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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
When the lights shine the brightest, which NBA players perform the best?
Clutch time is defined as the last five minutes of a game when a team is leading or trailing by five points or fewer. While individual moments and shots can sway our perception of a player’s success in clutch time, the numbers don’t lie.
While most remember Damian Lillard‘s long three-pointer over Paul George in the playoffs last year, Lillard is shooting just 37.9 percent overall and 31.0 percent from three in clutch time this season. Other superstars—including LeBron James (31.1 percent overall), James Harden (38.3), Luka Doncic (34.6) and Kawhi Leonard (16.7 percent from three)—haven’t shot the ball well in the clutch this season, either.
Some of the most clutch players may come as a surprise, while others’ production in the game’s most important moments has come to be expected.
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The king of clutch this season, no player has scored more points than Paul’s 128.
He’s arguably the biggest reason for the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 32-21 record, and he made his first All-Star Game since 2015-16.
In 136 minutes of clutch time (the second-most in the league), Paul’s Thunder are beating opponents by a remarkable 73 points. He’s shooting 54.5 percent overall and is 36-of-38 from the free-throw line (94.7 percent).
Inside the arc, this is the best season Paul’s ever had in his 15 professional campaigns. The mid-range game is slowly being phased out, but Paul is a master at getting to his spots and launching perfectly timed jumpers just out of the reach of opposing defenders. After two years with the Houston Rockets in which Paul took by far the highest percentages of three-point shots in his career, the 34-year-old has rediscovered his comfort zones on the court.
Paul has plenty of playoff experience under his belt, which may help him when the game is pressure-packed. He is on pace to reach the postseason for the 12th time in 15 seasons—he hasn’t missed the tournament since 2009-10—and he’s already accumulated 3,800 minutes over 102 playoff games.
While Paul is probably no longer a top-five point guard, there’s been no better floor general in clutch time this season.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
One of the biggest reasons the Toronto Raptors have won 15 straight games and are on pace for a better regular season than last year even without Kawhi Leonard has been Fred VanVleet.
The fourth-year guard is averaging career highs in points (17.9), assists (6.9), rebounds (3.8), steals (1.9) and made three-pointers (2.7) per game in his first season as a full-time starter.
He’s been even better in the clutch, averaging 25.8 points per 36 minutes while shooting 46.2 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from three and 88.5 percent from the free-throw line. Compare that to his overall shooting line of 41.2/39.6/84.0, and it’s easy to see that VanVleet has thrived in close situations. In 74 clutch minutes, VanVleet’s Raptors are beating opponents by 30 points.
The 25-year-old has also been extremely good at taking care of the ball with the game on the line, dishing out eight assists to just two turnovers. This 4.0 assist-to-turnover ratio is even better than those of veteran point guards Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, Jrue Holiday and Kemba Walker.
VanVleet cut his teeth with playoff battles against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks and LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. That may have aided his even-keeled on-court personality and helped lead to his incredible clutch-time performances.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
While most would expect to see LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler, Harris has actually been the biggest threat at the end of close games.
James (31.1 percent shooting) and Leonard (40.6 percent) are apparently saving their clutch performances for the postseason, and the same can be said for Butler (33.3 percent shooting overall, 17.6 percent from three).
Harris, meanwhile, has thrived.
The NBA’s best three-point shooter a season ago, Harris has cashed in on 12 of 22 shots from deep in clutch time (54.5 percent), the best mark of all players who have attempted 20 or more. Players like James, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell are all shooting under 30 percent.
Per 36 minutes of clutch time, Harris is averaging 19.6 points and 5.4 rebounds with a tremendous shooting line of 52.2/54.5/90.0. Among those who have logged at least 100 total minutes in the clutch this season, Harris is the only player in the NBA to shoot at least 50/50/90.
Although the 24-28 Nets have stumbled through stretches of the season, Brooklyn has outscored opponents by 24 total points in 127 clutch minutes with Harris on the floor.
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Christophe Ena/Associated Press
Antetokounmpo has been the NBA’s best player this season, no matter what the score or remaining time reads.
His averages of 30.0 points, 13.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks (in just 30.9 minutes per game) are once again more than MVP-worthy, and the Bucks’ NBA-best 46-7 record shows the amazing impact he’s made in all areas.
With an average point differential of plus-12.5 this season, Milwaukee has been destroying opponents most nights, thus not allowing for a lot of clutch time. When it does find itself in a tight game, however, Antetokounmpo has still been his dominant self.
In 32 clutch minutes, the 25-year-old forward has scored 40 points on 15-of-29 shooting (51.7 percent), even connecting on two of five shots from three (40.0 percent). He’s grabbed 19 rebounds in those 32 minutes, collected four steals and blocked three shots. The Bucks have demolished opponents, beating them by 39 points with Antetokounmpo on the floor.
If he can keep up this level of outside shooting with the game on the line, there’s not a defender on earth who can stop him.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
A number of centers have been fantastic in the clutch this season.
Rudy Gobert is shooting 82.6 percent from the field and leads all centers with 48 total rebounds. The Denver Nuggets are plus-71 in 121 minutes with Nikola Jokic on the court, and no center has scored more total points (107) or handed out a greater number of assists (19).
When combining production with efficiency and team success, however, no one tops Embiid.
He is averaging an otherworldly 45.3 points per 36 minutes in the clutch, and he’s doing so on 56.4 percent shooting from the field and 46.2 percent from three. He’s also pulling down 12.9 rebounds, handing out 2.8 assists and swatting 1.7 shots over the same average stretch.
When the game gets tight, it’s clear who the Sixers go to for big plays.
Embiid’s 39.1 percent usage rate not only leads Philly, but it’s also first among all NBA centers. Ben Simmons’ usage plummets to just 12.3 percent in the clutch, fifth on the team behind Embiid, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford. While there were questions about who would get the ball at the end of games once Jimmy Butler left in free agency, Embiid has certainly ended that debate.
That kind of production will be immensely valuable in the playoffs when games slow down and every possession is taken more seriously. Embiid can dominate a contest on both ends of the floor, and he has been the league’s best center in the clutch.
All clutch stats via NBA.com.