In some sense, the debate about clutch play in basketball’s statistical community — who is good in the clutch, how you define clutch, if clutch play really even exists — is a moot point.
Players and coaches believe it exists, therefore it does. You can argue that it doesn’t but there is at the very least a placebo effect there — decisions are made, plays are called, players get the ball because they are perceived as clutch or not. Players are labeled that way, fair or not.
When you think of the great “clutch” players in baseball, Reggie Jackson’s name comes up. As a kid who grew up a Dodgers fan I hate him for it — the three home runs in a World Series, the thrown hip to knock down a double play ball, all of it. But he is Mr. October.
He, like other athletes completely believe in clutch play. It colors their actions. And he provided his vision of clutch and the NBA while on The Big O Show on 640 Sports in Miami this week. I think his perceptions mirror that of many other athletes (and coaches not named Spoelstra):
“Kobe Bryant misses shots at the end of the game, but it’s not a poor effort or poor performance. I wanted to make sure I gave my team, the ownership, the fans, the manager, my teammates a good full effort at home plate. And if I succeeded, super. But I didn’t want to go up there and have check swings, take strike three down the middle, freeze up, look awkward — I wanted to have a good swing and give a real good effort…
“LeBron needs to get after it with all the skills and size that he’s got. He’s got every skill, every ability you can ask for. If you’re going to make up a player to be a great player — he’s bigger than Jordan, he’s bigger than Wade, he’s bigger than Kobe, he’s bigger than the great players. Unstoppable. And I’ve seen him unstoppable.
“So when I see him have poor efforts when it counts I’m shocked. Because personally think that it’s all in his head. He can do anything he wants. This guy makes threes from half-court. He can drive on anybody, he can get a rebound whenever he wants. He truly is a special athlete and anytime he has a poor effort, as he has in the postseason, it’s just because there is something in his head that is not working right. He’s not believing in himself enough.”
To him (and most every athlete) this is mental, not physical. Fear of success, fear of failure, fear of whatever. It doesn’t matter to them, what matters is the perception of overcoming it.
“I was afraid to fail, and I think you’d hear that from some of the friends that I know — (Joe) Montana, Ronnie Lott, (Michael) Jordan, (Larry) Bird, Bill Russell. I know all those guys and we were all afraid to fail. So I aggressively went to succeed and I looked for an opportunity. I wanted to be part of the victory. Whether it’s a slide into second base that breaks up a double play, whether it’s a throw that hits the cutoff man, whether it’s advancing the runner to get into scoring position, let alone the base hit that drives him in or the home run that wins the game or the (pitcher) that strikes out 15. You want to be part of the victory, so I’d constantly look for a moment to be part of what we were doing as a team….
“The moment didn’t tense me up, I looked at the moment as an opportunity for success or the opportunity to be a hero… I cherished that chance….”
As I have said recently with LeBron, what he did in the All-Star game, against the Jazz and every game since is moot — until he succeeds on the biggest stage and wins a ring he will not be able to shake the perception. He will be a guy seen as failing on the big stage until he doesn’t. That’s how we are — Dirk Nowitzki couldn’t win the big game until he did. Same with Peyton Manning and many others. So it is with LeBron.
He can’t be seen as winning it all until he wins it all. It’s all about the playoffs. And the finals. He knows that as well as anyone.