Understanding Clutch Time Decisions : Myths and Truths

Kobe Bryant Buzzer Beater

One of the facts that make basketball such an interesting and thrilling sport is the rapid emotional changes it causes . Many games are determined by a shot just a few moments before the final buzzer sounds. Close games always raise interest for the sport and are a big challenge even for athletes and coaches.


The importance of possessions during the final minutes of a basketball game is often crucial to the success of a team. In this research, the author will review the shooting performance of teams and individuals during clutch time. The aim is to find out more about their tactical approach, as well as to provide an evaluation of the decisions made.

On the first part, the dataset is analyzed regarding the type of attempt (2PA or 3PA) picked for the last team possession. By doing so, it is expected that an insight into the differences between regular and clutch time will be developed. On the second part, a comparison of team leaders and starters or reserve players is made, in order to determine whether the first ones are more decent shooters and if so, in which way. It is expected that it will help coaching staff to better understand their resolutions.


In basketball there is a term introduced many years ago, called “clutch time”. Even though it is not official, it has being used by players, coaching staff or even sports broadcasters to describe games where none of the teams has a clear lead with a few minutes left. Some of the most famous matches in the history of sport were decided by 1 or 2 points after 40 or 48 minutes of intense play. The pre – game preparation for situations like these, has always been important for everyone involved. From selecting the best play to deciding who will lead the offence, it’s a whole field with great interest.

In this research the author will focus on clutch time situations to inspect individuals’ efficiency, as well as the outcome of their choices and how it is linked with their overall game performance.


Since clutch is a term that can be considered imprecise, for the purposes of this research it will be set as game play that takes place during the final five minutes of regulation or overtime where the winning team is ahead by five points or less (82games.com). It is probably quite accurate and generally acceptable even from NBA officials.

Data from 90 NBA and 30 Euroleague Basketball games, the two most prestigious club competitions worldwide, during 2017 – 2018 season were collected and processed. Each observation is defined as a field goal attempt by a player with the score tied or his team losing by one to three points, with less than 20 seconds remaining. Dataset contains attempts both from players who :

  • are considered the leaders of their team (usually 1 or 2 players per team) or
  • have a secondary role

Attempts will also be categorized according to whether the player put a great scoring performance that night or not. The following criteria have to be met :

  • at least 7 field goal attempts
  • at least 5 field goals made
  • player’s point scored and FG% in the game were better or no worse than 10% from his season averages.

Team final attempt is defined as an attempt to tie the game or give the lead with less than 24 seconds of playing time remaining.


Basketball is not only about physical/technical skills, but mental also. An element that determines a player’s overall ability is how capable of handling pressure he is. Even though undoubtedly pressure to thrive is evident throughout the game, usually it is bigger during the final minutes. What often distinguishes a superstar from a starter or a reserve player is his competence to lead his team in crucial moments and convert attempts into points. The word that describes this skill is “clutch”, Most players however are less efficient during clutch time. For example, a study by University of Oregon (Cao, Price and Stone, 2011) revealed that they shoot 5 – 10% worse from free throw line in final moments of a game than their average. It can be easily assumed that the sense of failure the lack of second chance can be too difficult to handle.

Many NBA all – stars built their myth through their game – winning shots, amongst other achievements. Kobe Bryant has hit more than 40 during his career. Michael Jordan has made the most famous one, “The Shot” against Cavaliers in 1989. Even in European basketball, players such as Belov, Kukoc and Spanoulis have earned the title of the “man of the last shot”.

However, numbers do not always tell the truth. Lebron James is a great example. He is one of the greatest players ever, who has never been afraid of taking the shot that would give his team the win. He has been successful in many cases, with the game of NBA playoffs series against Pacers this season being the latest one. His career FG% though in game winning shots is worse than 25%, a bad number for a GOAT candidate. Undoubtedly this does not necessarily reduce his value as his in – game contribution is valuable. But reveals that his shot selection could have been better. Or trust his teammates more.


Thus being said, there is a question that comes on the mind of every coach that would like to plan his team’s final possession : Should he try to tie the game (if difference is 2 points) or go for the game – winning three – pointer? Or if both options are available (0 or 1 points difference), which one is better, a lay – up or a 3 – point shot for example? By closely inspecting the dataset of this study, some useful conclusions could be extracted.

There were 57 cases where score was tied or the team which was down by 1 had the final possession. In 33 of them, the decision was to attempt a 2 – point shot (57.9%). This ratio comes as a surprise maybe, since league average during 2017 – 2018 season in NBA and Euroleague Basketball were 66.3% and 62.9% respectively.

Another interesting fact is that more 3 – point shots were attempted when score was tied than when one team had the lead. The explanation for this is quite profound. Even though 3FG% of a player is usually worse than his 2FG%, if he misses the shot the game will go to overtime probably so another chance will be given.

This thought is ideal to analyze what happens in the first scenario stated above. Now, 39 cases fall into this category. Surpisingly, the percentage of 2PA is significantly higher than the previous one (64.1%). In other words, when a safer option is available (by attempting a 2 – pointer to tie the game, where chances are better), most teams decide to do so.

Last but not least, the below chart illustrates what happens when team was down by 3. Definitely a shot beyond the arc is the most obvious choice. However there were a few cases when this did not happen, probably expecting that either will steal the inbound pass or will commit a foul and opponent will miss at least one free throw.


Apart from shot selection the second, and sometimes bigger concern for coaching staff, is who will take this shot. This is what superstars and franchise players are paid for amongst others. But this gets more complicated if they are not performing well or even if someone of their teammates is more efficient than them.

Russell Westbrook is a great example to begin with. The 2017 NBA MVP is the primary offensive threat of Thunder, attempting at least 20 field goals per game usually. There are many games though where he shoots worse than 35 – 40%. However, he leads the league with game – tying or go – ahead shots made in the final 10 seconds over the last two seasons. Westbrook is the type of player that pursues becoming the hero of the day.

On the other hand, he achieved this by making only 11 out of his 30 attempts. In this case, it would be thought – provoking to inspect which NBA players are the best performers in clutch time and final seconds of a game.

A vast majority of fans would probably speculate that players such as Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry would lead the list of game – tying or go – ahead shots in FG% with less than 5 seconds left. ESPN’s results throughout 2007 – 2016 seasons however reject this hypothesis. According to them Rudy Gay made 17 out of his 38 attempts, being the only player to shoot better than 35%. Even the rest of top – 5 in this list (Nowitzki, Carter, Joe Johnson, Lillard) can be considered superstars but apart from Dirk none of them reached the NBA finals or won the MVP award.


In addition to this, in this part of the research the author will focus on performance in overall clutch time, as defined earlier. This will give a better overview of the impact of players who are probably doing more things on floor than making or missing the final shot. The below table illustrates the top – 20 players in FG% during clutch time over the last two seasons in NBA (regular season only, minimum 25 attempts).

Clutch time FG% leaders, 2017 – 2018 season

1Ben Simmons66.7
2Willie Cauley-Stein61.8
3Giannis Antetokounmpo61.5
4Markieff Morris59.4
5Jayson Tatum58.2
6Dwight Howard56.7
7Andre Drummond55.6
8Rondae Hollis-Jefferson55.6
9Kevin Durant54.9
10Julius Randle54.5
11LeBron James54.4
12James Johnson53.1
13Stephen Curry51.5
14Dion Waiters51.4
15Al Horford51.3
16Jrue Holiday50.9
17LaMarcus Aldridge50
18Kelly Oubre50
19Kelly Olynyk50
20Jaylen Brown50
21Anthony Davis50

Some names on the list seem quite surprising to the reader. Markieff Morris is the 3rd or 4th offensive option for Wizards, but still manages to shoot 11.4% better than his season average. James Johnson ranks just 8th amongst all Heat players in FGA per game, but 1st in FG% during clutch time. Out of the 24 All – Star Game players this year, only 8 of them made it to the list.

Under those circumstances, the following question raises: the person to be trusted should be the one that had his job successfully done all the other times or the one that is “hot” today? There are coaches and superstars who believe in their ability, even if they have been underperforming for the rest of the game. Michael Jordan once said “I never looked at the consequences of missing a big shot. When you think about the consequences you always think about a negative result”. And there are also games where superstars realize they have to back off and let their teammates and have confidence in their teammates. Phil Jackson believed that “Good teams become great ones when the members trust each other enough to surrender Me for the We”.


Using the data collected for the purposes of this study, the first step will be to analyze the distribution of team final attempt by player’s role and performance. Readers of research can see the superiority of team leaders over the rest squad members. Even a non – leader who has performed well has less chance of taking the final shot than a superstar. Approximately 69% of those possessions end up in the hands of one of team’s leaders, a ratio that is higher from the respective for the rest of the game.

If the FG% is examined though, two very interesting outcomes should be pointed out :

  • Non – leaders who have put in great performance do not necessarily have less chance of making their shot than leaders.
  • However, a superstar who has not shot well till the final possession is more likely to score than any other teammate being in the same situation as him.

In general, team leaders made 31.3% of their game – tying/go – ahead shots, while other starters or benchwarmers shot with 24.3%.

The final graph demonstrates the FG% of team’s final attempt according to FG% of this player before this shot. Results for FG% between 0 and 20% are probably inaccurate due to insufficient data size. Pearson’s correlation coefficient is very low (0.0064), which indicates that the relationship between those two variables is positive, but very weak.


The research above presented the various team and player behaviors in clutch time situations and final seconds of a game. There was a remarkable increase in 3 – point shots, even when a 2 – point shot would be sufficient to tie or win the game. This was much more evident when score was tied and therefore missing a 3 – point shot would not probably mean recording a loss.

Moreover, it was proved that there are players who are not considered superstars but are quite efficient in clutch time, and vice versa. More than two thirds of game – tying or go – ahead shots in the last seconds of a game are made by superstars. However, their teammates who usually play smaller role in offence but have shot well that night, quite often have equal or better chance of making this shot. No significant correlation was found between overall game and clutch time performance.


To sum up, it was interesting to analyze the topic of clutch time shooting efficiency. Some speculations were confirmed by the results, while some others were party or fully rejected. Of course, outcomes may vary from team to team and player to player, depending on their philosophy and technical/mental skills.

*Featured image : Getty Images


Cao, Z., Price, J. and Stone, D. (2011). Performance Under Pressure in the NBA. Journal of Sports Economics, [online] 12(3), pp.231-252. Available at: https://goo.gl/hcfBLn [Accessed 25 Apr. 2018].

NBA. (n.d.). Ranking 10 Most Clutch Players in NBA History. [online] Available at: https://goo.gl/JHnhwa [Accessed 25 Apr. 2018].

Basketball-Reference.com. (n.d.). Basketball Statistics and History | Basketball-Reference.com. [online] Available at: https://goo.gl/puYoSg [Accessed 2 May 2018].

Euroleague.net. (n.d.). Turkish Airlines EuroLeague – Welcome to EUROLEAGUE BASKETBALL. [online] Available at: https://goo.gl/3zzyj3 [Accessed 2 May 2018].

Taylor, C. (2018). Westbrook: Leads NBA in shots to tie or take lead in final 10 seconds. [online] OKC Thunder Wire. Available at: https://goo.gl/E7hgY9 [Accessed 2 May 2018].

Khan, S. (2016). Rudy Statistically Most Clutch Player in Decade | Sacramento Kings. [online] NBA. Available at: https://goo.gl/1N2xLc [Accessed 3 May 2018].

Stein, M. (2016). Final-second shots are tough; just ask LeBron James. [online] ESPN.com. Available at: https://goo.gl/A56jnn [Accessed 3 May 2018].

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