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J.A. Adande, who lives in L.A., and Israel Gutierrez, who lives in Miami, are teaming up this season for a look at the NBA from two perspectives.
We're approaching crunch time in the regular season -- and that doesn't just apply to the Lakers and their desperate push for a playoff spot. It just so happens that crunch time in individual games has been quite entertaining of late. We had Kobe Bryant going all, well, Kobe on the Mavericks in Dallas, making Vince Carter look like a confused grasshopper with well-timed pump fakes followed by cold-blooded jumpers. We had Dwyane Wade take the reins from LeBron James for a fourth-quarter burst, including a game-sealing dunk against the Cavs. And there's still the lingering memories of Joe Johnson going double-clutch to give the Nets an overtime victory and of Rudy Gay hitting two game-winners in three games to start off his Raptors career in style. So, with LeBron suddenly becoming a feared outside shooter and Kevin Durant still capable of getting any shot off and considering it good, it seems as though there are any number of great options to close out a close game. And I haven't even mentioned Carmelo Anthony or Chris Paul. But has Kyrie Irving taken over the role as most desired crunch-time performer? When Irving hit his cold-blooded 3-pointer to beat the Raptors last month, Brian Windhorst pointed out it was only his 85th career game and already his fifth game-winning bucket. I'd say that's developing a knack for late-game scoring.
What took you so long to get to Chris Paul? Are you not staying up late on the East Coast to catch the end of Clippers games? Paul is the person I'd give the ball to at the end of games. I trust his judgment. He was the only person who finished among the NBA's top five in both clutch time points and assists last season. His raw numbers are down this season because he has played in only 65 minutes of clutch time (a byproduct of him missing 12 games with injuries and the way the Clippers' reserves put away so many teams earlier this season that Paul spent entire fourth quarters with his warm-ups on). CP3 might not lead the league in buzzer-beaters. He's more the kind of guy to get you a bucket when you're up by two in the final minute and need to put the heat on the opponent by turning it into a two-possession game. And speaking of heat, did you know the leader in clutch time plus/minus among players with at least 10 field goal attempts, according to NBA.com's stats, is the Miami Heat? Seriously. The top five spots belong to LeBron, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Shane Battier. Other teammate groupings that are also high on the list: Golden State's Stephen Curry and David Lee are both in the top 10, with Jarrett Jack not far behind (17th). Portland's Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are all top 12. And Paul George and David West of Indiana are in the top 15. Irving (minus-6) isn't even in the top 100. I realize that's a sign he doesn't have the same caliber teammates as the rest of these guys, and it could be more of a function of the Cavaliers' defense (24th in the league in points per game). I love how he used some promising late-game buckets last season as a trampoline to become a money man with the game on the line this season. I'm also waiting for him to do it in May and June. Names are made in the regular season, legends are made in the playoffs.
It's funny how the Heat are all over the top of that clutch time scoring list, because it tells you that it's not just Wade or LeBron trying to take over with hero ball. They're making the right play -- a move that used to get LeBron criticized harshly for, umm, about nine years. And it's admirable that Paul can find himself or his teammates a shot in the clutch, but with his size, he has to do a lot of work to get a good shot off, even with his gifted handle. Give me the guy who gets a relatively clean shot off at any time. Give me Durant. Durant isn't shooting 51 percent from the floor and 42 percent from 3 by taking only great shots. He makes difficult shots look easy because he's so long and so pure with that jump shot. Those are the two qualities I'm looking for in a player who can be regularly trusted in crunch time: the ability to literally rise over the competition, and a natural shooter. The main issue Durant has in those situations is he's not the caliber of ball handler of, say, a LeBron or Kobe. And a lot of times, actually getting him the basketball is the challenge. He gets denied the ball too easily against aggressive defenders, and that was terribly obvious in the Finals last season. Too many times that leaves Russell Westbrook forcing the issue in critical moments. (Wait, did I just talk myself out of picking Durant?) Interestingly enough, though, LeBron has been so good this season that it's getting difficult to keep him off the top of this wish list, too. Just a couple seasons ago, LeBron had failure after failure in closing time. Even when defenders switched and he was defended by a big like Joakim Noah, he dribbled into a difficult miss. This season, though, his outside shot is as reliable as anyone's in the league. And when he does drive, he's finishing with ridiculous efficiency with either hand. And he'll still make the right pass when it's called for, as evidenced by Allen and Battier's clutch time numbers. (Now I'm almost certain I've talked myself out of picking Durant.)
Whoa, don't be so quick to bail out on Durant. I saw firsthand the way he finished off the Lakers in Games 2 and 4 of the conference semifinals last year. Before that he beat Dallas with a jumper that won their first playoff game and sent the Thunder on their way to a sweep. Durant has the range to force defenders to guard him out to 28 feet, and he's constantly getting better at going past them with the dribble. The problem was, as you mentioned, Durant's inability to command the ball in fourth quarters against the Heat. LeBron, CP3 and Irving have an advantage in that they almost always start the offense with the ball late in games. Durant has to get it from Westbrook. Westbrook is more deferential in crunch time than people give him credit for; in Game 4 against the Lakers, for example, he had a 37-point game going and still let Durant take the wheel down the stretch. But there's always the possibility Westbrook might decide it's his moment to shine. Durant is so close to everything close to being a champion, an MVP and the game's best closer. It just feels as though LeBron won't let him pass yet. Yet I'd still rank Chris Paul ahead of LeBron, even if Paul can't get all the way to the hoop the way LeBron or Irving or Durant can. Paul's ability to change direction or just come to a sudden stop enables him to create space. He also has just the right amount of selfishness. He can spend his first 35 minutes on the court distributing the ball, then have eyes only for the hoop at the end. For as many contributors as the Clippers have, CP3 is the obvious choice when it's winning time. It fits in with what I call the Shoe Rule: When the game is on the line, only the guys who have their own signature shoe line should have the ball.
Great, now you're putting pressure on me to come up with a personalized rule. How's this one: If a player has multiple catchy slogans over his career, then he should have the ball in his hands late. Count on Kobe. The Kobe System. OK, so maybe my rule only works for one player, but it still works. (Side note: If you Google the words "Kobe in the," the second option that comes up is "Kobe in the Illuminati." I'm already convinced it's true.) I know the career numbers of Kobe in the clutch -- however it's defined -- don't exactly match his Mamba reputation, but that's only because he takes seemingly every opportunity in those situations, and that makes those moments even more difficult because the defense knows he wants it. That's the primary drawback of picking Kobe. He's almost too willing to take those clutch shots, knowing that we'll remember the makes way more than the three misses that follow. But given his ultra-competitive nature and his often deadly shot -- it's amazing how he gets off difficult, fadeaway 3s and makes them look pure so many times -- it's hard to shy away from Kobe. Until he literally can't leave the floor anymore, he remains near or at the top of this list. But I'm already going to break my newly created rule. I'll take "The Nicest Guy in the NBA" to get mean when it matters most.
The thing about Kobe, or any of these guys, is that the best ones want the ball -- and all the accompanying pressure -- with the game on the line. Not everyone embraces the moment. That's why I'm willing to accept things such as low percentages in clutch-time shooting. Some of those guys who shoot a higher percentage only do so because they get the ball when they're wide open and the clock dictates they have to shoot. They're not the ones doing the creating. If they miss, they won't be the ones receiving the blame -- especially if they play with LeBron. Charles Barkley made an interesting point recently when reflecting on the sixth and last game of his only trip to the NBA Finals in 1993. He said he got rid of the ball the last two times he had it because he saw the double-team coming his way. If he had to do it over again he said he would have shot it. That's what the superstars, the great closers, do. They find a way to get the shot even when a defense has spent the entire previous timeout scheming of ways to deny it to him. Kobe would never lack for trying. One of the reasons the playoffs won't be as interesting if the Lakers don't qualify is that Kobe could use a refresh on his playoff resume page. The last time he truly stomped his low-cut shoes all over a playoff fourth quarter was Game 6 of the Western Conference finals in 2010. No buzzer-beater, just made shot after made shot, thwarting any chance at a Suns comeback. It was similar to his now-famous "Amnesty THAT" performance in Dallas last Sunday. If those throwback moments came with more frequency, Kobe would be higher on this list. That doesn't mean you don't fixate on him when the game's winding down. He still commands attention. He still deserves a chance to have the last say. That's the sign of a closer. And I have to say, it was a good choice by you, Israel, to have me close out this column.