What It Means to Be Clutch in Basketball’s Biggest Moments

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They are the moments dreamed about in childhood while on an empty playground. An imaginary game clock dwindles. A couple of dribbles are taken. A game-winning shot is launched.

“Throwing out the trash. Playing in the backyard with my brothers,” Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale said. “There’s always a countdown for everything.”

“Just in the house messing around on a Little Tikes hoop,” the former Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs said. “You always practice, messing around, pretending to be in those moments.”

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For most, the fantasy ends there. Only a few know the emotions, pressure and stakes of attempting a decisive shot in high-level basketball with the buzzer nearing zero and everything on the line — to triumph in an ordinary game, to advance in a college tournament, to win a finals game in the pros or even to clinch a championship.

As the N.B.A. finals between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks get underway, each team is equipped with players capable of making climactic shots at the end of close games, players like Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton.

Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton provided what was arguably the most memorable moment in these playoffs with his game-winning alley-oop dunk against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.

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These clutch moments are magical, arriving in different forms. Sometimes they come from star players. Other times, role players are up to shine in the moment. Some are well-rehearsed plays out of a timeout or, in the case of Suggs, they are long-distance heaves made in the chaos before U.C.L.A. set its defense in the Final Four of this year’s N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament.

The unifier is that they always come at the peak of a game’s tension.

“Whether it was me, someone else on my team or from U.C.L.A., I think that was the only way that that game could have ended,” Suggs said. “We shoot half-courters before every game and I didn’t have the best track record, I have to be honest. I shot it normal. I didn’t want to do anything extra, anything out of the ordinary.

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“You see with the video, I put it up with good form. I held my form up and just gave it a chance. In situations like that, that’s really all you can do.”

There are too many moments to list, but think Robert Horry over the Sacramento Kings, Damian Lillard against the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, Michael Jordan hanging in the air over Craig Ehlo, or Teresa Weatherspoon in the 1999 W.N.B.A. finals.

Ogunbowale hit multiple game-winners during a college career at Notre Dame. She said she knew the emotions Suggs felt as she watched him leap onto the scorer’s table after his shot against U.C.L.A.

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“I just saw it in his face, the excitement,” Ogunbowale said. “It’s just a situation that people dream. His shot was great. Players like him — I don’t care how many people are on you, how much time it is — a big player gets the ball in their hands like that. My percentage is always like 80 percent, 85 percent on those types of plays, because it’s the competitiveness, the want to win. It’s hard for them to miss when they know they have to make the shot.”

Not always. To make a game-winning or clutch shot, a player has to be willing to live with missing.

“Probably for me, Game 7 is always going to haunt me,” Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs said after the 2013 N.B.A. finals, when he missed a shot and a follow in the last moments that would have tied the game against the Miami Heat.

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For all of his incredible moments, Stephen Curry missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer in the waning seconds of Game 7 of the 2016 N.B.A. finals that would have cemented Golden State’s ranking as the greatest team ever.

“Jordan, Kobe, some of the greats, the people who hit the most game-winners, they missed more than they made,” said Golden State’s Jordan Poole, who made a winning shot against the New Orleans Pelicans this season. “But a lot of people don’t talk about the ones that they missed. And when you’re in the moment and it comes down to that wire, you’re telling yourself there were other things in the game that got you to this point, which determined the win or the loss. The last play comes down to execution or not.”

Many times, elation came only after frustration.

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San Antonio rebounded to win the finals in a rematch with Miami the year after Duncan’s missed shots. Golden State won championships in 2017 and 2018.

“What happened last year definitely helped our drive,” Duncan said in 2014.

And Bryce Drew, who is perhaps best known for his 23-foot game-winner that gave No. 13 Valparaiso a win over No. 4 Mississippi in the first round of the 1998 N.C.A.A. men’s tournament, remembers that season more for a failed play during the regular season.

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“We couldn’t complete the pass to even get to the final shot,” said Drew, now Grand Canyon’s men’s basketball coach. “After that game, we switched personnel around and we put a smaller guy to be the passer that was a bit faster and could get there quicker.”

Likewise, Alana Beard vividly remembered missing a potential game-winner from the right corner of the court when she was a teenager.

By the time she played for the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2016 W.N.B.A. finals against the Minnesota Lynx, she had rehearsed the shot thousands of times. “The corner 3 became my theme because of a shot that I missed in high school,” Beard said. “So, for that to come full circle in that moment blew my mind.”

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The circle closed at the end of Game 1. Beard went to the corner while guard Chelsea Gray handled the ball. She watched Candace Parker maneuver away from the ball to give Gray room to operate, Nneka Ogwumike get bumped off a screen that would have sent her into a pick-and-roll and Kristi Toliver lose her footing.

Beard readied herself as her defender, Maya Moore, crept in to double Parker.

“You see everyone sort of sucking into the middle of the floor,” Beard said. It looked like Gray would have nowhere to go, and Ogwumike wouldn’t be able to roll.

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“And Chelsea Gray did what she always does and that’s make the right basketball play, which was a kick out to me, someone that’s not expected to take that last shot,” Beard said.

Her shot just before time expired gave the Sparks a 78-76 win over the Lynx, the defending champions. The Sparks won the best-of-five series, and the championship, in five games.

Poole has yet to make it to the finals in the N.B.A., but he’s learning the art of dramatic shotmaking.

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In 2018, when Poole was in college, his 3-pointer at the buzzer propelled Michigan into the N.C.A.A. tournament’s Sweet 16 over Houston. In May, Poole made a go-ahead layup against the Pelicans and sealed the victory with free throws.

“Those are all the shots that just felt the most comfortable, stuff that you worked on,” Poole said. “And those are the ones that I didn’t feel any pressure at all. In the second quarter, you’re trying to get a rhythm. You’re trying to break out a lead. You want to get back in the game, cap off a run. You may feel a little bit more pressure in terms of the regular basketball situation, but at the end of the game, I don’t feel any at all.”

That is how Ogunbowale felt. Her back-to-back game-winners during Notre Dame’s 2018 title chase capped a history-making run.

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Against Connecticut in the Final Four, Ogunbowale felt empowered when her coach, Muffet McGraw, suggested that she make a play, pass or shoot, with time to survey the defense. “When I got the ball, it was like 10 eyeballs looking directly at me and I had to make something happen,” she said.

Her shot from just inside the 3-point arc gave Notre Dame the overtime win. She followed with an off-balance, high arcing championship-winning shot against Mississippi State.

“That’s the whole goal of playing a sport,” Ogunbowale said. “You want to be in the championship at the last game of the season, and to be able to win like that in that fashion with your team, that’s a feeling that it can’t really be compared to or described.”

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Beard retired from playing in 2020. Like many, she watches games with the hope that players deliver when it matters most.

“I don’t want to speak for every fan, but it’s kind of disappointing when the shot doesn’t go in,” Beard said. “But that’s what makes the main shots that much more exciting. Because athletes are under so much pressure to make real-time decisions. It’s a natural motion that you feel as an athlete. You love to see the moments. You love to see big-time shots.”

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