Does “clutch” exist?
Most advanced statisticians say no. Time and again, when the data is compiled and collated, the numbers tell us that in “clutch” situations, most players perform roughly as well as at any other point in the game. Sometimes, the players we know are clutch — Kobe Bryant is the most notable example — are even worse than normal. Science tells us no, clutch isn’t a thing. But then how do you explain Tyler Ennis?
Here’s another question: Was Syracuse supposed to beat Pittsburgh on Wednesday night?
The Orange trailed the entire game — they were never behind by more than a bucket or two, sure, but they were never in command, either. They were outrebounded by huge ratios on both ends of the floor. The offense was frequently stagnant.
In the closing moments, they traded toe-to-toe go-ahead free throws, but they were on the wrong side of that exchange with four seconds and zero timeouts and the ball out of bounds on their own baseline. The only shot they could get was a 35-foot heave from their freshman point guard as the buzzer expired. You’re not supposed to win that game, are you?
Maybe you are, maybe you’re not, but you don’t get to be 24-0 without the wind at your back. Sometimes, the coin flips your direction a few times in a row. Sometimes “supposed to” has nothing to do with it.
Sometimes, clutch does exist.
Yes, folks, Syracuse is 24-0, still rolling, still discovering new and more nail-biting ways to win games, still unbeaten two full weeks into February. The latest escape, a 58-56 win at Pittsburgh, came courtesy of Ennis — who else? — who recused the Orange from a hard-fought first loss of the season with a stunning 35-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer.
How does this keep happening? Ennis didn’t just make the game-winner, after all; he cooly knocked down two free throws a possession earlier to put the Orange ahead for the first time. It was only after Pitt forward Talib Zanna repaid the favor on the other end that some truly silly last-second heroics were required.
But that’s what Ennis has done all season. According to ESPN Stats and Info — and these are crazy numbers, so it’s probably best to be seated — in one-possession games in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime games this season, Ennis is 8-of-9 from the field and 14-of-14 from the free throw line with six assists and zero turnovers. On “game-tying or go-ahead plays,” he is 4-of-4 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line. Against Duke, he made the free throws that would have sealed the game in regulation, before Rasheed Sulaimon’s buzzer-beating 3. In overtime of that game, he went 4-of-4 from the stripe.
Most NBA veterans don’t have this gift of self-assured cool. Ennis is a freshman in college.
That said, chalking it all up to Ennis’ brilliance would do the rest of the Orange a disservice, just as claiming Syracuse didn’t deserve to win Wednesday would belie the strength of their performance, and their opponent’s.
Pitt won the interior battle against one of the longest, toughest teams in the country. It grabbed 47 percent of its own misses and 76 percent of Syracuse’s, and it blocked 25 percent of available shots on its own end. Syracuse was held to just three second-chance points. Save their two meetings with Pitt, the Orange have scored at least eight in every other game this season.
On offense, the Panthers poked and prodded the Syracuse zone with relative efficiency, using Lamar Patterson’s brilliant feel (and years of Big East experience) to break down the middle of the zone. The final Pitt free throws happened exactly that way — Patterson got the ball into the middle of the lane and dropped off a little pass to Zanna, who drew the foul. It was hardly the first time that strategy worked Wednesday night. Zanna finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, Patterson with 14 points, four rebounds and four assists.
But Syracuse, despite trailing for so much of the game, was better in nearly every other area. The Orange shot the ball better, at least when it wasn’t being blocked, including 6-of-14 from 3-point range. (Trevor Cooney was 3-of-8, and his biggest of the night tied the game at 45 with 6:54 to play.) They got to the free-throw line more often. They turned the ball over on just 15 percent of their possessions, while forcing Pittsburgh to cough it up 21 percent of the time — swarming, stifling stuff that kept the game within reach throughout the second half. Patterson got his 14 points, sure, but he needed 16 shots to do it.
All of which made it possible for Ennis to do his thing at the end. Which he promptly did.
It’s hard to overstate how disappointing the loss is for Pittsburgh. On the one hand, there’s no shame in losing to Syracuse. On the other hand, after playing the Orange close on the road early in the year, after home losses (the latter a similar heartbreaker) to Duke and Virginia two weeks ago, and after near-upsets to Miami and Virginia Tech on the road in the past seven days, Dixon’s struggling team had a victory over the top team in the country right in its grasp.
One might conclude that paragraph by saying Pitt let the game “slip away.” That Pitt should have won, that Syracuse should have lost. That this was the night Ennis’s unmistakable clutchness would fall in line with scientific understanding. That Wednesday night the Orange were finally supposed to lose.
Instead, Ennis kept making everything, from free throws to last-second 35-foot floaters, with the clock ticking down and the game on the line. And Boeheim’s team kept winning.
How better to describe the 24-0 Syracuse Orange? “Supposed to” does not apply.