2022 might feel like 1978 at the end of the season.
If we’re lucky.
Let’s return to the greatest scoring race of NBA history, one that took place 44 years ago. It was the epic to-the last-day battle between George Gervin and David Thompson.
Each player played a game on the season’s last day, April 9, 1978. Thompson’s first game saw him score 73 points for Denver Nuggets, thereby capturing the scoring lead. Gervin, who would be playing just a few hours later, will need 58 points in order to regain the top spot.
He scored 63 points for the San Antonio Spurs. He won the crown with 27.22 points compared to Thompson’s 27.15.
Imagine this scene unfolding on April 10, with the scoring title again being decided on the final day of the season. This time, there are three participants in the race.
It might happen.
The NBA is on track to be the league’s closest three-man scoring race as of Tuesday. LeBron James, of the Los Angeles Lakers, is at the top of the list with a score of 29.96 (which would bring it up to 30.0). Joel Embiid, of the Philadelphia 76ers, is second at 29.83 and Giannis Antetokounmpo from the Milwaukee Bucks is third with 29.80.
It has been a while since a race was so close between the top three spots. In 1985-86, Dominique Wilkins scored 30.3 points on average — half a point better than Alex English and Adrian Dantley. A decade ago, Kevin Durant was with Oklahoma City and held off Kobe Bryant of the Lakers by just one-tenth point. 28.0 to 27.9 was the second-closest head–to-head race.
The numbers may change. Embiid may get a few more games down the stretch to rest. One wouldn’t expect Embiid to be there with just a scoring title at stake if the 76ers don’t have anything to play for on the season’s final day. Antetokounmpo is the same; Milwaukee would be foolish to play Antetokounmpo if they are guaranteed a seed. The play-in is the only way for the Lakers to make the playoffs, so James could be asked to play big minutes and possibly put up big numbers all the way to overtime.
James stated, “At the end”: “All I care about are wins and losses.”
However, a scoring race would only add an additional dimension to the season’s end, and be another reason to tune in to see what’s going on.
The Western Conference race is over. However, Phoenix will still be No. 1 in the Western Conference, barring a cataclysmic collapse, realistically it is now. 1 seed. The Eastern Conference race for seeding is much tighter and there is a high chance that the first-round series in that bracket will be slugfests regardless of who is seeded.
Anything involving James will be fascinating. The same goes for Antetokounmpo. The same goes for Embiid. Combine them and intrigue levels will skyrocket.
There is one problem with all this: it could have been four-man races.
Durant of Brooklyn is fourth in scoring in the league, four-tenths ahead of James and two-tenths back Antetokounmpo. Embiid is third at 29.6 per match. Durant won’t be able to win the scoring title because he will not meet the NBA’s minimum of 58 games played in an 82-game year.
The scoring race is now down to three unless someone gets really, really hot down that stretch.
Trae Young and Jayson Tatum, DeMar DeRozan and Ja Morant are all within 3.0 points right now of James’ average (as well as Kyrie Irving, who clearly won’t reach the minimum games-played threshold). They could also be in contention for the title if they go on an absolute savage — something that is not uncommon in this age and age.
There is potential for an exciting finish, just as the league did in 1978.
This would make a great appetizer for the playoffs.