Wednesday , May , 04 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

NBA’s Most Clutch Players

By Paul Benedict


Tracy McGrady was magnificent in Games 1 and 2 for the Rockets., but
another loss could raise some concern on just how clutch T-Mac is.

I was inspired to write this piece after watching Tracy McGrady come up
with huge peformances in Houston’s two wins against Dallas last week.
Since then, we have witnessed a number of players lift their teams to
victory with some inspiring clutch play: Damon Jones coming out of
nowhere to drop 32 on the Nets in Game 1 of Miami’s 1st Round sweep;
Reggie Miller once again baffling everyone with 61 points in Games 2
and 3 vs Boston; Ray Allen’s fallaway 3-pointer as the shot clock
expired to give the Sonics a 9 point lead with just 1:02 to go in
Seattle’s comeback victory over Sacramento. It seems that in nearly
every playoff game, someone is called upon to be the hero, to lift
their team to victory when it matters the most. So I got to thinking–
Who IS the NBA’s Most Clutch Player? It’s not an easy argument to say
the least, so allow me to break down the questions I asked myself when
making this list:

Which players have the richest history of clutch feats?
Which players can be counted on for making clutch plays as of today?
Who can turn it on for crucial stretches at a time, mainly the playoffs?
Who is the best at hitting the big shots?
Who can be relied upon the most for the last shot?
Who thrives when the pressure is mounted the highest?



NBA's Most Clutch Players
The NBA’s 10 Most Clutch Players

Honorable Mention: Baron Davis, Kevin Garnett, Manu Ginobili, Ben
Gordon, Richard Hamilton, Paul Pierce, Tayshaun Prince, Dwyane Wade,
Rasheed Wallace


10. Robert Horry
Horry seems like an ideal choice at number ten. Though he’s never been
more than a role player for any team he’s been on, he has made
countless clutch contributions on his way to winning five championship
rings with the Rockets and Lakers. Most Knick fans will remember the
moment Horry earned his reputation as a clutch performer, back in Game
1 of the 1994 NBA Finals when “Big Shot Rob’s” 3-Pointer with seconds
left sealed up a Houston victory over the Knickerbockers. Most of us
younger guys think of the key plays Horry always came up with for the
Lakers during their run of 3 straight titles including the game-winning
three-pointer he hit with 0.6 seconds left in Game 4 against the Kings
in 2002 that would save the series for LA. And of course it was Big
Shot Rob nailing two huge 3-pointers and making a momentum-shifting
steal in San Antonio’s enormous win over Denver on Saturday night, a
win that likely will be the difference in the series. Horry may not
have ever been the guy relied upon to get you 30 points in an
eliminaion game, but he has unquestionably created a legacy for himself
based on his consistently brilliant clutch play.



9. Mike Bibby
Bibby’s reputation as a cool pressure player started his first year at
Arizona when he defied odds in leading the Wildcats to a surprising
title run despite being just a freshman point guard. He renewed that
status in 2002 as he spurred the Kings’ playoff run all the way to Game
7 of the Western Conference Finals. With Peja Stojakovic hurting and
Chris Webber only able to get it done for 3 quarters at a time, Bibby
stepped up and played extraordinary basketball (22.7 PPG in the series
up from 13.7 in the regular season), hitting big shot after big shot
for the Kings during their unforgettable clash with the Lakers. Bibby
was equally impressive a year ago in the playoffs (20 PPG, 7 APG, 2
SPG) as Sacramento pushed top-seeded Minnesota to a Game 7 before
falling short yet again. It’s been this high level of play in crucial
stretches that have enabled the Maloof Brothers to entrust Bibby as the
top dog on this Kings franchise. And despite an underwhelming
performance in this year’s playoffs (down 3-1 to Seattle), you can be
rest-assured that the Kings will regroup soon and Mike Bibby will put
his stamp on another Sacramento playoff push.


8. Chauncey Billups
Chauncey has had a knack for hitting the key shot throughout his
career, including numerous buzzer-beaters since landing on the Pistons.
In the 2002-03 season, Billups hit 6 game-winning or game-tying shots
for the Pistons and actually led the entire league with 11 game-tying
or lead-changing field goals with under 2 minutes left in the 4th
Quarter. His clutch play hit top ten status a year ago, when he
engineered the Pistons’ title run, earning NBA Finals MVP honors on the
way. And Chauncey has done nothing to relinquish such acclaim this
season as his under-pressure performances have become somewhat of a
regularity at this point. On Sunday, he bailed out the Pistons with
their backs against the wall by scoring 10 straight points in the last
3 minutes of regulation thus sending the game into overtime where the
Pistons held off the 76ers and took a commanding 3-1 series lead. I
think it’s fair to say that Chauncey has an excellent chance of
marching up this ladder before the 2005 Playoffs are over.



7. Sam Cassell
Charles Barkley once said, “When Michael Jordan is on the floor with
Sam Cassell, Sam Cassell still thinks he’s the best player out there.”
It’s been this kind of brash confidence that has enabled Sammy to step
up time and again with the game on the line, a reputation he has
sustained since winning two rings with the Rockets in 1994 and 1995.
Though he’s only been invited to one All-Star Weekend during his career
(2004), he has been a key member of three different franchises that
have reached the Conference Finals. As a rookie with Houston during
their 1994 title run, Cassell was often left on the floor during crunch
time in favor of Kenny Smith because Rudy T realized he had a knack for
hitting lighting it up in vital situations. In the 1995 NBA Finals,
Cassell was again instrumental for the Rockets, pouring in 14.3 PPG and
shooting 47% from 3-Point range despite averaging just 9.5 PPG and
shooting 33% on threes during the regular season. In 2001, it was
Cassell’s steady play at the point (17.4 PPG, 6.7 APG) that fueled the
Bucks’ run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. And last year,
after playing his best basketball ever during the regular season for
Minnesota, Cassell marched the ‘Wolves all the way to the Western
Conference Finals where they lost to the Lakers. A hamstring injury to
Sammy is what ultimately did the ‘Wolves in, and not only he will tell
you that.


6. Tracy McGrady
T-Mac may not have the resume of some of the guys on this list. Hell,
he’s never even been beyond the first round of the Playoffs, but you
can’t tell me there’s a player you would rather put the ball into the
hands of (save #2 on this list) with your team down one and needing a
basket to win, than Tracy McGrady. Most NBA players will tell you he’s
the most difficult player to guard one-on-one in the NBA because of the
swift release of his smooth jump shot, his exceptional ball-handling
skills for a player his size, and his outstanding athleticism. How many
other players can score 13 points in 35 seconds to win their team a
ball game? Who else has scored 89 points in back-to-back playoff games
at the Palace? There’s no question that McGrady is still developing
into his own as a big-time superstar in this league. He vowed before
this year’s playoffs to do anything and everything that would ensure
his Rockets succeed and that he would become the player they need him
to be on the way. T-Mac’s word lived true in Games 1 and 2, but the
Mavericks have taken the series lead and now is the time that the
Rockets really need McGrady to do EVERYTHING if they want to advance to the next round.


5. Allen Iverson
To sum up Allen Iverson’s career as a clutch player by highlighting
some of his greatest moments, that would not only take quite awhile,
but it would also be superflous. AI’s entire career has been one
gigantic clutch moment in NBA history. This is a player who has defied
all odds not only based on his physical limitations, but also
considering that he’s carried an entire successful franchise on his
back for nine years by coming through time and time again when they
rely on him the most, which is 48 minutes a game, 82+ games a year.
Despite never having a distinguished supporting case, Iverson has
single-handedly lifted the 76ers into the playoffs five times, once as
far as the NBA Finals in 2001. And if you want to get into specifics,
AI has hit numerous game-winning shots, he has gone off for 40 when his team needed him to, he has picked a player’s pocket on a crucial
possession, and he has certainly elevated his play for stretches at a
time when you’re not sure even he could top himself. Haven’t you been
watching this 76ers/Pistons series?



4. Reggie Miller
Reggie Miller’s legacy as one of the all-time greatest clutch players
will live on forever because we will never, EVER stop seeing his golden
moments from being played over and over and over again. Wherever there is a montage of classic playoff moments, Reggie’s 8 point outburst in 16.4 seconds against the Knicks at MSG will be included. Or perhaps
they’ll show the game-winning 3-pointer he sunk with 2.7 seconds left
to beat the Bulls in Game 4 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. Or
maybe the 25 4th Quarter points he dropped on the Knicks during Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals all while jawing back and forth
with Spike Lee. Or how about the 40-foot buzzer-beater against the Nets in 2002 to send the game into overtime, followed by the game-tying dunk with seconds left to send the game into double overtime? You get the point. Reggie Miller is a player that will forever be defined by his
ability to reach from within and bring out the absolute best in himself
when the moment counted the most. And what’s perhaps most amazing about Reggie, is that at 39 years old and in his final season, he’s still
doing it (61 points in 2 Pacer wins so far in this year’s playoffs). In
what’s been a storybook career for Reggie Miller, there still might be
another chapter to his legacy…



3. Shaquille O’Neal
Shaquille O’Neal has earned a warranted reputation for being the most
dominant player of this era. There’s a reason why– Shaq turns it up
when he wants, where he wants, and however much he wants it. And
considering that there’s no better time to put things in full throttle
than the NBA Finals, well, let the numbers speak for themselves: 31.o
PPG (3rd All-Time; up from 26.7 PPG in regular season), 62% FGs (1st
All-Time; up from 57.9% in regular season), 3 NBA Finals MVPs, 3 Rings.
If not for one detriment to his game, Shaq would unquestionably be #1
on this list: he is a terrible free throw shooter. While he may claim
to hit them when his team needs him to the most, the numbers simply
don’t lie: 53.1% for his career during the regular season; 51.8% for
his career in the playoffs. It is because of his poor free throw
shooting that he’s rarely been looked upon to have the ball with only
seconds left on the clock and that has to take away from his status as
one of the most clutch players in the NBA. But if you’re looking for a
player that can raise the level of his game to herculean levels for
stretches at a time, there’s only one and his name is Shaquille O’Neal.



2. Kobe Bryant
Up until this season, I’m not sure anyone would have argued that with
the game on the line, there is another player you would rather have
taking the last shot than Kobe Bryant. Aside from being arguably the
toughest player to man up in the NBA, Kobe also has an ability to bust
out the unthinkable play that nobody else has since Michael Jordan. How
many times have we watched him seemingly hang in the air only to make
the spectacular ‘and one’? Or bang back-to-back desperation jumpers to
suddenly shift the momentum of the game? What really separates Kobe
Bryant from everyone else as a clutch player is his level of
competitiveness and determination, one that we haven’t seen since Mike. It’s like this indescribable drive from within that almost makes it
feel as though he’s destined to win. Is there another player that makes
your heart beat faster, for better or worse, than Kobe Bryant as he
dribbles out the clock preparing to make his final move to win the
game? Think about it– there’s nobody. And no matter how much you may want to attribute the success of the Lakers to the Big Fella, Kobe
Bryant was the go-to guy down the stretch in the midst of a dynasty
run. Nobody else in the league can make that claim.


1. Tim Duncan
Duncan takes the number one spot, barely. Though he usually isn’t Greg
Popovich’s choice to take the final shot of a game, his ability to
raise the level of his play on both ends of the floor when it matters
most is enough for me to award him the title of NBA’s Most Clutch
Player. While the Big Fundamental shared most of the spotlight with
David Robinson during the Spurs’ 1999 title run, he essentially carried
the team on his back throughout the entire 2003 championship season
thus earning MVP honors in both the regular season and Finals thanks to
a legendary 21 point, 20 rebound, 10 assist, and 8 block performance in
the deciding 6th game. Though San Antonio has met its share of playoff
disappointment, TD has never failed to do everything in his will to
take them to the promised land (career in playoffs: 23.9 PPG, 13.1 RPG,
2.9 BPG compared to 22.5 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 2.5 BPG in regular season). He
gets the top nod over Shaq and Kobe for two reasons: 1) He has been the lone star in San Antonio for the better part of his career; 2) His
leadership and confidence in clutch situations have also brought out
the best in the teammates surrounding him. While Shaq and Kobe are
physically more gifted and talented, Duncan has always been the better
leader and that’s why we constantly see the Spurs exceeding
expectations every season despite what appears to be a plain team on
paper.



Cool, calm, and collected, nobody comes through better in the clutch
than Tim Duncan.