NBA Playoff History Clutch Meter: The Top 25 Late-Game Players in Recent Memory
- Make sure the player in question qualifies for the rankings. To avoid the effects of small sample size, I'm setting cutoffs as follows: 100 clutch minutes played since 1997 and at least 30 field-goal attempts. Unfortunately, that does disqualify some of the older and younger players from our time range.
- Calculate points produced per shot, which you can do by multiplying assists by two, adding points, subtracting turnovers and then dividing that result by field-goal attempts. Unfortunately, there is an inherent flaw—assists leading to three-pointers and passes leading to free-throw attempts don't get extra credit.
- Multiply points produced per shot by PIE, which is an estimate of a player's involvement in the relevant game events. You can read a full description here.
The NBA playoffs allow the men to separate themselves from the boys.
With the national spotlight thrust upon each and every player, emphasizing the glistening sweat and making shaky nerves all the more apparent, only the best are able to maintain their levels of performance with the game on the line. One missed shot down the stretch can be the difference between going fishing and advancing to the next round, and we're most interested in the players who aren't fazed in the slightest.
The goal here is to identify the best clutch playoff performers since 1997 (the earliest we have data available).
For our purposes, relevant situations 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.
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. Plus, the ability to remember a lone game-winner at the expense of a dozen missed attempts is dangerous.
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 Clutch Rating, a metric that combines efficiency with involvement.
To calculate it, three steps are required:
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.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from NBA.com's statistical databases and do not include the 2015 postseason. This intro was partially lifted from a 2014 article in which I debuted Clutch Rating.
25. Karl Malone: 28.47 Clutch Rating
Playoff Years: 1997-2004
Playoff Teams: Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Lakers
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 226
Due to our year restrictions, we're missing out on much of Karl Malone's prime. But even if we only look at the tail end of this physical specimen's career, he still stands out in a big way. After all, defenders never truly figured out how to slow down his combination of sheer strength and touch around the hoop.
Despite cutting out the early years for the Utah Jazz legend, he still played more minutes than all but 19 of the 555 players who took at least one field-goal attempt in clutch situations between 1997 and 2015. And even with all of that time on the court, he was pretty darn good.
Did Malone ever win a title? No, but he didn't need to in order to stand out during crunch moments. After all, his team consistently advanced deep into the proceedings, and it's not as if he shrunk during the biggest situations.
In 1997, he went 8-of-19 from the field during clutch scenarios, but he also recorded 17 rebounds and two assists. In 1998, he was even better, hitting 18 of his 33 crunch-time looks at age 34 while putting up 23 points and 3.1 assists per 36 minutes.
A championship would have sealed Malone's legacy, especially if it came before he joined the Lakers. But even without one, he still put up some big numbers in the most sweat-inducing minutes of his playoff career.
Honorable Mentions: Michael Finley (26.1 Clutch Rating), Jerry Stackhouse (27.32), Mike Bibby (27.45), Paul Pierce (27.64), Manu Ginobili (28.4)
24. Robert Horry: 28.5
Playoff Years: 1997-2008
Playoff Teams: Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 234
Where do we even begin?
Unfortunately for Robert Horry, we don't get to start with his Houston Rockets tenure, though it's still notable that he made a game-winning jumper in Game 1 of the 1995 Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. It just doesn't count for our purposes.
Horry can't complain much, however. He still racked up plenty of memorable moments.
In Game 3 of the 2001 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, he exploded during the fourth quarter. Of his 15 points in the game, a dozen came during those final 12 minutes, and the combination of a clutch triple and a made free throw helped clinch victory for the Los Angeles Lakers.
How about his game-winning three-pointer in Game 4 of the of the 2002 Western Conference Finals with the Sacramento Kings? How about scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter and overtime of the San Antonio Spurs' Game 5 victory in the 2005 NBA Finals?
He earned quite a bit of praise from ESPN's Bill Simmons for that one:
Even if Horry had retired in 2003, we would have remembered Big Shot Bob for life. But he saved his defining moment for Sunday night, throwing a rattled Spurs team on his back in Detroit and making … I mean … it would almost demean what happened to write something like "some huge 3-pointers" or "a number of game-saving plays." Considering the situation (a budding Spurs collapse that seemed eerily reminiscent of the 2004 Lakers series), the circumstances (nobody else on his team was stepping up) and the opponent (one of the best defensive teams ever, playing at home), Horry's Game 5 ranks alongside MJ's Game 6 in 1998, Worthy's Game 7 in 1988, Frazier's Game 7 in 1970 and every other clutch Finals performance over the years. If Horry hadn't scored 21 of his team's last 35 points, the Spurs would have been "Dead Man Walking" heading back to San Antonio. Instead, they're probably going to win the title Tuesday night.
They did not win the title on Tuesday night, but they still beat the Detroit Pistons in Game 7 to earn yet another championship for Big Shot Bob.
23. Scottie Pippen: 28.87
Playoff Years: 1997-2003
Playoff Teams: Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 153
Scottie Pippen may never have won a title if he didn't have the luxury of suiting up next to Michael Jordan, but it's not as if he was out of his league when serving as the clear-cut leader of a team. As good as he was in clutch situations while playing for the Chicago Bulls, his work during the 2000 postseason is actually what earns him a featured spot in these rankings.
During his first go-round with the Portland Trail Blazers, Pippen was virtually unstoppable, and we're not even factoring in his legendary defensive skills here. Though his scoring had declined during the regular season (12.5 points per game, which was then his worst mark since his rookie season), he was up to the challenge when games were tight in the playoffs.
That postseason alone, Pippen spent 30 minutes on the floor in crunch-time situations, and his Clutch Rating was a sterling 76.7, narrowly beating out Shaquille O'Neal for the top score among everyone who played at least a full quarter of heart-pounding action.
Why? Because he was always on the attack, working his way to the charity stripe and converting at an 83.3 percent clip. Per 36 minutes, he averaged 26.4 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists for Rip City, and there's nothing in that statistical profile that indicates he was a lifelong second fiddle.
22. Reggie Miller: 29.21
Playoff Years: 1998-2005
Playoff Teams: Indiana Pacers
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 217
Remember when Reggie Miller scored eight points in 8.9 seconds against the New York Knicks? Impressive as it was, it doesn't boost his standing here, since it came in the 1995 playoffs.
And Miller doesn't need it to, because his career was still filled with plenty of big-time buckets from the perimeter. A game-winning jumper over Michael Jordan in Game 4 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals was yet another signature moment, but it's his career as a whole for the Indiana Pacers that gets him so much credit.
As NBA.com explained back in 2004:
The name Reggie Miller is synonymous with clutch. His accuracy from beyond the arc makes him a threat whenever he touches the ball, which is why he's the NBA's career leader in 3-pointers made in the regular season and the playoffs.
Reggie thrives in crunch time, and he knows that it's different from the rest of the game. As he put it: 'You might make your first 10 shots and everything is going great, but when the game is on the line, those other 10 don't mean anything.'
Miller might not have won a title, but at least he consistently put his team in position to advance deeper into the proceedings. Really, that's all you can ask from any one player.
21. Rajon Rondo: 29.74
Playoff Years: 2008-12, 2014-15
Playoff Teams: Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 227
There's a reason that Rajon Rondo gained such a reputation for playing differently in nationally televised games. He thrived when the spotlight was on—his brief stint with the Dallas Mavericks notwithstanding—largely stepping up during the biggest moments of the most important contests he played in for the Boston Celtics.
This mercurial point guard actually struggled during Boston's run to the 2008 title, which came during his sophomore campaign and served as his initial foray into the NBA's second season. He was still playing in the shadow of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce during that historic year, and he actually earned a negative Clutch Rating for his efforts.
But that would soon change.
In 2009, Rondo was good, but not yet great, in those high-pressure situations, earning a 24.7 Clutch Rating. He'd blow that out of the water in 2010, racking up two triple-doubles and more than doubling his Clutch Rating, which jumped all the way to 56.3—the best score among everyone who played more than 20 relevant minutes—for the run to the NBA Finals.
That year alone, he averaged 12.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists per 36 minutes during clutch situations, but it was his efficiency that truly stood out. In 46 relevant minutes, he coughed the ball up only three times, despite having it in his possession quite often.
20. Chris Bosh: 30.36
Playoff Years: 2007-08, 2011-14
Playoff Teams: Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 182
Chris Bosh took a lot of flak while serving as the de facto third member of the Miami Heat Big Three. It took him a while to adjust to his non-starring role. He couldn't rebound to save his life. He wasn't a physical big man and spent too much time on the perimeter.
But when the playoffs came around, he caught fire. Especially in Game 2 of the 2014 NBA Finals, when he gave the Miami Heat a late lead on his corner three—one that came with just over a minute left—and then sealed the game by putting the ball on the floor and finding a wide-open Dwyane Wade under the basket.
However, those were by no means his only memorable moments with the Heat.
He was even better in 2011, recording a 45 Clutch Rating in 60 minutes of relevant action. Among the 31 players who spent at least 20 minutes on the floor in crunch-time situations that year, only four fared better: Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki.
During that run, one that led to an unsuccessful battle with all four of the aforementioned clutch standouts, Bosh averaged 18.6 points per 36 minutes, shooting 50 percent from the field and knocking down 19 of his 21 attempts from the charity stripe.
The highlight? Well, that's easy.
With under a minute remaining in a Game 3 battle against the Dallas Mavericks, Bosh gifted Miami a 2-1 lead in the Finals with a deep two from the left corner. It broke a tie, giving the Heat an advantage they wouldn't relinquish—in that game, at least.
19. Dwyane Wade: 30.43
Playoff Years: 2004-07, 2009-14
Playoff Teams: Miami Heat
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 307
In 2012, ESPN.com's John Hollinger and Peter Newmann ranked the 25 best individual playoff performances in NBA history. Unsurprisingly, Dwyane Wade worked his way onto the countdown, even if he only held down the No. 25 spot for his showing in Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals:
Dwyane Wade drew favorable comparisons to Michael Jordan after Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals. With his Heat down 2-0 in the series and trailing the Dallas Mavericks by double digits late in Game 3, Wade went to work. He scored 15 fourth-quarter points to deliver the victory and salvage the series, finishing with 42 points, 13 rebounds, two assists and two steals. A week later the Heat won the title and Wade was named NBA Finals MVP.
However, it was so much more than Game 3 that made Wade's performance so special when he guided the Miami Heat to the 2006 title. During that run, the shooting guard's Clutch Rating was a sparkling 77.2, made even more impressive by the fact that he spent 44 minutes on the court when a game was in its final five minutes and the margin was no more than five points.
Jeff Foster, Rasho Nesterovic, Chris Duhon, Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Earl Boykins all posted better scores in '06, but they combined to play only five more relevant minutes than Wade played by himself.
In that time, the star shooting guard went 16-of-34 from the field and 19-of-24 from the stripe, exploding for 42.5 points and 5.7 assists per 36 minutes. None of the other clutch standouts from the Heat's title-winning year were nearly as involved.
Did the refs help him out a bit during his free-throw-heavy appearances against the Dallas Mavericks? Sure, but Wade still put them in position to blow their whistles.
18. Rashard Lewis: 30.62
Playoff Years: 2000, 2002, 2005, 2008-10, 2013-14
Playoff Teams: Seattle SuperSonics, Orlando Magic, Miami Heat
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 143
Even though Rashard Lewis quickly faded during recent NBA history, his prime was filled with plenty of clutch buckets in the playoffs. Then again, even his brief stint with the Miami Heat featured a few crucial triples, like this one against the Indiana Pacers in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals.
In particular, we can't forget about his showing during the penultimate round of the 2009 playoffs, when he and the Orlando Magic were taking on LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers.
During Game 1, Lewis drilled a go-ahead three-pointer with only 14.7 seconds remaining on the clock. It would prove to be enough, as Orlando got out to a quick 1-0 series lead, thanks in large part to his heroics. But six days later, it was time for Game 4, and the Cavaliers were quite close to tying up the series at two games apiece.
In fact, with 4.1 seconds remaining in regulation, Cleveland was up two points.
Then, Lewis found himself in a catch-and-shoot situation from the left wing and wrestled the lead away with another big triple. James would tie up the game with a pair of free throws while just 0.5 seconds remained on the clock, but it was Lewis who put his team in position for a dominant Dwight Howard show in overtime. After that, it was Lewis again, this time making three big freebies down the stretch of the extra period to ice the game and take a 3-1 series lead.
17. Zach Randolph: 31.63
Playoff Years: 2002-03, 2011-15
Playoff Teams: Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 141
Zach Randolph got off to a great start in 2003. Though he'd appeared in the playoffs with the Portland Trail Blazers one season earlier, he's spent only a single minute on the court, and it didn't come in a crunch-time situation.
This time, he played 205 total minutes, and four of them came in the scenario we care about. And in those four minutes, Randolph made his only shot from the field, drilled both of his attempts at the line and grabbed a pair of rebounds while helping lead a fourth-quarter comeback against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
But that's a remarkably small sample, accounting for only 2.8 percent of the power forward's career clutch minutes. Though his 200 Clutch Rating remains the high-water mark for his time in the NBA (and was also the No. 3 score in the 2003 field, behind just Ron Artest and Steve Kerr), other single-season showings are more impressive, due to his sustained excellence.
In 2011, he played 49 relevant minutes with a Clutch Rating of 34 for the Memphis Grizzlies—the No. 9 finish among players who recorded at least 20 clutch minutes. One year later, 18 minutes and a 37.7 Clutch Rating. Once more, only eight contributors with 20 or more crunch-time minutes under their belts beat his score.
And since then, he's continued to be a consistent source of back-to-the-basket buckets and big rebounds when his Grizz need them most.
16. Gary Payton: 32.33
Playoff Years: 1997-98, 2000, 2002-07
Playoff Teams: Seattle SuperSonics, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 151
Gary Payton always held his teammates to a remarkably high standard in the biggest moments, ripping into them if they made a crucial mistake or just didn't seem to care as much as he did. It's only fitting that he held himself to that same lofty standard, leading to some great performances down the stretch of close games.
Even in 2004, when he was 35 years old and playing out his one and only season with the Los Angeles Lakers, he was quite impressive during those key situations. In his 23 relevant minutes on the court, he took only two shots from the field but was heavily involved in the passing game.
And in 2006, he was even better.
The 37-year-old served as a key role player for the Miami Heat, delivering two of the more memorable shots from the title run. He won Game 3 of the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks with a leaning jumper at the end of the shot clock, one that earned a 97-95 lead they would never relinquish. Then, two contests later, a driving lefty layup with 29 ticks left in overtime gave Miami a one-point lead.
Just imagine what he could do in his prime years with the Seattle SuperSonics.
15. Sam Cassell: 32.69
Playoff Years: 1998-2001, 2003-04, 2006, 2008
Playoff Teams: New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 101
If there's a single play that can sum up Sam Cassell's career, it would have to come in the second round of the 2006 NBA playoffs, when he and the Los Angeles Clippers were taking on the Phoenix Suns.
LAC was up by three points with about 30 seconds to go, but that wasn't enough. Not with Steve Nash and the terrifying Suns offense waiting for a shot to tie things up. Cassell simply took matters into his own hands, drilling a contested three over Shawn Marion to extend the lead and then trotting back down the court while doing his infamous "Big Balls" dance.
That may serve as a microcosm for his postseason career—fearless, confident and willing to take the biggest shots—but it actually came during one of his least impressive years of clutch play. During the 2006 playoffs, Cassell had a Clutch Rating of 16, less than half of his career-long mark.
It was actually in 2001 that he was most impressive, putting up 14.4 points, 13.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per 36 minutes for the Milwaukee Bucks. But whether we're looking at that early portion of the relevant time period or his brief 2008 stint with the Boston Celtics, Cassell always seemed to come through when he was on the court.
And we're not even looking at his time with the Houston Rockets, when he won two of the three titles earned throughout his career.
14. Kevin Durant: 33.68
Playoff Years: 2010-14
Playoff Teams: Oklahoma City Thunder
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 210
What better time to re-emphasize what exactly it means to be a clutch performer?
A player doesn't have to elevate his performance down the stretch. Merely maintaining greatness from non-clutch situations will certainly suffice for a player of Kevin Durant's caliber. Nor are game-winning shots the only things that matter, as it's also about the buckets that put teams in position to win games in less dramatic fashion, or at least get them into a scenario that features a potential game-winner.
Durant's crazy four-point play on the baseline while he was falling away? It certainly boosts his standing, as it brought the Oklahoma City Thunder back into a Game 2 contest against the Memphis Grizzlies with 14.6 seconds to play in that 2014 first-round series.
Or how about his transition triple in the closing minute of a Game 2 battle against the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals? It only cut the deficit to two points, so it definitely wasn't a game-winning attempt. But without that shot, the Thunder's hopes would have been over even sooner.
Everything matters within the relevant five-minute period when games are close. And that's good news for Durant, who just always seems to play MVP-caliber basketball, regardless of the situation he finds himself in.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote last year after Durant's four-point heroics ended a cold spell in crunch moments, "The guy has both embraced the big moments and worked effectively during them, and it has been good to see the commentariat mostly shrug at his half-dozen big misses with a collective 'I guess it happens to everyone.'"
It does happen to everyone—even the baker's dozen still ahead of the 2014 MVP in this countdown.
13. Tim Duncan: 37.52
Playoff Years: 1998-99, 2001-15
Playoff Teams: San Antonio Spurs
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 444
First, let's marvel at the sheer number of minutes that Tim Duncan has played in crunch time throughout his legendary career. Even without factoring in the extensive big moments he's seen against the Los Angeles Clippers this year, this San Antonio Spur comes into these rankings with 444 relevant minutes under his belt.
Prior to the 2015 playoffs and dating back to 1997, 555 different players had attempted at least one shot during a clutch situation. Not a single one beats out 444, with Kobe Bryant's 420 leaving him a relatively distant second. Hell, Dirk Nowitzki rounds out the top 10 in minutes played, and he's 134 minutes behind Duncan. Only 53 players have even played 134 total minutes!
What Duncan has done is truly staggering.
His overall rating isn't going to land him in the top dozen—if only barely—but he's maintained this level of performance for far longer than anyone else. Year in and year out, he's able to come through in big moments, knocking down key shots, grabbing crucial rebounds and making the right plays.
All the way back in 1998, Duncan had a 64.1 Clutch Rating in 23 minutes, a mark topped by only two players who recorded double-digit relevant minutes: Steve Kerr (82.8 in 30 minutes) and Isaiah Rider (95.6 in 10). Well over a decade later, he led his Spurs to a fifth title, earning a remarkable 70.8 Clutch Rating in 34 minutes. During that 2014 postseason, not a single player who spent that much time on the floor in nerve-inducing scenarios could touch his score.
How about that for some impressive bookends?
12. Kobe Bryant: 39.34
Playoff Years: 1997-2004, 2006-12
Playoff Teams: Los Angeles Lakers
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 420
Kobe Bryant's legacy as a clutch player always tends to inspire passionate argument, as there's a contingent believing he's infallible in big moments and another group that points to all of the missed hero-ball shots.
Neither is truly accurate.
After all, game-winning attempts aren't all that matters. And that's lucky for Bryant, because despite the highlights, he doesn't have a great track record there.
As TrueHoop's Henry Abbott wrote in 2011, "ESPN Stats & Information's Alok Pattani dug through 15 years of NBA data—Bryant's entire career, regular season and playoffs—and found that Bryant has attempted 115 shots in the final 24 seconds of a game in which the Lakers were tied or trailed by two or fewer points. He connected on 36, and missed 79 times."
But digging even deeper, Bryant has actually been quite good during crucial moments, even with all those misses factored in. And all the while, he's played more clutch minutes since 1997 than any player not named Tim Duncan.
Frankly, it's hard to pick a single postseason to highlight, as Bryant has had so many impressive ones. But for the sake of argument, let's go with 2008, when he earned a 65.3 Clutch Rating in 47 minutes while leading the Los Angeles Lakers to an unsuccessful NBA Finals battle with the Boston Celtics. Only 10 players topped his score, and none of them played more crunch-time minutes than Shaquille O'Neal's 15.
During the relevant time, the Mamba shot 48.4 percent from the field and made 20 of his 22 attempts from the free-throw line. Per 36 minutes, he averaged 39.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Oh, and he made only a single game-winning attempt in that postseason run—a pull-up jumper over Bruce Bowen to beat the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
11. Dwight Howard: 39.56
Playoff Years: 2007-11, 2013-15
Playoff Teams: Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 169
When Dwight Howard was playing out his true athletic prime with the Orlando Magic, he was absolutely unstoppable. In 2008-09, he almost single-handedly carried his team to the NBA Finals, making Stan Van Gundy's one-in, four-out schemes work while he played a jaw-dropping 73 clutch minutes.
There are plenty of impressive statistics from that run.
We could look at his 69.2 percent shooting and nod approval. We could marvel at him averaging 18.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. But if there's anything that's going to convince you that Howard was clutch, it would probably be his work at the charity stripe.
During his career as a whole, Howard has made just 57.3 percent of his free-throw attempts. In the playoffs, that number drops to 55.8 percent. Even in 2009, he shot his way to a 63.6 percent clip during the postseason.
But in clutch situations that year, when the spotlight was thrust right in his face and he needed to make his looks more than ever, he hit 19 of his 29 attempts. Yes, that's 65.5 percent.
Howard may have rubbed fans the wrong way over the last few years. He might not have developed as many post moves as he should have, limiting his offensive production after a strong start to his career. But like him, love him or hate him, you can't deny that he's been up to the challenge in big moments throughout his professional tenure.
10. Jason Kidd: 42.12
Playoff Years: 1997-2013
Playoff Teams: Phoenix Suns, New Jersey Nets, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 346
Jason Kidd is one of only three players to finish in the top 10 of these rankings and do so while playing a top-10 amount of clutch minutes. With 346 to his credit before he hung up the sneakers and donned a suit on the sidelines, he's at No. 8 for time spent on the floor in crunch-time situations.
This point guard certainly had some memorable runs, whether we're talking about his time lighting up the scoreboard in big moments for the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, his work with the New Jersey Nets or what came even earlier in his career.
However, Kidd's score is actually a bit misleading, as he has one extreme outlier. In 2000, while he was with the Phoenix Suns, this floor general helped spark a 3-1 opening-round victory over the San Antonio Spurs before bowing out to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
That year, his Clutch Rating was a mind-numbing 243.6—one of the absolute highest recorded by any player in a single set of playoff games. However, his mark came in only 10 minutes, as he made his lone shot (a three-point attempt), grabbed three rebounds, dished out two assists, stole the rock away from the opposition once and never turned the ball over.
Take those 10 minutes away, even though they're just a small portion of his overall clutch resume, and he'd fall between Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant in this countdown. Still impressive, but not quite good enough to get into the top 10.
9. Shaquille O'Neal: 43.94
Playoff Years: 1997-2008, 2010-11
Playoff Teams: Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 300
Shaquille O'Neal was always amazing in the playoffs. It made no difference if he was going to work in the first quarter or the final five minutes of a close game; his combination of relentless physicality and touch in the paint was too much for anyone to stop.
That was particularly true in 2000.
During the Los Angeles Lakers' title run, O'Neal played 35 crunch-time minutes, averaging 35.0 points, 15.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 5.1 blocks and no turnovers per 36 minutes while shooting 68.8 percent from the field. He was utterly unstoppable, just as he was throughout the regular season and the rest of his playoff ventures.
"He's the most dominating player in our league," Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird said after the 2000 NBA Finals, per the NBA.com Encyclopedia. "He was phenomenal throughout the series."
There were negatives, of course. O'Neal fouled out down the stretch of Game 4, leading to some takeover moments from Kobe Bryant. He missed plenty of big free throws when the Pacers used the Hack-a-Shaq technique.
But the positives still outweighed the negatives by a rather large margin, and that wasn't only the case in 2000.
8. Pau Gasol: 44.6
Playoff Years: 2004-06, 2008-13, 2015
Playoff Teams: Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 151
Pau Gasol's postseason career began with him struggling in the biggest moments. He was quite good in five minutes of action during the 2004 postseason, but he had a negative Clutch Rating during the follow-up campaign and zeroed out in 2006.
Once he joined the Los Angeles Lakers, however, he wasn't even remotely afraid of the big moments. During the 2009 championship run, his first postseason with the team, he simply didn't understand how to miss shots.
Throughout his 49 clutch minutes, Gasol lofted up 13 attempts from the field. All but two of them fell through the twine, which is even more impressive since he was aggressive enough to work his way to the free-throw line on 19 occasions. The Spanish 7-footer was actively creating looks, not waiting for the action to come to him.
Though he'd struggle a bit in 2011 and 2012, his second campaign in purple and gold saw a similar story unfold. Gasol averaged 18.0 points, 14.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes during his crunch-time outings, and he did so while shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 85.7 percent from the line.
There really aren't any signature moments. Gasol didn't make any unforgettable shots down the stretch, and his most memorable adventures are performances in big games as a whole, not him stepping up as the clock ticked down toward zero.
But maintaining a healthy—and effective—level of aggression during the most crucial scenarios is impressive in and of itself. And here, it matters quite a bit more than one or two random buzzer-beaters.
7. Allen Iverson: 46.68
Playoff Years: 1999-2003, 2005, 2007-08
Playoff Teams: Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 175
Just ask Tyronn Lue how he feels about this placement.
During Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Allen Iverson paced the Philadelphia 76ers with 48 points. And the most famous of them all came in one of the game's biggest moments. When the legendary guard crossed up Lue and made the ensuing jumper, there was less than a minute remaining in overtime. Before he shot, the Sixers were up by just two points; when he stepped over the prone body of his opponent in the ultimate sign of disrespect, the lead had grown to four.
Iverson scored seven of his team's 13 points in that extra period, and it was enough to give Philadelphia its only victory of the series. As Doug Sibor explained for Complex.com last year—surely thinking back to that performance, among many others—Iverson is one of the 20 players throughout NBA history you'd most want to take a last shot.
"Especially in his prime, the diminutive Iverson was burdened with a heavier load than anyone in the NBA, with the 76ers leaning heavily on him for offense," Sibor pens. "AI's ability to get to the rim and smooth shooting stroke meant that when his team needed him most, he almost always delivered."
Unfortunately, that didn't remain true late in his career, as Iverson posted a negative Clutch Rating in both 2007 and 2008. Take those years out of the equation, and his overall score rises to 51.46, which would allow him to jump the next player in our countdown.
6. John Stockton: 47.56
Playoff Years: 1997-2003
Playoff Teams: Utah Jazz
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 195
In Game 6 of the 1997 Western Conference Finals, the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets were tied with 2.6 seconds remaining in the final quarter. But that wouldn't last for long, as John Stockton took the inbounds pass from Bryon Russell, dribbled to the top of the key and drilled the three-pointer that would send his team to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
It remains one of the greatest clutch shots in NBA history, but that's by no means the only positive play Stockton made down the stretch in his Hall of Fame career. Even though he retired with two hands that boasted a grand total of zero rings, he was one of the primary reasons the Jazz advanced deep into the playoffs on so many occasions.
But no run was better than that '97 one, and not just because it was capped off with a memorable three to advance to the sport's premier stage.
In 45 clutch minutes, Stockton made 13 of his 17 shots from the field and successfully converted four of his seven deep looks—including the famous one against the Rockets. Somehow, he averaged 28.8 points, 4.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists per 36 minutes, refusing to fall in line with his pass-first reputation.
Stockton never won on the sport's biggest stage, but he's still one of the game's greatest clutch performers, even when only looking at what occurred during the tail end of his career.
Those aren't mutually exclusive ideas.
5. Chauncey Billups: 51.58
Playoff Years: 2001-11, 2013
Playoff Teams: Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 256
Was it making a half-court shot against the New Jersey Nets in the 2004 playoffs that forced overtime as the fourth-quarter buzzer sounded? Not entirely, as plenty of regular-season exploits also led to Chauncey Billups' "Mr. Big Shot" nickname.
But here's where things get a little strange.
82games.com's Roland Beech defines a game-winning shot as one with "24 seconds or less left in the game, team with the ball is either tied or down by 1 to 2 points." And after tracking those from the 2004 playoffs through the 2008 postseason, he determined that Billups went just 2-of-9 in the situation.
Somewhat ironically, it's actually everything that Billups did leading up to the last 24 seconds in a close game that makes him such a superior clutch performer, even if that goes directly against what his nickname might indicate.
Never was that more true than in 2006, when this point guard earned a 250.7 Clutch Rating in 21 minutes while leading the Detroit Pistons into the Eastern Conference Finals. For perspective, 551 individual postseasons have been recorded since 1997 in which a player spent at least 20 clutch minutes on the floor. Of those, not a single one beat Billups' score in 2006.
The Detroit 1-guard actually took just six shots from the field during those moments, and he made four of them. But he was always aggressive, slashing to the basket and drawing contact often enough to go 16-of-17 from the line. And as if that wasn't sufficient, he was involved in just about every other facet of the game.
Feel free to keep calling Billups by his established nickname. But if you're going to do so, keep in mind that the majority of the big shots he made weren't of the game-winning variety.
4. Dirk Nowitzki: 52.45
Playoff Years: 2001-12, 2014-15
Playoff Teams: Dallas Mavericks
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 310
Ever since making his playoff debut in 2001, Dirk Nowitzki has been consistently excellent. It's exceedingly rare for him to go through a prolonged stretch of ineffective play in big moments, as you can see by looking at his individual postseason Clutch Ratings throughout his career:
- 2001: 24.3 in 20 minutes
- 2002: 29.4 in 20 minutes
- 2003: 25.8 in 34 minutes
- 2004: 36.7 in 13 minutes
- 2005: 47.8 in 29 minutes
- 2006: 56.4 in 77 minutes
- 2007: 89.1 in 10 minutes
- 2008: 0.0 in one minute
- 2009: 18.9 in 14 minutes
- 2010: 35.2 in eight minutes
- 2011: 126.4 in 50 minutes
- 2012: 25.4 in 15 minutes
- 2014: Minus-2.3 in 19 minutes
There have been a few exceptions to his overall greatness (2008, 2009 and 2014), but they're more than cancelled out by his top-notch performances. In particular, he was flat-out unstoppable during the 2011 run to a title, working his way to the stripe consistently, hitting 33 of his 34 clutch free throws and displaying his unblockable one-legged flamingo fadeaway.
In 2011, Nowitzki actually averaged 47.5 points per 36 minutes in those crunch-time situations. That's simply inhuman, and yet, it felt totally believable, because it was this German 7-footer putting up the numbers.
3. Michael Jordan: 53.16
Playoff Years: 1997-98
Playoff Teams: Chicago Bulls
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 109
Remember, we're not ranking the entirety of Michael Jordan's career at No. 3. If that were the case, he'd likely rise even higher than this already impressive position, but our numbers don't go back that far into the 1990s.
Instead, we're only looking at what Jordan did during his last two title-winning runs with the Chicago Bulls. And that was still pretty special, highlighted by arguably the greatest clutch shot in NBA history.
The last time Jordan fired away as a Bull, he dribbled down the court, might have pushed off against Bryon Russell, rose and drilled a game-winning jumper against the Utah Jazz, completing a comeback that would give him the sixth ring of his career.
But that defining moment, one that put Chicago up 87-86, wasn't all he did in that game. We can't overlook the sequence leading up to it, which began with a tie-breaking three from John Stockton. Jordan answered with a layup to cut the deficit to a single point, then stole the ball away from Karl Malone and dribbled toward history.
All of it matters, not just the legendary final shot.
2. Steve Nash: 56.43
Playoff Years: 1997-98, 2001-08, 2010, 2013
Playoff Teams: Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 238
Part of Steve Nash's legacy is that he failed over and over in the playoffs. Sure, there were some unfortunate circumstances—tough matches, strange officiating, ill-timed injuries and suspensions—but he never even managed to advance into the NBA Finals. How can he possible be the No. 2 clutch performer in recent history, especially when that puts him one spot ahead of the presumptive G.O.A.T.?
Largely because, with the exception of a poor 2004, Nash has always thrived in the biggest moments. He's been the one keeping things close, even if he hasn't been able to get over the proverbial hump. Let's go all the way back to 2003 for an example, when Nash and the Dallas Mavericks lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals.
In crunch-time situations that year, the long-haired point guard averaged 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 7.6 assists per 36 minutes. Despite his heavy, heavy involvement, he didn't record a single turnover, and he shot 81.8 percent from the field during his 38 relevant minutes.
And this wasn't even a major aberration. Nash is simply one of the greatest late-game shooters of all time, able to create for himself and only fire away in the right situations.
It may not have led to a title, but a championship isn't a requirement for a clutch player. A clutch team, perhaps, but not an individual attempting to carry a squad filled with misfortune and some underachievers.
1. LeBron James: 60.49
Playoff Years: 2006-15
Playoff Teams: Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat
Total Clutch Minutes Played: 354
First, as ESPN Stats & Information highlighted in 2013, LeBron James has been pretty darn good on game-tying or lead-taking attempts in the last 24 seconds of playoff games ever since he entered the league:
Since LeBron came into the league in 2003-04, nobody in the NBA has made more game-tying and go-ahead shots in the final 24 seconds of playoff games than LeBron, who is 7-of-16 on those shots. His 43.8 field goal percentage on those clutch shots ranks the best in the NBA since his rookie season among players with at least 10 attempts. The league average is 28.3 percent on those shots.
Along with his buzzer-beater layup to defeat the Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron also made a go-ahead layup with just under 11 seconds remaining in overtime.
Our analysis has similar results. And frankly, the gap between the man with the royal nickname and everyone else isn't even a small one.
If you want to argue that James fails in big moments, go right ahead. If you want to claim that his shrinking in the 2011 NBA Finals should be a permanent stain on his career and prevent him from ever being clutch, that's your prerogative.
Just be aware that you're spitting in the face of facts and letting your personal desires trump logic. After all, James has made plenty of game-winning shots in big games. He even had the famed "48 special" against the Detroit Pistons in 2007, when he scored his team's last 25 points in a double-overtime victory.
And that's only looking at scoring, which obviously isn't all that matters down the stretch of a close game. After all, James has made quite a mark passing up his own shots for better ones from his teammates, even in the biggest moments.
Maybe you want someone else taking the final shot, and that's fine. That's not what this analysis has ever been about, and looking at it through such a lens is taking an archaic approach that won't lead to as many victories when you run your hypothetical team.
But if you want someone running the show during the final five minutes of a close game, James is the obvious choice.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.