It’s the time of year when every game carries immense consequences and so the superstars demand the ball down the stretch.
Perhaps no superstar embraced that responsibility more than Michael Jordan, who made countless big shots in crunch time. The most unforgettable was likely his jumper that closed out the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.
Or how about LeBron James’ 25 consecutive points — including the go-ahead layup with two seconds left — that keyed the Cleveland Cavaliers’ double-overtime victory over the Detroit Pistons in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals? The King, of course, would also knock down several playoff buzzer-beaters in the years that followed.
More recently, Kawhi Leonard’s name became etched in playoff lore when he somehow found a way to get an off-balance shot from the corner to fall at the horn in the Toronto Raptors’ 92-90 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals.
But who are the players who will have a chance at either adding to their postseason legacies or creating their own in these playoffs? And which players should be given the opportunity to do so based on their crunch-time performances during the 2022-23 regular season?
We’ve taken a look at the data in three clutch situations to determine which of the players participating this postseason have been the best in the league in those spots.
Here we go.
First, we’re going to rank who has scored the most points per game in what we deem “clutch” situations, which is the last four minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when the game is within six points.
Those who have seen the Sacramento Kings play more than a few times this season probably aren’t surprised to see De’Aaron Fox sitting atop this list. The first-time All-Star averaged 25.0 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds while leading the franchise to its first playoff berth since the 2005-06 season.
There’s a reason why the fourth quarter has become known as DeMar DeRozan time in Chicago over the past two seasons and LeBron has proved he’s still capable of taking over and carrying his team down the stretch. Arguably, no one is doing more for his team in these situations than James, who is averaging a league-best 6.7 points/rebounds/assists per game – more than Fox (6.2), DeRozan (6.2) and two-time MVP Nikola Jokić (5.7).
You might think that Julius Randle should be New York Knicks’ go-to player late in close games, but you’d be wrong. Did anyone foresee Jalen Brunson becoming this type of difference-maker after coming over from the Dallas Mavericks last offseason?
Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies and Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets did not make the top 10 with 2.9 points per game in the clutch. But among players with at least 10 games over the last 20 years, Morant ranks first (5.4) and Murray second (5.2) in career clutch points per game.
Tyler Herro of the Miami Heat was the most dangerous 3-point shooter in the clutch with 20 3s on 37.0% shooting, while Kevin Huerter (40.9%) of the Kings and Klay Thompson (29.5%) of the Golden State Warriors had 18 apiece.
Defensively, the Chicago Bulls locked down the Toronto Raptors to key their rally from 19 points down in their play-in opener. Alex Caruso and Patrick Beverley led the effort and they ranked first (0.29) and fourth (0.26), respectively, among playoff qualifiers in steals per game in clutch situations.
Miami big man Bam Adebayo (0.28) was second and Jrue Holiday of the Milwaukee Bucks was third (0.27) during the regular season. Al Horford of the Boston Celtics led all playoff qualifiers with 0.29 blocks per game in the clutch.
Late and Close
There’s no doubt it takes some serious guts to perform in the “clutch,” but it takes even more ice in the veins to come through in “late-and-close” situations.
That’s because those scenarios take place in the last two minutes of the final quarter when the game is within four points.
It gives you a sense of just how good DeRozan, Fox and Brunson have been in key situations that they’re also in the top three in this category. DeRozan, however, has been slightly more productive than Fox and Brunson when it comes down to the last two minutes of a close game.
The star swingman also led the NBA with 4.0 late-and-close points/rebounds/assists per game, ahead of Fox (3.2), Jayson Tatum of the Celtics (3.0), Brunson (2.9) and Jokic (2.8).
Where is LeBron? He takes a tumble here down to 14th among playoff qualifiers at 1.5 points per game and 13th with 2.4 points/rebounds/assists per game. However, since 2002-03, James ranks third in points per game in late-and-close situations (2.1) among those with at least 10 games meeting those criteria, behind only Kobe Bryant (2.4) and former teammate Kyrie Irving (2.1).
By the way, the Atlanta Hawks might want to think twice about getting rid of Trae Young since he was sixth with 2.1 points per game in close-and-late situations this season.
Klay Thompson hit a league-high eight 3s in the last two minutes of close games, while Herro was second with seven triples.
Game on the Line
We’ve left you with the biggest nail-biting, nerve-wracking situations of them all — shots with the “game on the line.”
We define “game on the line” as the last 24 seconds of the final quarter with the game within three points.
Among players with at least 10 games in those situations, Kevin Durant led the NBA with 1.5 points per game in 2022-23. He was 2 of 4 from the field and 11 of 14 from the foul line for the Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns.
Fox was great in these spots too, hitting 7 of 15 from the field, 2 of 4 from 3-point range and 11 of 12 from the free-throw line when it mattered most for the Kings. No one in the league had more field goals than Fox in the last 24 seconds with the game within three points.
Brunson was the best in the league at getting to the line in these final moments, finishing the season with an NBA-high 16 free-throw attempts. He made 12 of them and averaged 0.9 points per game when the game was on the line.
Historically speaking, Durant is also No. 1 among players with at least 30 games in these situations (1.0 points per game) since 2002-03. Kobe Bryant (1.0), Kyrie Irving (0.9), Stephen Curry (0.9) and Steve Francis (0.9) round out the top five.
That’s pretty darn good company and a great advantage for Phoenix to have in the postseason.