Clutch When It Mattered Most

Kobe Bryant: Still the most clutch

Over the last couple of days, I’ve written a couple of articles that all started with the sixth bullet in last week’s Wednesday Bullets on TrueHoop, in which TrueHoop reader Bob makes several assertions regarding supposed improvements in LeBron James’ game.

First, I looked at the idea that LeBron James’ mid-range jumpshot has improved this year, and found that the numbers do not support such a claim. Next, I looked at some of Bob’s other points, in which he claims that LeBron has made some type of improvement in each of these areas: defense, foul shooting, and three-point shot selection. In general, I agreed with Bob on these latter points, though I also noted that these improvements didn’t necessarily place him ahead of Bryant in those areas.

Now, in a third article inspired by a single TrueHoop bullet, I’d like to take a look at something Henry Abbott mentioned at the end of that bullet. Here’s the quote:

I’m also not sure fans of James should cede the notion that Bryant is the better guy to make the final play. In stats from last year on 82games.com, in “crunch time” (defined there as time when neither team is ahead by more than five, and there is less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter or overtime) Kobe Bryant had slightly better free-throw and three-point field goal percentage, but James was superior in every other category, including points, overall field goal percentage, plus/minus, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, and turnovers.

Henry makes a good point. Unfortunately, there is very little out there (at least, that I’m aware of) in the way of statistics that track clutch performance. And in fact, the question of how, exactly, one would go about quantifiably measuring clutch performance would undoubtably be a controversial one in any event. To my knowledge, 82games.com makes the best attempt, and maintains the most complete and up-to-date information on what may be labeled “clutch statistics.”

The problem that I have already alluded to is in the definition of “clutch,” and the means used to measure it statistically. Here is how 82games.com defines “clutch”:

4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points

When the goal is to measure how a player performs in close-game situations throughout the course of the season, I imagine this definition is as good as any that we could come up with. But that doesn’t mean it answers all questions.

What about that single last shot? Time enough for but one possession, with their team down one to three points, how often does any given player get that last shot, and how consistently do they hit it?

And of course, there’s the “when it matters most” issue. In the NBA, as in most (if not all) sports, impressive performances are considered all the more valuable when they come in high pressure situations. As such, a regular season clutch shot on national TV is considered better than one on local TV, and a big performance in the Playoffs is considered more valuable than the same performance during the regular season.

While 82games.com‘s statistics are a huge step in the right direction, they don’t tell us which player is going to be more reliable with the game on the line… in the Finals, against another great team, with everything to lose. They don’t tell us how that player is going to perform “in the clutch” in the biggest game of their lives.

As I look at it, this is one of those moments when we realize that all the statistics in the world will never replace the trained eye that watches the game, knows the players, and understands the complexity of the circumstances.

Which brings us to the burning question: Given the statistics presented by 82games.com, why is it that NBA general managers, scouts, coaches, players, and experts of all kinds overwhelmingly credit Bryant as the undisputed Master of Clutch?

I believe that the answer can be found in the final eight minutes of the recent Olympic basketball Gold Medal Game, pitting Team USA against Spain, the defending world champions.

By all accounts, this was the biggest game in the lives of both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Though James had been to the Finals before, he had never been close to a championship victory, with the Spurs easily sweeping his Cavaliers. Meanwhile, Bryant openly considered a Gold Medal worth far more to him than all three of his NBA Championship rings, combined.

Both have been to the Finals recently and come up short against much better defensive teams. Both struggled with their individual offense in the 2008 Playoffs against a Boston team determined to take each of them out of the game (though the numbers show that Kobe faired better against Boston when the Celtics were at their strongest than LeBron did when the Celtics were still “figuring things out”). For a long list of reasons for both players, this game was the biggest and most important they had ever played. When they emerged with the win, it was the most meaningful win they had ever participated in.

In the biggest and most important single game in both of their lives, Bryant and James entered the fourth quarter with a mere 10 minutes on the clock separating them from their ultimate goal: A gold medal.

The game had been a close one, hard fought and not without challenges. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James had both been limited by foul trouble in the first half, but Dwyane Wade had kept the United States on top. Entering the fourth quarter, Team USA led by nine points, but they were far from safe.

Led by Pau Gasol and Rudy Fernandez, the defending champions fought their way back to within 2 points of Team USA. With the score at 89-92 with only 8:13 remaining in the game, millions of sleep-deprived Americans snacked on their own fingernails and shortened the life spans of their carpets.

Kobe Bryant had struggled with his shot for much of the Olympics, though his contributions in defense and leadership, both on and off the court, were immeasurable. Beginning in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament, and continuing throughout the Olympics, Bryant had consistently deferred offensively to the younger stars. Now, with the USA’s widely documented “Path to Redemption” on the line, Kobe Bryant did what he has done countless times before.

He stepped up and took over.

With 8:13 on the clock and Spain within two points of tying the game, Bryant had a mere seven points in the game, to go along with four assists, three rebounds, and three fouls. (Unlike in the NBA, five fouls are all it takes for a player to foul out in international play.)

15 seconds later, Bryant drove left into the high post, elevated, and while floating sideways with a Spanish defender in his face, hit a ridiculous twisting jumper — the first two of what would be 13 points for Bryant in the finals eight minutes of play.

After a Spanish miss, Bryant came back down and again drove into the paint, drawing defenders and setting up a wide open Deron Williams for a three-pointer.

After a Dwyane Wade foul, in which Wade attempted (but failed) to jump over a Spanish player, Rudy Fernandez again missed for Spain. On the other end of the floor, Bryant again drove into the paint, drawing three defenders and dishing to Dwight Howard for a wide open, point-blank dunk. In the minute and a half since Spain had cut the lead to two, Bryant had orchestrated three straight offensive plays that kept Team USA in control of the game.

Finally, after Felipe Reyes elevated between LeBron James and Dwigth Howard to collect an offensive rebound, Spain responded with a Rudy Fernandez three-pointer — but Kobe was having none of it. Somehow wide open in the left corner, he squared up and answered with a three-pointer of his own, again rebuffing the Spaniards’ attempts to cut into the Americans’ lead.

But the game wasn’t over; the pesky Spaniards simply wouldn’t go away. After LeBron James scored a layup with over five minutes left on the clock — his only points in the fourth quarter — Pau Gasol and Rudy Fernandez again combined to score seven straight Spanish points and cut the United States’ lead to five with three and a half minutes to go.

Once again, it was up to Kobe Bryant to respond — and did he ever.

With Dwyane Wade driving on the right side and the Spanish zone collapsing on him, Kobe Bryant took position on the weak side wing and called for the ball. Wade found him with a cross-court pass, and Fernandez rushed back to get a hand in his face. The last time he had left Bryant that open on the perimeter, he had paid the price.

It didn’t matter. Bryant jab-stepped to the right, and then elevated with Fernandez in his face. Absorbing contact on the shot, Kobe nonetheless nailed the three-pointer, and Fernandez was whistled for the foul.

As the building erupted and his teammates exploded into the air, Bryant stood perfectly still, looked into the crowd. With a calm expression on his face, put his finger to his lips. The message was clear: Bryant was unflappable. He was unstoppable.

And he wasn’t going to allow a Spanish comeback.

After Bryant’s on-court teammates mobbed him, he stepped to the line and hit the free throw, completing the four-point play that would later be viewed by all as the shot that took the wind out of the Spanish sails.

Nonetheless, the defending champions refused to go down without a fight. After five straight points cut the lead to four, Dwyane Wade collected a LeBron James pass and nailed a three-pointer, pushing the lead back to seven. On the next trip down the floor, Kobe drove into the teeth of the Spanish zone, rising up amidst three defenders to sink a running floater, pushing the lead back to nine one last time.

Chris Paul drew a foul on Juan Carlos Navarro, hitting both free throws, and then later on Ricky Rubio. But when Rubio receievd a technical foul before Paul went to the line, there was no discussion as to which of the five American superstars on the floor would take the shots. Kobe Bryant stepped to the line and coolly hit both free throws.

Chris Paul took his final two free throws, hitting one, and finalizing the victory for Team USA with an 11-point win, 118-107.

In all, Kobe Bryant tallied 13 points and two assists in the final eight minutes of the Gold Medal Game, shooting 4-6 from the field and 3-3 from the free throw line

In a game that often saw him riding the bench with foul trouble, he finished with 20 points on 7-14 shooting (second behind Wade’s 27 points), six assists, two blocks, and an answer for every Spanish attempt to cut into his team’s lead.

Bryant’s six assists were also a game high for both teams. LeBron James, who usually takes the assist category from Bryant, finished with three.

In the final quarter, LeBron managed only two points and one assist, as well as two more fouls, to go with his six rebounds — the only bright spot from James while the biggest game of his life was on the line. EDIT: James also took two free throws in the game, and missed both.

For all the regular season “clutch” numbers the paint James as slightly better than Bryant in crunch time (both are head and shoulders above any other player), it was Kobe Bryant, not LeBron James, who rose to the occasion in the biggest moment of both of their careers — and not only carried his team, but completely dominated and single-handedly prevented a Spanish upset.

I love what 82games.com has done with their clutch statistics. I hope we see more and more of that type of effort in the world of basketball statistics. But anyone who understands basketball knows that there are elements to basketball that go beyond the numbers — intangibles that can only be understood by seeing it unfold in front of your eyes.

LeBron James is a fantastic performer in clutch situations, and as a member of “the other team,” I can think of few things than watching LeBron wait for the last shot in a game-deciding situation. To think that he still has so much potential for improvement must be an insanely frightening thought for the rest of the league.

But as it stands now, he is not the only player who thrives when the game is on the line. The Gold Medal Game of the 2008 Olympics showed us why basketball experts across the country — from owners to GMs, coaches to players, and scouts to the most respected sports writers — still consider Kobe Bryant to be the hands down best performer in the clutch.

Especially when it matters the most.

Filed Under Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Free Throw Shooting, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Statistics, assists, big games, clutch, leadership | 18 Comments

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18 Comments so far
  1. est says...December 8, 2008 5:42 pm

    amen.

  2. PAUL--MrTripleDouble says...December 8, 2008 11:29 pm

    Nice article summarizing a spectacular performance. However, I would be more interested in seeing statistics for Kobe, Lebron, Carmelo, Wade and other players for the last possession of each close ball game in their careers and what transpired. Although 82games.com has taken steps in the right direction, what really matters is how each player performs with his team down by 1, 2 or 3 points during the final possession of play. Its also interesting to note that while Tim Duncan is an excellent clutch player, one would have to account for instances when his team is down by 3 points, in which case he would never shoot a 3-point shot to try and tie the ballgame….well almost never if you know which game I am referring to.

  3. Josh Tucker (The Apologist) says...December 9, 2008 12:00 am

    @PAUL–MrTripleDouble,

    I also would really like to see “last possession clutch statistics” — i.e., the single last possession where the game can be won, sent to overtime, or (defensively) held onto. But if we did that, I suspect we’d find someone else entirely at the top of the list.

    Meanwhile, I suspect that you might realize that that person may be great in last possession situations throughout the season, but in the Finals, in Game 7, as the clock expires, you still prefer Kobe or LeBron.

    The point is that the numbers can’t tell the whole story. They can’t account for pressure, the gravity of the situation, etc. The numbers were wrong about which player would be the one to carry Team USA in the Gold Medal Game. What makes you think they’d be any better at predicting who would be the one to hit the game-winning shot in Game 7 of the Finals?

    Also… your argument about Timmy gets hard to make when you consider that the one time he did what he would never do, in a very high pressure situation… he made it. Dude’s got it.

  4. Anonymous says...December 9, 2008 9:14 am

    you cant just put on a theory based on one game. this would be like if you would say kobe isnt clutch because he missed a freethrow in the wizards game and gave butler a chance to win the game for the wizards. if i had one last shot to win a game i would problably give it to kobe and not lebron because of his better jump shot but among all players maybe to a healthy gilbert arenas or kobe. but only because i choose kobe over lebron for the last jump shot doesnt mean that he is automatically the better clutch player. to me clutch means  more than just hitting the game winning buzzer beater

  5. Josh Tucker (The Apologist) says...December 9, 2008 10:15 am

    @Anonymous,

    No, you’re right, you can’t just base an entire argument on one game.

    But that’s not what’s happening here. Kobe Bryant is, and has been for quite a long time, considered the de facto Master of Clutch. He has a very long, proven history of doing exactly what he did in the Gold Medal Game.

    LeBron James is the challenger to that title. He has begun to really exert himself in those close-game situations, and is building that reputation for himself. Nonetheless, he has not yet done it on the biggest stage. This was his opportunity to do so, and he didn’t.

    Do you think it’s a coincidence that the guy to step up in this game happened to be the guy who has built a very long, very extensive, and very well-chronicled history of doing just that? There were 11 other NBA superstars on that team. If this one-game occurrence is to be seen as insignificant, because in a single game anything can happen, why is it that the guy with the most extensive and consistent history of being “clutch” just happened to be that guy?

    I agree with you that you can’t just base an entire theory on a single game. But when you consider the greater context, this is not just one game. It is just the latest example. But it was the biggest game of their lives, and the most clutch player became just that.

    Also, notice that in this case, it wasn’t just a buzzer beater. Kobe has had plenty of those. He’s also had plenty of this type of game — which was a dominant performance over the last 8 minutes to continuously keep his team on top.

  6. anonymus/ chap says...December 9, 2008 11:09 am

    to josh:
    i understand why you chose the game against spain which gives another example that kobe is excellent clutch player. i never said bryant isnt a great clutch player in fact i think like most of you that he is at the moment the best clutch player in the game. i just thought it was kind of akward if you say stats ( i didnt know that according to these stats lebron is the “better” clutch player) dont show everything and than show one game in which kobe is clutch and lebron isnt. i hope you understand what i mean

  7. Josh Tucker (The Apologist) says...December 9, 2008 12:13 pm

    @anonymus/ chap,

    Yeah, I get what you mean. It’s a valid point. And in a sense, I agree with you. The reason I think this works is because Kobe is the established “Master of Clutch,” while LeBron is the challenger. So this game becomes a reminder that Kobe is the one who does this, and LeBron is the one who is getting better at this, but not quite at Kobe’s level yet. It fits in with the already extensive sample size.

    As a matter of fact, I took your approach a while back (in the comments, I believe, responding to a commenter who wrote under the moniker “You’re Stupid” — referring to me, obviously). My position was that that one game against Detroit was ridiculous and unbelievable, but that single game didn’t make him more clutch than Kobe. Or, as the Cavs had just edged out the Lakers, I was saying that one win over the Lakers didn’t make LeBron better.

    So it’s a valid point. I think what this game did was remind everyone what they had seen so many times in the past. It made you go, “Oh yeah… he’s that guy.” And it showed you that LeBron is on his way, but is still working on becoming that guy. But without that extensive history, you’re right, this game wouldn’t have meant nearly as much as I think it did.

  8. Joe says...December 9, 2008 1:25 pm

    Brought a tear to my eye.  Literally.
    “But anyone who understands basketball knows that there are elements to basketball that go beyond the numbers — intangibles that can only be understood by seeing it unfold in front of your eyes.”
    I have a friend in England who is a big NBA fan but obviously can’t watch many games.  I’ve tried to explain that idea to him over and over.  Kobe is in a small group of the best players ever at being able to completely take over a game.  He can sense when the other team is gaining confidence and momentum and systematically shuts them down.  It’s amazing to watch, and can’t be expressed in statistics.

  9. MV says...December 9, 2008 2:34 pm

    Guess what Josh–TrueHoop posted another controversial topic:
    http://myespn.go.com/blogs/truehoop/0-37-28/The-Ol–Kobe-Bryant-vs–Michael-Jordan-Debate.html
    Oh yes…

  10. Craig W. says...December 9, 2008 2:49 pm

    This system is not accepting my entries and I am getting tired of retyping my comments.
    This discussion only defines clutch performances as occuring in the last half of the 4th qtr. The following link: http://www.littlewhitestatistics.com/?cat=7 is a series of articles analyzing Kobe’s shooting during games over the span of a year. Maybe it is not the end-all-beat-all of statistical analysis, but one thing is clear; Kobe shoots more when his team is threatened and reduces his shots when the Lakers are ahead or hopelessly behind. There are two games we are all familiar with that help make this point – although they are not included in the year’s analysis. 1) the 81pt game where Kobe went off when the Lakers were down 18pts in the 3rd qtr and that initial run totally demoralized the Raptors (my definition of clutch). 2) the Mavericks game a couple of weeks earlier where he scored 62pts in 3qtrs and the Mavericks just rolled over in the 4th qtr.
    Clutch is what you do when your team really needs you, not just at the end of the game.

  11. Josh Tucker (The Apologist) says...December 9, 2008 10:37 pm

    @MV,

    For the moment at least, I’m really not touching that one. Besides, I just spent a lot of time on three articles.

    There may be some issues with the specific statistics used, but I really haven’t looked at them yet. Then again, they may be right on. I’ll bookmark it, and sooner or later, we’ll see what the verdict is.

  12. Josh Tucker (The Apologist) says...December 9, 2008 10:43 pm

    @Craig W.,

    Have you created an account, or are you still just typing your name in and commenting? If you haven’t registered, try that. I believe the restrictions are a lot more lax on registered users who have a comment approved. If you continue to have issues, email me, and I will look into it. I definitely want you to be able to post.

    I’ll take a look at those articles you looked at. They sound very interesting. I’ve always felt that Kobe’s clutch ability extends far beyond the end of the game. Very often, he doesn’t even let it get that far. He has a rare ability to immediately sense a critical moment, and respond accordingly.

  13. xrism says...December 15, 2008 10:37 pm

    Josh,

    Once again great article!

    How quickly they forget. The funny thing about this season is that statistically, Dwyane Wade is the best player in the L’Eastern Conference. Yet nobody will point that out. I commented a few months ago that a healthy D Wade will be the best in the East and so far he has proven so.

    It blows my mind that these Lebronists will see a couple of blocked shots here and there and all of a sudden Lebron is a 1st Team defender. Yet Paul Pierce and many other small forwards and two guards drive past and get away from Lebron as if he were standing still. He is too big to guard quicker 2′s and 3′s. No lateral movement.

    Like I’ve always said, if Lebron doesnt develop a decent jumpshot in the next few years, his numbers will drop.

    You cant drive to the basket forever.

    Just ask Michael Jordan.

  14. Brittney says...December 20, 2008 12:33 am

    Josh it is good to see you back and I’ve been missing out on this past three articles but Kobe is clutch when it matters, just like tonights lost vs. Miami Kobe’s shot almost went down to force overtime. I know the Lakers Now only have four losses but the way they play to me just stink on Defense and on Offense. It’s seems like they are confused more then ever and it seems to me like they are making it harder for themselves on Offense and Defense. Does any body else see think so??? And why do they seem to have hard times with easy teams???? Their losses so far has drove me nuts.

  15. Willie says...December 21, 2008 8:06 pm

    Brittney,

    I was thinking the same thing. Despite their record the Lakers look terrible to me. They are soft, once again, on defense and the offense looks erratic too. They are far from the team I saw the first few games of the season. Then they played like they were on a mission, not so much now.  Boston and Cleveland play with more desire, toughness and like they have something to prove! IF they make it to the finals, I don’t be think L.A. could beat Boston or Cleveland if they keep this up.

    The Lakers should be crushing teams like the Pacers, Kings and even the Heat. It will be a Xmas massacre against Boston if they don’t get it together! The Lakers look like the old Dallas Mavs, a quality team, but not tough enough to win it all. Also, I really don’t get why Phil has tinkered with the line-up from the start of the season either.

  16. Brittney says...December 22, 2008 1:24 am

    Willie

    Yeah I also think Josh Powell should get more playing time especially now with Bynum always in foul trouble so I guess we will have to wait and see which Laker team shows up against Boston Dec. 25 because that game to me will really show me if the Lakers are ready to be Champions.

  17. Willie says...December 22, 2008 10:36 pm

    After 2 straight losses, a close game against Memphis???? Are you kidding me!!??? Where’s the heart, pride and killer instinct !!??? Maybe they’ve saved it for Boston…… but this is frustrating.

  18. [...] (Bob also mentions defense, free throw shooting, and three-point shooting — and in several ways, he’s absolutely right. Click here to read more on LeBron’s legitimate improvements in those areas. UPDATE: I’ve also followed this article up with another one, also inspired by the same TrueHoop bullet, which looks at which of these two players is “the most clutch.” Click here to find out if the numbers tell the whole story.) [...]


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