Coming through in the clutch

‘Clutch’ is a word that is used quite a bit in the sports world. Some of the best athletes that have ever graced American sports have been described as such. This sporting year, even with all the strangeness of COVID, has already demonstrated the value of this trait. But what does it mean to be clutch? Is it the ability to make the right decision down the stretch of a game, is it having the killer instinct to finish a game before a comeback can be mounted, or is it the ability to feel totally cool under pressure? I’m of the opinion that being clutch encompasses facets of everything just listed and more.

Joe Montana is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game and a large part of the reason why is because of his cool headedness in dire situations. Montana famously added brevity to a comeback situation in the Super Bowl where he casually pointed out that comedian John Candy was in attendance. This calming remark settled his team as Montana lead his team down the field to earn the 49er’s yet another Super Bowl. Montana didn’t feel the pressure here (or in the other three Super Bowls he led the 49er’s to in the eighties) and he also surgically dissected the opposing defense making tough throw after tough throw. Montana clearly fits the bill for being clutch, but that is just one sport what about basketball or baseball?

Michael Jordan is considered by many to be the greatest basketball player ever, in large part due to his killer instinct at the end of games. Jordan time and time again put his Bulls on his shoulders putting up absurd offensive numbers while also clamping down on opponents in defense. His most famous shot (and he has quite a few) is probably the three pointer he took to eliminate the Cavaliers in the playoffs. A defender was frankly in perfect position to block Jordan’s shot but Jordan somehow waiting one second longer before he released the dagger three to send the Cavs home. This shot broke the Cavs spirit for years to come.

Derek Jeter is no stranger to big moments. The player known affectionately as the captain played for one of baseball’s most famous clubs in the Yankees, and was involved in multiple World Series wins for the club. While Jeter has been involved in many clutch moments with the Yankees the moment that sticks out to me was in his farewell season. Jeter was playing his last home game with the team and his team needed a run to win the game. The Captain calmly went to the plate and knocked in two runs to put his team up enough to win the game. Age hadn’t dulled his clutch trait.

All of this is being brought up because when a team has a clutch player every game feels winnable in some facet, but if a team doesn’t or worse is known for choking the inverse is definitely true. Case in point the poor Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons famously blew a 28-3 lead against the Patriots to lose the Super Bowl, and as it would turn out the team seems to have predisposition to blow huge leads. In the past two weeks the Falcons have blown both games when leading by 20. Both games the team had a whopping 99% chance to win according to ESPN. The first week the team for some reason forgot the onside kick rules allowing the Cowboys to steal a win. The second week the team played far too passively for a chance against the Bears.

Basketball had its fair share of disappointing performances in the playoffs this year, but the biggest was the Clippers. Specifically the duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who quite frankly didn’t step up when needed in the fourth quarter of the close out game against the Denver Nuggets. To put a finer point on it the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Nuggets one game is all it would have took for either player to take the game over.

So the big thing about being clutch is that from what I can tell you can’t teach it, some players just are. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are great players no doubt about it, and to Leonard’s credit he had a clutch moment last year when he played for Toronto where he hit a buzzer beater to send the 76er’s home in the playoffs. That said if a player is the focal point of the team it is expected that they display some of the traits listed in those crucial moments. The ones that can are always considered clutch, even if they sometimes don’t actually get the win. So that’s my two cents on being clutch but I’m curious what you the reader think about this.

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