December, 17, 2012
By Henry Abbott
Blazer rookie Damian Lillard drained a 3, with the final seconds ticking off the clock, for the win. About six weeks into his NBA career Lillard's on video doing something most NBA players never do.
Just like that he is a made man in the NBA's crunch time mafia.
And my first thought was: Don't do that to him. Don't make Lillard and his teammates believe he's superhuman at the buzzer. It won't do him or his team any favors.
Listen to most NBA commentary, and you'll learn things like that Lillard has that special something, that ice water in his veins, that handle, that ability to create his own shot, that willingness to embrace the big moment, and a whole bunch of other things besides.
Put it all together, and Lillard is now on the list of players that commentators will say simply must get the ball with the game on the line. Listen to typical NBA commentary, and any crunch time play where Lillard doesn't run things is one where Blazer coach Terry Stotts has some explaining to do. Portland has a proven crunch time scorer, and there can be no better tool, they say.
So, that's one theory. The theory of the special closer mentality: That there are a select few players who really know crunch time. The skillset, the mentality, maybe even the character ... it's concentrated in a select few, and any other person running crunch time is a laughable, unforgivable error.
Many of basketball's most powerful believe this hook like and sinker. As a result: Teams without such players make rash trades to get them. On defense, teams go nuts, even leaving good players wide open, in an attempt to contain players like Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose or, now perhaps, Lillard. Teams with such players forget their best plays in crunch time and simply get the ball to that closer, playing the card that allegedly trumps everything else we know about basketball.
Some time in the next week or month the Blazers will come out of a timeout in dire need of a late 3, and everyone watching on television, everyone in the stands, the referees and players and coaches in both huddles will remember this Sunday win against the Hornets. Lillard's teammates and opponents will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's the kind of guy who hits that kind of shot.
And if the theory of the special closer mentality is, in fact, what matters most, Lillard will hit that next shot -- or at least, he'll hit shots like that more often than most in his career. The record will show that those special players do those special things.
The record would show that crunch time scoring really is the province of the few.
But it's not true. The record shows nothing of the sort.
Yes, likely Lillard, Bryant, Anthony et al are the very best in the world at getting halfway decent looks against tenacious defense. They are the elite of talent. But nobody, and certainly not those players, has an awesome rate of completion late in games. All that ice water in all those veins gets you some makes, but not a big long string of them. All those players have so-so completion rates with the game on the line.
The historic record stops just short of totally destroying the idea of "clutch performers" in almost every sport. Oh, there may be some guys who are a little better at it. But even if it does exist -- here the record is clear -- it's poor strategy to count on it.
Sometimes things seem true just because we want them to be true. We want some NBA players to be superheroic with the game on the line. Who doesn't want to believe there are Supermans and Batmans poised to save us? It's a lovely thought. Our love of that idea causes us to edit the misses of those players from our memories.
But here, let me tell you how things go back in reality: Lillard makes about 37 percent of his 3s. By the time he retires, I suspect that in crunch time, his 3-point average will be no better than that, and likely worse. It'll be that way for a few reasons: those will be tough covered 3s, many off the dribble like this big shot. Most players (although maybe not Lillard, who loves that shot) find it harder to make buckets consistently off the dribble. Opposing coaches will make sure Lillard faces at least one, if not two or three great defenders. And most importantly -- and here the evidence is clear -- after hitting big shots like that, if Lillard's like most high-scoring NBA players, he will suspend his normal shot selection and take any halfway decent look he can find. Nothing hurts your shooting percentage like stepping into a heavily contested 35-footer.
On some NBA teams, developing a real "go-to" guy actually hurts a team's overall offensive performance. (The Laker offense has been excellent at scoring during Bryant's career, but average in crunch time.) I theorize that's because open shots are the lifeblood of good basketball offense, and in crunch time lots of guys are left open, but never those guys.
Here's a different theory: Lillard is a very good young player as evidenced not just by any one moment but by all the moments of his young NBA career. If Coach Stotts deploys Lillard as one of his team's many weapons, but still adheres to the basic principles of basketball -- most importantly by attacking the defense where it is weak or absent -- then Lillard can be not just part of a mythical closer club, but part of a team that wins more than a random number of close games.
Count on any player to be a superhero, and he'll let you down often -- as evidenced by Bryant's massive collection of crunch time misses. Count on him to be really good, though, which might include passing to an open teammate, and things can get interesting.