October 23, 2013

ZAKOUR | The Definition of Clutch

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In a recent poll, NBA players said they wouldn’t have Lebron James take the last shot in a game over Kobe or Jordan, despite his two gigantic shots to keep the Heat alive in game six and win game seven in the NBA Finals. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. So is Lebron clutch? He’s long struggled to overcome a perception he’s not.

The word clutch conjures up images of making the buzzer beater or getting the game-winning hit in the ninth. But it’s more than that. Clutch is performing under pressure, at least, so goes the conventional wisdom.

The problem with defining who is or isn’t clutch is that the concept of clutch is so nebulously defined. Where’s the line between clutch and just performance? Is it clutch if someone has such a great game that it’s a blowout by the fourth quarter?

What does it mean to be clutch?

If it’s simply peak performance under pressure, many players fit this definition. In fact, clutch loses all meaning if you paint with such a broad brush. For some fringe players, any time they see playing time is a high-pressure situation, even if the game is out of hand. Imagine a bench warmer in the NBA, a second round pick getting some burn. He’s only coming in if it’s a blowout either way, but it’s still one of his few chances to impress his coaches. Every move counts. Every bucket matters dearly. He’s playing for his job, his livelihood. But these garbage-time plays aren’t clutch. At least, one considers them clutch.

Clutch is about more than timely buckets or pressurized situations. To me, being clutch means saving your team. Being clutch is raising your game when your team most needs it. It means bailing someone out. If you make the game winner, that’s being timely, not necessarily clutch. That’s not to say buzzer beaters aren’t clutch. LeBron’s game-winning three against Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals was pretty freaking clutch (which ironically is a shot mostly lost to history since his Cavs lost that series).

A marginal player is responsible for one of the most clutch moments I’ve ever witnessed. Entering the game as a defensive placement, DeWayne Wise made an insane leaping catch over the wall to preserve Mark Buerhle’s perfect game in the ninth. Rays outfielder Gabe Kapler had hit a ball over the fence, but Wise bailed out his pitcher. Wise entered the game just for the ninth, coming in cold off the bench and made a play that etched both his and his teammate’s name in the history books. Clutch.

Dirk Nowitzki, a former MVP unlike Dewayne Wise, was clutch the whole the 2011 playoffs, carrying his team to a championship. It wasn’t so much about making game winning shots, which he did, but how he bailed out bad possession after bad possession. The Mavericks would seemingly waste an offensive possession just to kick it out to Dirk who had to make a tough shot, and it seemed he made every bucket his team needed.

My response to this poll is simply that I believe LeBron James is one the most clutch players of all time. But he’s still perceived as being less clutch than his contemporaries with great singular, highlight moments like Kobe and Melo.

LeBron has bailed out his former Cavaliers and now Heat teams countless times, and routinely closes quarters on huge runs of points or assists that bring his teams back or puts them ahead for good. It’s not about the game-winners for LeBron, although those are starting to accumulate as well, but the whole game. Even if he has a bad quarter or half, he never seems to have a bad game.

LeBron always seems to make a huge play to help his team win games. In actuality, clutch is a reflection of your own values and beliefs. Some don’t subscribe to it all. They believe there’s no such thing as clutch. That’s reasonable. But more than anything, clutch is more than one moment or one shot. People get fixated on game winners and last seconds, but the whole game is a continuum. So is being clutch, it’s not just a binary system of “yes he’s clutch,” or “he can’t handle the pressure.”

When you watch the World Series this year, watch out for Carlos Beltran. The Cardinals outfielder is arguably the greatest statistical postseason hitter ever, putting up a .337 average with 16 homers across 45 playoff games. But he’s not clutch. At least he’s not perceived that way. As incongruent those seem, it’s true. Beltran’s singular moment he’s best remembered for is striking out looking to end game seven of the 2006 NLCS. Some Mets fans never forgave him for that, despite his continued production and high level of defense. But a career is more than one play. Now Beltran is given the biggest stage in baseball to showcase his clutch prowess. He can erase all the negative perceptions of him (outside of few people in Queens) with a big couple of games, and maybe, like Lebron, begin to turn the tide of public perception in his favor.