Monday, May 7, 2012

Closing Time

Tonight in Denver, in a tight game where the road Lakers led by 2 with two minutes left, here it came, as predictable as rain after thunder... the discussion of just who on the Nuggets would be able to Close The Game, also known as score in the clutch. And there's really no more annoying point about the NBA, or a more persistent issue.

For the record, Andre Miller and Ty Lawson both missed clean looks. So did Ramon Sessions. Danilo Gallinari tied it up on an open jumper that was almost a 3. Pau Gasol decked Gallinari for no call, clearing Sessions to hit a power-play 3 for the lead, as the refs decided Danilo was too Euro to trust. Miller tipped a ball on the rim to ruin another deuce, and Steve Blake hit a corner three off a Kobe Bryant pass, and that, well, was that; the Lakers won, 92-88. The Nuggets can't close. The Great Men theory of pro hoop is restored.

You see, that's the real problem with Closing Players: it's not that the Lakers are better (they are, especially when the game is under 100, as this one was), more experienced in the playoffs, picked up surprisingly good bench play from Blake and Jordan Hill, or that Furious George Karl is always good for looking better than he is until the playoffs. It's also not that Aron Afflalo has disappeared on offense against Bryant, or that Andrew Bynum is eating the Nugget bigs. Rather, it's just simpler to say The Nuggets Can't Close and that's that.

And it doesn't matter, of course, that the best closer of our era is Kobe Bryant, and his numbers stink in the clutch. (Most players, to be fair, do; the defense in the close and late is huge, and the refs swallow the whistles.) Dwyane Wade is a great closer, and he took a turrible final shot tonight to end the Heat's dreams of 16-0. The Mavericks had closers all over the rosters, and they got swept by the closer-free Thunder. And so on, and so on.

If you are the home team and tied with a few minutes left in the game... you probably deserve to lose. You've wasted the initial burst that the crowd has given you, the comfort level of being in your own gym, and the small but telling advantage that the refs give the home team, for all night long. You've made the visitors comfortable enough to think they can win. You are no better than 50-50 to win, and probably worse.

Blake isn't a closer (12 points tonight, 10 points in the earlier 4 games) any more than Miller's a choke artist for tonight's game; they are simply role players who rolled the dice late and got the results they got. The Lakers are, after all, just a little bit better than these Nuggets, and the lack of depth hasn't hurt them the way that I thought it might. They turn out to be better in the first 44 minutes to get a road game to even, and the last 4 as well.

Because what you do in the last 4 minutes of a game is this: try to score, and keep the other team from doing it. Just like the other 44. It requires no magic, or magical thinking; it's just that the last few minutes are remembered more.

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