Sometimes a person can be so masterful at what they do that the extraordinary becomes expected. Perhaps it is just human nature to cease to be impressed by repetition.
The first time you see a 3-D movie, it is an amazing cinematic experience. Eyes move in wonder as the anxiousness of what will happen next builds up. But after you’ve seen a couple of 3-D movies, the wonder begins to fade. You begin to anticipate the drama and the cinematic effects become more predictable.
Does the fact that you’ve seen it before make it any less amazing?
Basketball is a game of moments. The difference between the greatest players ever and just the great players is only a reflection of moments.
Statistics try to paint the picture of impact in a basketball game. But statistics do not take into account context; they fail to recognize moments. Statistics treat every possession the same. In statistics, each possession is of equal importance.
But in basketball, just as in life, some moments are more important than others.
The greatest players in the game stepped into those important moments and seized them. They knew that championships are won by inches. They knew that game outcomes are decided in a few precious moments at the end.
Clutch is about seizing the important moments. If PER is a measure of how efficient a player is, then clutch is a measure of how great a player is. It is not the only measure of greatness, but it is an important one.
West. Bird. Jordan. It is no coincidence that the names of the guys who hit the biggest shots or made the most important plays down the stretch of important games are a who’s who of the game's greatest players.
Almost all NBA players can play hard and focused in the opening minute of a game. The greatest players…they play their best in the 48th minute. No fatigue. No pain. Focus. Results.
They say it takes a high basketball IQ to play in the NBA. Well, clutchness cannot tell you how smart a player is, but it can tell you how mentally tough a player is.
You see, while victory means glory, a loss means blame. There’s pressure and a responsibility that comes with being clutch. Being clutch is so much more than making a tough shot; it is also the ability to miss, take the entire world of blame on your shoulders and still be ready to step into that moment again whenever it presents itself, and deliver.
No, victory did not go to the young man right out of high school. His team’s season was over. The rookie shooting guard had taken the potential game-winning three in the series-deciding Game Five of the conference semifinals in 1997. Airball. The young man took three more shots from downtown in overtime. Airball. Airball. Airball.
Questions would be asked. The young man had taken the team’s most important shots in the game’s most important moments and failed to deliver. The criticism and embarrassment levied on this kid would have destroyed players twice his age.
Not this player. He was clutch. He knew it. He just needed another opportunity to prove it.
And so 14 years have passed and the young man has proven himself. He has proven himself so well that people have devoted hundreds of thousands of dollars in statistical analysis to debunk the “myth” of his clutchness.
But we were there in the pivotal Game Four of the 2000 NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers when he returned from an ankle injury to score eight overtime points, plus a tip-in off of a missed free throw to ice the game.
His team won the NBA championship.
They say that clutchness is not only about scoring, but it is also about making plays, and he just doesn’t make plays at the end of games.
We were there in 2000 as his team went down by 15 points in the fourth quarter of Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals. As he lead the team back, he made play after play, capped by him throwing a perfectly timed alley-oop to his co-star to punctuate a 29-9 run to win the series, game, and, essentially, the championship.
We were there in 2009 when he was double teamed late in overtime of Game Four of the NBA Finals. He calmly passed out of a double team to a wide-open teammate beyond the arc.
That teammate’s shot proved to be the dagger, and the team won the game to take a 3-1 lead in the Finals.
They say he’s unwilling to pass, but how many players have made such important passes in such important moments?
So much for the idea that he doesn’t make plays at the end of games.
They say his clutchness is overrated. They say that the statistics show that he misses far more than he makes. They say that we only remember the good and ignore the bad.
Perhaps. But some moments are more important than others. His plays and his shots have won championships. Plural.
Some recognize his greatness and say that he’s the greatest clutch player ever, as Suns coach Alvin Gentry did this week. Then some say he’s not even the clutchest player in the league today, as ESPN’s true-hoop Henry Abbott often argues.
Maybe he is the greatest clutch player ever or maybe he isn’t. Maybe we just take him for granted. We’ve seen this movie before. We know how it ends. They do, too.
He steps into the most important moments. Miami.
With a mental toughness that is unrivaled. Milwaukee.
His peers fear him. Memphis.
And respect him. Sacramento.
For he can demoralize an entire opposing team. Toronto.
Because there’s just no way to stop him. Boston.
I know who he is. I know what he is.
Kobe Bryant is the definition of clutch.