You've Been Lied To: The Romance of Buzzer-Beaters


If you've ever played basketball, you've imagined this scenario. You put your best move on an imaginary defender, releasing your shot right before imitating the buzzer sound at the end of the clock.


You are celebrating your figmental triumph in hopes of one day draining a last-second shot in reality, just like your iconic basketball influences have done.

It is believed that in order for a basketball player to be deemed clutch, he or she must have a collection of buzzer-beating jump shots. To be even more precise, a clutch player must be willing to take a shot as time winds down, circumstances and smart shot selection be damned. If a player has made enough buzzer-beating shots, no matter how many misses or bad possessions that come along with them, we celebrate their killer instinct and desire to want to close the game out.

I'm here to tell you that the truth behind the idea of clutch has been twisted to fit narratives as analysts see fit. Clutch is colorful in its multiple facets to its definition. The black and white ideal that's been established is, frankly, wrong. You've been lied to.

Imagine the scenario that opens this article, except place a gifted NBA scorer there instead of a younger version of yourself. Focus on the shot that's about to be taken. Is it contested? Is it contested by more than one defender? Is the scorer off his normal shooting balance? If you answer in the affirmative to any of those questions, yet still consider that quality basketball, congratulations. You are praising a terrible shot. Not only that, that terrible shot would be deemed at best questionable and unacceptable, at worst, especially from a high-caliber player.

Sure, with the clock ticking down, pressure ramps up and thought processes can malfunction. How else can someone as smart as Magic Johnson fail to get a shot off in the 1984 NBA Finals years after having one of the best NBA Finals performances ever, as a rookie? But that's why the ball is usually in the hands of a team's most poised player. Superstars have an inner belief that stems from their ability to be better than other world-class hoopers. They believe they will succeed because they have succeeded and been productive and dominant in most game situations. The confidence to know they'll figure out a solution is embedded in them through talent and experience.

This brings me to my next point. Basketball is a game of decisions and reactions. Before dribbling, a player has three basic decisions: shoot, pass, dribble. The choices continue to be made by him and the other nine players on the floor reacting to each other's choices. It's as if the path to a basket has a myriad of forks along it. Basketball is a "choose your own adventure" book with thousands of individual volumes each possession, let alone each game.

Shots like this Russell Westbrook three to beat the Nuggets are not the only time a player can be clutch. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

A superstar player has the choice, more or less, to determine what to do with the ball. If Player A is highly adept at getting to the paint, and he settles for a contested jumper, that is not the best possible option in that moment. Yes, the painted area is crowded with defenders. And no self-respecting defense will allow anyone to cruise to a lay-up, especially with the game on the line. But if a teammate springs open because of a collapsing defense, why is a player less clutch for making a wise decision? What mythological tale did we allow ourselves to believe that clutch looks one way?

We can analyze this from different angles. Killer Instinct is more than a wonderful fighting game. In sports, it applies to a will a superstar possesses that allows him to dominate where others falter. He lays down a bet on himself as the best option to lead the team to victory. My question is: who decided that killer instinct only existed in the final moments? If Team A is down 12 to start the fourth quarter, and Player A scores or assists on Team A's next 22 points to seize control of the game, is that not killer? Not every game's deciding moment is in "crunch time"–defined as a game whose score is within five points with five minutes or less to go. There is a turn of expression in basketball, where we call game-clinching shots "daggers," figuratively representing a bucket from a player that seals victory and "kills" his opponent. If the dagger is inserted earlier than crunch time–or better yet, the weapon of choice is orchestrated misdirection that allows a teammate to end the game–why do we believe making a pass, a smart basketball decision, is a sign of cowardice?

The answer is that we view great athletes as superheroes. As people blessed with supernatural abilities, we thrust them into the trope of conquering a struggle by rising to the occasion and singularly overcoming gargantuan odds. The great(est) rap duo Outkast has a line in the chorus to the title track of their album "Aquemini."

Heroes eventually die.

Shooting unnecessarily difficult shots in the name of receiving glory under the guise of belief in one's own ability is foolish. A player is no less a killer if he manipulates the late-game scenario and it results in a teammate scoring. That is good basketball, and the fact a team's most poised player makes a quality decision when energy is frenzied is one of the main traits a killer has. The mission is completed how he decides.

Buzzer-beating jumpers are beautiful to watch. They're almost euphoric because the tension is broken in an instant, and it's cool to see our basketball superheroes do really cool stuff. Just understand that this is not the singular measure of what a clutch player is. Moreover, you should appreciate the times where, when the clock is in its final moments, some players can get lay-ups or pass up difficult shots for easier ones for their teammates. Basketball is about choices, like betting on sports. Celebrate when the right ones pay off.

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