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When a player in the NBA chokes, there's no Heimlich maneuver the team doctor can use to dislodge the poor performance from their system. They're just left to sink further into a funk in front of everyone watching from the stands and home. This condition can sometimes be fatal – for their team's chances to win the game – and is something you'd never wish on your team's players. On the other hand, some players seem like they have ice running through their veins with the cool way they perform under pressure. You know the type – they are the players you want with the ball in their hands during the final minutes.
Is your team afflicted with a chronic case of choking, or are they ready for the moment?
Read on to learn which NBA teams are the league's true choke artists and which ones are the best closers.
While you wouldn't know it from their disappointing performance in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors, the Houston Rockets were actually one of the most clutch shooting teams last season. The Rockets shot over 66% from the field in one-possession games with two minutes or less remaining. This was a significantly higher percentage than any other team. Perhaps this had something to do with their franchise-record 65 wins for the 2017-18 season.
The Rockets also led the NBA in shooting percentage when losing by one possession late. However, they weren't as efficient closing out games. When they had a one-possession lead, their shooting percentage dropped to 18th overall. The Minnesota Timberwolves actually led the NBA, shooting almost 64% with a one-possession lead late. This was undoubtedly one of the reasons they ended their 13-year playoff drought.
While the Rockets and Timberwolves were clutch in close games during the regular season, other teams were much less efficient. The Charlotte Hornets came in dead last for field goal percentages in one-possession games, which contributed to them missing the playoffs.
Perhaps in an omen of things to come, the Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors were the two worst teams in field goal percentages when winning by one possession with under two minutes to play. Both teams would go on to be swept once the playoffs started. Given their tendency to fold under pressure in the regular season, perhaps fans should have seen this coming.
It's the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is the best at locking up shop in the closing minutes of an NBA game. The forward's 75% field goal accuracy when leading in the final two-minutes ranks the highest in the league, proving him a worthy selection to the All-Star team. While other players come close to replicating Antetokounmpo's ice-cold dominance in this time frame, such as the Chicago Bulls' Kris Dunn (67%) and the Los Angeles Lakers' Julius Randle (60%), his Freakness truly inhabits another level all by himself.
Unfortunately, not all players can replicate Antetokounmpo's performance. The 2016-2017 MVP, Russell Westbrook, actually proved to be the worst closer in the NBA, shooting a paltry 21% when leading by one possession. He wasn't alone. Anthony Davis may have been selected for five consecutive All-Star games, but he proved second worst in the league when it came to finishing out games when leading by one possession.
The story doesn't end there for Davis. He may not be the best go-to option to close out a game, but there's no better player by field goal percentage when losing by one possession. Davis redeemed himself in this category, shooting an outstanding 70%.
Not all players are built for the comeback, however. Memphis Grizzlies' center Marc Gasol barely hits less than 17% in these situations. Jimmy Buckets, otherwise known as Jimmy Butler, of the Minnesota Timberwolves, also shouldn't be trusted in these moments. Despite the nickname, he only converts a little over 21% when his team is down one possession in the final two minutes.
Denver Nuggets shooting guard Gary Harris helps swing games with his accurate shooting in one-possession games that go down to the wire. He hits 70% of his field goals in these scenarios, better than every other player in the league. Not too far behind is Boston Celtics rookie small forward Jayson Tatum, who has nearly 67% of his shots find the net in these pressure cooker moments. His clutch performances, no doubt, helped him receive a nomination for the 2018 Rookie of the Year award.
While Jayson Tatum ascended his rookie year, fellow rookie Lonzo Ball made most of his news off of the court. Unfortunately, his performance on it in the final moments of close games was among the worst in the league. His 33% field goal percentage put him in the bottom 20 in the NBA. 2017-18 MVP front-runner James Harden also made an appearance on the bottom 20 list. Harden shot just over 32%, which was the 18th worst of any player.
When the game is winding down, not only is it important to know how much time is on the clock (sorry, J. R. Smith), but also who is the best player to take the last one or two shots . Both the offense and defense need to know where the ball should go to distribute to or disrupt the target man. Otherwise, your team – especially if they're the Houston Rockets – will just continue letting you down in the final minutes of the game.
We utilized data from basketball-reference.com to determine team and player field goal percentages and attempts. We only counted shot attempts that were taken with two minutes or less remaining in either the fourth quarter of a game or overtime.
For one-possession games, we used a scoring margin of -3 to +3, meaning a team could be losing by up to three points or winning by up to three points. For leading by one possession, we used a scoring margin of +1 to +3, meaning a team was winning by at least one point and up to three points. For losing by one possession, we used a scoring margin of -3 to -1, meaning a team was losing by at least one point and by as many as three point
No statistical testing was performed during this project. As such, the data presented above utilize rankings and simple averages alone.
Think this project came in clutch? Feel free to share this data on the NBA's best closers and worst chokers as long as it's for noncommercial purposes. All we ask is that you link back to the full page so that other NBA aficionados can see our findings for themselves.
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