LeBron James carried a completely overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers roster to a completely unexpected victory in Game 2 of the NBA Finals in Oakland on Sunday. The Warriors entered that game 47-3 at home this season, including the playoffs. Yet the Cavaliers, without Kevin Love and without Kyrie Irving, beat them.
LeBron James led the Cavaliers in minutes, points, field goal attempts, threes, free throws, rebounds and assists, and shared the lead in blocks (one). LeBron led in basically every counting statistic but steals, turnovers and fouls. Two of those three are bad.
But the following two statements are also true:
1. The Cavaliers won largely on the efficacy of their defense, which completely throttled the famed Warriors attack.
2. LeBron did not shoot efficiently.
This has led a number of analysts, commentators and Twitter Debate Club All-Stars to argue that LeBron wasn't actually very good in Game 2. This is wrong.
Context is everything in basketball. In a vacuum, yes, shooting 11-35 is suboptimal. Shooting 4-22 from the floor in the second half and overtime is not great. Taking 11 shots in the fourth and OT and making only two is a problem. In a vacuum, LeBron's shooting numbers were quite bad.
But basketball isn't played in a vacuum, and fortunately our evolved human brains can process the context through which we understand LeBron's box score!
Like, the fact that LeBron's supporting cast is typically allergic to creating offense. Here are the career-high single-season usage rates for each Cavalier who played in Game 2, excluding Mike Miller who is a) reanimated through some stroke of magic and b) played just six minutes, mercifully.
If all five players on the court created offense -- by taking shots, drawing fouls, committing turnovers, making assists -- at equal rates, their usage rates would be just about 20 percent. Without Love and Irving, these Cavaliers have no one but LeBron or J.R. Smith who has ever been expected to create even an average amount of offense.
Some of these numbers are actually higher than realistic expectations. James Jones, for instance, is ancient. He put up those higher (but still modest) usage rates years ago. Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, like other interior bigs, have their peak usage rates slightly inflated due to offensive rebounding prowess. (Putbacks count as created shots.) Iman Shumpert was asked to do a lot in New York; clearly, he's been more effective when asked to do less in Cleveland.
Yet even with these pumped-up usage rates, LeBron and Smith are the only creators left on the roster, and Smith dumbed himself right out of the game with two atrocious fouls. (We're not counting the foul Smith committed on Stephen Curry's jumper, because good defenders are caught by that regularly.) Smith ended up playing all of the fourth and most of overtime, but we know Smith is at his best when he's not asked to create a lot of offense.
That leaves LeBron and LeBron only.
So yes, he shot poorly from the field. He also drew a bunch of fouls. Points earned from the stripe count, too! (And in fact, he should have had a few more free throws with the way Andre Iguodala was defending him.) Add in the free throws and the fact that three of LeBron's makes were from beyond the arc (including a shot from the left wing that was plausibly considered a dagger late in regulation), and now James is up to 39 points on 44 shooting possessions (0.89 points per possession). Still not great, but it looks much better than the basic field goal percentage, doesn't it?
Now remember: LeBron didn't just score 39 points. He also racked up 11 assists. Five of those were on Cleveland three-pointers. So he created 27 points off of the pass. The counterpart of an assist is a turnover. He had a modest three of those. Creating 27 points while coughing up just three turnovers is a helluva trade-off, isn't it? (By contrast, Matthew Dellavedova had one assist and six turnovers. LeBron had no other option.)
Cleveland's defense was superb. Guess what? LeBron was a part of that, too! He played far more minutes than any Cavalier and led the team in defensive rebounds. Dellavedova deserves massive credit for staying in Curry's shirt and Mozgov has completely shut down most of Golden State's action toward the rim. But LeBron is the spiritual and actual leader of the defense. He's working hard on that end, and it's paying off for Cleveland. That matters, too! It turns out it's pretty difficult to play 50 minutes of active defense and conjure up 39 points and 11 assists when your shot isn't falling.
There have been suggestions that if only Golden State would have won due to a missed free throw or a Curry swish or whatever, we'd be killing LeBron in the media for his Iversonesque performance. Forgive me for breaking my rule that Allen Iverson Shall Not Be Debated In Polite Company, but there is a real big problem that "Iversonesque" is a pejorative. The Answer did in his Philadelphia days exactly what LeBron is doing now. With imbalanced, defense-first supporting casts lacking creators, there is no option but for the centerpiece to dominate the ball.
The other four starters on Iverson's Finals team were Dikembe Mutombo, Aaron McKie, Tyrone Hill and Jumaine Jones. Iverson's average shooting night in that series was 13-for-32. And you wanted him to pass more? To whom? That's the question here with LeBron: he is the offense, everyone knows it and you want him to do something other than force the issue and try to pick apart openings?
If you would have criticized LeBron's shot volume had the Warriors won, you are ridiculous. Shooting efficiency is an important concept, a vital consideration in team-building. But it doesn't exist in a vacuum. In real live basketball, everything else matters too.
Now, if you want to question why Curry took 23 shots when Dellavedova had him locked up and while Klay Thompson was hot, and if you want to question why Curry kept launching deep threes despite being ice cold and Mozgov (Cleveland's only rim protector) being out of the game, and if you want to question why Curry ended up with the fatal airball despite the Warriors having a plethora of offensive options ... well, you might find that treasure you're digging for.
But in the full context of Game 2, LeBron's performance should be above reproach.
SB Nation presents: LeBron is carrying a team of spare parts yet again