Context Is Overrated

Donovan Mitchell dropped 71 points last night, forcing me to shelve my column about the Brooklyn Nets (12 straight wins!) until at least Friday, at which point they will have definitely lost and forced me to do a rewrite. So thanks a lot, Don!

But when you drop 71 points in a game with a series of filthy stepbacks and acrobatic layups, I can find it in my Grinchian ticker to forgive you:

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And, of course, Mitchell had the game-tying putback on his own missed free throw with three seconds left:

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My heart grew three sizes watching that, and I assumed others had similar feelings.

But instead, my timeline was filled with people “yes, but”-ing the fact that he needed 25 free throws and an extra period to reach his lofty figure, tied for the eighth-highest scoring total in NBA history. I also saw some criticism for “gunning” at the end of overtime.

Yeah, maybe he went for it a little at the finish, when the game was in hand. And sure, he did accumulate those 71 points with the help of an extra period. 25 free throw attempts is a big number, most definitely.

But let’s stop the silly handwringing and enjoy the moment. If a player has a chance to put their name in the record books, of course, they should go for it. Why shouldn’t they? As basketball fans, we should be LIVING for these kinds of moments, not looking for ways to pick nits.

The free throw hangup is the stupidest. Mitchell was 22-34 from the field and 20-25 from the line (and also notched 11 assists, it should be noted, the only 70+/10+ game in NBA history. He wasn’t forcing up bad shots to reach those lofty heights.). Donovan earned those free throw attempts because the Bulls, quite clearly, couldn’t stop him. What happens when a guy scores at will? The other team starts whaling on him in frustration and desperation. This is a natural outcome, especially for a guy like Mitchell, who was living in the paint all game.

For the other complaints, let’s not act like Wilt scored 100 in the natural course of the game — his team won that match 169-147, and he scored 31 in the final frame. I find it highly unlikely those 31 were necessary to run out the clock on a beaten opponent. It’s pretty clear that Wilt, who may as well have invented stat hunting, wanted to get to triple digits.

And that’s great! Wilt’s 100 is legendary. Who cares if only 80 or so of those points were probably strictly needed? It remains an iconic number from a nearly mythological figure.

Let’s also forget about adding caveats for overtime games. There are far, far more effective barometers of production than just looking at sum totals at the end of games and dividing by the number of periods they played. For example, Luka Doncic just put up his historic 61/21/12 triple-double in an overtime game. But guess what? Luka only played 47 minutes that game (Mitchell played in 50 last night). Wilt once averaged 48.5 minutes per game in a season. Reminder: NBA games are only 48 minutes long!

Plenty of minutiae can be examined. In Wilt’s era, the pace of the game was far faster, allowing for more shots and therefore opportunities to accumulate statistics. Other stats, such as true shooting, shot concentration, etc., etc., could be invoked, too, if we really wanted to go into the nitty-gritty and normalize everything.

But I don’t want to do that. Why should we normalize something that is inherently not normal? Trying to determine whose insanely awesome game was the most awesomest is missing the forest for the trees.

Adjudicating greatness is the worst part of fandom. Mitchell’s game was historic, and watching players do things rarely or never done before is always a treat. We don’t need to asterisk, caveat, or bah-humbug any of it (I recently watched a lot of Christmas movies, let it go).

I don’t worry about context when I see that someone scored 71 points (and, at satellite-altitude context level, he did it in a very close win! Those points mattered!). It was a fantastic game from an elite player, and it was exactly what I want to see when I turn the TV on.

My friend, Ray LeBov, likes to say, “Context is king.” But here, in the wake of one of the greatest scoring performances in NBA history, it’s just an unwelcome distraction.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.