The Truth About Clutch Shots

Much talk today about the fact that Kobe Bryant didn’t touch the ball on the final possession of the Lakers’ Game 2 loss to the Thunder. Assertions such as “Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson ALWAYS took the lost shot.” Assertions that are as false as they are absurd.

ESPN calls it hero ball, and it has infected basketball at all levels. Final seconds, close game, and for some reason teams suddenly think their best strategy is to have their best player go one-on-one in isolation. No ball movement, no player movement, a forced shot. And it doesn’t work. From the ESPN article:

“Plays involving off-the-ball cuts (1.18 points per possession) and transition plays (1.12 ppp) are by far the most efficient, followed by putbacks (1.04 ppp) and pick-and-rolls in which the ball reaches the hands of the rolling man (0.97 ppp). And the least efficient? Isolation plays, good for only 0.78 points per possession.”

It’s no different for Kobe, despite his long-held insistence on taking every meaningful shot. Last year, TrueHoop determined that, over his career, Kobe had shot 31.3 percent in the final 24 seconds when a game was tied or the Lakers trailed by 1 or 2 points. That percentage was well below most players who had a meaningful number of shots in such situations. More important, over the previous five years, Kobe had taken 56 such shots while recording one assist. One!

Black Mamba? More like Black Hole.

All of this stems from the perception that Jordan ALWAYS took the final shot. It has created a generation of players and coaches who think it’s a good idea to have your best player go 1-on-5 when it matters most. But if that’s such a good idea, why don’t they do it for the first 47 minutes of the game?

Rewind to the 1997 NBA Finals. Jordan drives, splits a double-team, and passes out to Steve Kerr, who makes a 15-footer that gives the Bulls the title and gives Jordan as many assists in that situation as Kobe had in five years.

Rewind further to the 1993 Finals. Game 6, Bulls trail Suns by 2 and have the ball out of bounds in their own backcourt with 14.4 seconds to play. Jordan inbounds the ball and gets it back. He dribbles toward midcourt and then passes to Scottie Pippen in the high post BEFORE he gets to the front court. Pippen drives, passes to Horace Grant on the block, and Grant kicks it out to John Paxson. Paxson hits a 3, the Bulls win the title. Jordan never touched the ball in the frontcourt.

Rewind further to the 1991 Finals. Phil Jackson famously challenges Jordan in the huddle by saying, “Michael, who’s open?” Jordan says Paxson is, then starts passing to him and Paxson hits a couple jumpers as the Bulls wrap up Game 5 and their first title.

All of this somehow how been translated over the years into the assertion that Jordan ALWAYS took the last shot and that it is how superstars should act. The problems: It’s not true; and nobody else can pretend to be Michael Jordan.

The Lakers made the right play on the final possession Wednesday. They got the ball to a good shooter (Steve Blake) for an open 3-point attempt. It just didn’t happen to go in.

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