Pretend for a second that you are an alien. Okay, well, I know you are one already, but still. Let’s say you know nothing about earthly, modern American culture and its accompanying sporting traditions. How would I explain the usage of the word “clutch” to you? Your thorough study of English language dictionaries has not impressed upon you the great weight this word takes on when it is said in the presence of basketballs. So to you, Mr. or Mrs. Alien, I say: These are the NBA men who have taken pressure-packed situations right on the chin and gotten right back up; they have best performed under its bright and sweat-producing lights.
This is the listicle for the ballers who best fulfill the most cinematic dreams we have about this sport.
10. Sam Jones
Remember when the Boston Celtics won 11 championships in 13 years? Probably not, Dime Mag readers are mostly younger than that, but that’s why we’re about to tell you about Sam Jones. Jones was the linchpin behind Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, the original Celtic greats, who was often relied upon for big shots in sweltering championship moments throughout the 1960s. Well before basketball had developed a more nuanced language of its own, Jones was simply-but-aptly called “The Shooter” throughout the sport for his steely touch when the clock was winding down on a close game. For all his use of the backboard — which was not yet uncool, and still shouldn’t be! — he might today be dubbed “Coldwell Banker.” Just watch him deposit all these checks.
9. Ray Allen
As someone whose fandom has been on the receiving end of this man’s deep-shooting daggers too many times, I can confirm that the word “fearsome” was invented to describe Ray Allen’s presence late in important games. No game ever felt safely in hand so long as Allen was around to snatch it away with his unconscious shooting. His Game 6 gut punch was the drug the Miami Heat needed to overtake the San Antonio Spurs in the 2013 NBA Finals, one of the most memorable title rounds of all time. You’ve seen it before, but now you’re going to watch it again.
8. Reggie Miller
Oh my gosh. This guy. Reggie Miller’s intentionally grating on-court bravura and squirminess were matched only in intensity by the shots he took and made once he slunk his way through multi-man coverage in playoff contests. There is a long list of Reggie late-game rage sessions, but none can top what he once did to Madison Square Garden. This frankly criminal performance made Spike Lee really mad, but not even because of his known Knicks fandom. While this was happening, Lee realized he could never make a movie so shot through with romance as Reggie’s historical performance in real life. Gold bless him.
7. Larry Bird
Larry Bird could score, of course, but it was a much wider kind of impact that made him so scary to every NBA team on the 1980s. Late in games he was liable to do anything to shepherd a win, often seeming to invent new types of strategy within the sport as the outcome was on the line. Imagine the bad, bad feelings that Detroit Pistons fans still harbor when Larry Legend pulled off the most improbably defensive play in playoff history. “Nowwww THERE’S A STEAL BY BIRD,” will sprout a smile on any Celtics fan’s face, and bitterly furrow the brow of any Pistons fan.
But let’s not forget the time Bird told “X-Man” Xavier McDaniel exactly where on the floor he was going to hit the game-winning shot on him, then did it!
6. Kobe Bryant
Even Kobe’s most drunken zealots have to have a bit of a weird taste in their mouth about the Laker great at the moment. The last two years of his career were a strange, sordid tale with the league’s most storied franchise held hostage under the weight of a dying legacy. Let’s not forget how airtight victory used to be with the ball in his hands and the clock winding down, though. As we gain more distance from Bryant’s retirement, we will remember him more like this.
5. LeBron James
James, like Bird before him, can seal a game with a shot, but he’s ultimately more impressive as a total basketball product. Clutch players are often defined by isolated plays and moments, but James’ resume has him completely taking over entire contests — from every facet and angle of the court — when his team is down in late-round showdowns. As many outstanding efforts he’s put forth in this vein, it’s safe to say that his leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to overcome a 1-3 hole against the Golden State Warriors in the most recent NBA Finals is James’ most iconic and clutch showing yet.
For three games, he was Sports Will personified.
4. Magic Johnson
Who can forget the baby skyhook in 1987 and the death knell of the “Tragic Magic” moniker?
Some will say that Kobe is the greatest Laker. He isn’t, though! This is no knock: just a plea for people to better appreciate Earvin “Magic” Johnson. The guy who was so good at his sport that he earned a nickname usually attached to fairy tales and owned that nickname so hard that few remembered his actual name by the end of his career? Yeah, that guy, the original LeBron, a do-all oversized point guard whose vision and force broke your defensive front into pieces.
Throughout the 1980s, Bird and the rest of the league were constantly undone by his inexplicable, unearthly feel for the path to glory as the clock wound down.
3. Robert Horry
Big Shot Bob is the biggest outlier on this list, and perhaps in the history of basketball. No one has ever been so generally ho-hum as a player but so memorably outstanding in the clutch, a stark contrast that hoop heads are still getting their heads around. With the Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Houston Rockets, Horry earned a reputation as the most clutch role player in the history of basketball. He was a player so reliable that three different dynasties put in good work to get him. Watch this human magnet for clutch conquest in action:
2. Bill Russell
Remember those 11 Celtics rings mentioned above in the Sam Jones section? Russell was the No. 1 guy on those teams, and so he belongs here — even if you think his less-than-stellar shooting ability knocks him out of contention. If you wanted to fight me to say he belongs in a higher spot on this list, I might just curl up in a ball and concede you’re right. Russell got vertical — like, off the ground and all that — in a way that rocked a lot of minds, and his overwhelming physicality and understanding of the game’s pace, aerial space, and various rhythms had him holding strong at the top of the sport’s hill from when he started until he finished. The man won all 10 Game 7s he ever appeared in during a career that saw him capture 11 championships in 13 years, including eight in a row! Only a foot injury and the difficulty of being a player coach after Red Auerbach resigned in 1967 prevented Bill from claiming an NBA title in each season of his career. And, of course, after he lost to Wilt’s 76ers in that first season as player/coach, he came back to capture two more titles (’68 and ’69) in that role, including a pivotal Game 7 win on Chamberlain’s home floor in Los Angeles to close out his career atop the NBA mountain.
Russell was insanely clutch, but this claim comes almost as a default to the fact that he was basically a perfect fit for the greatest team in professional sport history.
1. Michael Jordan
What can be said that hasn’t been said? As the sport of basketball got bigger and bigger in the TV media age, Jordan kept raising the bar. He rose to, and expanded, every clutch moment he was in. Look at all the receipts: