Chris Paul entrusted an unsung Clipper with the ball in a big moment.
HOW WE THINK ABOUT CRUNCH TIME
The most basic rule of assessing crunch time performance is: Did the last shot go in? Then great, that was a good shot, and the guy who shot it is a good shooter who knows what to do with the game on the line.
It sounds simplistic. But it really happens that way. Look around. Anyone who just made a big shot for a team that won a big game is said to be clutch. And that's it, really. No one else makes the list.
By this rule, Kevin Durant was clutch this weekend -- with the game on the line, he made a very tough shot. But the Clippers' key play, where some team action between Chris Paul and Reggie Evans led to a layup -- is a far better example of crunch time play at its best.Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Getty Images
Kevin Durant's "hero ball" shot was almost stopped by two Mavericks. Easier buckets, often from unheralded open players, generally fare better.
HERO BALL: IT'S TOUGH
The Thunder have all kinds of beautiful offensive sets with clever ways to get players nice clean looks. With nine seconds left, down one, they tossed most of that playbook, content to run some action that ended with Kevin Durant isolated, Hero Ball style, at the top of the key. As the final seconds ticked off, four Thunder players stood and watched as their superstar worked.
Research shows almost any other kind of play gets better results. Why does it keep happening, then? The stars want the ball, the fans want the star to have the ball and if some bit player ends up with the ball as the clock expires, people end up saying really mean things about the coach.
It's like a bad piece of legislation. This system works for the key people involved, even if it's far from the best way.
The reason Hero Ball is so hard for the offense is because it's so easy for the defense. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle didn't just get to substitute elite perimeter defender Shawn Marion into the game to guard Durant. He also confidently sent the very long Ian Mahinmi over to help. What if Mahinmi's man, Ibaka, who was left alone in the paint? Carlisle had little to worry about. The Thunder have a history of using isolation plays in moments like this, and they seldom pass. (As John Hollinger points out, Durant's first crunch-time assist of the season came a minute earlier.) Knowing where the shot would come from, the Mavericks didn't have to worry much about Mahinmi's man.
As a result, both Marion and Mahinmi almost blocked Durant's shot.
This one happened to go in, which was part skill and part luck.
On Sunday night, the Grizzlies would find themselves in almost exactly the same spot, made a similar play with a similar player and demonstrated what usually happens. Again the long, athletic star had the ball at the top of the key, dribbling out the final nine seconds -- where it was once Kevin Durant, now it was Rudy Gay. Again, as the star made his move, help came from his left, about 15 feet from the hoop. Again, he managed to use all his length and guile to squeeze a shot off over the outstretched arms of the defense.
This time, like the vast majority of heavily contested shots, Rudy Gay missed and the Grizzlies lost.
Ahh, you might say, what that proves is that Gay is no Durant. It's not really true, though. This season, Gay's true shooting percentage was better than Durant's by almost every definition of crunch time, even though Synergy research shows that Durant is among the best isolation players in the league, especially late in games.
But the research suggests both players are most likely to miss, and that both teams have better options.
IT CAN BE EASIER
The Grizzlies' Zach Randolph is recovering from injury. Think about what that might do to a player. Things like speed and jumping ability could be suspect, right?
This appeared to be precisely the case throughout Sunday's Game 1 between the Clippers and Grizzlies. In terms of physical abilities, Randolph certainly appeared to be the Grizzlies' weak link.
Down a point in the final minute, Chris Paul made a play that was the opposite of Hero Ball. He a) passed the ball, which is generally not seen as clutch, and b) passed the ball to a role player. Reggie Evans isn't just not a superstar. He was, statistically, one of the worst players in the NBA this season.
Why would Paul do that? Because by dishing it to the Evans, who was on the move to the hoop, Paul put pressure on the underperforming Randolph to make the play at the rim. Randolph never had a chance, and Evans finished easily.
Giving the ball to a star with the mission to hang onto it may keep coaches from getting fired. But it should be the opposite. Attacking the defense at its weak point is the winning play. Durant made a big bucket that he would normally miss. Evans and Ibaka made buckets against unprepared defense -- layups they'd almost never miss. Who knows how many more crunch time plays could end with easy plays like that? Few teams even attempt it.