The best closer in sports history used to spend the first two thirds of every game getting a massage, taking a shower, grabbing a bite and watching his team on the clubhouse TV. He stretched and dressed and finally strolled to the bullpen in his navy-blue jacket, where he stretched some more, chatting with his legion of trusty setup men. Usually he only gripped a ball if the Yankees led, only threw it if they were three outs from a win and only jogged onto his home field to the strains of Metallica's Enter Sandman. He was successful more than 90% of the time. "Everybody in the NBA wants a closer like Mariano Rivera," says Reggie Miller, the Hall of Fame guard for the Pacers who's now a TNT analyst. "You want a stopper, a finisher, a guy who comes in last and shuts the door."
But you can't have a guy getting rubdowns in the second quarter of a basketball game. The NBA closer logs 40 minutes a night, fights through double teams and junk defenses, plays multiple positions and guards them too. Still, he must be as fresh as Rivera at the end, when the coverage grows tighter, the pace slower and the crowd louder. He is a golfer on the 72nd green, a driver taking the white flag, a quarterback in the two-minute drill, blocking out 20,000 voices, including the ones in his own head. The difference between a closer and a choker, in this age of overreaction, can be one misguided fadeaway.
The 2012 Finals pit the two best basketball players in the world. That much everyone can agree on. Through the first three games, Thunder forward Kevin Durant was averaging 31.0 points, Heat forward LeBron James 30.3, and each often seemed to be the only one with a prayer of containing the other. "He can make any shot the game has to offer," James said of Durant, though Durant could have been saying the same of James. They expressed their brilliance in different ways—James plowing through the paint and Durant slithering around it, James muscling in putbacks and Durant launching moonbeams, both of them attracting mobs and dishing to open teammates. This is James's third Finals but the first in which he seems at ease. It is Durant's first Finals, but he might as well be back at Rucker Park in Harlem, where he famously scored 66 points in a game last summer.
The series will likely come down to stomach and stamina, and the winner won't necessarily be the most prolific player but the most resolute closer. In Game 1 at Oklahoma City, the fireman hat belonged to Durant, who watched coaches diagram a play on the bench with less than five minutes left and barked, "I've got it! Let me do it!" He promptly sank a 19-footer, part of a 17-point fourth-quarter barrage that lifted the Thunder to a 105--94 win. In Game 2, Durant tallied 16 in the fourth and had a chance to tie the score with 9.9 seconds left, but James bodied him into a miss along the baseline, then sealed the 100--96 outcome with his 11th and 12th consecutive free throws, while the crowd reached decibels never heard before by the Heat.
Back home in Miami for Game 3 on Sunday, James continued to hound Durant, and with less than four minutes remaining nearly leaped over Durant's shoulder while converting a finger roll en route to a three-point play. He added a reverse on which he couldn't see the rim, and the Heat prevailed 91--85 to take a 2--1 lead. Credit James with his second save.
In baseball the closer has been around since the late 1970s, when managers began designating a specialist to protect a late-inning lead. In basketball the position has existed much longer, though it didn't have a name. "It was just my job," says Hall of Fame guard Sam Jones, who won 10 championships in 12 seasons with the Celtics in the 1950s and '60s and was 9--0 in Game 7s. "At the end Coach [Red] Auerbach would call a play for me, and I would make the shot."
The best closers have always been the best players (see Michael Jordan), but the best players have not always been the best closers. "There are great ones who don't want the ball at the end," Jones says. "When you really need to score, they'd rather give it to somebody else." The closer is most comfortable when others are most rattled. "It's supposed to be quietest in the eye of the tornado," Miller says. "That's how it was for me."
The closer can appear bored at nervous times, nibbling on his mouthpiece and staring blankly at the stands. "He doesn't jump around," says Thunder assistant coach Mark Bryant. "He's done this before." The closer demands the ball for his team's sake as much as his own. "There's a certain selfishness involved, but it's not selfish," says William Parham, a sports psychologist who has worked with NBA players. "The closer has an uncompromising belief in his ability." He is desperate for the shot but not the basket. "A closer doesn't care about the result," says OKC's injured backup point guard, Eric Maynor. "He doesn't care what is going to be said the next morning. He just wants the moment." Sometimes he makes, but statistics show that more often he misses. "The key," Miller says, "is that you're shocked when a closer misses."
The term crept into the NBA vernacular only in the past few years, as a way to sort superstars into smaller categories. There are metrics to identify closers, but they tend to be evaluated empirically and judged viscerally. Kobe Bryant, who has won five championships, was the closer. James, who wilted in the playoffs, was not a closer. Durant, before this season, was a closer-in-training.
Synergy Sports defines a clutch situation as the last five minutes of regulation or overtime when the lead is five points or fewer. Using those parameters, the top closer this season was Hawks guard Joe Johnson, with 1.034 points per possession. Durant was second, with 1.012, and James third, with 1.008. As closers, they couldn't have been much closer. Durant shot 42.0%, James 42.2%. Bryant ranked a distant fifth, with .847 points per possession, and shot 34.9%.