The Whiteboard: Power ranking the best clutch teams in the NBA

Feb 7, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder (99) defends against Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan (11) during the first half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 7, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder (99) defends against Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan (11) during the first half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports /

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There are a lot of different ways to win a game and, all things considered, most teams would probably prefer a blowout victory to grinding one out in the clutch. But you take every win you can get and some teams have shown a propensity for stepping up when the game gets tight.

Clutch performance is a notoriously messy metric, particularly for individual players and for year-to-year comparisons. But among the best we’ve seen this year there are a few who could be on a historic trajectory.

5. Memphis Grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies have pumped up their record by winning several close games, with an 18-9 record in all games where the margin was within five points at any point in the final five minutes, outscoring opponents by an average of 13.6 points per 100 possessions. Their offensive efficiency in those moments has been powered, somewhat surprisingly, by offensive rebounding more than crisp execution. They’ve rebounded 42.6 percent of their own misses in clutch situations and Steven Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr. have been joined by Brandon Clarke and Kyle Anderson in making a big impact there.

4. Brooklyn Nets

For as much as the Nets have struggled and underperformed this season, they’ve managed to wriggle their way out of some tight spots. They’ve outscored opponents by an average of 14.5 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations but it’s been their defense that has mostly led the way. James Harden and Kevin Durant shot a combined 38.9 percent from the field and 17.9 percent from beyond the 3-point line in clutch situations but, as a group, they’ve gotten solid results forcing misses and crashing the defensive glass. That may not be a sustainable formula come playoff time but the Nets can probably count on Durant and, eventually, Kyrie Irving shooting a lot better in tight games than they have so far.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers have outscored opponents by an average of 15.6 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations this year and that late-game performance is one of the things that’s kept them in the playoff hunt. They are 20-13 in games in which the margin was within five points at any time in the final five minutes and 12-18 in the rest of their games. Their offensive efficiency seems to take a big jump in tight games and they can thank Reggie Jackson for that. His per-36-minute averages for clutch play work out to 32.3 points, 7.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds, on a 58.5 true shooting percentage.

2. Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have the second-best clutch point differential this season, at plus-17.5 points per 100 possessions and a lot of it has been driven by the late-game heroics of DeMar DeRozan. He’s played 103 minutes of clutch time this season with per-36 minutes averages that work out to 43.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.4 steals, shooting 52.9 percent from the field and 89.3 percent from the free-throw line. Inpredictable’s win probability added model estimates that his clutch performance has, cumulatively, been worth more than twice as much as any other player in the NBA this season. He’s already hit a pair of buzzer-beaters and has made five shots to tie or take the lead with under a minute remaining. Individual clutch performance can be notoriously noisy from season to season but, this year at least, DeRozan is the guy you want with the ball in his hands and the game on the line.

1. Phoenix Suns (maybe the best clutch team in NBA history?)

The Phoenix Suns have been dominant in clutch situations to a degree that is hard to fathom this season. So far, they have a record of 25-4 in games in which the margin was within five points at any time in the final five minutes. Over 86 minutes of clutch play, they have outscored opponents by an average of 40.6 points per 100 possessions. That’s the best mark, by far, of the last 26 seasons, for which play-by-play data is available and only two other teams over that era have even finished a season above plus-30 points per 100 possessions in the clutch — the 2008-09 Cavaliers (plus-34.2) and the 2015-16 Warriors (plus-34.1).

The Suns have played stifling defense in clutch situations but really it’s their offensive execution that is blowing teams away. In those 86 clutch minutes, they’ve scored an average of 133.0 points per 100 possessions, turning the ball over on just 8.9 percent of their possessions and posting a true shooting percentage of 70.2.

Chris Paul has been on the floor for all but eight of those clutch minutes and has piled up 71 points and 28 assists to just 5 turnovers, on a 68.6 true shooting percentage. But he’s not the only Sun putting in work. Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson and Deandre Ayton have all posted true shooting percentages above 60 percent in their clutch minutes this season.

The Phoenix Suns can be beaten, but don’t count on doing it in a close game.

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