Coming Through in the Clutch
By Brian Martin
The opening round of these playoffs have been one of the most closely contested in NBA history.
We've seen an NBA-record eight overtime games.
We've seen an NBA-record 21 road victories.
We've seen 18 of the first 36 games decided by five points or less and/or in overtime.
Every night we have been treated to multiple games coming down to the wire, with the outcome of the game decided in the closing minutes. It all comes down to how these teams and players come through in the clutch.
And luckily we have clutch stats that can help us examine how players and teams are performing when it matters most.
Most time in the clutch (last 5 mins, +/-5pts) this Round 1. OKC/MEM: 37 mins 2. HOU/POR: 28 3. CHI/WAS: 20 4. SAS/DAL: 14 5. TOR/BKN: 13— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) April 30, 2014
So far, there have been 130 clutch minutes played in the first round of the playoffs (through games played on Apr. 29). Clutch is defined as the last five minutes of the game or overtime with the score margin within five points.
Is that a lot? Well, let's compare that to last year's playoffs, which saw just 78 clutch minutes in the first round in 45 games played (an average of 1.73 clutch minutes per game). This year, there have been 130 clutch minutes in just 36 games (an average of 3.61 per game) -- that is more than twice as much clutch time on a per game basis.
Considering only two of the eight first round series are complete, there could be much more clutch time on the horizon as well. Last year's playoffs as a whole featured 195 clutch minutes. This year's playoffs is two-thirds of the way to matching that mark and we're not even out of the first round yet.
So which players and teams have come through best in these clutch situations? Let's take a look at the numbers.
Top Scorers in the Clutch
Only one player ranks in the top 10 in clutch scoring that is not part of either the OKC-Memphis or Portland-Houston series. That is DeMar DeRozan, who has 16 points in just 12 minutes of clutch play in the Raptors-Nets series. The rest of this list is dominated by the four teams that have had the most clutch minutes to work with.
Two of the top three clutch scorers are from the Oklahoma City Thunder -- Kevin Durant (1st with 32 points) and Russell Westbrook (3rd with 22 points). However, the Thunder are just 1-3 in games that featured clutch minutes.
Durant (11-22), Damian Lillard (7-14), Nicolas Batum (7-13) and DeRozan (3-6) are the only four players in the top 10 to shoot 50 percent or better in clutch situations. The trio of LaMarcus Aldridge (4-13), Westbrook (7-28) and James Harden (4-21) have the lowest percentages among this group.
Batum (4-9) and Lillard (1-2) have shot 50 percent or better from 3-point range in clutch moments. Durant (2-9), Westbrook (3-14), Conley (1-5) and Harden (0-7) have all struggled from beyond the arc.
Westbrook in particular has struggled to score in each of the four overtime periods in the Thunder's series with the Grizzlies. He has just one point on 0-14 FG shooting in 20 minutes.
But it's not all about scoring in the clutch. Westbrook (8) and Mike Conley (7) are the leaders in clutch assists. However, they are also the leaders in turnovers with five for Westbrook and four for Conley.
When it comes to free throw shooting, Shaquille O'Neal is famous for saying that he made them when he had to. Well, maybe Dwight Howard is doing the same thing. The Rockets center shot 57.4% from the line on the season, has increased that mark to 63.8% in the playoffs and has shot 83.3% in clutch situations in the playoffs.
Despite having the two highest scoring games of this year's playoffs (46 and 43 points), Aldridge has not been at his best in the clutch. He's shot just 4-of-13 (30.8%) and committed three turnovers and six fouls in 27 minutes of clutch play.
In just 12 total minutes of clutch play, DeRozan has gotten to the free throw line 11 times and made 10 of those attempts.
Beyond the Top 10
When we look past the top 10 clutch scorers, we begin to see more teams represented and some great clutch performances.
While only two of the Clippers-Warriors games have featured clutch minutes, Chris Paul has hit some big shots for the Clippers in those situations. He's shooting 3-of-5 (60%) from the field, including 2-of-3 (66.7%) on threes. However, he's been just 1-of-4 (25%) from the free throw line, including two critical misses in the closing seconds of their Game 1 loss to Golden State.
Mike Miller has been on fire in close-game situations, shooting 5-of-7 (71.4%) from 3-point range in 21 minutes of clutch play. He did miss his only two-point attempt and both of his free throws.
Paul Pierce was mic'd up in Game 1 of the Nets-Raptors series and hit a fadeaway jumper over Patrick Patterson with 51 seconds left to put the Nets up by seven and essentially seal the victory for Brooklyn. He could be heard saying "That's why they got me here. That's why I'm here. That's what I do." And he's lived up to those words. In 13 minutes of clutch time against the Raptors, Pierce has hit 5-of-10 shots, including one 3-pointer and made all four of his free throws for the Nets.
Teams in the Clutch
It's no surprise that the Memphis-Oklahoma City and Portland-Houston series have produced the top four teams in terms of clutch scoring. They do account for seven of the NBA record eight overtime games in this year's first round.
Here are the stats.
The Grizzlies hold an 84-80 scoring edge on the Thunder in their 37 minutes of clutch play and have shot better from the field (45.2% to 40.0%) and from beyond the arc (46.2% to 23.3%). The Grizzlies also have more assists (15 to 12), more steals (11 to 7) and fewer turnovers (10 to 14) than the Thunder.
While the Grizzlies-Thunder series has been close in clutch times, Portland has dominated Houston in their 28 minutes of clutch play in their series.
The Blazers have outscored the Rockets by 20 points (79 to 59), thanks to their huge advantage in field goal percentage (42.9% to 26.1%) and 3-point percentage (33.3% to 6.7%). The Rockets have made just 1-of-15 3-point attempts in close game situations.