Big Break Bob

Below, Jonathan joins the avalanche of praise being heaped upon Robert Horry of the San Antonio Spurs for yet another game-deciding shot. Case in point, ESPN's "The Sport Guy" Bill Simmons:

Even if Horry had retired in 2003, we would have remembered Big Shot Bob for life. But he saved his defining moment for Sunday night, throwing a rattled Spurs team on his back in Detroit and making … I mean … it would almost demean what happened to write something like "some huge 3-pointers" or "a number of game-saving plays." Considering the situation (a budding Spurs collapse that seemed eerily reminiscent of the 2004 Lakers series), the circumstances (nobody else on his team was stepping up) and the opponent (one of the best defensive teams ever, playing at home), Horry's Game 5 ranks alongside MJ's Game 6 in 1998, Worthy's Game 7 in 1988, Frazier's Game 7 in 1970 and every other clutch Finals performance over the years. If Horry hadn't scored 21 of his team's last 35 points, the Spurs would have been "Dead Man Walking" heading back to San Antonio. Instead, they're probably going to win the title Tuesday night.

I guess all that is good as far as it goes, if a little over-stated. However, I am not so sure about this:

And forget about saving the season; Horry probably altered the course of Tim Duncan's career. If the Spurs had lost that game, they would have eventually blown the series and everyone would have blamed Duncan all summer, mainly because of his epic stink bomb down the stretch that brought back memories of Karl Malone and Elvin Hayes. Now he's just another great player who had an atrocious game at the wrong time. That's the power of Big Shot Bob. And if you think a rejuvenated/relieved/thankful Duncan isn't throwing up a 35-15 Tuesday night, you're crazy.

Here's my problem - the notion that Duncan choked, or even had anything resembling a bad game is laughable. 26 points and 19 rebounds. My friend Scott Lange says it best so I'll plagiarize quote him:

On the flipside, there is Tim Duncan. San Antonio's star player is taking his lumps this morning after going 1-7 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter and missing an uncontested tip-in at the buzzer that could have won it in regulation. The local paper says Horry bailed Duncan out. ESPN's Daily Dime went so far as to name Duncan Sunday's worst.

What is strange to me is that I don't see how an objective observer could conclude that Robert Horry had a better game than Tim Duncan last night. Granted, Duncan missed some key free throws, but he also scored 26 points, grabbed nineteen rebounds, and blocked a couple shots while committing just two turnovers and three personal fouls. Even in that subpar fourth quarter he grabbed huge rebounds and played excellent defense posession after posession. By contrast, Horry disappeared for just about three full quarters. ESPN's John Hollinger put it like this:

"In the first half, Horry looked completely overmatched. He played 15 minutes without scoring, missed all three shots and looked terrified every time he went to the basket. The other Spurs had played extremely well, but the game was tied at halftime largely because Horry was keeping Detroit in the game."

You might counter that Horry deserves credit for elevating his game in the clutch. He may not be as gifted a player as Duncan, but with the game on the line he found a higher gear while Duncan lost his. There's some truth to this- for instance, there's no excuse for consistently poor free throw shooting and Duncan should certainly be held accountable for not improving that aspect of his game. But I think there is even more truth to the flipside of that arguement, namely that if Horry is capable of playing at the elevated level he often shows in the clutch, why on earth doesn't he do it the rest of the time? Points scored and allowed count just as much early as they do late and if Horry had played like an all-star for the first three quarters the Spurs would've won by twenty points.

Exactamundo! The charge that Duncan is a choker is easily dismissed. He been the best an most consistent player on two championship teams, going on three. But he didn't even have a bad game, as some have claimed. He may have played poorly in the last ten minutes, but what does that make Horry, who threw up an offensive and defensive donut in the first half? You can't just pretend like that never happened.

I've always been a Robert Horry fan, ever since his SEC days at Alabama. He's possibly one of the best role players of all times. But the idea that you want him taking your team's big shots over all-time greats is absurd. Horry doesn't always play at a world-class level, whereas Tim Duncan does. It's easier to "raise your game" when it starts at a lower level. And a few highlights and big shots, notwithstanding, Horry likely (though I don't ahve the stats handy) has not even outperformed his own baseline performance when you compare his fourth quarters to his other quarters, or his playoff career to his regular season (Horry actually said so himself at the post-game news conference). He simply is the beneficiary of a cognitive bias to remember all his makes and forget his misses. This was written at Slate by Felix Gillette after the Spurs lost game 3 in a lopsided fashion:

In Tuesday's Game 3 of the NBA Finals, San Antonio and Detroit are tied with about a minute left in the third quarter. The Spurs' Robert Horry launches a high-arching three-pointer from the top of the key. Nothing but glass. Forty-five seconds later, Horry drives in for a layup—rejected. When the Pistons run out on a fast break, Horry tries to block Richard Hamilton's shot from behind—goaltending.

...

This year's playoffs have followed an all-too-familiar script. Robert Horry throws up a bunch of bricks. Robert Horry gets celebrated as "Big Shot Bob," legendary sharpshooter and five-time NBA champion. In both 2003 and 2004, Horry's missed three-pointers helped eliminate his teams from the playoffs. Yet during this year's finals, there's a commercial showing then-Laker Robert Horry hitting a three from the corner against the 76ers back in 2001. "The Finals," says a voice-over, "where legends are born." In Horry's case, it's more like, "The Finals, where legends are nurtured, coddled, and defended against reality."

...

Horry's true genius isn't his clutch shooting. It's his understanding of roundball amnesia. After sinking a buzzer-beater against Sacramento in the 2002 playoffs, Horry explained his philosophy. "If I hit it we win, if I miss y'all are going to blame the stars for losing the game anyway," he told the Washington Post's Michael Wilbon. "There's no pressure on me." Horry has none of the guts and gets all of the glory. In the 2003 playoffs, Horry went 2-for-38 from behind the arc—and everybody blamed Shaq and Kobe for the Lakers' downfall. After this year's Game 3 drubbing, Horry got off again—it was Manu Ginobili's and Tim Duncan's fault.

...

During the first half of Game 3, Horry became the all-time leader in three-pointers made during the NBA Finals, passing Michael Jordan. Only Reggie Miller has made more playoff three-pointers than Horry. What a clutch shooter! Better than Jordan! Never mind that Horry has made only 227 of 634 of his playoff threes—a mediocre .358 shooting percentage. After all, who's going to remember any of those 407 misses?

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Hating on Horry Yeah, he's

Hating on Horry
Yeah, he's the most overrated player in NBA playoff history, but he has 5 championship rings — only one less...

While I agree that Duncan is

While I agree that Duncan is a much better player than Horry and while I'd pick him over Horry in a heartbeat for any team I was the general manager for, I'm skeptical of the claim that the idea of "clutch" play is nonsensical.

People respond to stress in different ways. Most people find it much more difficult to carry out "normal" tasks which they would ordinarily have performed easily as a matter of daily routine. As an example, I think we all knew the kid in college who knew all the material and understood it well, but for whatever reason, never quite performed up to his potential on exams.

Performance under pressure is a skill different from general performance. Whenever I'm involved in a group project of any kind, I want people working with me who work well under pressure. I want those people whose performance doesn't drop as the deadline approaches.

Of course, if Horry is a clutch performer but also a chronic underachiever in non-pressure situations, that's different.

The idea of "clutch" is

The idea of "clutch" is foolish to begin with. Over a small sample size it will seem as if some players are "clutch" while others "choke". If given enough at bats, or in this case shots, in situations that are considered clutch you will notice that players will almost always return to their usual level of performance. Yes these players are great athletes, but they do not possess the ability to raise their game on command and double their usual output (unless of course they were dogging it before hand).