Being a bona fide clutch player entails more than just making win-or-lose shots at the buzzer in meaningful games. Other aspects might include a player’s execution of game-changing screens, passes and/or cuts. Also, coming up with a critical rebound, steal or defensive stop.
Of course, not every designated clutch player is flawless in every endgame. But here are the guys — past and present — who, more often than not, can make (or have made) the critical play in critical situations.
KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR – Rained sky hooks whenever the Lakers’ offense suffered a drought.
RAY ALLEN – Whenever he missed a clutch shot, everybody’s first reaction was to check the local seismograph readings to see if some minor tremor had made the rim vibrate.
CHAUNCEY BILLUPS – Was rightly AKA “Mister Big Shot.”
LARRY BIRD – The NBA’s all-time trash-talker backed up virtually all of his braggadocio with buckets.
KOBE BRYANT – In days of yore, he was reliable when a game was on the line.
STEPHEN CURRY – In last season’s championship series, showed a basic requirement of a clutch player — the resilience to overcome a dreadful 5-23 performance in Game 2 by resurrecting his A-game for the duration.
TIM DUNCAN – Mister Fundamental fundamentally does whatever the Spurs need to get over the top.
DEREK FISHER – Remember that game-winner with .4 seconds left in the Western Conference Finals versus the Spurs back in 2004? Well, that’s just the most memorable of the several dagger-shots he made throughout his career.
WALT FRAZIER – Always played his best in the clutch. ALWAYS!
MANU GINOBILI – Somehow he managed to drive his left-hand to the hole or bag a trey when the bad guys were focusing on TD.
JOHN HAVLICEK – Proved that perpetual motion was possible — at least on a basketball court — and was one of the prime-movers on eight of Boston’s championships.
ANDRE IGUODALA – Earned inclusion on this list with his play in last season’s Finals.
LEBRON JAMES – Has been reliable in the clutch except when he’d already gone belly-up in a championship series.
MAGIC JOHNSON – Would rather pass, but could score if he had to. But never backed down in any emergency on offense.
SAM JONES – His bank-shots in the endgames were usually money in the bank.
MICHAEL JORDAN – The best non-center ever was literally at his best when only his best could save the day.
GEORGE MIKAN – The dreadnaught pivot man back in the days of the NBA, he’d often smile while he converted a pair of free throws that iced a ball game.
REGGIE MILLER – Made his reputation by scoring scores of clutch hoops against the Knicks — which, quite understandably, had the New York media proclaiming him as the best clutch shooter ever.
HAKEEM OLAJUWON – A great player, a clutch performer and, most importantly, a thoroughly admirable human being.
BOB PETTIT – Another all-but forgotten big-time, big-game player.
WILLIS REED – The crippled Captain’s two clutch jumpers in the opening minutes of the seventh game in the 1970 Finals were arguably the two most important shots in Knicks history.
JERRY WEST – Universally celebrated as Mr. Clutch, with one important dissenter. “Jerry always wanted the ball when a game was up for grabs,” said Phil Jackson, “but I’m not totally convinced that he was Mr. Clutch. Although the Lakers beat the Knicks in the 1972 championship series, Jerry played poorly throughout the playoffs that year. Fans don’t remember all the times when celebrated clutch shooters like Jerry bombed out in the endgame.”
JAMES WORTHY – “Big Game” James was an entirely appropriate nom de hoop.
NOTE – During my nine years coaching in the Continental Basketball Association, there were a few guys who’d been marginal NBA players, but who were clutch-time killers in the glory days of the CBA: Lowes Moore, Derrick Rowland and the best clutch player I’ve ever seen, Freddie Cofield.