Kobe Bryant and the Lakers dispatched with the Blazers in crunch time -- storming back at the end of regulation, and then taking the game in overtime. In the Portland locker room post-game, Ben Golliver of BlazersEdge brought up the idea that Bryant does not deserve his reputation as king of crunch time.
The Blazers thought that sounded perfectly nuts. Golliver writes:
"Yeah, of course," Blazers guard Brandon Roy told me, when asked if Bryant was still the gold standard clutch player in the NBA or if it was up for debate. "He's the guy that's been doing it better than anybody. I don't quite know what the debate is. What's the debate?"
A brief explanation of the volume argument wasn't going to convince a chuckling Roy.
"Yeah, he takes [a lot of] them. I don't know, there's nothing I can say about Kobe. He's just that good. Tonight he did it to us. He did it to us a few times earlier in my career. You just know when he makes shots, it's tough."
Roy stopped short of calling Bryant unstoppable but spoke with awe about his late-game mentality. "He takes it like he doesn't care if he misses or makes them," Roy told me. "Anybody who is shooting that fearless, it's definitely -- I wouldn't say unstoppable -- but it's something you worry about. No conscience. He's never had one."
Blazers forward Nicolas Batum paused in applying the "unstoppable" label, but eventually admitted that it often feels that way. "He is very good, sometimes, yeah, he is unstoppable, sometimes. You can crowd him, get on him, he's going to find a way to score. I don't know how. Only he knows."
Batum agreed Bryant is still the most clutch player in the NBA. Asked to elaborate, he paused as if it needed no explanation. "Why would I say that? Just what I've watched for the last 15 years. We know he's going to take the ball in the end. We know that. Everybody in the world knows that. When the game is tight, Kobe is going to take the ball and take over the game."
Reminiscing on L.A.'s final offensive play during regulation -- a tough Bryant jumper going to the hoop with the clock winding down -- Batum couldn't come up with any obvious room for improvement for Portland's defense. "I think at the end of the game, when he tied it, Wesley [Matthews] played good defense," Batum said. "Wesley played pretty good defense and he made a tough shot. Ask Kobe how many shots he's made shots like this in his career."
Hearing players talk like this doesn't surprise me one bit.
And for the record, hell no, that doesn't settle it that Bryant's the king of crunch time.
Here's the deal: How you see Kobe Bryant in crunch time depends on how much you believe in abstract evidence. And really, nothing else.
To the human eye, an SUV is the safest way to get around. It's big, it's padded. It's high up. It's tough. It looks safe. And yet, as Malcolm Gladwell once explained beautifully, traffic fatality statistics showed people were far less likely to die in minivans (with their "unit body" construction that handles accidents better). Even safer still: nimble, smaller cars.
If you're going to believe your eyes above all else, you're going to pick an SUV as the safest car, and Bryant as the king of crunch time. He wins the eye test, hands down. He also wins a skill test. And if they had a "score against the NBA's best defense without passing" contest he'd probably win that too.
But psychologists and scientists and people way geekier than me will tell you that the human eye, and the brain it's connected to, is simply not good at processing tons of information. NBA crunch time over the last, say, decade, is hundreds of thousands of incidents and moments. If we watched every second, we'd be overwhelmed and unable to do a good job ranking performances. (If we didn't watch every second we'd be poorly informed to make the decisions.)
Unable to handle all that information, our brains do the natural thing and ignore most of it, leaving ... the really spectacular and memorable moments. Which are disproportionately Bryant.
Now, I'm not saying that I've done the final analysis, nor have I ranked the finest performers. But I'm saying that every which way you look at those big batches of numbers, you'll find that Bryant and the Lakers are in the middle of the pack. You can find smaller stretches where Bryant is among the elite, including recently. But you can find "hot" stretches in the record of any 30 percent shooter, which is, in crunch time, roughly what Bryant is if you look over any long period of time. We looked at five and 15 years, and I also linked to assessments of individual years and other definitions of crunch time.
Most importantly, you'll find that the Lakers' team offensive efficiency, over Bryant's career, is the best in the NBA over the whole 48 minutes. In the final minutes when his team most needs a bucket, though, and when Bryant does what he's known best for, the Lakers are not even in the top ten. 15, or five, years of crunch time is not something we, as humans, can observe, catalog and rank with any accuracy. Our brains can't handle that much information, no matter what you had for breakfast. That's why it's surprising to everybody, even Chris Paul, whose team is by far and away the best at scoring in crunch time over the last five years. That's news that comes not from our eyes, but from (super dorky) spreadsheets. Which is not where athletes, and many in sports, are used to getting insight about the game.
That doesn't mean it's wrong, though.