In fact—and this should make sense since they were playing each other—the bearded 2-guard had 35 minutes that impact these rankings, the same amount as LaMarcus Aldridge. 

    But Harden was slightly better at producing offense during that run. 

    Granted, his shot couldn't manage to find the bottom of the net. He finished the first-round series shooting 6-of-27 from the field and 1-of-10 from beyond the arc during the relevant action, but he made up for that by constantly finding himself at the free-throw line. 

    Somehow (cough flailing cough), the 2-guard made 13 trips to the free-throw stripe in those 35 minutes, and he converted on all but one of those attempts. 

    Let's put that in perspective. 

    Thirteen attempts in 35 minutes is the equivalent of 13.4 per 36 minutes. And according to Basketball-Reference, no qualified player has ever taken that many freebies over the course of a regular season. Wilt Chamberlain (12.6) set the record back in 1961-62, and only Shaquille O'Neal has come within a free-throw attempt of that mark. 

    Harden's closing style may be ugly, but it still works. 

7. Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs: 32.73

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    When the San Antonio Spurs needed points during close games against the Dallas Mavericks, Gregg Popovich didn't turn to Tim Duncan. Nor did he ask Tony Parker to carry his squad to victory. 

    Instead, it was Manu Ginobili who suddenly became the go-to scorer. 

    And without even turning the ball over a single time during his 20 relevant minutes, the Argentine 2-guard managed to score 16 points on only 10 shots. Granted, he made just two of them, but he constantly drew contact (and yes, he exaggerated some of it) to the tune of 13 free-throw attempts. 

    We just went over James Harden's penchant for spending time at the charity stripe, but the bearded shooting guard is but a padawan to Ginobili's wizardry when it comes to getting to the most isolated spot on a basketball court. 

    If you prorate Ginobili's free-throw numbers to 36 minutes, he'd be taking 23.4 attempts over that span.

    Yikes. 

    Harden would've set the regular season record, and Ginobili nearly doubled that mark. 

    Whatever works, right?

6. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: 38.27

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    Russell Westbrook is a lighting rod among basketball fans, often forcing them to refrain from physical violence as they argue about his aggressive style of play. Some think his conscienceless gunning is detrimental to the Oklahoma City Thunder, while others believe that his spirited play opens things up for his teammates. 

    Regardless, it's commonly accepted at this point that you have to take the bad with the good when dealing with Westbrook. 

    And throughout the 2014 playoffs, there's been a whole lot of good. 

    During crunch-time minutes, Westbrook has has taken 30 shots in 41 minutes. And while he's made only nine of them, he's accounted for his overall inaccuracy by drilling four triples—highlighted by his game-tying four-point play in Game 3 against the Memphis Grizzlies—and knocking down five of his seven attempts from the charity stripe. 

    Still not impressed?

    Well, it should help that the point guard has also dished out 10 assists in those relevant minutes. Mike Conley (seven) and Deron Williams (six) are the only other players on the right side of five. 

    He may be an easily and often criticized superstar, but the detractors haven't had much to work with during these playoffs. 

5. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies: 38.4

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    In a perfect world, Zach Randolph loses points for the ill-fated decision to connect his hand with Steven Adams' face at the end of a Game 6 contest with the Oklahoma City Thunder. After all, that kept him out of the Game 7 lineup once the league suspended him. 

    But that's not how this works. 

    During the six games he actually suited up, Z-Bo spent 32 minutes on the court in the final five minutes of games that were separated by five points or fewer. And in that time, he scored 20 points, dished out three assists and turned the ball over twice. 

    To record those numbers, Randolph needed only 15 shots. He made seven of them and coupled his shooting performance with a 6-of-8 showing at the charity stripe, ensuring that he was both efficient and on the court for a heavy dose of crunch-time proceedings. 

    If he'd been able to add to those statistics during a Game 7 his team ultimately lost, perhaps he would've moved up even higher in the rankings. Now he's even left trailing one of his teammates. 

4. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies: 39.55

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    That teammate would be Mike Conley, who played an additional five minutes in crunch-time situations and was even more of an offensive stalwart. 

    The southpaw scored 21 points on 18 shots, aided by his ability to get to the line and finish the play with all eyes on him. But on top of that, he produced seven dimes for the Memphis Grizzlies, more than anyone not named Russell Westbrook has up to this point in the postseason proceedings. 

    Even though the Grizz ultimately dropped out of the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy by losing Game 7 to the Thunder, they outscored OKC by four points in crunch-time situations when Conley was on the floor and leading the charge. 

    As B/R's Tom Firme wrote after Memphis was eliminated, "The second [bright spot] is that Mike Conley is finally peeking through as one of the NBA's best point guards."

    His clutch play absolutely factored into that.  

    This series wouldn't have produced overtimes in four consecutive games without Conley's contributions, and the Grizzlies certainly wouldn't have won three of those outings if he wasn't playing some of the best basketball of his career in those high-pressure situations. 

3. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: 42.37

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    Kevin Durant is just ridiculous at this whole basketball thing. 

    Even though he struggled at times against the suffocating defense of Tony Allen and the Memphis Grizzlies, he rebounded rather nicely after the now-infamous "Mr. Unreliable" headline in his local paper. He was unstoppable throughout the second half of the first-round series—and that dominance has carried over to his clashes with the Los Angeles Clippers. 

    The highlight for Durant's crunch-time performance has to be the ridiculous four-point play he completed while falling out of bounds, even if OKC ultimately lost that contest against Memphis.

    But it's not the only one. 

    Durant has consistently knocked down nearly impossible shots, including a turnaround dagger from the right wing in Game 3 against the Los Angeles Clippers. And as a whole, he's shooting 50 percent from the field and 80 percent at the line during relevant minutes while putting up 34 points on just 24 shots.

    There's only one knock on KD, and that's his complete disappearance as a facilitator. Though he's doing damage distributing the rock during the first 43 minutes of contests, he's generated one assist and five turnovers during his 41 crunch-time minutes.  

2. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: 52.5

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    Only Kevin Durant has scored more crunch-time points than Damian Lillard, though he's had the luxury of playing an extra five minutes to do so and only produced an additional four. 

    Even if you forget about his three assists and two turnovers, Lillard has been quite the standout when games are on the line. He's shot 9-of-19 from the field, 2-of-4 beyond the arc and a perfect 11-of-11 at the free-throw line. 

    Thirty-one points on 19 shots is nothing to scoff at. Not in any situation, much less ones in which teams are separated by five points or fewer with less than five minutes left. 

    Oh, and there's that shot. 

    You know, that one. The one in which he curled around the perimeter, left Chandler Parsons in the dust and drained a deep three-pointer as the buzzer sounded to transform a two-point deficit into a one-point victory. It may well be the enduring image of the playoffs up to this point. 

    "It's definitely the biggest shot of my life—so far," Lillard explained after the series-clinching Game 6 dagger, per B/R's Kevin Ding. And he wasn't the only one singing praises. The Oregonian's Jason Quick was quite effusive: 

    Even in today’s world, where anything and everything is quickly anointed the greatest this or that, it’s hard to argue that Lillard’s 25-foot three-pointer off an inbounds pass that started with 0.9 seconds left isn’t the most difficult, most dramatic and most important shot in this franchise’s 45-year history.

    Anyone who watched Lillard's dagger and is aware of Portland's history can probably agree that Quick's description is in no way hyperbolic. 

    But one shot is only one shot, regardless of the circumstances. 

    As memorable as Lillard's shining moment may have been, it still can't push him to No. 1 in these rankings. And the man sitting there might surprise you. 

1. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets: 66

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    Dwight Howard couldn't carry his team into the second round of the playoffs, not against Damian Lillard and an inspired Portland Trail Blazers squad. 

    But he still ranks ahead of the dynamic point guard, even without a dramatic series-clinching shot. 

    Why? Let's look at all the relevant numbers: 

    PlayerMinutesPointsField-Goal AttemptsFree-Throw AttemptsAssistsTurnovers
    Damian Lillard3631191132
    Dwight Howard3330122702

    The assists hurt, but that's the only area in which Lillard has an advantage over his much larger counterpart. 

    D12 scored one point less than the Portland point guard, but he did so while spending three fewer minutes on the court and taking seven less shots from the field. The Blazers were content to hack away at Howard, and he made them pay. 

    In fact, if you watched only the last five minutes of every game between Houston and Rip City, you'd come away convinced that Howard was a quality free-throw shooter. He made 20 of those 27 high-pressure attempts, good for 74.1 percent. 

    And lest you think that Lillard's series-winning shot should trump everything Howard did during the first-round series, there are two counterarguments. First, one shot is only one shot from a statistical standpoint, regardless of when it's made. A three-pointer with five minutes left is technically going to count the same as a buzzer-beater, even though there's obviously more pressure involved in the latter situation. 

    Secondly, Lillard would never have had an opportunity for heroics if D12 hadn't completely carried the Rockets down the stretch of Game 6. While Kevin McHale staunchly refused to draw up plays and James Harden struggled, Howard dominated. 

    He finished the final five minutes of the series with all nine of Houston's points, and—while this technically doesn't matter—he scored the last 13 for his team if we expand the temporal parameters. 

    Don't let your personal feelings about Howard shape how you analyze his performance during this postseason. You'll be making a big mistake if you do. 

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