Pressure is a tricky thing. Professional athletes, it could be said, ply a trade of pressure. In the NBA, you have 48 minutes of regulation in order to outscore your opposing team or you get a loss. Sometimes the loss is just a loss, but sometimes the loss is more significant than just that. Sometimes a whole lot more is at stake… a playoff spot, a championship, a new contract.
Pressure is the loud, raging ire of an opposing crowd with their hisses and their boos and their taunts. Pressure is the roar of a home crowd; expectant of tremendous effort and even more tremendous results every game. Pressure is the desire to not disappoint your fans; leaving them to sulk in a defeat that they themselves could not have stopped. Pressure is a coach screaming to the point of their voice breaking from the sidelines. Pressure is the discerning and judgmental stare of the team’s GM coming down their nose like the barrel of a rifle, perched above folded arms. Pressure is the TV camera and its unblinking eye that catches every fault and flaw. Pressure is the family in the stands that came to see their boy game. Pressure is the agent and the sponsor, watching dollars come and go with every dribble and shot.
That is all to think nothing of the tumult and turmoil baked into every person’s life. The man with the basketball you see on the court loves and yearns and fumes and fears just as we all do. Everyone plays the lead in their own soap opera… and is a supporting role in so many more.
We may never know what causes a player to buckle for any specific game. At times, it has happened to nearly every hero, idol, role model, and champion we’ve known. Nobody is immune. What we do know, however, is when it happens. The signs are telltale, and it is both fascinating and grotesque. Herein are 15 instances of a player coming up short when the big moment arrived. Herein are 15 players who crumbled under pressure.
15 Dirk Nowitzki
The 2007 Dallas Mavericks were a monster. At the time, their 67 wins in the regular season was the 4th highest win total ever. The team was driven by Dirk Nowitzki, the seemingly near-ageless 7-foot, sweet-shooting Hessian. Dirty Dirk was so good that year that he’d taken home the MVP for the season (his only MVP award). The Mavs appeared set for the Finals again, after having lost in the Finals the year before to the Miami Heat.
Slotted 1st in playoff seeding, Dirk was pitted against the “We Believe” Warriors. The team was coached by Dirk’s former coach (and mentor to then-Mavs coach, Avery Johnson), Don Nelson. Featuring Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Jason Richardson, and several other talented players, the team was peppy and full of swagger. Just barely squeaking into the playoffs (with just 42 wins) after more than a decade of watching the postseason from home, the Warriors played as though they had nothing to lose.
Having gotten punched in the mouth with a Game 1 loss, the Mavericks played on their heels the whole series. Game 6 took place in a deafening Oracle Arena in Oakland, with the Warriors up 3 games to 2. Apart from Game 1, Dirk had been shooting well all series. In Game 6, however, he crapped the bed...going just 2 for 13, for a 15.4% shooting performance. He finished the game with a -25 in 38 minutes of play. Setting the tone for the rest of the team, the Mavs were blown out 111-86 in the game, and were sent home packing.
14 Vince Carter
In 2001, Vince Carter was on the ascent… both literally and metaphorically. Already established in his 3rd year as the franchise’s cornerstone and the savior of Canadian basketball, the then 24-year-old Carter could seemingly do no wrong. After beating the Knicks in a dogged 5 game series (the 1st round was best of 5 back then) and exorcising the demons of last year, the Raptors were faced with the Philadelphia 76ers and Allen Iverson.
The series featured both tight games and blowouts, and finally landed in Philadelphia for a Game 7. Unfortunately for the Raptors, Canada, and fans of seeing teams compete at full strength, Vince Carter had graduated from the University of North Carolina and intended to attend his graduation ceremony… on the morning of Game 7. Carter flew down to Chapel Hill to receive his diploma (technically, UNC graduations don’t even feature the actual diploma), and flew back to Philadelphia the same day in order to play the game. The 76ers won by one point when Carter missed a last second shot. The Raptors, however, would not have been in that position had Carter not stunk up the joint. Nobody but Carter will ever know if it was the pressure of the situation, the intense scrutiny of him going to his graduation, or even the wear and tear of so much travel and emotion on game day… but Carter shot an atrocious 6-for-18 in the game (33.3%) and wound up being a -1 for the game, despite having scored 20 points.
13 Ralph Sampson
Ralph Sampson, the 1st overall pick of the 1983 draft, was one of the greatest college players of all-time. In Houston, he paired with Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon to form a big man tandem dubbed ‘The Twin Towers.’ Having knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers in a stunning upset, Sampson and his Rockets were set to play the Boston Celtics in the Finals.
In Game 5 of the Finals, which the Rockets won, Sampson was ejected for punching Jerry Sichting… a much smaller player on the Celtics. Angry over the incident, Boston fans were livid and loud in the Boston Garden during Game 6… raining down pure hatred on Sampson. Spooked by the fury of the fans, most likely, Sampson was incredibly ineffective. Finishing with just 8 points on 33.3% shooting to go with 10 rebounds, Sampson was a large reason the Rockets lost and the Celtics won the title in 6 games (winning the game 114-97).
12 Shawn Kemp
The 1994 Western Conference Playoffs were supposed to belong to the Seattle Supersonics. Having secured a 1st seed behind 63 wins, the Sonics were a formidable team on both ends of the court. Coach George Karl was one of the best in the game, Gary Payton had established himself already an All-Time player, and Shawn “Reign Man” Kemp was a force of nature. In his 2nd All-Star season at just 24 years old, Kemp averaged 18 and 11 with 2 blocks and 2 steals per game.
Apparently the Denver Nuggets never got the memo that they should be afraid of Seattle. Finishing 42-40, Denver was the final team to make the playoffs. Hall of Fame defensive great Dikembe Mutombo was a monster, and what should have been an easy playoff series took a turn for the bizarre in Game 3. While Payton wasn’t especially effective, Kemp was very obviously disturbed by something during the game....most likely Mutombo. In 37 minutes, Kemp made just 3 baskets off of 11 attempts (good for 27.3%). Kemp also wound up with just 3 rebounds in the game, and the Sonics lost 110-93. Seattle was never able to recover and they subsequently dropped the next 2 games in a row; leading to an unprecedented upset of a number 1 seed by an 8th seed.
11 Chris Webber
While a performance of 20 points on 9-of-16 shooting doesn’t scream “choke,” that was how Chris Webber shot in the much-discussed Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals in 2002. The Lakers were already an established juggernaut; having won the previous two championships. The Kings, though, had proved time and again to be the Lakers’ toughest competitor.
Webber was a multiple-time All-Star, the focal point of the Kings, and a man of mixed reputation. Webber was part of the Fab Five at Michigan which forever changed the basketball and basketball culture landscape. However, an erroneous call for a time-out on Webber’s part at Michigan, lead to a rep for being especially vulnerable to pressure. While the officiating of the game is somewhat suspect, the Kings also would have never been in the position to lose to a last-second Robert Horry 3-pointer (if you haven’t seen this shot, Youtube it now), had Webber done better. In the final sequence, Webber failed to defend properly or box out… leading to a near-make from both Kobe on the initial drive and Shaq on the follow-up. By the time Vlade had tipped it out to nobody in particular, Webber’s charge toward Horry was too little too late. Of Webber’s play, sportswriter Bill Simmons had this to say: "Webber officially grabbed the torch from Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Ralph Sampson and Elvin Hayes as 'The High-Priced Superstar Who's Great to Have on Your Team Unless There's Three Minutes Left in a Big Game.'”
10 Elvin Hayes
Elvin Hayes, for those that don’t know, was selected as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. Nicknamed The Big E, he’d led the league in both scoring and rebounding at different seasons, and was in the Top 3 of MVP voting twice in his career. In 1978, his Washington Bullets (he was the focal point of the team along with Wes Unseld) found themselves in the NBA Finals against the Seattle Supersonics.
While he averaged an admirable 22.2 points per game in the first 6 games of the Finals, his reputation as someone who couldn’t be relied on in the clutch shone brighter… as he scored only 19 points in the 4th quarters of those same first 6 games combined. Things came to a head in Game 7 where Hayes wound up scoring only 12 points, and managed to foul out with nearly a full quarter left. While the Bullets still managed to win the game, it was done in spite of and not because of The Big E.
9 Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson was a speed demon of a point guard. While he’s yet to get elected to the Hall of Fame, the 3-time All-Star makes a very good case for himself. Standing in his way more than anything else (and there’s no bad time to point out this kind of unforgivable behavior) is the fact that he is a child predator.
But in 1993, from what we know, he was just Kevin Johnson, 2nd option on a Phoenix Suns team facing the Chicago Bulls in the Finals. While the Bulls were a team featuring some of the finest backcourt defenders in the history of the league, Johnson still managed to buckle in the opening salvos of the Finals. In Game 1, KJ missed 9 of his 13 shots (for 11 points), had just 2 assists, and managed 5 turnovers. In Game 2, Johnson shot just 25% (for 4 points) and while he got 6 assists, they were tempered by 4 turnovers and the fact that he fouled out in 32 minutes of gameplay.
8 James Harden
In all fairness to James Harden, his collapse was more excusable than most of these on the list… as he was just in his third season in the league and all of 22. Harden, coming off the bench in Oklahoma City, had shown not just that he was a solid contributing Sixth Man, but also that he was a budding star (to the point that Houston poached him the following season in what is perhaps the most lopsided trade of the last 15 years).
In the NBA Finals in 2012, Harden was expected to be a key piece of the Thunder’s ability to defeat the troika of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh and the rest of the Miami Heat. What happened instead was that Harden succumbed to the bright lights of the big stage and was visibly shaken by the gravity of the situation. Not only did he perform some of the abhorrent matador defense that he is now infamous for, but he failed to contribute on the offensive end as well. In both Games 3 and 4, Harden shot just 20%... making just 4 baskets over the course of 20 attempts. While his plus/minus was an atrocious -17 in Game 6, he did score 19 points on a respectable 45.5% shooting display. Ultimately, though, it was far too little and far too late to stop Miami from taking their first crown of the LeBron James era.
7 Damon Stoudamire
It’s really difficult to pin the collapse of the 2000 Portland Trail Blazers on just one person. Tied at 3 games apiece in the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, it truly was anyone’s series. Portland held a 71-58 lead headed into the 4th quarter of the game (not to mention a 15 point lead with 10 minutes left)… yet inexplicably managed to lose the game by 5 points.
Stoudamire seems as good a fall guy as any. As the starting point guard of the team, it was Mighty Mouse’s responsibility to set up the offense and make sure teammates were seeing daylight and having the opportunity to score. Normally averaging more than 12 points and 5 assists, Stoudamire played only 20 minutes and got only 6 shots up (missing all but two). He had just 3 assists the whole game (likewise, point forward Scottie Pippen had many fewer assists than normal that game).
6 Klay Thompson
Klay Thompson had been the MVP of the playoffs in 2016 for the Warriors. A multiple-time all-star who normally makes up one half of the backcourt duo, the Splash Brothers, Thompson had to take on a larger role due to Stephen Curry’s injury. Klay responded and helped carry the team through a first round series against the Houston Rockets, and the first couple games against the Portland Trailblazers, before Curry returned to action.
A career 41% 3-point shooter, whose field goal percentage sits at 44% for his career, Thompson’s greatest strength is his shooting. In the most important game of the record-breaking Warriors’ season, Thompson fell short. Klay managed just 14 points on 35% shooting, and missed 8 of his 10 3-point shots for a comical 20% performance. While Klay was a minus-11 for the game, he was not the only disappointing performer in Game 7.
5 Stephen Curry
After having won 73 of 82 games in the regular season, it seemed virtually assured that the Golden State Warriors would repeat as champions in 2016. Led by Stephen Curry, the first-ever unanimous MVP selection, Golden State’s combination of overwhelming offensive prowess and defensive sturdiness had never been seen before. In the first round of the playoffs, a fluke injury left Curry out of the lineup for several games… and it appeared as though destiny had been derailed by a wet spot on the floor.
But Curry came back in time to help the Warriors make the Finals, against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Against the Blazers and Thunder in the previous rounds, Curry averaged 31.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 7.7 assists. After going up 3 games to 1 against Cleveland in the Finals, the championship seemed cemented. Instead, Cleveland came roaring back thanks to the otherworldly play of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving… and some wrongheaded play from the Warriors. In Game 7, the MVP just could not get it going… shooting 31.6% (and only 28.6% on 3s), and coming up with just 2 assists to combat his 4 turnovers and 4 fouls. The lingering effects of the injury were trotted out as excuse/explanation, but the fact of the matter remains that Curry did not execute in the most important game of the season.
4 LeBron James
So this specific incident of crumbling is especially odd. James had been Hall of Fame-level brilliant for the first four games of a 2010 playoff matchup between his Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics. Even though Boston had won 2 of those games (this was the KG/Pierce/Allen/Rondo Celtics… so it’s not like they were chumps or anything), James was a beast. Then came Game 5 of the series, and LeBron, while still having 6 rebounds and 7 assists, made just 3 baskets in 14 attempts (21.4% shooting) for 15 points… winding up with a minus-22 for the game. The Cavs lost by 32. Game 6 wound up being another dud by James and, consequently, the Celtics eliminated Cleveland.
The reason for James’ sudden inability to make baskets has been discussed at great lengths over the last 6-plus years. It is heavily rumored that James fell apart in the playoffs because his teammate at the time, Delonte West, had had sexual relations with LeBron’s mother, Gloria James. That the rumor is so specific, so widespread, and so unique among the explanations behind a poor performance it seems almost true by circumstance and sheer strangeness. While this situation has never been verified, let us humbly submit that less than 2 months later, Delonte West was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves… and LeBron James left his hometown to play in Miami.
3 Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bean Bryant was a maniac… both in the best and worst ways possible short of having murdered someone (that doesn’t mean he didn’t murder someone, we just don’t know). On the court he was prone to trying to do everything in certain situations. He wanted to be a hero perhaps more than he wanted to be a champion or a good teammate or a likeable player.
The Boston Celtics used this knowledge to their advantage during Game 6 of the NBA Finals in 2008. In combination with a loud and hostile TD Garden in Boston, the Celtics blew out a completely demoralized Lakers team by 39 points, 131-92, to clinch the title. While no single Laker played even remotely well, Kobe’s performance was especially abyssmal. Bryant shot 7-of-22, had just 3 rebounds, 1 assist, and 4 turnovers. Posting a minus-35 in an elimination game is the very definition of crumbling under pressure.
2 Scottie Pippen
If 2 for 11 (18.2%) shooting with 3 turnovers and 5 fouls coming from one of the 50 greatest players of all time isn’t choking, then what is? The 1995 Bulls were a mess, as the team was attempting to re-adjust to Michael Jordan returning from his baseball sabbatical. Excuses, however, only go so far.
After having dealt with the Hornets pretty handily in the first round, the Orlando Magic and their particular brand of power basketball (behind the trio of Shaq, Penny, and Horace Grant) proved to be too much for Chicago. Although the Bulls pushed the series to 6, it was pretty clear that the Bulls were toast after the Game 1 loss. While Pippen was able to contribute 10 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 blocks… no team was going to beat a young and light Shaq when their #2 option shot 18%.
1 Michael Jordan
The 1995 Bulls seem to get a historical pass because Jordan only played 17 games during the season before the playoffs. What often doesn’t get published is that even though Michael Jordan may have been “rusty” coming off a stint in minor league baseball, it’s not as though he wasn’t still the greatest player on the court.
Jordan played in 10 games in the playoffs that season; playing 42 minutes per game. For the playoffs, the man averaged 31.5 points (on 48.4% shooting) to go with 6.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.3 steals, and 1.4 blocks. The man was a monster… as per usual. In Game 1 of the playoffs against Charlotte, he single-handedly stomped on the throat of the Hornets to the tune of 48 points and actually physically murdered Hersey Hawkins (slight over-exaggeration, Mr. Hawkins is alive and presumably well). While Jordan was away, Mr. Shaquille O’Neal rightfully took his place as one of the most dominant basketball players ever. Jordan and company, both unprepared and a bad matchup for the Magic, were at a loss. MJ wound up shooting terribly in Game 1 (although not as badly as Pippen)... winding up with the same 36.4% on 2s that he averaged for 3s throughout the playoffs. Jordan had 19, but it took 22 shots and 5 trips to the line in order to get it done. He also had an incredible 8 turnovers in the game. He followed things up in Games 2 and 3 by putting up 38 and 40, but the damage was already done and Orlando had the confidence they needed to win the series. Just goes to show you, even the GOAT can sometimes crumble.
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