The Negative Effects of Clutch

CLUTCH. A word that can define careers in the NBA, especially if you are labeled a superstar. A word that can make you the most feared player on the court for the opponent, or the biggest liability for your team. It’s a term that has no gray area. Either you are clutch or you are not. When Lebron James passed the ball to Udonis Haslem for the game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz a week ago, we didn’t anticipate that Haslem would make that shot. Not that Haslem is a horrible player. He usually sinks those mid-range jumpers. But he’s not a superstar. The guy that passed him the ball is a superstar and it has been his modus operandi for the past 2 seasons to shrink in those high pressure situations during those waning seconds of close games. The words “not clutch” have been following James around for the past few seasons like the stench when you unknowingly step in dog poop. And yet, his team has succeeded to the point where they reached the NBA Finals last season, and are one of the top 3 teams in the league this season. But that loss in the Finals, which kept the Heat from starting their string of winning, “not 5, not 6, not 7…” titles, can be partially blamed on James’s lack of “clutchness”.

It’s easy to see how not being clutch can be a detrimental to team success. But can being too clutch also be a detriment? Now, mind you, I understand how oxymoronic that sounds. How can being able to perform in high pressure situations be a detriment to a team? If a team constantly performs when all the chips are on the table, then that team should be in pretty good shape. Case in point: the Oklahoma City Thunder and their last 5 games.

As Steven Tyler of Aerosmith would say, the Thunder are literally “living on the edge” in the last 5 games. Its one of those runs where the team could easily be 0 – 5, just like it could be 5 – 0. Instead, the Thunder find themselves at 4 – 1 since the All Star Break and building on their lead at the top of the Western Conference. Here’s a look at the key 2nd halves in each of those games and how the Core 4 (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka) performed:

Opponent Largest   Deficit/Quarter/Score at the time of deficit Durant’s 4th   qtr Stat Line Westbrook’s   4th qtr Stat Line Harden’s 4th   qtr Stat Line Ibaka’s 4th   qtr Stat Line
@ Philly (W) 8 / 4th   /66 – 74 10 pts / 3 rebs / 1 ast /1 stl 2 pts / 2   rebs /1 ast 7 pts / 3   rebs 2 pts / 2 rebs /1 blk /1 stl
@ Orlando   (W) 11 / 4th   / 72 – 83 18 pts / 5   rebs 4 pts / 2   asts 8 pts / 3   rebs / 2 asts Donuts
@ Atlanta   (L) 8 / 4th   /79 – 87 6 pts / 2   rebs 2 pts / 1   ast 3 pts / 2   rebs /1 ast 1 reb / 1 blk
Dallas (W) 7 / 3rd   / 45 – 52 6 pts /2   rebs 5 pts / 2   rebs 14 pts / 2   asts 2 pts / 2   rebs / 1 blk
Phoenix(W) 16 / 3rd   / 68 – 84 12 pts / 2 rebs / 1 asts / 2 stls 9 pts / 1   ast 8 pts / 1   reb / 1 ast 2 pts / 8   rebs /1 blk


While this style of basketball makes for great fun as a fan, especially if you are winning most of the time, it also paints a conflicted picture in the Thunder’s outlook for the postseason. Two trains of thoughts come into play when a team is winning in this fashion. The first is that the team is learning how to win close games and is showing the ability to come back from 2nd half deficits. The second is that, come playoff time, constantly falling behind in the first half to elite teams will be the coup de grace to this year’s championship aspirations. Which train of thought is correct?

The answer, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. As a young team, it’s necessary to build the fortitude to be able to come from behind and win. If you’ve never experienced having to recover from a sizeable deficit, then you may choke if the situation arises in the playoffs. But you also don’t want to make it a habit of constantly falling behind your opponents in the first half. It’s almost like the team goes into a mode where they say, “let’s keep the score somewhere around 10 entering the 4th quarter and we have a chance.” While it’s a luxury to have not one, but two great clutch players (Durant and Westbrook), there can come a time where the natural effect of statistics takes hold and they both have a bad second half. You just hope it isn’t in an elimination game in the playoffs

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