The Trail Blazers are currently 15-7 in close games. You can fudge the definitions; I’m working with games in which neither team leads by more than 5 in the last five minutes of the game. Rest assured, the record remains absurd no matter which way you define it. This makes a lot of people suspicious. While it’s by no means a settled debate, it’s obvious that what we often assume is “clutch” is instead unsustainable.
To me, the more interesting discussion than “are certain players more clutch than others?” is “how do teams change the way they play at the end of close games?” This article is a good overview of the way the “clutchest” players shoot at the end of games. None of those percentages is especially high, and the “Best” and “Worst” columns are really telling. Most players have a huge gap between their most and least clutch seasons, which suggests either a) players somehow get more or less clutch throughout their careers or b) it’s mostly luck.
So I’m not likely to accept that a team is clutch because it has clutch players. However, if a team has some strategic advantage in close games, it’s entirely possible that they would over-perform in the clutch. Some traits of a team that might suggest that they would perform well at the end of close games include:
- 1.Exceptional free throw shooting (this one would be especially handy when the team is ahead).
- 2. A coach who’s great at drawing up out-of-bounds plays.
- 3. A coach who rarely resorts to isolation plays at the end of games or
- 4. a player who’s so awesome in isolation that he can score at will or his threat allows other players to score.
- 5. A team that very often plays lazy defense, but can bear down when it needs to (this is a strange one, I know).
So. How do the Blazers rate? (Feel free to come up with other traits, I’m sure this is incomplete.)
- 1. Definitely. Mike Barrett has pointed out several times that the Blazers’ league-leading free throw shooting is an asset in crunch time. The points Portland scores on free throws jumps from 16.7% to 36.3% in the clutch. That’s rather large. There is no attractive option to foul in the Portland starting (and closing) five. They all shoot over 80% except for Lopez, who’s managing 77%.
- 2. Yep. The Trail Blazers’ playbook is full of clever plays designed to get alley-oops and open threes. The alley-oops are often for Wesley Matthews, which tends to undermine the concept of an alley-oop, but they’re clever nonetheless. Doug Eberhardt has some excellent breakdowns of Portland’s out of bounds plays (ATO) over at SBNation.
- 3. Maybe. Quite a few of Stotts’ last-second shots have been Lillard iso’s or Aldridge post-ups, enough that I’m not willing to call him a heroball-allergic genius yet. But there are typically a couple options. See Lillard’s buzzer-beater against New Orleans last year. The play ended with a tough shot, but it had options for Barton, Babbitt, and Batum as well. So while Stotts might not always make the anti-heroball choice, he usually doesn’t actively disregard his other choices in favor of his stars.
- 4. Not really. The thing is, no one in the NBA can actually “score at will.” This is the sort of category I’m not comfortable putting anyone in outside of maybe LeBron James. While the Blazers have plenty of good offensive players, there’s no one whose gravitational tug by itself changes the way the floor looks. That’s totally fine–I’ll never complain about the leagues number 1 offense–but it means on the last play of the game, some creativity is required.
- 5. Nope. The Blazers work pretty hard on the defensive end, they’re just no good at it for the time being. Maybe a team like OKC or San Antonio or Miami can really kick into gear at the end of games. I don’t think that’s the case for Portland. (Although strangely enough, all of those teams that I just mentioned have been much much worse on defense in the clutch this year, so maybe that particular (*googles singular of “criteria”*) criterion might not work.
So it looks like based on these five ideas that I just came up with, the Blazers might have the potential to outperform the average team in the clutch. But I’m not convinced. There are parts of the team’s performance in the clutch that I’m convinced are unsustainable. For instance: in the last minute of games decided by five points or less, Damian Lillard’s True Shooting Percentage is 77.8. I don’t claim to understand the dynamics of the ends of games perfectly, but I think it’s safe to say that that won’t keep up, and the Blazers will need to find someone else to launch thirty-footers at the buzzer.
*All statistics provided by NBA.com*