The Game Winners

by April 25, 2008
14

By Vincent Thomas

The most compelling portion of that ESPN Sunday Conversation with KG, Ray and Paul was toward the end when Michelle Tafoya asked them who takes the game-winner and told them to respond on the count of three. Their answers? Both KG and Paul said “Ray,” and Ray said “the open man.” Fascinating. I was sure that Ray would have said “Paul,” Paul would have said “Me,” and KG would have said, “Well I’m afraid to shoot in close games, so I’m gonna say Paul, because he’s our fourth quarter guy.”

But Ray takes the game-winner, huh? Either way, that’s a good look. Ray’s career is kind of complex when you really look at it. He’s a bona fide Generation Star, but because he spent his career with Milwaukee and Seattle — small-market, mostly mediocre squads — he hasn’t played in many big-time playoff series and/or big, marquee regular season games, so we forget that he’s one of the great clutch performers of his generation. When on that stage and placed in those dramatic circumstances, he usually delivers, whether or not it’s a game-winner in the Big East championship or whatever.

And then we had that opening weekend masterpiece in San Antonio, where the Suns and Spurs traded big buckets and unbelievable plays. I watched that game with my dude Tony and after Duncan hit that end of regulation trey, he said, “Even though he wasn’t supposed to make that, you kinda knew that he would, right?” Why did we know that? Because it was Timmy. He’s that type of performer. Still, more often than not, it’s gonna be Manu taking that shot, right? Manu is the Spurs’ Game Winner. That Celtics interview and the Suns-Spurs game got me thinking about the league’s Game Winners, the dudes that have the ball for their team’s final possession, the guy the squad trusts to take and make the game-winning shot. So I took all 16 playoff squads and identified the Game Winners by asking the simple question, “If I’m a fan of this team and they’re down 1, 2 or 3 points with around 10 seconds left, who do I want with ball?” Once I identified each team’s Game Winner, I ranked them 1 through 16. Dig it…

(No. 16) Andre Iguodala: It’s not that I don’t think ‘Dre has the stones to take and make a game-winner, I just haven’t seen him do it enough. But, scanning that roster, that’s who I’d want with the ball. ‘Dre Miller has had enough time in this league to fashion himself a Game Winner, except, he hasn’t. I think that speaks volumes. Until Iguodala becomes That Dude, Philly is gonna have a frustrating ceiling as a squad.

You Do Not Want: Samuel Dalembert taking that last shot, just like you don’t want Flav giving keynote speeches at HBCUs.

(No. 15) Jose Calderon: Like Iguodala, Calderon isn’t a Game Winner, he’s merely the most capable dude on his squad, which says more about Bosh’s deficiencies than it does about Calderon’s end-of-game skills.

You Do Not Want: Bosh settling for a 20-foot jumper, with a quivering upper-lip in fraidy-cat angst.

(No. 14) Mike Bibby: If we rewind this tape back to those Sacramento Kings glory-years of the Webb-Vlade Crew, Bib would be higher. As a Lakers fan, I held my breath when he had the ball in the closing minutes. He seemed to always hit the big shot. But his clutch-cred is considerably flimsier, now. You wonder if he’s lost some of that magic, because that’s what it boils down to for Game Winners — they possess some magic. Yeah it’s concentration and confidence and skill and all that, but a lot of these cats were brushed with some pixie dust. I wonder if there’s still some residue, in Bibby’s case. Not to worry, ’cause I think Joe Johnson — although not exactly a youngster — can morph into a Game Winner over the next few years as Atlanta becomes a squad that we all take seriously.

You Do Not Want: Marvin Williams anywhere near the court. You don’t even want him on the bench. Send him to the locker room during tight games.

(No. 13) Chris Paul: You know I have a man crush on this young dude. Every time I go on ESPN, I’m slurpin’, I can’t lie. But Chris is unproven on the grandest of grand stages when it comes to game-winners. This is perhaps one of my chief anticipations for these playoffs — seeing if Chris is as clutch as he is, uh, good.

You Do Not Want: Peja Stojakovic touching the ball unless he’s the inbounds man. How many times have we seen him jack up an airball when his squad needed a bucket?

(No. 12) Deron Williams: Deron hit some big shots last Spring. And he’s pretty tough for a light-skinned dude, ain’t he? I also like the fact that he can easily pull up for a 20 to 25-foot jumper in these cases, but his inclination is to bully his way to the bucket. I still don’t know if we can classify him as Game Winner…yet.

You Do Not Want: A sniffling cry-baby like Kirilenko taking your squad’s decisive shot, lest his crocodile tears moisten the ball, causing him to lose his grip. He can’t flop out of that one…

(No. 11) Hedo Turkoglu: We’ve officially hit Game Winner status. How many big shots have you seen this dude hit? For him to be seen as such a second, even third-tier player, he’s mighty clutch. It’s because of him, not Howard, that Orlando can remotely think about knocking off Boston or Detroit.

You Do Not Want: Howard smiling and Harlem Shakin’ his way to the basket for one of his lightweight jump-hooks. This ain’t High School Musical.

(No. 10) Steve Nash: Two years ago, he’d be higher. Now? I’m still afraid if he’s playing my squad and has the rock with the final seconds ticking down. But he’s a step slower these days and Phoenix is a bit more static. This is the year when Amare needs to become the Suns’ Game Winner.

You Do Not Want: Leandro Barbosa to close his eyes, put his head down and barrel to the hoop like a groundhog.

(No. 9) Allen Iverson: The Philly Version was one of the most lethal Game Winners of his generation. Philly was always in tight games and Iverson came through often. Now he’s in Denver, playing for the saddest charade of 50-win team in my lifetime. Forgive me, but, because he plays for Denver, everything he does seems a little trivial and it makes me wonder whether it hasn’t eroded his clutchness. Hmmm … (While we’re here, remember how clutch Carmelo was at ‘Cuse? Somehow, I think he’s replaced nearly all his good habits with toxic ones. He’s the worst great player in the league…does that make sense?)

You Do Not Want: JR Smith to end up with the ball. Not only is he reckless and over-confident, he balls with such hubris that I think he’d pull up for a 30-footer just because he got an itch. And Melo and AI wouldn’t say a word to him.

(No. 8 Tracy McGrady: Remember when this dude scored 26 points in three seconds? If he actually wants the ball at the end of the game, he’s knocking down the shot. It’s that simple.

You Do Not Want: Bobby Jackson on the court. He’s the archetype for all these little scatback tweeners that come in the league trying to be Vinnie Johnson and Ricky Pierce. Bobby wasn’t always like that, but at some point he just began freelancing on whims. Him, Juan Dixon, Pargo…they need to learn how to stand down sometimes.

(No. 7) Chauncey Billups: He’s the coolest of all customers. Have you ever seen this dude rattled? I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him yell and I know I’ve never seen him panic. He’s like Jay-Z in that way. Have you ever heard Jay yell or get extra-hype when spittin’? I’m not talking about when he’s shouting at the beginning and end of tracks doing his extra wack adlibs, I’m talking about during a song. Has he ever done anything but glide, coast? Nope. But he’s still extra hard, right? That’s Chauncey at the end of games — clutch-coasting.

You Do Not Want: Lindsay Hunter on the court. He’s at the age where he should be playing at the YMCA, rockin’ shorts over his sweatpants, with a sweat-triangle round his crotch-area.

(No. 6) Ray Allen: KG and Paul said Ray, so I’ll stick with them. Paul is really one of the top three or four closers in the game, but if the Cs want Ray taking that shot, hey, who am I to argue, right? I also wouldn’t mind Old Man Sam hittin’ a youngster with a pump-fake and knocking down a game-winner.

You Do Not Want: Eddie House in the arena. Send him home when the 4th quarter begins. He’s unhinged, liable to run on the court without checking in and jack up a Tourrette Trey to lose the game.

(No. 5) Dirk Nowitzki: We call him soft and girly, a pansy. We say he wears panties and covers his boo-boos with Dora The Explorer band-aids. We question his manhood, as in “does Dirk have a manhood?” But the fact is, with games in doubt, if Dirk has the rock, he’s gonna knife your heart out. Seriously. And he’s not afraid to take the shot either. He may let dudes tap his cheek and intimidate him and pull down his shorts to expose his Vicky Secret thong, but if he’s taking the game-winner, Dirk will send a squad home.

You Do Not Want: I hate to say this, because he happens to be one of my 10 favorite players of all-time…in fact, I won’t say his name…you know who I’m talking about though. It’s not that he’s not a clutch performer. He still is. It’s just that, well, you ever see those shootaround scenes between Ben Stiller and Phillip Seymour-Hoffman in Along Came Polly? The dude I’m talking about shoots like Seymour-Hoffman’s character, Sandy. “Rain dance!”

(No. 4) Gilbert Arenas: He’s still hobbling, yes. But he’s also still Gil. When healthy and at his best, he may be the Game Winner in the NBA. Yeah, I said it. No one had the stretch of game-winners and clutch shots that he did last season. It was historic. He was so gangsta as a Game Winner that, as he did against Utah, he’d flick a 25-footer, turn around and throw his arms up in triumph — before the shot even went in. And people thought Bird’s index-finger was swaggin’ in that Three Point Contest.

You Do Not Want: Antawn Jamison with the rock. He’s a leader and a gentleman, but he is not a Game Winner. If you’re a Wiz fan and ‘Tawn has the rock, what are your first thoughts? Probably something like, “Thanks for all of your production throughout the game, but please spare us and your knees right now and pass the ball to Gil or Caron.” Am I right on or what?

(No. 3) LeBron James: Write me down as one of those dudes that will always doubt LeBron throughout his career. No matter how great he becomes or how many times he performs like an alien, I will probably always remain somewhat skeptical — especially in game-ending situations. Every game that passes features a more mature and fierce ‘Bron, but I believe that there’s a “too-unselfish” gene — maybe even a benign, shrinking-gene — in his basketball DNA.

You Do Not Want: A repeat of Anderson Varejao’s drop-step, left-handed, scoop-shot brick in Game 4 of the Spurs sweep last June. Tie his hair in a bun and send him to the showers before he can sabotage a victory.

(No. 2) Manu Ginobli: Dude is ice water and has this wild ability to get off all kinds of difficult shots and can them with regularity. And, unlike LeBron, I don’t think he’ll pass it.

You Do Not Want: Robert Horry taking the shot. Yeah, I called it — Big Shot is done.

(No. 1) Kobe Bryant: What needs to be said here? We’ve seen him do it countless times, now. I think he’ll go down alongside MJ, Bird and Jerry West on Mount Clutchmore.

You Do Not Want: Lamar Odom freezing up. Aside from Wednesday’s clunker, ‘Mar has been playing profound ball over the past three months. He’s what I call a Franchise Role Player. But dude is not clutch, at all. He hit that game-winner as a Rhode Island freshman, then started crying on his teammates shoulder. As good as he is at so many things, he’s not built for the pressure-cooker, really. Good thing he plays with Kobe.

Vincent Thomas is a SLAMOnline columnist and SLAM Magazine contributor. He can be reached at vincethomas79@gmail.com.