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Thursday, May 1, 2003
Who's Mr. Clutch?

By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

Here's the situation: It's the seventh game of an imaginary playoff series. The good guys have the ball trailing by one point with 15 seconds left on the game clock.

Here's the question: Of all the players in the NBA, who do you want taking the final win-or-lose shot?

Let's take a closer look at the job description.

Obviously, the ultimate go-to guy must be extremely talented. But there are several other important considerations:

He must be mobile enough to receive a pass with a minimum of difficulty. Since most pivot-bound players need the ball to come to them rather than move to the ball themselves, this vital interchange can be risky. Shaq, of course, is so massive and has such good hands that defenders are hard-pressed to deny him an entry pass, especially when the ball can be reversed and he is able to move from one side of the lane to the other. T-Dunc is an example of the handful of back-to-the-basket players who are also capable of stepping out to catch the ball and working a defender face-to-face. Most often, though, the guards and wings are the ones with the goods to fill the bill here.

Mister Clutch should be creative enough to prevent the defense from loading up one particular help area.

To avoid being stymied by a double-team, he must be a good passer. He should also be capable of beginning his offensive foray in the middle of the court so that the two-timing defense will open up both sides of the court for short passes to an unguarded teammate.

Experience is another necessity, if only because the refs usually give veteran All-Stars the benefit of any marginal calls. However, given the refs' penchant for silently sucking their whistles during a game-deciding play, the go-to guy should be strong enough to take a hit and not be derailed.

He must absolutely be a dependable free-throw shooter.

And to avoid handing the resolution of the game over to the officiating crew, he should be able to maneuver himself into an open jump shot.

Larry Bird
The Lakers and Celtics, thanks in part to Larry Bird, saved the NBA in the 1980s.
The best clutch shooters in the history of the game are (in alphabetical order) Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Jerry West. While none of today's mega-stars match that Big Three, here is my ranking of the best modern-day money men.

Give 'em the ball
1. Kobe Bryant: The league's rarest combination of talent, hoop-time genius, strength, quickness, hops, and inside-outside flexibility. Sure, he remains a post-pubescent egomaniac; but with a game on the line, he's as wise and as inexorable as Father Time. Besides, he's already been there and done that on numerous occasions.

2. Mike Bibby: Quick rather than fast, but with a lightning release. Bibby has a terrific crossover, and nobody uses a high pick any better. But what makes Bibby so formidable in the clutch is his heart.

3. Tracy McGrady: Young and oh-so-talented, T-Mac has everything in his favor except a proven track record in the postseason. Perhaps this is the year he establishes himself as a bona fide last-shot hero.

4. Steve Nash: Not as physical as the task usually requires, but mentally strong. His prestidigitations with the ball, his multiple release points and his extraordinary footwork enable Nash to get off makeable shots against even the most determined defender. Nash also has a Bird-like ability to read and anticipate lanes and angles.

5. Allen Iverson: Lacks only an accurate jumper to challenge Kobe for end-of-game supremacy. But nobody shoots more free throws per game.

6. Jason Kidd: An erratic shooter except when a game is up for grabs. Kidd also goes left as well as anybody in the league and is a reliable finisher. And who is more adept at creating dunk shots for his teammates?

7. Paul Pierce: Has plenty of junk in his trunk. But I'd rather see him shoot a three-ball in a do-or-die situation than drive to the basket, because he's neither willing nor able to drop a dime in rush-hour traffic.

Stephon Marbury
Don't think Steph is clutch? Ask the Spurs.
8. Stephon Marbury: A powerhouse guard with a feathery touch. Stephon has the heart and the willpower, but not the extended playoff experience.

9. Tim Duncan: Can score from the pivot, the high-post, and/or from either baseline. Everywhere but from the charity stripe.

10. Shaq O'Neal: The game's most irresistible force. Yet with a game in the balance, can't shoot two-for-two from the foul line to get into heaven.

Here are my top three picks for super-duper stars whom I wouldn't let smell the ball in the clutch:

Uh ... use 'em as decoys
1. Karl Malone: One of the most overrated players in NBA history, right up there with Walt Bellamy and Vince Carter. Malone is notorious for making bad decisions under pressure. He is just as liable to spin left and toss up a brick, miss a layup, or throw a pass to nobody as he is to make good.

2. Vlade Divac: This guy would rather foul out than take a clutch shot.

3. Chris Webber: Webber's mindset: Why drive, shoot a high-percentage jump hook and possibly take a big hit when I can safely fling up a mid-range jumper? Here's an example of a player whose shooting percentage diminishes as a game proceeds.

And now here's the big ending, the one current player I'd choose to take that pressure-packed do-or-die shot in the playoffs, somebody who has never -- repeat, never -- missed such a shot in his entire career.

Jake Voskuhl.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."