Thunder at Heat: A close look at the clutch
April, 4, 2012
By Tom Haberstroh
Issac Baldizon/NBAEGetty Images
Before Kevin Durant and LeBron James go head-to-head, we take a look at some clutch numbers.
With 3:03 left in the game and the Heat up 85-81 over the 76ers, LeBron James stepped up to the charity stripe for a pair of free throws. With Dwyane Wade sidelined, all of the eyes in AmericanAirlines Arena turned to LeBron to come up big in crunchtime.
LeBron went 1-for-2 at the line. Not impressive. What followed, though, was impressive. From there, LeBron proceeded to hit two jumpers, flush an alley-oop and convert three more free throws in the closing minutes. With the game in balance, LeBron scored 12 points over the final three minutes of the game, matching the Philadelphia 76ers entire team's total over that span. The Heat went on to win 99-93.
LeBron closed the door, something that every critic has yearned for him to do more consistently. It's no secret that LeBron's season hasn't memorable for his clutch performance. He might have the commanding lead in player efficiency rating, but he doesn't boast a catalog of game-winners that are featured daily on the morning highlight reels.
That's not the case for his opponent on Wednesday -- Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Or at least that's what it seems.
From the team perspective, the Thunder are 16-9 (.640) when games enter clutch time which is actually slightly worse, percentage-wise, than what the 14-7 (.667) Heat have done this season. There's no question that the Thunder have had far more dramatic wins this season, but when the games get close, the Heat have surprisingly seen better results from a record standpoint.
The Thunder have been stellar this season with the game on the line and leading the way is Durant, who has been unbelievably successful in the shot-making department. The 23-year-old (remember, 23!) currently leads the NBA with 126 points in clutch situations (defined as the score within five points or less in the final five minutes). And Russell Westbrook? He ranks fourth in the league in clutch points (108), trailing Kobe Bryant (121) and Chris Paul (115).
Where is LeBron on the list? And Wade? They're further down on the list. In fact, Durant has more points in those clutch situations (126) than LeBron and Wade combined (64 and 42 points, respectively). Westbrook, too. What's more surprising? Bosh, the power forward who's often labeled as soft and mentally-feebled, has scored 55 points in clutch situations, which is more than Wade, the Heat's so-called closer, this season.
This is where we pause to mention the power of opportunity. The Thunder have played 122 minutes of clutch time this season and Durant and Westbrook have been on the floor for all 122 of those minutes. The Heat are a different story, having played 105 minutes in the clutch with LeBron playing only 85 of those minutes and Wade only 72 minutes. Still, that doesn't completely explain point disparity.
Here are the numbers, including the top trios from both teams:
What jumps out? First, Durant still comes out on top when we slice the game this way. Boosted by a enormous usage rate (percentage of team's possessions used by a field goal attempt, free throw or turnover) of 42.5 percent, Durant trumps all in scoring and PER. Westbrook and Bosh have been monsters in shot efficiency when we look at their true shooting percentage which brings three-pointers and free throws into the picture.
But Wade hasn't been sharp, which runs counter to what the conventional wisdom would suggest. Bosh might have played more, but when control for playing time, he has still been more efficient by PER and more accurate by true shooting. It should be noted that Bosh is set up for many of his buckets while Wade takes the burden of shot creation by himself.
And Harden? That might be the most jaw-dropping figure of all. When was the last time we saw a wing player who averages about 20 points per game get completely ignored in crunch time? Sure, he brings more to the table than scoring, but a player of Harden's scoring talent shouldn't have a usage rate that rivals Joel Anthony.
Let's take the next step and look at what I'll call "super-clutch" time. How do these players look in a one-possession game in the final minute?
With a sample size this microscopic, we can't take much away from this other than to say Durant has been other-worldly when the lights at their brightest. I mean, 39 points in 18 minutes? That's the equivalent of scoring a whopping 78 points over a 36 minute period. That's simply incredible.
And there's the Wade that the national audience remembers. In highly concentrated clutch moments, Wade has posted a higher usage rate than LeBron in this case and has flourished with that responsibility. Judging by their similar usage rates, there's no indication that one or the other is the "closer" in the final minute, but that Wade has found more success thus far. And don't forget about Bosh, he has come through when counted on.
And lastly: poor, poor Harden. No shot attempts in 18 minutes. Maybe he'll get his big chance on Wednesday night.
All in all, the clutch numbers tell us what has happened, but they hold little predictive power. No one expects Durant to sustain this superhuman level of performance. But no one should downplay what he has done either. Let's hope Wednesday night brings some more data points for entertainment's sake.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com