Michael Jordan is the best fourth quarter performer in the history of the NBA. I will go so far as to say he is the best fourth quarter player past, present or future. That’s not to say there aren’t some absolutely insane fourth quarter guys out there (Kobe Bryant and Gilbert Arenas are the best there are right now, and I’d agree with the duo of Dwyane Wade and Joey Crawford), but we will never see a player with Jordan’s “clutch” mentality. Even Reggie Miller, my first true basketball idol, wasn’t as good as Jordan in the fourth quarter. Yeah, Reggie had some absolutely memorable final stanzas, such as eight points in eight seconds, dropping 25 against the Knicks, burying a buzzer-beating 40-footer in the playoffs and The Superman Dunk. But for every great one Reggie had, Jordan had five. I won’t go into all of what Jordan did because the purpose of this post isn’t to revere Jordan or belittle Reggie; the purpose is to discuss who is clutch.
Where did this come from? ESPN’s Skip Bayless. He has some of the most asinine arguments, such as “Dirk Nowitzki cannot win MVP because he tenses up at the ends of games and doesn’t perform.” Let me preface the rest of this piece by saying (a) I have as much respect for Skip Bayless as Pacman Jones has for the law, and (b) his Dirk comment isn’t even the most off-the-wall thing he’s ever said; he wouldn’t want LeBron James on his team. Point of clarification: you probably want a guy that can be called by just his first name on your team, except for Nene.
Think of all of the times that Dirk has let the Mavs down over the past two seasons in the fourth quarter. I have two: a Finals game from last season and the Suns’ game from a couple weeks ago. But, for some reason, those two games have warped people like Bayless into believing Dirk can’t win games in the fourth quarter. Recap of last year’s playoffs: Dirk hits a three at the end of game three in Memphis to force OT, Dirk gets an “And 1” lay-up in game seven in San Antonio and Dirk pulls a Reggie Miller and scores 25 in the fourth quarter to rally and beat the Suns to take a 3-2 series lead. Those are two legendary plays and one legendary performance to put him in the clutch category.
How about this season? This is, after all, the season in question. Off the top of my head, I can think of close games that Dirk has played. Most recently, he rallied the team in the fourth quarter to win against Orlando and Boston. Those games may seem meaningless because they were against Orlando and Boston, but the point is that his play picked up in that final quarter, and he became a better performer. And it’s no coincidence that the Mavs are the best close game team in the league because they have a low-post defender, Dirk, who hits 90 percent of his free throws (take that Tim Duncan!). I feel like I’m missing something here.
Oh yeah, Skip, how about in late December (of this season) when Dirk hit a shot over supposed Defensive Player of the Year, Shawn Marion, with 1.3 seconds left to win the game for Dallas? That’s clutch. That’s playing beyond your ability in the fourth quarter. I was there; in fact, I was 50 feet away from Dirk when he buried that jumper in Marion’s grill. I was so excited afterward, high-fiving everyone around me that I didn’t even notice that Jason Terry’s headband landed at my feet. Mavs 101, Suns 99. That was guts. That was everything you want your superstar to do: demand the ball, make a play to get the ball, have the stones to take the shot and have the ability to make said shot. Dirk did all of those in that game.
Yet Dirk misses one shot in a regular season game in the middle of March and people are ready to anoint Steve Nash (can’t play defense and has been injured), Kobe Bryant (great all-around player but on a bad team) and even Shaq (he missed 40 freakin’ games!) as MVP.
So where do we go from here? Just remember, being clutch is not the be-all and end-all of an MVP race, but that is apparently the biggest knock against Dirk. Is Dirk MJ? No. Dirk’s late game heroics don’t even approach Reggie Miller’s, Kobe’s or Arenas’s. But Dirk is undoubtedly a superstar, and his late-game play has made him the Mavs’ unquestioned leader. Those attributes combined with a historic regular season (the Mavs are on place to win 69 games!) can only be described as Most Valuable.
Tilis is a member of the class of 2007.