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On the Celtics and clutch plays 01.28.11 at 3:02 pm ET
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Over on True Hoop, Henry Abbott wrote a post about one of his favorite topics: The perception of Kobe Bryant as a clutch player versus the reality of his numbers in ‘clutch’ situations. Abbott’s main point is that Bryant makes about one-third of his shots in the clutch, which is about average for every other player in the league.

This is one those third-rail arguments that generate lots of heat and discussions since Bryant fans will never concede on the clutch argument. They have watched him make too many big shots. On the other side, this is manna for Bryant opponents since they have likewise watched him miss contested shots with the game on the line.

The thing that truly stands about Bryant is this regard is that if the game’s on the line he’s going to take the shot. Abbott points to a five-year study done by Roland Beech at 82games.com that shows that Bryant took 56 shots in clutch situations and had just one assist. The other thing that stood about the study? Paul Pierce had the most assists in those situations with nine.

There are a number of different conclusions one can jump based just on those numbers, but let’s start with the idea that Bryant, and therefore the Lakers, are relatively easy to defend in late-game situations because everyone knows that Bryant is going to take the shot. Maybe easy isn’t the right word, since defending Bryant is no one’s idea of a good time. Let’s say instead that they are predictable.

The Celtics have their own version of Kobe in the clutch: Pierce at the elbow. Time and again the Celtics return to sets that puts the ball in Pierce’s hands near the top of the key where he attempts to work into his sweet spot at the elbow for a 15-foot jump shot. There are good reasons for this, most prominently is that Pierce is the Celtics’ best one-on-one player and the one who is best able to create his own shot.

When it works, Pierce is a cold-blooded assassin. And when it doesn’t, fans scream that it’s a predictable, low-percentage play.

Despite this tendency, the Celtics and coach Doc Rivers also have a well-deserved reputation for coming up with interesting plays out of timeouts. Just this year alone there was the gorgeous Rajon Rondo lob to Kevin Garnett that beat the 76ers and this motion set that gave Ray Allen a 3 that put the Celtics ahead of Detroit.

The point is that in late-game situations opponents can never be too sure where the Celtics are going. Sometimes they aren’t either. Most of Rivers’ plays have multiple options that rely on his players reacting to the different looks the defenses give them.

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra noted in a radio interview that he had “great respect” for the plays Rivers draws up out of timeouts. Spoelstra said, “They always seem to come out with something. You don’t know which guy they’re going to, and they execute well.”

Take for example that Pierce game-winner against the Heat in Game 3 of last year’s playoffs. On the surface it seemed like an ordinary ISO play for Pierce, but there were other factors.

“We had two plays called just in case they fouled,” Rivers said after the game. “What we tried to get is Paul facing the basket because it’€™s very difficult to commit a foul when you’€™re facing. If you reach and grab he’€™ll throw the ball up. The whole play was for Paul, but we wanted activity.”

This, ultimately, is what you want out of late-game situations. A play with movement and options that leads to the best shot available by the player who is most willing to take it. Give Bryant this: He doesn’t shy away from the moment. That may not make him a clutch shooter, but he is completely unafraid of the situation. Perhaps, as Abbott suggests, to his detriment.

Read More: Clutch, Doc Rivers, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce
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