In the 2011 Finals, the world witnessed the continuation of two season-long trends—the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki’s clutch play and the Miami Heat and LeBron James’ faltering late in games. Dirk and the Mavs’ success in the clutch dates back to 2004-05 and has been even more notable since the arrival of Kidd (Cuban cites Kidd’s efficacy in the clutch as the reason for acquiring him for Devin Harris). Dirk repeatedly carried his team when the going got tough throughout the entire playoffs. LeBron and the Heat, while unstoppable in the clutch versus the Celtics and Bulls, reverted back to their season-long trend of disappointing in high-pressure situations. While clutchness can be overvalued, misunderstood, and random, the goal of this article is explore potential explanations as to why Nowitzki and his team prevailed and James and the Heat fell short in these memorable and weighty contexts. After months of watching and analyzing basketball, my working theory is that the strength of an individual or team’s “identity” determines success in crunch-time. Furthermore, it is worth noting that an individual’s strength of identity can affect his team’s identity and vice-versa, and this interaction further affects performance in clutch situations.
Henry Abbott of TrueHoop on several occasions (here and here) has questioned why teams decide to run low-efficiency isolation plays during crunch-time, rather than playing the team-basketball that breeds success during the first 43 or so minutes of a basketball game. M. Haubs of The Painted Area also agrees that sticking to team-offense that generates quality shots is what matters in crunch time, rather than a mystical clutch quality such as “cold-bloodedness” of “killer-instinct.” I recommend reading their thoughts in full, but for now I will try to paraphrase the argument about late-game tactics on offense: as much as Abbott (and myself, for that matter) agree that the basketball is ideally in the hands of the team’s best player late in games, it is best for the playmaker to receive the ball in the context of a play that sets him up to create a quality shot either for himself or for his teammates. I’d add that these late-game plays should be simple and relatively cautious; complicated and aggressive plays can spurn turnovers, which are about the worst thing that can happen in crunch-time basketball from momentum-changing and fast-break perspectives. Plus, as long there is a shot attempt, the team at least has the chance for an offensive rebound. Possessions are paramount, especially in the end of games, and some mixture of efficiency and protectiveness should characterize their use in crunch time.
According the Drive Theory in psychology, humans are likely to revert to their dominant (i.e. most frequent) response in stressful situations. For teams to successfully execute crunch-time offense by way of Abbott’s suggestion, then, teams and players must develop a dominant response (in the form of a play) to the arousing state of the clutch. The game of basketball is chock-full of variables that might further facilitate or inhibit a dominant response beyond crunch-time stress, but it follows that crunch-time success is aided by a strong dominant response to fall back on.
Strong preparation, identity, and confidence are imperative in order for a well-run play for a star player to become a team’s dominant response. Let’s start with preparation. Isolations require less team-preparation, as they are simpler (a reason for their popularity). Successful play-calls, no matter how simple they may be, necessitate teammates to be on the same page, fluid player-motion, and sound decision making…traits that only practice affords. With enough practice, a team can develop a deep and nuanced understanding of how it runs these plays. They can understand where each player will be at a given moment, when to expect a screen, when to throw or receive a pass, and when to expect a shot in order to crash the boards. This complete and total understanding of one’s own team is what I am referring to as strength of identity, and this strength of identity breeds trust, timeliness, confidence, and ultimately success. One might argue that no matter how much a team practices, it cannot simulate the pressure clutch situations, but my argument here is that if a simple play is well-practiced enough to become a part of a team’s identity, it can become a dominant response that transcends the debilitating pressure of crunch-time.
An observer might comment on a team with a strong identity as a team that appears to be “knowing what they’re doing” with players that “know their roles.” This can be a hindsight bias, at times, but I think we can also recognize when a team is generating quality looks and when it looks flustered, regardless of misses and makes. Why a team might look comfortable or lost in the clutch is a different question, and of course, my argument here is that “why” can be explained by strength of individual and team identity.
My two examples for teams low in team-identity are the Heat and the Thunder. When I watched the Heat and Thunder’s crunch-time possessions this post-season, regardless of whether they were succeeding or failing, both teams generally did not appear to be sure in what they were doing—neither team had a trustworthy dominant response. Trying to predict the Heat’s late-game possessions required asking yourself, “Who will shoot, LeBron or Wade? Where will this ‘play’ start and end? Will they drive to the hoop or shoot a contested three-pointer?” For the Thunder, the questions were, “Will Westbrook shoot or will he defer to Durant? If Westbrook shoots, where will he decide to pull-up from, and if drives, what move will he attempt? If he passes it to Durant, where will Durant catch it and work from?”
These questions might suggest, to the Heat and Thunder’s delight, that the defense didn’t know what to expect. But even more importantly, the Heat and the Thunder themselves didn’t know what to expect, and in the end, both teams’ crunch-time play proved inferior to the Mavs’. While the Heat and the Thunder scored on many late-game possessions during the playoffs, their scoring appeared less reliable, exemplified by late-game turnovers and unpredictable, low-percentage, contested shots that led to several heart-breaking losses.
Analysts have long examined this lack of team identity for these teams—it isn’t some made-up story that emerged after the Heat and the Thunder fell to the Mavericks. For the Heat, the questions surfaced as soon as they came together. The “Who takes the last shot—LeBron or Wade?” question, as trivial as it may be on a literal level (there are only so many games that depend on the final possession), speaks to the team’s general lack of identity and dominant response in all crunch-time situations. In addition to that question, a fundamental question surrounded the team’s playing style: “How will LeBron and Dwyane play off of one another?” Outside of transition plays and some well-timed cuts and alley-oops, that question remains to be answered for the dynamic duo. For the Thunder, analysts wrote of the irony that an All-Star point guard and historically-prolific scorer couldn’t consistently play off of each other. Like LBJ and Wade, the Thunder duo scored on their fair share of isolations and their offensive connections were too few for teammates that talented. While the Thunder’s youth and the Heat’s inexperience together help explain this lack of team-identity, the teams’ identities were inextricably tied to the key players’ identities, or lack thereof.
This lack of team-identity for these teams is related to the star players on each team somewhat lacking in individual offensive identity and dominant responses. We can start with the easiest target, Russell Westbrook. Westbrook’s lack of individual offensive identity was more pronounced than that of most rookies of his ability, as he was a combo-guard that lacked the passing ability and experience to be a PG and the range and size to be an SG. Westbrook, of course, has solidified himself as a point guard, but he is still shoot-first and unpredictable. Russell’s unpredictability can be an asset at times, but in crunch-time it can leave himself and his team lost and confused. Beyond his streaky pull-up jumper (which is more effective in transition than in the half-court sets that characterize crunch-time), he lacks a go-to move, the hallmark of individual offensive identity (in terms of scoring and playmaking).
Westbrook’s All-Star forward, Durant, has a leg-up in identity, but still has some flaws of his own to work out—Durant lacks a go-to post move, doesn’t consistently get by defenders with his dribble, and cannot rely on his sweep-through move to draw fouls at the end of games. That being said, Durant can shoot over (almost) anyone, has a well-practiced pull-up of his own, has a few fakes and counter-moves, and can score from anywhere. The problem for the Thunder is that his strength of identity cannot be properly utilized when Westbrook’s unpredictability is characterizing his team’s offense toward the end of games, unless he’s benched. It starts with the quarterback, Westbrook, and he sets an erratic tone that permeates the team’s attitude and style of play during the end of games. His teammates aren’t sure when to crash the boards, whether or not he wants a screen, and when or where they would receive a potential pass. Unfortunately for the Thunder, Durant stopped fighting for position to receive the ball once he realized that he could never know when Westbrook might pass to him. When Durant did receive the ball, he was almost surprised—not the trait of a player confident and sure of his team’s patterns and decisions. This left Durant flustered, far away form the hoop, and in a losing position from the start. Overall, whether it was Westbrook or Durant controlling the possession, the players and team’s lack of identity resulted in uncertainty, difficult shots, turnovers, and ultimately, losing.
Moving to the Heat, we can start with the league’s best “all-around” player, LeBron James. While LeBron may be the best player in the world, I think his “all-around” label also speaks to LeBron’s lack of offensive identity beyond “amazing passer, facilitator, and finisher.” As we saw in the Finals, when James decided to use his team’s possession, he at times had trouble getting to the hoop and relied on his jumper, particularly his inconsistent three-pointer. LeBron may be known more for his late-game travels than buzzer-beaters, and travels are often a sign of indecision, uncertainty, and lack of understanding of one’s body. Check out these famous, er, infamous, plays here and here. LeBron is developing a go-to move (i.e. dominant response) when he pulls up after driving to the left-elbow, and he likes to set up in the triple-threat in the left mid-post, but because LeBron’s frame is so wide and massive, many defenders have learned to take charges on his drives. While LeBron can elevate over defenders, he will be more complete when he recognizes defensive slides and reacts with fakes and counter-moves. The Heat’s lack of team-identity, as well, seemed to cramp James’ comfort-level on the court. Like Durant, at certain points he seemed content to let Wade take over, as if he assumed he wouldn’t receive the ball.
In speaking of Dwyane Wade, of the four All-Stars between the Heat and the Thunder, he has the highest individual identity. He has a series of go-to moves that he is confident in, such as the European two-step, a through-the-legs crossover that can lead to a drive or step-back, a baseline fade-away, a foul-drawing pump-fake, and a generally polished mid-range and slashing game. On the whole, Dwyane’s late-game play has rarely been questioned, especially after he willed the Heat to victory in 2006. Despite Dwyane Wade’s arsenal of refined weapons, an arsenal that he is confident in, Wade reverted to off-the-dribble threes in the Finals. This shot is not a part (or at least it shouldn’t be) of his or his team’s basketball identity. Couple that with the shot’s degree of difficulty and Wade’s long-range ineptitude (career 29.2% from long-range), and you have a player acting beyond the confines of his comfort zone, his identity.
The Mavericks had a high team-identity, and it isn’t hard to wonder why. As David Thorpe put it in a TrueHoop interview when describing why Dallas won, “Everyone knows their roles. They move the ball beautifully. They punish every little mistake you make.” M. Haubs of The Painted Area described the Mavs’ late-game lineup as “The Greatest Clutch Lineup on Earth.” I would add that the team has a strong identity that allows for swift and correct responses in every situation. As a team, they understand their personnel, spacing, and timing. And, of course, the individual talent (and strong individual identities) of the component players helps their cause. Starting with Jason Kidd, the Mavs have a confident point guard who has enough experience, discipline, and unselfishness to make the right pass with the right timing in order and run a crunch time play. Jason Terry can at times be unpredictable, but with each jumper, he elevates over defenders as his confidence elevates above the pressure. Marion and Chandler willingly turn into pick-setters and offensive rebounders, and they do so to perfection. And of course, all of this is made possible by the German with unguardable go-to moves. Dirk’s identity as a player has been something of a debate, but in addition to his wet and unblockable jumper, he has a signature one-footed fadeaway, and a series of moves and counter-moves out of several court positions that result in convincing ball-fakes. And because Dirk’s teammates trust him so, he has that much more confidence in himself to make the right play. His teammates are confident in his playmaking, and likewise, Dirk is confident in himself and his teammate’s ability to find him in the right spot. The Mavericks are a stunning display of individual and team identities that interact to produce in the clutch.
On the whole there is no surefire recipe for clutch success–the nature of crunch-time is too random to expect consistent results. Players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Kevin Durant can hit difficult shots against the toughest of defenses, stunting the opponent’s best efforts. That being said, a team should probably run simple, well-practiced plays through its star player with other players who are familiar with the offense. A team with a strong identity and strong individual-identities from its component players will likely play confident team-basketball, giving itself the best chance for success in a situation where every chance counts.
Disclaimer: I’ll be the first to acknowledge the insignificance, unpredictability, and myths behind players and teams being clutch. We tend to overreact to mini-trends, like the Heat’s misleadingly bad record in close games this year. In addition, whatever trends emerge over NBA seasons are from relatively small samples and these trends usually don’t hold up over the long haul. As others have explained, teams are likely to regress towards .500 basketball in these games in part due to situational factors (e.g. injuries, varying inter-team dynamics) that confound the data with endless variables. In addition, the very (varied?) nature of close games makes them unpredictable—chance factors such as refereeing and bad bounces play a larger factor in close games because there is less time for the “better” team to establish a lead (i.e. sample size in the form of minutes). This is why a team’s record in close games is not predictive championship pedigree. This fact is also related to why point differential is more predictive of future success than win-loss record. Point-differential, unlike wins and losses, doesn’t depend on a binary result (i.e. win vs. loss) that attempts to capture more nuanced data. As win-loss records are oversimplified binary data, a fact that in and of itself results in smaller sample sizes as compared to points for and points against, they are thus more clouded by luck-induced results (i.e. close games) as a metric. Like the “hot-hand,” we attribute reasons to a team or player’s success because t we tend to attribute behavior and results to dispositional and inherent traits, and thus in these situations we theorize fabled and abstract qualities like “cold-bloodeness” or “being in the zone” as reasons for success.
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