When a player hits a clutch shot, it instantly becomes a monument in highlight reel lore. You never see the clip of a game-winning shot just once. It's instantly played on loop on the arena's giant screen; it is the first video you'll see in the sports segment of the local nightly news; it finds its way into the nightly Top 10 on "SportsCenter"; it seeps its way onto YouTube and is tweeted and posted on Facebook walls so people checking their news feed can "like" it; and it's dusted off the next time those two teams play again or anytime a station puts together a package of the team's best moments of the season or the player's best moments of his career.
Rex Chapman will always be clutch to me because of that corner 3 he hit for the Suns in a playoff game against the Sonics back in 1997. Bryce Drew is the same way. I've seen him hit that shot to lift Valparaiso over Ole Miss in the '98 NCAA tournament so many times that if it were game point in my lunchtime pickup game in Burbank and Drew were on my team, I'd be giving him the ball -- and I haven't seen him play a game in 12 years.
You see the makes so many times that you remember them far more than the misses. Being "clutch," as it pertains to basketball, is a qualifier, not a quantifier. It's an adjective that comes with the utmost respect for the player it's bestowed upon, on the same level as a "warrior" or "leader."
The list of past greats includes Reggie Miller, Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, Michael Jordan, John Havlicek, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson et al. Today's group includes Manu Ginobili, Chauncey Billups, Brandon Roy, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and one name above them all, Kobe Bryant.
It's easy to call Kobe clutch. He'll always be clutch because our memories have been juiced by the repeat reel of what he did to Detroit in Game 2 of the 2004 Finals, what he did to Phoenix in the first round of the 2006 playoffs -- twice in one game, mind you -- and what he did to Miami, Milwaukee, Sacramento, Dallas, Boston, Memphis and Toronto this season.
His body of work with the game on the line is already comprehensive enough to collect the confidence of everybody watching him launch a last-second shot and make everyone think it's going in, no matter where on the court he's standing or how contorted his body might be. But there's some statistical analysis to bolster the claim that Bryant is the most clutch player in the game today.
The brains in Bristol, Conn., put the resources at ESPN headquarters to good use and compiled a statistical breakdown of Bryant's "clutchness," and the data is just as great as his flair for drama.
Here's a selection of some of the nuggets they unearthed. You judge for yourself whether Kobe is the league's true Mr. Clutch.
Bryant is 7-for-12 this season on potential game-tying or game-winning field goals this season. That 58.3 percent shooting clip is far superior to his overall percentage of 45.9 percent, which supports the notion that he elevates his game in pressure situations. Furthermore, the league leader in field goal percentage is Boston's Kendrick Perkins at 61.0 percent and the leader for a non-frontcourt player is Rajon Rondo at 51.7 percent. In other words, even though it's a small sample size, Bryant shooting a shot in the clutch is about as reliable a shot as any player could take at any point in a game this season.
Bryant has hit 26 winning or tying shots in the last 10 seconds of the fourth quarter or overtime since the start of the 2000-01 season. In that time, Orlando's Vince Carter is the next closest with 20. Bryant has as many as Paul Pierce (13) and Dirk Nowitzki (13) combined or Tim Duncan (13) and Anthony (13) combined, take your pick.
Bryant's closest competitors this season are Nowitzki and Chris Paul, who each have three made shots in "clutch" situations.
Bryant's 12 attempts are significantly more than any other player this season. Chicago's Derrick Rose is second with eight attempts. Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings, Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala and Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant are tied for third with seven attempts. First, this means that the Lakers are playing a lot of close games, but it also means Bryant has the designated role of "closer" on his team while other teams might have several players fit the bill. Luke Walton compared Bryant to Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera earlier in the season. Two other Lakers have attempted winning or game-tying shots this year -- Ron Artest in Memphis off of a Bryant pass and Derek Fisher at home against Boston when Bryant was sidelined with a left ankle injury.
The league average on clutch shots is a 24.9 percent shooting percentage over the past 10 seasons. Bryant's current season shooting percentage obliterates it, but over the course of the past 10 seasons, his 26-for-89 clip (29.2 percent) is only slightly above average. Still, with all the intangibles that go into making each last-second-shot opportunity unique, having a player on your team who consistently performs above average in those situations is extremely valuable.
Bryant's current season with seven winning or tying shots is more prodigious in the clutch than any single season by another player in the past 10 seasons. Three players have had six winning or tying shots in that time -- Anthony for the Nuggets in 2005-06, Eddie Jones for the Heat in 2001-02 and, surprisingly, Bryant's teammate Pau Gasol with the Grizzlies in 2005-06.
If you were going to choose one player to challenge Bryant for his title of Mr. Clutch, it would have to be Anthony. Not only do his 13 winning/tying shots put him tied for fifth for the most clutch shots made in the past 10 seasons but he was not in the NBA yet for three of those 10 seasons. Furthermore, he has a superb 13-for-28 shooting mark in those situations (46.4 percent) and has proved he could do it in the playoffs, as well, nailing a 3-pointer with 1.0 seconds left in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals against Dallas last season.
Dave McMenamin cover the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
Peter D. Newmann of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.