Great NBA players make their name in the playoffs by coming through at clutch time.
Everybody remembers Michael Jordan's famous "shot on Ehlo" in 1989 or Jerry West's half-court heave in the finals in 1970. They were the moments when great players simply imposed their will on must-win games and came through when their teams needed them the most. Jordan and West were transcendent athletes who thrived on being in the position to decide a game in crunch time.
But they were the exceptions to the rule.
Countless players throughout NBA history have been placed in the position to win the game for their team's and their efforts won them a dubious distinction of being the man whose free-throws, game winning jumper, or clutch shot over the defense drew nothing but air.
These are the 18 least clutch players and moments in NBA history.
Kobe Bryant has built his reputation on being an assassin in the clutch. He's considered one of the most reliable fourth quarter performers with an unbelievable will to win despite sometimes daunting circumstances.
But in game 7 against the Phoenix Suns in 2006, Kobe had one of the quietest moments of his career in a must-win game. With his team in the midst of a do-or-die game to advance in the playoffs, Kobe simply...gave up??!!??
Well, that's not what he would call it, but his one shot in the second half and one point, to finish the game with a so-so 23 points on 8-13 shooting was not what people were expecting from the ultra-competitive Bryant. Especially since he led the league in scoring this season at 35.4 ppg.
Bryant explained his second half disappearance by essentially blaming his teammates: ""If we were going to get back in this type of game we had to have everybody contributing," Bryant said. "In the first half I started to pick it up offensively just to keep us in the hunt. If we were going to get back into the game in the second half everybody has to get into a rhythm and that didn't happen."
The consequence of Bryant's teammates not carrying the load was a 121-90 drubbing at the hands of the Suns.
NBA commentator Mark Jackson argued that if Kobe was going to go down he should have went down with guns blazing. Instead it appeared that Kobe conceded after the first shot didn't connect.
John Starks was one of the most mercurial Knicks players ever, which could be a good thing or bad thing depending on whether his play matched his unbridled intensity. When he was on, the Knicks fed off his energy and toughness. When Starks was playing his best basketball during his early 1990s run with the Knicks, the team was very difficult to beat.
But he could also be a bit too emotional, would make questionable decisions with the game on the line and essentially shoot the Knicks out of games.
Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals was what happened when the latter Starks reared his head, and he came at a bad time for the New York Knicks.
Looking to be the hero in game six Starks had seen his three point attempt blocked by Hakeem Olajuwon as his team lost by two.
Now, as if still seeing Hakeem's outstretched fingers from the corner of his eye on every shot, Starks had one of the worst games of his entire career when he shot 2-18 including 0-10 in the fourth quarter, as he saw the Knicks go lose the game and the title 90-86.
As an NBA analyst, Charles Barkley enjoys using the phrase "tight sphincter" to discribe the unease and anxiety that comes over a player when he is in the clutch situation. This is something that Barkley is more than qualified to address, since he had three years of experience seeing the collective jitters in the clutch from his own teammates while a member of the Suns.
In 1993, Barkley boldly proclaimed that God wanted his team to win the title. His team then proceeded to choke the first two games at home in the 1993 finals against the Bulls. No team before had ever lost two straight finals home games. Then, in the Suns carried a 4 point lead in the final 30 seconds of game 6 of the finals and watched as John Paxton drilled a three-point daggar in their hearts.
Well, luckily Michael Jordan retired after that season and they had a chance to win a title again. And after taking a 2-0 lead on the Houston Rockets in 1994, they were feeling pretty good about their prospects. But Hakeem Olajuwon took over from their as the league MVP led the Rockets to 4 wins in the next 5 games to take the series.
The Suns had a chance for redemption in 1995, when they once again had the Rockets on the ropes. Up 3-1 in the series, Charles Barkley proclaimed, "we're in good shape, we're in great shape, all we have to do is finish them off."
He clearly underestimated the heart of a champion.
The Rockets took three straight games and won the series as Mario Elie's daggar three eliminated the Suns in game 7.
Barkley would leave the Suns and join the Rockets where he would be eliminated in 1997 by John Stockton's daggar three in the Western Conference Finals.
Does that mean that Barkley would have a ring if his teammates played better defense at the 3-point line?
The world will never know.
If you were to tell most players that all they needed to do was hit one of four free throws and their team would win the first game of the finals, they would see it as a fairly achievable goal, step to the line and make one.
But Nick Anderson, entrusted with the important task of securing a finals win for his team simply succumbed to the pressure.
With Anderson's Orlando Magic leading 110-107 in the closing seconds of game 1 and the Rockets forced to foul, Anderson had two free throws to seal the win. He steps up and misses both, looking incredibly nervous and unsure of himself the entire time.
Then, the Magic get a break. They draw a lose ball foul on the Rockets and Anderson heads back to the line. Surely, Nick will concentrate better this time and assure he follows through on the most important foul shots of his career.
Two more misses. The Rockets inbound, get the ball to Kenny Smith who calmly sank a three-pointer to send the game into overtime. The game finally ends when Hakeem Olajuwon taps in a Clyde Drexler miss in the closing seconds sapping all energy from the Orlando arena.
The Magic were utterly shell shocked after that lost and proceeded to lose the series in four games.
Anderson is still affectionately referred to as "Nick the Brick" by Magic fans to this day.
1999 was in many ways a great year for Karl Malone.
He won his second MVP Award in three years, he led his team to tie the best record in the NBA that lockout shortened season, and Michael Jordan, having retired a second time made the road to a championship far less rocky.
But facing elimination against a talented, but hall-of-famer free, Portland Trailblazer team in game six, it was clear that the Jazz were going to need a great performance out of Malone to keep their season alive. So what type of moster game did the 2-time MVP and second all-time NBA scorer come up with in this must win game?
8 points. On 3-16 shooting. Ouch.
This might not have been quite as bad as Malone's missed free throws in game one of the finals two years earlier, but this loss officially ended Malone and Stockton Jazz teams as title contenders. The team dithered in mediocrity for the next few years before Malone went ring chasing in LA in 2004 and Stockton retired.
There is no doubt that Magic Johnson is one of the greatest players in NBA History. His unparalleled excellence on the court garnered the "showtime" Lakers of the 1980s five titles in the decade as his play led the team to greatness time and time again.
Even Magic himself said, "I pride myself on being one of the best players to ever play in the clutch situation."
Apparently, Johnson was not referring to this outing, in a huge game against the archrival Boston Celtics.
Some who watched the Lakers-Celtics series last year may not realize that at one time, the Lakers had never won a finals series against the Celtics. Bill Russell's Celtics were 8-0 in finals competition against LA to this point and the Lakers were seeking to finally end their bad luck against the Celtics.
Leading the series 2-1 and holding a five point lead with under a minute to play, the Lakers appeared poised to end the curse. But when Magic Johnson (later christened "Tragic" by the media and fans) threw a bad pass to Robert Parish which allowed the Celtics to score in transition things started unraveling for the future Hall-of-Famer.
Afterward, Johnson missed two free throws which allowed the Celtics to force the game to OT where they would pull it out. The Johnson gaffes opened the door for the Celtics to tie the series and Boston eventually pulled it out in seven games.
The Lakers would come back the next season and get their revenge by defeating the Celtics in the finals officially breaking the curse, but Johnson's sloppy play in this series is one of the few significant bloches on his legacy.
And staying with the theme of Lakers blowing leads at home in a game 4 against the Celtics in the finals (the world can be weird sometimes), we have this gem featuring Kobe and his team unable to maintain a huge lead in an equally huge game.
The Lakers, after building a 24-point lead, lost at home to the Boston Celtics in one of the biggest collapses in finals history.
It certainly did not begin that way.
The Lakers, having already won game 3 to avoid a 3-0 deficit that would have essentially ended the series, jumped out to an amazing 35-14 lead after the first quarter and looked to make quick work of the Boston Celtics. Their 21-point lead was the largest after a first quarter in NBA Finals History.
The Lakers still led by 20 a few minutes into the third. But then the Celtics went on a 21-3 run to effectively sap all the momentum from the Lakers and LA would never recover.
At the 4:07 mark of the fourth quarter, the Celtics took their first lead in the game when Celtics' reserve guard Eddie House drilled an 18-foot jumper to put Boston up by one. The Celtics never trailed again after taking their first lead.
It's tempting to ask how this could possibly have happened to the Lakers who had presumably one of the best clutch players ever in Kobe Bryant on their roster. But one look at Kobe's game (17 points on 6-19 shooting) explains a lot.
The Lakers of course recovered and won two titles after this, but this really was one of the greatest chokes in NBA history.
Wilt Chamberlain, one of the most dominant and prolific scorers the league has ever seen was playing game 7 at home against the hated Boston Celtics. The series went back a forth for six games until in came down to a final duel for all the marbles in Philadelphia.
Although Bill Russell and the Celtics would win the game 100-96 en route to the team's 10th title in franchise history, it is perhaps best remembered for one thing:
Wilt took only one shot in the second half.
Now in a regular season game against a lower seeded team, that is understandable. But against your archrival in the 7th game at home in a series that ultimately would be decided by a mere 4 points? That's just inexcusable, and I say that as a huge fan of Chamberlain.
In his autobiography, Chamberlain defended his decision not to look to score in the second half of this game since "concentating on the rebounding and defense was what I'd done all season. I was merely playing the way I had played throughout the season." And although he had outrebounded Bill Russell 34-26, perhaps game 7 might have been the time for him to have tried to be more agressive, it's what the team clearly needed in that game.
"Doctor, Doctor, Scottie Pippen, he may not be able to go in game 7 against the Pistons!"
"Wha...Is it his back, his hamstring, is achilles tendon?"
"No. He has a headache."
"A headache. A really bad one too."
"Well, has he tried asprin?"
"Yes, and he says he still has double vision."
"Well, what about a headband. Has he tried that?"
"No. He won't wear headbands until he joins the Portland Trailblazers in 10 years."
"Oh, my word. Well, if he has to sit he has to sit. Surely the Bulls can handle the defending Eastern Conference Champs on the road in game 7 without their second best player."
"Umm...but just in case it doesn't go well can we recycle those Bulls Eastern Conference Champs T-Shirts next year?"
Ironically, after losing in the 2009 NBA Finals to the LA Lakers, the Orlando Magic felt they needed a change: They decided to trade their forward Hedo Turkoglu in the off-season for Vince Carter, who could be their go-to guy down the stretch of close games, a role that Hedo had some success with.
After blowing out their first two playoff opponents Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks in dominant sweeps, Carter had not yet been given the opportunity to perform in the clutch for the Magic.
That all changed in game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, while his team, trailing 95-92 in the closing seconds a must-win game two (the team had already lost game 1 and ran the risk of falling behind 0-2 in the series) Carter stepped to the foul line to bring his team to within a point.
After that less than clutch moment, the Magic would go on to lose the series in six games.
Fortunately for Magic fans, the organization learned their lesson a quarter into next season and traded for the same guy they traded away to get Carter. Apparently, they finally realized that Hedo is a much better clutch performer than Vince Carter.
Dirk Nowitzki's quote at a press conference after this loss told the whole story.
"We couldn't really get anything done down the stretch on both ends of the floor," Nowitzki said. "Maybe we started to relax too early or celebrate; I don't know what it was. But we didn't defend them the way we did before and we couldn't get anything to drop. So it's obviously frustrating."
This is why every coach in the league preaches playing to the finish, because no game is ever completely out of reach especially one that is only a single digit lead with minutes to go in the fourth quarter. But leading 77-68 at the start of the fourth, Dallas was looking to effectively end the finals by taking an insurmountable 3-0 lead.
But the Miami Heat's excellent defense in the fourth, along with Dwyane Wade's brilliant 42-point night and Gary Payton's clutch jumper (his only shot of the night) were enough to seal it for the Miami Heat.
This was an utterly deflating loss for the Mavericks who proceeded to lose both the momentum and the next three games leading to an ugly six game loss following a 2-0 series lead.
The Knicks had already let the Bulls back into this Eastern Conference Finals series after leading 2-0.
After the Bulls took both games at home, game five was played to a packed crowd in Madison Square Garden. The Knicks fans fully expected New York to take a 3-2 series lead and after a tense, back and forth contest, the Bulls led by one with less than a minute remaining.
Well, who you gonna call?
Unfortunately, the Knicks called chronically soft Charles Smith to be the hero. Smith proceeded to have one of the most famous failed clutch moments ever, when he missed four consecutive shots right at the rim as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant took turns blocking his layup attempts.
All that was missing was the Benny Hill music.
This is arguably one of the most notorious and heartbreaking moments in Knicks history.
To be fair, he had a solid game 3 of the series, as he led the Suns to victory over the Chicago Bulls in triple-overtime and he played some solid defense against Michael Jordan at times as well (even if this was Jordan's highest scoring finals ever).
But Johnson's offense absolutely disappeared in this series. He shot only 42.3 percent, committed 4.23 turnovers a game and failed twice to come through in the clutch. He dropped an inbound pass at the end of Game 4 to basically ice Chicago's win, and then he had his last-second shot blocked by Horace Grant to close out Game 6.
With game 1 of the finals tied and Karl Malone having the opportunity to win the game after being fouled, Scottie Pippen told Karl Malone right before he shot his free throws "Remember, the mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays Karl."
Malone proceeded to miss both foul shots setting up one of Michael Jordan's most famous game winning shots as he sank a 20-footer at the buzzer.
Hmmm...Maybe if the first game of the finals was played on a Monday it would have helped.
The epic seven game war between the Lakers and Kings in 2002 was truly one for the ages. This tense and contentious series featured two games decided by game winning shots, two shifts in home court advantage and Shaquille O'Neal playing about as dominant a series as he's ever played.
It also had one of the most embarrassingly poor officiated games ever. Game 6 of this series was such a debacle that Ralph Nader (yeah, that Ralph Nader) had to write a letter to the league office in complaint. The Lakers took a mind-boggling 40 free throws in this game including 27 in the in the fourth. When asked how he fouled out on a dive for a loose ball, Vlade Divac deadpanned, "It was my turn." Seriously, even the Kings players' wives were called for fouls, it was a shame.
But, I digress.
Game 7, back in Sacramento, the Kings had their chance at redemption after the Lakers and the refs won the previous game. In staying in step with the rest of the series, it was a dramatic game featuring 16 ties and 19 lead changes. Point guard Mike Bibby hit two free throws to tie the game at 100-100 in the closing seconds of regulation. But if Kings fans were expecting some heroic clutch shooting from their team a la Mike Bibby's game winner in Game 5, they would be sorely disappointed.
How did the Kings lose the game?
Let me count the ways:
-Their miserable 3-point shooting (2-20 for the game)
-Their horrible free throw shooting (16-30)
-Plus, nobody wanted to take big shoots in the clutch. Not Chris Webber, not Bobby Jackson, not Doug Christie, no one wanted to shoot with the game on the line. Suffice it to say, you can't beat Shaq and Kobe if you're afraid of clutch plays.
So the Kings choked away their chance at a title and haven't been back to the Western Conference Finals since.
After scoring 33 points in game 2 (including a huge 3-point shot to help his team prevent falling into a 0-2 deficit), Kobe Bryant was feeling pretty good about himself and his team's chances of regaining the homecourt advantage against the supposed disappointed Pistons team that let game 2 slip away.
But Kobe was not prepared for the defensive stonewall that awaited him in Detroit. For all those Kobe-fans who feel as though Bryant's career is even remotely comparable to that of Michael Jordan, I'd like you to take a good long look at this game.
In a huge game in the finals, Kobe was completely shut down by the Pistons defense. That never would have happened to Jordan.
Kobe's stat line in the the biggest game of the series: 4-13, 11 points, 4 turnovers and no less than three frustrated expressions from the bench when NBA cut-away from the Piston's high-fives to show the Lakers dejection.
To be fair, Kobe has had his share of excellent performances as well in the finals, like game 4 against the Pacers when he took over in the fourth quarter and OT after Shaq fouled out. But this game, given its importance and what it meant for the Lakers momentum for the remainder of the series, Bryant played exceptionally small.
This was the mother of all chokes.
It's hard to fathom now, but there was a time when Kobe and Shaq had not won a title yet and had a history of coming up short in the post-season. The Portland Trailblazers had talent, championship experience, excellent defense and one of the league's deepest benches. Plus, they were just a year removed from the Western Conference Finals loss to the Spurs.
When the two team played to a stand-off after six games in this epic series, everyone wanted to see which team would show more heart and character in the final game of the series. Up 15 points in the fourth quarter, it appeared as though the Blazers were the team that had the date with destiny. The Lakers were discombobulated, unsure of themselves and simply not making shots.
But somehow, the Blazers, maybe already considering their match-up with the Indiana Pacers, went utterly-completely-totally-cold from the field. Arctic cold. Penguins would be begging for parkas cold. Now give the Lakers credit, they made shots and cranked up their defensive intensity, but to lose a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Lakers in a game that essentially would decide the next NBA champion was utterly inexcusable an emphasized the importance of a go-to guy in the playoffs, something that the Blazers, despite all their talent, did not have.
This one was especially shocking, not because the sight of seeing an MVP and the top-seeded team in the league facing elimination in the first round had never happened. Charles Barkley and the 1993 Phoenix Suns were in the same dubious position against the Lakers. It was that they came up so short when it mattered most.
111-86 was the final score.
Just think about that for a second. A number eight seed beats a number one seed in an elimination game by 25 points. That's not just a choke, that's full-blown asphyxiation.
The Mavericks played in this game like a team that already had the fishing hole decided before tip-off and perhaps had their tickets to Aruba in the breast pocket of their fresh new warm-ups.
It was ugly. Dirk Nowitzki had 8 points in the game on 2-13 shooting. Jason Terry had 13 on 6-14 shooting and while Josh Howard did add 20, his 8-19 shooting placed him in the same category efficiency-wise with Dirk and Jason.
The Dallas Mavericks are currently positioned second in the West but the talk of them being possible title contenders has just not been there like it has with the Lakers and Spurs.
I guess when a team wins 67 games in the regular season, but can only manage two more in the post-season, it's hard to overcome the overwhelming sense of another collapse. At this point, the Mavericks would have to be up 3-0 in the finals with a 30 points lead in the fourth quarter before someone finally says:
"I think the Mavs have a chance this year."