In two consecutive nights watching the NBA Playoffs — which frankly haven’t been compelling in 2017 as Golden State and Cleveland appear to be on a collision course — you could see the two sides of “clutch” on display.
The last thing I want to do here is throw darts at James Harden of the Houston Rockets, a great player with a unique style. But on Thursday night, when Houston absolutely needed its star to take over, Harden was nowhere to be found. Worse, he actually could be found as he was having his worst game of the season in a Game Six debacle against the San Antonio Spurs. That’s what caused me to start thinking about “clutch” — and an Alabama connection.
It was 22 years ago that Robert Horry, arguably the University of Alabama’s greatest NBA player (Latrell Sprewell would probably be the closest competition) began his journey into clutch-shooting, game-winning history. Playing for the same team as Harden, the Houston Rockets, Horry hit the buzzer-beater that won Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against — who else? — the San Antonio Spurs.
Life takes strange turns. Had Sean Elliott not failed a pre-trade physical, Horry would have been playing for the Detroit Pistons that season. There would have been no role alongside Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, no sweep of Orlando in the NBA Finals and maybe no seven rings in his future. There’s no way to rewind the past and find out. All we can reflect on is what we know — that when he had the opportunity, Horry did not falter. The comparison to Harden isn’t fair, in some ways. It’s an apples and oranges comparison between making a crucial shot and carrying an entire team on your shoulders. Harden was expected to play the role of a Michael Jordan and LeBron James. This time, he wasn’t ready. Perhaps he will be if another chance materializes in the future.
Sometimes — rarely, but occasionally — you get to see a player do both, carrying his team and beating the buzzer in a doubleheader of dramatics. That’s what John Wall did on Friday night for the Washington Wizards. Yes, it was Wall’s long 3-pointer that kept the Wizards alive and forced an upcoming Game Seven in Boston. Don’t just look at that highlight, though. Watch Wall through the fourth quarter — the 360-degree spin move past Kelly Olnyck, the crucial late layup that Wall got off (and in) through sheer strength. The entire period consisted of Wall willing a Washington team that wasn’t playing that well to a victory. The buzzer-beater was just icing on that cake. Wall is still young (26) even though he seems like a 10-year veteran because of the way the NBA early entry process works. He’s not Jordan or LeBron — who is? But he’s a great guard, and getting better.
There’s no way of knowing who the next Alabama hero will be, in any sport, football or basketball? Sometimes you can’t control events. What if Jalen Hurts’ touchdown run against Clemson last January had come with 20 seconds remaining, not two minutes? Would he have been the hero, rather than Deshaun Watson? Will Alexis Osorio pitch the Crimson Tide softball team to Oklahoma City? Will one of Alabama’s incoming basketball players make an NCAA Tournament shot that will place them in the annals alongside Terry Coner and Antoine Pettway? The joy of sports is in waiting to see if it happens, in appreciating it when it does — and in trying not to search for a scapegoat if it doesn’t.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.