By Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY
Russell Westbrook, left, and Kevin Durant, right, are double-clutch for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
In clutch situations — defined as five minutes or fewer left in the game and a scoring margin within five points — neither player is paralyzed by fear of the result.
Bryant's outlook is distinctly Kobe-esque.
"You kind of got to be somewhat of an (expletive) , to be honest, in terms of not having any concern whatsoever about what people may say, win, lose or draw," Bryant said. "I don't have that fear. I don't have that concern. Either we win or we lose, but I'm going to do what I feel is right for us to be successful."
Said Durant: "To be honest, I really don't care if I make or miss. You really can't think about it too much."
As the NBA playoffs begin Saturday, the next two months will be filled with games decided in the final minutes. Reputations for teams, players and coaches — the bad with the good — will be made off those late-game performances. Does Robert Horry come to mind?
The most clutch performances
Top five clutch teams
Chicago Bulls: 21-8 (.724)
Indiana Pacers: 21-8 (.724)
Atlanta Hawks: 24-12 (.667)
Bottom five clutch teams
Toronto Raptors: 12-22 (.353)
Washington Wizards: 9-18 (.333)
Philadelphia 76ers: 6-20 (.231)
Charlotte Bobcats: 5-19 (.208)
4.7 ppg, 39.2% FG%, 32.6% 3FG%, 88.1% FT%
Thunder guard Russell Westbrook
Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul
4 ppg, 42% FG%, 20.8% 3FG%, 96.4% FT%
3.5 ppg, 45.3% FG%, 38.5% 3FG%, 71.1% FT%
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant
3.6 ppg, 36.1% FG%, 28.6% 3FG%, 81.8% FT%
It's difficult to have a discussion about clutch performance without mentioning Horry, who made his mark in the playoffs making 18 of 35 field goals, including 13 of 21 three-pointers, in clutch situations, according to NBA.com.
And the result from some of that clutch magic? How about seven NBA championships!
During the playoffs last season, 60% of games were decided in clutch situations. Who excelled in those situations? Two of the best were the Dallas Mavericks (11-5) and Miami Heat (10-4) on their way to the NBA Finals .
It's not a perfect predictor of playoff success or as widely cited as average margin of victory and defensive efficiency rankings. But it is telling.
The past four NBA champions finished in the top three in clutch winning percentage during the regular season. The top teams this season: Chicago Bulls (.733), Lakers (.721), Indiana Pacers (.700) and San Antonio Spurs (.700), according to NBA.com's extensive statistical database.
In final minutes, who gets the ball?
Analyzing clutch teams is easier than breaking down the best clutch players. A team wins or loses, simple math. The discussion about clutch players is more polarizing.
An individual can score a lot of points in the clutch yet have a poor shooting percentage. Still, his team wins. Or a player can perform exceptionally well but his team has a poor record in clutch situations. Plus, sample size is small in one season.
But in general, a combination of metrics — wins, shooting percentage, points, rebounds, assists, steals — reveals players who one way or another get the job done in the final minutes of a close game.
In whose hands do you want the ball to take an important shot or make a play?
Heading into the playoffs, these players have proved themselves in the clutch this season: Bryant and Durant; Thunder guard Russell Westbrook; Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson; Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony; Mavericks guard Jason Terry; Pacers forward Danny Granger; Spurs guard Tony Parker; Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce and Heat forward LeBron James.
From interviews with players, coaches and TV analysts, success in crunchtime for teams goes beyond X's and O's and requisite talent to factors such as chemistry, trust, confidence, coaching, mental toughness and instinct — the split-second decision to make a play that leads to a basket.
Durant admits that he didn't always have that attitude.
"My first few years in the league, I would go to the bench and we'd be tied with a couple of seconds left — and I'd go to the bench and I'd be shaking," Durant said. "I was so anxious to want the shot and make the shot and I'd go out and miss."
"This year, I was like, 'I don't care. If I make it, cool. If I miss it, learn from it.' "
The inspiration for Durant's conversion from consternation to relaxation is not surprising.
"I heard Robert Horry say he doesn't care," Durant said.
Clutch reputations are earned unscientifically. Bryant is clutch. James is considered not. But in last season's playoffs, James epitomized clutch in the second round and Eastern Conference finals.
Against the Bulls in the Eastern finals, James shot 8-for-12, including 2-for-3 on three-pointers, and averaged 6.3 points in three games with clutch situations. He was similarly effective against the Celtics in the second round.
However, James was defined by his poor performance down the stretch against the Mavericks in the NBA Finals — 0-for-7 from the field, including 0-for-5 on three-pointers, with zero points in 18 minutes of clutch time in five games, three of which the Heat lost.
This season, James is better than Bryant in clutch situations — just as many points per game, higher shooting percentage and higher rebounding, assists and steals averages.
But the Lakers have a better winning percentage in the clutch than the Heat.
"At the end of the day, I'm comfortable with the criticism that may come my way," Bryant said. "If you're not comfortable with that, there's going to be a little apprehension."
Preparation proves key for Bulls
The Bulls have been successful with an obscene amount of preparation, guard-forward Kyle Korver said.
With five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of an April 12 game, the Bulls led the Heat by one point.
The Bulls got up by five points with 2:03 left, fell into a three-point deficit with 11.4 seconds to go and forced overtime on backup guard C.J. Watson's three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left.
In overtime, the Bulls were masterful, shooting 5-for-8 on field goals and holding the Heat to 0-for-5 shooting in Chicago's 96-86 victory, a combination of offense and defense burying the Heat.
"When you first come into this system, it's very demanding mentally," Korver said. "Thibs (coach Tom Thibodeau) says you can't just go out there at the end of the game and just expect to ball. You just don't play harder. You have to know what you're doing.
"He's very thorough. It's definitely the most detailed shootarounds and preparations that I've been ever around."
Thunder rumbles with clutch duo
The Thunder are an interesting case study. They have two players — Durant and Westbrook — they can rely on in the clutch.
Both averaged 4.9 minutes in the same 30 clutch games this season. Durant averaged 4.8 points to Westbrook's 4.1. Yet Durant took 32 more shots and had a lower shooting percentage (39.3%) than Westbrook (43.5%).
Who has the better reputation in clutch situations?
"Sometimes we missed them, and sometimes we made them," Durant said. "At the end of the day, we've got guys who really enjoy that moment and enjoy wanting to take those shots."
The Bulls' Thibodeau is quick to point out, "People talk about the last five minutes. Sometimes, it's the first five minutes." And Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says the last five minutes are an important stretch, "but getting to that point matters."
All true. But in the last five minutes of a tight game, possessions become magnified, pressure greater, strategy more scrutinized and intensity burning.
"Three words: 'Have better players,' " ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. "If your article has to be more than that, I would say that teams who don't beat themselves are the teams who put themselves in position to win more of those games."
The Mavericks won 68% of the time when they got to clutch situations last season, winning 34 of 50 games. When the playoffs arrived, the Mavs not only were a tested team, but they also were confident they could win close games down the stretch.
Against the Heat in the Finals, four of the last five games were considered clutch, and the Mavs went 3-1, outscoring the Heat 39-20 in those situations. The Mavs were the superior offensive and defensive team.
This season, Dallas is 15-17 in clutch situations, a combination of championship hangover, the crazy lockout-shortened season and the loss of key players such as center Tyson Chandler and guard J.J. Barea .
Building clutch chemistry takes time
While the Heat found playoff success in the clutch last season, they had struggled during the regular season, going 22-20. Miami had almost a completely new team with the additions of James, Chris Bosh , Mike Miller and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the core of Dwyane Wade , Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers .
It took considerable time for chemistry and trust to develop.
"Last year, we struggled for a large part of the season in those situations to even feel comfortable," Spoelstra said. "Then, at the end of the year, we started to become much more familiar and confident in those situations."
The Heat are a respectable 18-11 in the clutch this season. James is well aware of the improvement.
"Trust and chemistry are the No. 1 things in the last five minutes," James said. "Veteran ballclubs are going to be able to execute. Then it comes to the trust factor. Once you have that, it definitely helps.
"Last year was very tough on us because we were learning each other. We didn't know each other as a team. We struggled in that category. Last year helped us get to the point where we are now, where we can close out games."
Against the Thunder on April 4, Miami led 92-91 with 4:24 left in the fourth quarter. The Thunder shot 1-for-8 on field goals and were outscored 6-2 to end the game. The Heat won 98-93. Miami forced a 24-second violation and played outstanding defense.
"It took me a few years in Cleveland for us to get to that point. When we got to that point, we were very good. We knew what sets to be in, we knew where we were going to be," James said. "If you just close your eyes, you knew where guys were going to be on the floor."
Veteran trio clicks for Spurs
Few teams underscore the importance of chemistry, trust and familiarity more than the Spurs. Although the Spurs have made plenty of roster changes, the unflappable constant of guards Parker and Manu Ginobili and forward Tim Duncan has kept San Antonio relevant.
Parker, Ginobili and Duncan have been together for 10 seasons. There isn't a team in the league with a trio that has been together that long, let alone a trio of past and current All-Stars, with at least one (Duncan) headed for the Hall of Fame.
The Spurs earned the top seed in the Western Conference this season in part because of their 20-9 record in clutch situations.
"I have never analyzed it," Ginobili said. "What I can say is that the main three players are the ones who usually have the ball in their hands. We know each other very well."
The Spurs generally are not bothered by late-game situations. Coach Gregg Popovich believes success in close games starts with defense. If you can make stops, you give yourself a chance. Although Popovich says the Spurs might not be as defensively focused for 48 minutes as his teams of the past, they can still play defense when needed.
They have outscored opponents 276-231 and held foes to 41.8% shooting, including 25% on three-pointers, in 125 minutes of clutch time.
"We have probably been through every big situation possible, and that helps," Ginobili said. "Experience is an important thing."
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