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:
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”:
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.