What is clutch? We can’t frame the exact statistical parameters for being clutch. We can’t even fully describe the meaning of the word. But we definitely know it when we see it. Clutch begins with accepting and embracing the role as The Man. With the game on the line, it’s time to demand the ball, clear out space, and make a play. Respect is earned and The Man manages to come through time and time again, despite drawing all of the attention, rough play, hate, and intimidation tactics out of opposing defenses and hostile crowds.
Any list presenting the must clutch NBA players will not lack controversy, especially when we consider the fact that LeBron James, Golden State, and the San Antonio Spurs have owned all championship hardware for several years running. A number of budding stars and clutch scorers around the league showed the ability to rack up fourth quarter points against lesser competition, before they ran into stacked Super Teams in the later rounds of the playoffs.
For 2016–17, the Cavaliers and Warriors will break the tie in an ongoing NBA Finals trilogy. Against this backdrop, these 10 players saw to it that this season was not without high drama. Clutch is the reason why they play the game and why we, as fans, watch and celebrate.
10. Carmelo Anthony
As a Syracuse freshman, Carmelo Anthony led the Orange to the 2003 title by dropping 20 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists against Kansas in the National Championship. Last summer, Anthony closed out his international career as the all-time top scorer in U.S. Basketball and the most decorated Olympian in history with three gold medals. When surrounded by top talent, Melo proves to be a model teammate who can defend, share the ball, and pick his spots within the offense.
As a professional, Anthony performed as one of the better pure scorers of his generation. He dragged limited Denver and New York Knick clubs to the playoffs 10 straight times. Still, Melo never made it past the Conference Finals. Like Bernard King before him, the 32–year-old will go down as a bit of a tragic figure; an offensive machine who just so happened to run into Shaq, Kobe, and LeBron in their primes.
9. Chris Paul
Night in and night out, Chris Paul puts on a clinic at point guard. Like Isiah Thomas before him, Paul has mastered the art of getting his teammates involved through the first three quarters of the game, before taking over as a scorer down the stretch. CP3 is especially dangerous out of a flat, one-four set. He can call for a high screen and hit either Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan for a tomahawk jam.
If the defense collapses into the paint, Paul will quickly whip a skip pass around the perimeter to J.J. Reddick for a wide-open three-point shot. To keep the defense honest, CP3 will feint a hard drive toward the basket; he’ll create space, pull back, and rise up for a deadly midrange jump-shot. As a last resort, Paul will work his way into the paint for easy layups and smooth floaters.
In the first round of the 2015 playoffs, Paul took a dribble handoff from Griffin, weaved his way through traffic, and banked a game-winning, fade-away off the backboard to close out the Spurs in seven games. This season, Paul was out for more, with his legacy on the line. Sadly, he couldn’t quite make it happen.
8. Damian Lillard
Like many athletes out of the Pacific Northwest, Damian Lillard is underrated. Portland is 630 miles north of Oakland, the closest NBA city, which also happens to be Lillard’s hometown. Fans in major East Coast markets are more than 3,000 miles away and often asleep when Dame Dollar works his magic. Still, Lillard and C.J. McCollum quietly emerged as the most explosive backcourt in the league this side of the Splash Brothers.
Last year, Lillard tallied up 27 points and six assists through two rounds of the playoffs. This Portland club had apparently been gutted after losing both LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews to free agency the prior summer. Still, Lillard grinded out a 44-38 regular season, before outlasting an underachieving Clippers bunch in the opening round of the playoffs. In going down swinging, Dame went off for 40 in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, for Portland’s only win that series against Golden State.
7. Jimmy Butler
Jimmy Butler is the latest and greatest rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger story out of professional sports. As a schoolboy, he was kicked out of the house by his own mother and stayed with different friends for weeks at a time. Future NFL prospect Jordan Leslie noticed Butler and took him in as family. From there, Butler ultimately found himself at Marquette, after a one-year stint at Tyler Junior College. In 2011, the Chicago Bulls took Butler with the 30th overall pick in the NBA draft.
In a few years, Butler willed himself out of homelessness and into a rookie defensive specialist off the bench. By 2015, he was scoring 20 points per game as the Most Improved Player in the league. Because of this extraordinary trial by fire, Butler can now casually drop in 50 and rattle in a game-winning shot, without even breaking a sweat. Over the past month, he put together a scoring outburst of more than 40 points per games and a series of buzzer beaters not seen in this town since the GOAT himself, Michael Jordan.
For 2016–17, Butler filled up the stat sheet for 25 points, seven rebounds, and five assists per game. He also played his usual lockdown defense on the other side of the floor. Most importantly, he now has a more mature (and fellow Marquette alum) Dwyane Wade to teach him the ins and outs of life as the face of the franchise.
6. Russell Westbrook
Without Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook is totally unleashed to wreak havoc on the rest of the league. The 28-year-old is on pace to join the Oscar Robertson club; he’s one of only two players to average a triple double through an entire season. For now, Westbrook is toying with the competition. He leads the league in scoring at 31 points per game, while finding time to haul in 11 rebounds and 11 assists.
Westbrook is the Oklahoma City Thunder. The dynamo leads his team in every major statistical category, except for steals, and has OKC at 24-16. Because of Westbrook, the Thunder will be a tough out in the playoffs, instead of tanking the season and competing for lottery balls. OKC, of course, will live and die by him.
The Good Russ will bound up the court, change directions and throw the ball down with authority. When cold, however, he will settle for clanging wild shots off the back of the rim, careen out of control, and lose the ball out of bounds. By the end of the game, angry Russ will glare at his teammates, shout down officials, and ignore the media. Now, as The Man, Westbrook did his best to make amends for last year’s epic 3-1 WCF collapse against Golden State.
5. James Harden
James Harden and Westbrook separated themselves from the rest of the pack in the race for league MVP. Harden is putting up insane numbers in his own right, to abuse the opposition for 29 points and eight rebounds, while also handing out a league-leading 12 assists per game. The Beard is at his best dominating the ball and pushing the pace out of Mike D’Antoni’s freewheeling system.
Last year, Dwight Howard went on TNT to rip Harden for his failure to feed the post through a largely disappointing 41-41 regular campaign. Now, the white-hot Rockets are 31-10, after ripping off nine wins in their past 10 games. Harden, for his part, is coming off back-to-back 40-point games against Toronto and Charlotte. Last month, on New Year’s Eve, The Beard put on a show. He came away with a staggering 53 points, 16 rebounds, and 17 assists at home against the New York Knicks.
It was in 2015 that Harden proved that he was blessed with the clutch gene. That spring, the Rockets were down three games to one in the Semifinals to a surging L.A. Clippers club, before The Beard turned things around. In Game 5, he posted a triple double to get the win with the season on the line. Then, for the Game 7 close out, Harden paced the Rockets for 31 points, seven rebounds, and eight assists. Never bet against The Beard in any shootout in the West.
4. Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard had his coming out party in the 2014 NBA Finals. In the series, he refused to back down, playing suffocating defense against LeBron, harassing him into ugly turnovers and forced shots. On the other end of the floor, Leonard aggressively attacked the rim for layups, floaters, and tomahawk jams. If the Heat defense packed it in, he would flare out behind the arc, where he hit 58% of his attempts for the finals.
Leonard brought home 2014 Finals MVP hardware and his rapid development was primarily responsible for graybeards Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker returning to avenge a heartbreaking 2013 NBA Finals loss to the same Heat team.
Now, Leonard has emerged as the quiet leader of this Dynasty. This year, he dropped in 24 points to go with six rebounds and three assists per game. This Spurs club was a legitimate threat to the Golden State Warriors. From here, Leonard locked down the opposition’s best player late in the game, before coming up with a strip beneath his own basket. It was not enough to get San Antonio into the Finals.
3. Klay Thompson
The Warriors’ Super Team now starts four perennial All-Stars in Stephen Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. The team is coming off two consecutive trips to the Finals, winning one in 2015. Curry and KD own a total of three MVP awards between them; they’re often cited as the most skilled offensive talent in basketball. Still, these two are not without their flaws. Counterparts Kyrie Irving and James often outplay them beneath the brightest lights.
Curry and Durant will put up mind-boggling regular-season stats, only to fall apart in primetime. Then, there is Thompson. Klay’s tallies include 37 points in one quarter, 40 in one half, and 60 through three quarters. He will bury one long-range jumper, and from there, the threat of the outside shot opens up Thompson’s game to other dimensions: dribble drives into the paint and bullet passes to wide-open cutters slicing towards the rim.
On the defensive end, Thompson will lock down the most explosive opposing guard. Then, Curry is no longer a defensive liability; he can roam free and come away with a timely steal as a weak side defender. Last year, Thompson saved the season for the 73-9 Warriors. In Game 6 of the Conference Semifinals, they were down 83-75 to start the fourth quarter in Oklahoma City.
That quarter, Thompson made a three-pointer and drained four more shots behind the arc, to will Golden State back into the game. Fittingly, Thompson found himself alone on the line with nine seconds left, to score his 41st point and close out the 108-101 win. From there, the Warriors returned home to the raucous Oracle Arena, where taking Game 7 and advancing to the 2016 NBA Finals was all but a formality.
2. Kyrie Irving
Two years ago, in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, Kyrie Irving landed awkwardly and grimaced in pain before disappearing into the tunnel. Until that point, he lit up the Warriors for 23 points, seven rebounds, and six assists through 43 minutes of action. Irving watched the Cavs lose Game 1 from the trainer’s room table; he was ultimately shut down for the series, out with a fractured kneecap.
Early last year, a bold Irving proclaimed that Cleveland would have won the 2015 NBA Finals if he, Kevin Love, and the Cavs had played at full strength. At the time, his statement came off as delusional. The GSW destroying opponents en route to 73-9, while Irving had yet to round into form. On a midseason trip to Cleveland, Curry insisted that the visiting locker room still had a whiff of champagne to it before beating the Cavs by 44 points.
Still, Cleveland came back for more, advancing to a 2016 NBA Finals rematch that will go down as a classic. In Game 3, Irving dropped 30 points at home to stop the bleeding after the Cavs took two blowout losses in Oakland. For Game 5, Irving and James took turns controlling the tempo. They racked up 41 points apiece to win on the road and save the season. This gut-check ultimately set the table for the series to go down to the wire in Game 7 at Oracle Arena.
After The Block, Irving found himself sizing Curry up on the wing, with one minute left on the clock. Then he used a jab step to feint a hard drive into the lane, before stepping back behind the arc to nail a three-point dagger. The Shot broke an 89-89 stalemate and made history, with a star-crossed Cleveland taking championship glory.
1. LeBron James
For his signature moment, James chased down a streaking Andre Iguodala from behind and pinned his layup to the backboard. One minute after The Block, Kyrie Irving lined up and drained The Shot to break the 89-89 tie in the tense, Game 7 battle of the 2016 NBA Finals. Next, LeBron cut toward the basket and took a hard foul while attempting to slam the ball down over Green. Fittingly, King James approached the line to drain two free-throws in the waning seconds of this decisive game. Then, he delivered a title to Cleveland after 52 long years.
For the 2016 NBA Finals, James led the Cleveland Cavaliers in points (30), rebounds (11), assists (nine), steals (three), and blocks (two). In the clutch, James specializes in making the right basketball play. For several years running, this outlook completely swung the balance of power in the East. The multidimensional King James proves is capable of taking any team to the Promised Land.
Now, James is 3-7 in the NBA finals, after making trips to the championship series out of Miami and Cleveland. He has already admitted that he’s chasing the ghost of Michael Jordan. At their level, championship hardware is the only thing that really matters.