With seconds left on the clock deep in a playoff game, every team has that player that they turn to. For almost every playoff team, talent no longer becomes the issue – oftentimes, teams can play one another to a draw up to a certain point. And within the last 5 minutes of a game, neither team usually has a clear-cut advantage over the other. But this is the time that a team’s best player can shine, and where superstars are made. In the dwindling moments of a game, it isn’t about the team anymore, but rather dueling closers from respective clubs, each burdened with the responsibility to finish off the win. A team’s fortunes throughout the season and the playoffs often resides within the abilities of their one go-to guy, and how he fares at the end of games. Talent can only bring you so far, because the clutchness of that one player will likely determine the outcome of the match. It’s always easy to score in the first 44 minutes of a game, when the stakes are low and the crowd distracted, but those last 4 minutes are where winners are made, and legacies built. There’s a reason the Sacramento Kings of the early 2000’s never won a championship, although they were well equipped to do so from a talent standpoint. Chris Webber just couldn’t deliver.
That ability to succeed in crunch time is a well-coveted trait that only a certain number of players in the league truly possess, and these are the players who also have the potential for winning a ring. Here are the top five players who can bring a team that title because of their ability in crunch time – the end of games, or whenever their team is stagnant and losing momentum, in dire need of a bucket.
1. Kobe Bryant: Clutchness is about mentality and mindset as much as it is about results. Surely, the statistics will say that Kobe isn’t the best closer, going by numbers, but in watching him play it is easy to see that he relishes the moment. He has that fearlessness in crunch time moments and always wants the ball to close out a win. His stubbornness, his unwillingness to relinquish anything makes him simultaneously a difficult teammate but also a one man wrecking crew, icy cold and murderously intent on destroying his opponent. From the days of his air balls against Utah in the playoffs, it was obvious that he was unafraid of any situation. However, in recent years his end-of-game buckets just haven’t been falling with high frequency.
But don’t get me wrong; he’s also hit his share of the big shots over the years, on the biggest stages. And also failed a lot too. But as Michael Jordan once said in his commercial, his failures are also the reason why he succeeds. In Kobe’s case, the failures often boil down to a few factors. Without the quickness that some of his superstar peers possess, it is often difficult for him to find good looks at the end of games. Combined with the other team’s blatant attempts to limit his opportunities, Kobe doesn’t get very easy looks at the buzzer. In 2010, he has shown what he could do when given the opportunity with good clean looks at the end of games, hitting game winners 7 or 8 times throughout the course of the season.
Kobe Bryant will forever be known as an icy cold assassin, and whenever his team is down a point, you can see him stewing on the bench during time outs, visualizing the dagger he will throw at his opponents. His reputation as the best closer is well deserved, and the immense respect he receives from his peers of players and coaches just emphasizes this point.
2. Carmelo Anthony: Before the failed Allen Iverson experiment and the import of a hardheaded “Mr. Big Shot” named Chauncey Billups who believed more in his own crunch time abilities than anyone else did, Carmelo was on the fast track to super-duper stardom. He was leading the league in scoring at the time, and starting to develop a reputation as one of the clutchest players in the league. And the numbers only go to back this up.
Although clutchness can be more about mentality than results, at some points the sheer numbers can overwhelm, and Carmelo’s crunch time stats do just that. He has hit a ridiculous percentage of his crunch time shot attempts over the years, and although lost a bit of practice in relinquishing those duties at times to Iverson and Billups, he still should be considered a top player in that respect.
Melo has always had the talent to succeed from a team standpoint, but his repertoire of offensive moves is also tailored perfectly to end-of-the-game scenarios. He excels in isolation style, one-dribble pull up type shots and works most effectively and efficiently in a one on one matchup. He has a quick release, strong moves, good fadeaway, and can stop on a dime with ease, making him deadly in the clutch, when teams normally abandon play calling to opt for pure isolation with their superstar. Also better with his jumper than with drives to the hoop, he is suited well for the ends of games when referees swallow their whistles.
3. Dwyane Wade: His performance solely in the 2006 NBA Finals cements his place on this list. But being on a Heat team for the duration of his career in which he was never close enough at the end of games to even have a chance at a buzzer beater, he has been out of practice for a while, leaving him a mere 3rd.
However, his resume speaks for itself. Down double digits late in Game 3 of the 2006 Finals, he carried his team back from the dead, albeit with fishy officiating, and almost single handedly brought the Heat into championship glory with an epic Finals performance. Over the years, he has shown that he can carry a team when necessary, and during the 2010 playoffs submitted a monster 46 point game against the Celtics in Game 4 that conjured images of the younger D-Wade. So quick and so explosive, Wade gets open easily at the ends of games and seems to always rise to the occasion with his jumpshooting, although never very efficient with it normally. His increased productivity in the games that matter only go to further stress the sadness of his wasted prime on a weak Miami team with little talent, unable to leave him in a position to close out close games.
4. Steve Nash: Nashty, in the last 6 years, has won two MVP awards and cemented his position as one of the best point guards in the league. In that time period, he has also shown how a great teammate for most of the game, jovial and friendly and willing to get everyone involved, can flip a switch in the clutch and turn into a killer in crunch time. During the peak of the Suns’ run and gun style, he was the centerpiece of the most efficient offenses in the league, and still has the Suns atop the offensive charts, even at age 36. Starting in 2004, those Phoenix teams have been great offensively, but also piled up lots of wins – something that doesn’t necessarily correlate because highly offensively oriented teams often struggle to score as the game progresses and defense gets tight.
A big reason for the Suns’ successes has been Steve Nash’s ability to come through in the clutch. He has hit many big shots throughout the playoffs and regular season, including memorable ones against the Mavs at the top of their powers, and against Jason Kidd and the Nets. Armed with an ultra efficient jumpshot and one of the rare players who can boast a 50-40-90 (percentages in field goals, 3 point shooting, and free throw shooting), Nash is dangerous at the end of games because of his ability to get teammates easy shots and also because of his dormant scoring prowess, willingness to pass, quickness, free throw shooting, and excellent ball handling. He isn’t the traditional big time scorer who dominates ends of games in the manner of Michael Jordan, but he always gets his team a big bucket when they need it.
5. Brandon Roy: A relatively young player in the NBA, with only a few years of service in the league, Roy has proven in his short time to be a calming influence for a young Portland team without much experience. The go-to guy for his team, Roy shoulders the responsibility of crunch time scoring for the Blazers, and always does so in a relaxed, efficient manner. He is never rushed or panicked, and plays with a slow pace normally, which fits in equally well in crunch time, when the game slows to a crawl.
Like Carmelo, Roy’s game is ideal for the end-of-game isolation scenarios because of his ability to score in one on one situations, and excels at one dribble pull ups. His jumper is better than most, and he has hit his share of big game winners in recent years, pulling a Portland team from “Jail Blazer” fame into the playoffs with his ability to lead the team to wins. One memorable buzzer beater was against the Houston Rockets, in which he had struggled for the first 50 some minutes of an overtime game, before scoring two huge buckets in the last 2 seconds of the game, including one fading, off balance, 3 pointer that hit nothing but net for the win. With a few more years in the league, he may move higher up on the list as the Blazers progress further in the playoffs.