Every modern NBA fan needs an informed opinion in the Great Clutch Debate*. What does “clutch” mean? Who do you consider “clutch,” “un-clutch,” or even “mistakenly believed to be clutch?” Is there a “clutch” gene? A real fan needs answers to all of these questions.
* Hereafter, “GCD”
The Western Conference Semifinals have provided a complicated referendum on the matter, since they pit the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, the most widely acclaimed “clutch” performer of his generation, against the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant, whom many believe could become the “clutch” standard-bearer of the next decade. That the last three games have each come down to a final possession has only intensified the arguing.
With the Thunder leading 3-1 and poised to end the series on Monday, the time is right to take stock of the various moments of heroism thus far, to mark our progress in the GCD.
Game 2: Bryant commits two late turnovers and fails to score even once to preserve his team’s 7-point lead with two minutes remaining. Durant hits the game-winning baseline runner with 18 seconds remaining, although he fails to hit the rim on an intentional free throw miss with under two seconds left, which gives the Lakers a final chance to tie or win. Advantage: Durant, but he could have easily worn goat horns for the free throw mishap.
Game 3: Bryant scores 14 fourth-quarter points, including the go-ahead layup and four free throws in the final 1:30. Durant rushes a look at a late three that bounces away instead of tying the game. Advantage: Bryant, although Durant did give Oklahoma City its final lead with a foul-line jumper inside of a minute.
Game 4: Durant combines with Russell Westbrook for 19 fourth-quarter points, and hits the eventual game-winning three-pointer with 13.7 seconds left. Bryant shoots 2-10 in the final quarter after going 10-18 for 31 points in the previous three. Advantage: Durant, though the only goat for the Lakers was Pau Gasol, whose errant pass inside of 30 seconds left led to Durant’s game-winnter.
Analyzing the data at hand, it would be easy to say that Durant has been more “clutch” than Bryant in this series, and further to conclude that Bryant has lost the mentality or skill level to remain as “clutch” as he was several years ago, when known as the NBA’s greatest “closer.” That title, some casual fans would conclude, now rests with Durant.
Look, though, at the nature of Durant’s “clutch” shot-making. His Game 2 clincher was little more than a prayer, a runner that hit several parts of the rim before rolling in. His game-winner tonight was prettier, but did come from a stagnant, one-on-one Hero Ball possession with one of the league’s most feared perimeter defenders (Metta World Peace) waiting.
Both Durant and Bryant have the ball in their hands at the ends of close games, as conventional wisdom would like it. This often leads to low-quality forced shots. Durant’s have been of a slightly higher quality, but does that make him “clutch” – or just “better?”
About the Author
Written by Steven Jones
Portland native, Highland Park resident, middle school teacher/basketball coach.