While there were numerous factors that contributed to the Miami Heat's 98-96 Game 2 victory to knot the NBA Finals at one game apiece, there can be no doubt that the greatest factor was the world's best player dominating on the offensive end.
While it's not outside the norm for LeBron James to have a dominant offensive game, the way this one unfolded was quite unusual. First of all, LeBron started quite slowly, making only one of his four field-goal attempts in the game's opening quarter.
He rebounded by making 5-of-7 second-quarter shots, but rather than creating them for himself in the half court, he got his points mostly by hitting the offensive boards and getting out in transition.
Four of his five second-quarter baskets came via offensive rebounding or the fast break. He broke out a marvelous spin move for each of the fast-break baskets, looking like a Karl Malone-sized Tony Parker balleting through the paint and finishing at the rim.
His final basket of the first half came on an excellent seal on Boris Diaw in the post and after a series of perimeter passes to get Dwyane Wade in good position to make an entry.
LeBron spent much of the first half setting screens and rolling into post-up position, just like this. Though they did not all result in baskets, the action created open shots, and that was enough for Erik Spoelstra to keep going to it throughout the first half. I can scarcely remember a game where LeBron played more like a "traditional" big man, even for just a half.
When all was said and done, LeBron had made six shots in the first half, every one of them from inside the paint. The second half, though, was a completely different story.
After doing all his damage from inside early on, LeBron did not even venture into the paint after halftime, save for two late trips to the free-throw line. If there were ever a better showcase of LeBron's creativity and versatility, I have not seen it. He spent the entire first half playing like a center, then he decided to morph into a souped-up version of a shooting guard in the second half.
His first basket of the half came on a high pick-and-pop with Mario Chalmers, but after that, nearly everything he got was a jumper, all of them self-created in isolation or the pick-and-roll.
Late in the game, with Miami down 93-92, James of course made what has become maybe his signature play at this point. With defenders draped all over him as he drove the lane off a high screen, LeBron found Chris Bosh open out of the corner of his eye, darted a crosscourt pass right into the shooting pocket, and watched as his teammate drained the open three to take the lead.
"I caught Tim Duncan kind of peeking at me a little bit and found CB in the corner, his favorite spot." - LeBron pic.twitter.com/nljy7QCqwt— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) June 9, 2014
Bosh has indeed turned himself into an excellent three-point shooter, especially from the corners, where he is 14-of-22 during this playoff run, according to NBA.com. Bosh's ability to play in space on both ends of the floor makes him an extraordinarily important player for the Heat.
Miami's four-out offense doesn't work without him pulling a big man an extra step or two outside the paint. It helps that he's able to knock down outside shots with consistency, but he also flashes smart cutting and off-the-bounce creativity if his man gets too close to him on the perimeter or abandons him to double the ball.
Bosh has been making big plays for the Heat for years now, but some still refuse to give him his due as an elite player. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra sees things for what they are.
"He's probably our most important player. We've said that for four years." - Erik Spoelstra on Chris Bosh— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) June 9, 2014
While that's a slight overstatement—James is the team's most important player—it's far closer to the truth than most casual observers likely believe. And after nailing a huge jumper to put his team up, Bosh proved it again with a driving dish to Dwyane Wade to put the game out of reach.
Bosh's contributions were not limited to the offensive end, either. According to player-tracking data, provided by the NBA and STATS LLC, the Spurs shot just 3-of-10 with Bosh within five feet of both the rim and the shooter. By way of reference, Roy Hibbert led the league in that stat this season, holding opponents to 41.4 percent shooting in the same situations.
And Bosh was not the only non-LeBron player with big contributions. Rashard Lewis, back from the dead, played an excellent two-way game, chipping in with 14 points and some excellent defense both in one-on-one situations and within Miami's aggressive help and recover scheme.
After shooting 50 percent on attempts created directly from one of the two players involved in the pick-and-roll in Game 1, that number dropped down to 22 percent for the Spurs in Game 2, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). Lewis, Bosh and Chris Andersen played a huge role in that.
Ray Allen only had nine points and made just one three-point shot, but the offense exploded whenever he and LeBron shared the court, with Miami outscoring the Spurs 52-36 and shooting in excess of 60 percent from the field in the 23 minutes the pair played together.
Miami went on a key second-quarter run to cut into San Antonio's lead by using a lineup–Wade, Allen, James, Lewis and Bosh–without a point guard on the floor.
In just over three-and-a-half minutes, that lineup outscored the Spurs 9-2 to trim a 30-19 deficit into a 32-28 game. It got the Heat back into it before San Antonio had a chance to make it a blowout, setting the stage for LeBron's second-quarter paint dominance and his second-half jumper display.
Of course, there is the question of whether any or all of this is sustainable for Game 3 and beyond.
LeBron's jumper has become more and more consistent over the years, and after initially struggling with San Antonio's strategy of daring him to take outside shots in last year's Finals, he tore it apart in Games 4 through 7. He'll still have quarters, halves or even games where it's off a bit, but it's no longer nearly the liability it once was. It's a strength, just like everything else in his game.
Bosh will continue to provide space on offense and eat it up on defense. Allen and Lewis have and will always be able to knock down outside shots. Birdman will be around to do Birdman things.
But even with all that going right for the Heat in Game 2, they were still in a position of needing huge plays down the stretch to take home the win, both because Wade struggled for much of the night and because the Spurs are just that good.
Even if the Heat continue to get performances like this, it's not going to be easy sledding on the road to their third championship in a row. The Spurs will have their say.