‘Playoff Jimmy:’ Heat’s Jimmy Butler puts spotlight on clutch performances in NBA Playoffs

It’s a match made in analytical heaven.

Jimmy Butler, 33, is a six-time NBA All-Star whose playoff performances have transcended traditional statistics while he’s led the eighth-seeded Miami Heat to the Eastern Conference finals.

Michael Beuoy, 47, is a certified actuary who loves the NBA almost as much as he loves analyzing data − and the likes of Jimmy Butler.

The two men have never met. But Butler’s penchant for so-called clutch performances during the NBA Playoffs and Beuoy’s expertise with numbers crunching have helped spur discussion about how to measure clutch play, debate over who’s the clutchiest player in the NBA and who’s qualified to make that determination.

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Jimmy Butler most impactful player in 2023 NBA Playoffs

Beuoy is Vice President of Corporate Actuarial and Provider Strategies at insurance non-profit provider Blue Shield of California. He’s also a basketball junkie who about a decade ago launched his well regarded an analytics site that ranks the players for, among others things, clutch play.

His analytical model finds the clutch play of Butler (a.k.a. “Playoff Jimmy”) has been the most impactful of any player during the 2023 NBA Playoffs. Other active players in the top 10 are Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics, Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and Austin Reaves of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) looks to pass in front of Boston Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) looks to pass in front of Boston Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Additionally, Beuoy said, Butler ranks behind only Hall of Famers Ray Allen and Reggie Miller as the best clutch shooter in the playoffs as measured by statistics dating to 1997 – the year the NBA made its play-by-play stats available to the public.

“I don’t know if he’s the king of clutch,” Beuoy said of Butler. “There’s lot of different ways to slice it, so it’s hard to say he’s undisputed. But in terms of active players, I would say, yeah, he’s the most clutch active player.”

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How does NBA define a clutch player?

It won’t fit neatly into the box score, because measuring clutch play is far more complicated than tallying points, rebounds, assists and other traditional statistics.

The NBA measures clutch play as the last five minutes of a game in which the point differential is five or less.

“While this is a straightforward and reasonable definition of clutch situations, it can clearly be improved,” Beuoy wrote on his website. “A three point basket with your team down by two and five seconds to play is far more clutch than a two pointer with 3:50 on the clock and up by three.”

The NBA clutch rankings were not updated on Friday, and through six games Butler had played he inexplicably ranked behind four of his teammates despite an assortment of feats that included: 56-point and 42-point games in victories against the Milwaukee Bucks; a miraculous shot that forced overtime in Game 5 against the Bucks; and numerous key plays in the final minutes of the Heat’s victories.

Then there is Beouy’s system.

One analytics site defines clutch NBA player differently

To determined top clutch shooters in the playoffs, he used field-goal percentage on shots taken in the final 90 seconds of a game when the player’s team trailed by no more than four points or led by no more than a point. Qualifying players had to have taken a minimum of 25 such shots.

The findings, according to Beuoy:

Ray Allen, the retired 10-time All-Star, tops the list with a field-goal percentage of 69.0 while making 29 of the shots he attempted.

Reggie Miller, the retired five-time All-Star, is second with a field-goal percentage of 58.6 while making 29 of the shots he attempted.

Butler is third with a shooting percentage of 55.8 percent while making 26 of the shots.

To measure overall clutch play, Beuoy uses a “win probability added” model as the underlying framework. It involves made shots, missed shots, turnovers, steals, rebounds and assists.

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During the 2023 playoffs, Butler leads Beuoy’s Clutch Player Category and is in position to become the only player since 2013 to have posted Top five scores for playoffs in two different seasons.

Is there really such a thing as a clutch player?

More than a handful of studies have concluded there is no such thing as clutch performance in basketball or any other sport.

“What is popularly considered clutch behavior is mostly just random variance,” Beauoy said. “And what’s really important is just being a good basketball player in general and that’s probably more predictive of whether you’re going to be a good clutch shooter in the future than how well you shot over a small sample of 30 shots or something in the past few seasons.”

But, he added, “There are some players that do really seem to keep a repeatable pace on this. The two that come to mind are Jimmy Butler and DeMar DeRozan more recently, where it seems like they’ve been able to do it over a longer time … that makes you think there’s something more repeatable there.”

Butler, a 12-year pro, finished third in the inaugural Kia NBA Clutch Player of the Year Award balloting, behind winner De’Arron Fox of the Sacramento Kings and DeRozan of the Chicago Bulls.

In Beuoy’s rankings, he finished second in the 2019-20 season playoffs, when he led the Heats to the NBA finals. “Playoff Jimmy” also excelled in the regular season rankings, finishing second in 2015-16, fifth in 2016-17, seventh in 2014-15 and eighth in 2018-19 season.

What is the ‘clutch state’?

Mark Otten, a professor of sports psychology at the University of California at Northridge, said he began researching clutch performance at a time when researchers were focused on the phenomenon of choking. He said he’s convinced clutch performance is a real phenomenon and that Butler exhibits a key trait.

“Whether it’s Fox or Butler or some of these past clutch performers in basketball, these guys, they get it in their head that they can get any shot they want and the defense doesn’t matter,’’ Otto said. “… We see confidence as a big predictor of success. So I think for Butler it’s somewhere in there in his head, he doesn’t respect the defense enough to stop him no matter what he does, and I think that’s the key.”

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Matthew Schweickle, an Australian researcher, has helped addressed what’s known as a “clutch state.”

“Our research suggests that when athletes perform optimally in pressure situations – which has been termed a ‘clutch state’ – there are often several key features,” Schweikcle wrote in an email. “Firstly, athletes typically view these situations as a challenge (i.e., an opportunity to demonstrate their skills) rather than a threat.”

Butler clearly welcomes the challenge.

What does ‘Playoff Jimmy’ say about being clutch?

After his 56-point performance against the Bucks, a reporter asked Butler about the “Playoff Jimmy” phenomenon.

“It’s not a thing,” Butler said with a grin. “… I just be hooping.”

But researchers would point to what Butler said when another reporter asked what it is about the playoffs that brings out this “other side of you.”

During this regular season, Butler averaged 22.9 points. During 13 playoff games, he has averaged 31.5 points. During his career, he has averaged 18.2 points in the regular season and 22.1 points in the playoffs.

“I love the competitive aspect of it, I guess,” Butler said. “I think this is where all the best players, they show up and they show out. And I’m not saying I’m one of those best players. I just want to be looked at as such.”

Mission accomplished.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jimmy Butler puts spotlight on clutch performances during NBA Playoffs

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