By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
There is no scoring race in the NBA this season. Not anymore. Kevin Durant tucked that thing in his back pocket sometime back in March during his streak of 41 games with 25 points or more. The Oklahoma City MVP favorite averaged 34.8 points over the half-season from Jan. 7 through Sunday, pulling up his season average to 32.0.
That has the rest of the field chasing Secretariat, as ridden by Usain Bolt. Consider the math: Durant could go scoreless in the Thunder’s final five games and he’d still wind up averaging 30.0 points. For nearest-challenger Carmelo Anthony (27.5 ppg) to catch him – Durant’s actual average at that point would be 30.04938272 – Anthony would need to score 309 points in New York’s final four games. That’s an average of 77.3.
LeBron James, currently in third place at 26.9 ppg, would have an extra game. If he played them all. Which he won’t. But the Miami superstar would need to get 385 points in the Heat’s final five games, an average of 77.0, to boost himself past Durant – if Durant plays five games without scoring a single point the rest of the way.
So this scoring race has been over for some time.
But that wasn’t the case 36 years ago today, when George Gervin and David Thompson shot it out in the closest, most stunning race ever for the scoring title.
Imagine Anthony, on the season’s final night, scoring 73 points against Toronto next Wednesday to move ahead of Durant, only to learn later that the OKC star had scored 63 points to wrest back the crown by the narrowest margin ever (0.0695 points).
That’s precisely what Gervin and Thompson did. Only more dramatically, in an epic anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better showdown that played out seven hours and 1,000 miles apart.
Thompson: ‘Superman on steroids’
Thompson, the Denver Nuggets’ 23-year-old wing player, was first up. He woke up in Detroit for a matinee game trailing Gervin in the scoring race by just 0.2 points per game, 26.6 to the Spurs star’s 26.8. There wasn’t much else to play for – Denver already had clinched its division, while Detroit had been eliminated from a playoff spot days earlier. There weren’t many to play for either, with attendance of just 3,482 at Cobo Arena that Sunday afternoon.
Gervin’s San Antonio team was scheduled to face the Jazz in New Orleans that evening. Thompson only knew that, based on their stats at the moment, he trailed “The Iceman” by 16 points in the scoring race (26.56 to Gervin’s 26.77). Nuggets coach Larry Brown apparently knew it, too, as Thompson related in his 2003 book, Skywalker:
“Do you want to go for it today?” Coach Brown asked me before the game. Whether we won or lost, we were still headed for the playoffs. So the coach was willing to let me shoot to my heart’s content to win the NBA scoring title. If I put up astronomical numbers, then Gervin, playing in New Orleans that evening, would be chasing me.
I hit the first eight shots I took, mainly medium-range jumpers from 15 to 18 feet. As the quarter wore on, I also got a few dunks on alley-oops. … Not realizing what had just occurred — it all happened so fast — I was amazed to learn later that I had set an NBA record for most points in a quarter with 32. That beat Wilt Chamberlain’s 1962 mark by one, set in that historic game where Wilt scored 100 points. Equally stunning was my accuracy in that first quarter. I went 13-14 from the field ([Ben] Poquette‘s block being the only shot I missed) and 6-6 from the foul line.
Thompson scored 21 more in the second quarter for 53 by halftime, and everyone in the building – along with some media people in Detroit suddenly scrambling to get there – could do the easy math and anticipate a challenge to Chamberlain’s and the NBA’s most famous record. As Thompson recalled:
You could see it on the Detroit players’ faces – something like, “There’s no way we can let this guy get 100 on us.” A hundred points? Heck, I was just a 6-foot-4 guard with a hot hand. I nailed the first 20 of 21 shots I had taken and was 20-23 at the half. I’d caught fire before, but never anything like this. … My 13 field goals were also a new NBA record, and it still stands to this day. I was definitely in the zone; I felt like Superman on steroids.
Thompson scored 20 more points in the second half, shooting 8 of 15 after the break. He sank 17 of 20 free throws that day, and his 73 points – the third highest total ever – raised his scoring average to 27.15. He and the Nuggets caught a flight back to Denver, and when Thompson got home, he searched on the radio dial for the Spurs-Jazz broadcast. His rival needed 58 points. That game was in the second quarter when Thompson found it, and he didn’t like what he heard.
‘The Iceman’ chaseth
Like Thompson, Gervin had entered the NBA the previous season, merging in when the league absorbed four ABA teams (Nuggets, Spurs, Nets and Pacers) before 1976-77. Nicknamed “The Iceman,” the lanky (6-foot-7), laconic swingman from Eastern Michigan was two years older than Thompson and just as lethal with a basketball. He had averaged 22.2 points in his first five seasons but kicked it up in his sixth, pursuing the first of what would be four NBA scoring titles.
But the first wasn’t guaranteed, as Gervin – talking about that day 18 years later, when he and Thompson were announced as Hall of Fame inductees – learned in a rude awakening:
I was asleep in my hotel room when a reporter called and said, ‘Ice, Thompson scored 73.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s it,’ and I hung up and went back to sleep. Down in the lobby later, some of the guys on the Spurs said, ‘Ice, we’re going to help you.’ My guys loved me.
Gervin shared more details, at least as he recalled them 36 years later, in a recent studio appearance on Sirius XM’s NBA channel (217):
So it was set up for me. Doug Moe was my coach, so anybody know anything about Doug, we was a run-and-gun type franchise anyway. The guys came to me and said, ‘Ice, let’s get it done, man.’
We went out the first quarter, I missed my first six shots. Called timeout. I was saying, ‘Ah, man, that’s a lot of pressure, man.’ Those guys say, ‘You ain’t got to worry about that. Aw, Ice. C’mon, man.’ I was kiddin’ anyway. I wanted to make sure they were still with me.
We started back, I had 20 that quarter and then I ended up gettin’ 33 the second quarter. End up getting 63 in 33 minutes.
Gervin launched 49 shots that night in New Orleans, hitting 23 of them (“I was kind of rushing,” he said of the first six). He, too, shot 17 of 20 from the line. At 58 points, the scoring title was his. With 63, his average shot past Thompson’s to 26.2195 points.
The closest scoring races since then came in 2009-10, when Durant (rounded to 30.1) edged James (29.7) by .4358 ppg, and in 1993-94. That’s the year San Antonio’s David Robinson, trailing Shaquille O’Neal by 0.0467 points on the final day, scored a career-best 71 in a matinee against the Clippers. O’Neal got 32 for Orlando that night against New Jersey. He wound up losing the title by 0.4418 points (29.3456 to Robinson’s 29.7875), with the Big Runner-Up taking some swipes at the Clippers’ dispassionate defense of his San Antonio rival.
O’Neal might have been calmer had he known his NBA history. On the Spurs’ bench that afternoon, egging on The Admiral to chase down that crown: Assistant coach George Gervin.