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NBA sees strong increase in 50-point games

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We don’t know who will do it and we don’t know exactly when it will happen. But we do know that someone will soon score 50 points in an NBA game. And then it will happen again. And again, and again, and again.

The headlines started to sound familiar. Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 55 on 3 January. Klay Thompson scored 54 and Donovan Mitchell scored 71 on 2 January. Luka Doncic scored 50, 60 and 51. Pascal Siakam and Darius Garland both have 50-point games this season. Lauri Markkanen narrowly missed out with a 49-point game on Thursday. Who is next? Kevon Looney?

An event that was a rarity just a decade ago is now becoming commonplace, and this season in particular, players are leaving for 50 or more on a regular basis.

Ten years ago, in 2012-13, only three players had 50-point games. Going back to the 90s, 80s and 70s, the number of 50-point games per season was almost uniformly in the single digits.

But lately, 50-point games have taken off, averaging nearly 20 over the previous four seasons. So far this year, just under halfway through the full season, there have been 14.

So, what is happening?

For starters, teams as a whole are scoring more. The average NBA team scored 113.8 points per game this year, the highest total since 1970. Ten years ago, the average was 98.1. The pace of games has also picked up, with teams averaging nearly 100 possessions every 48 minutes over the past five seasons, which has not been seen since the 1980s. More possession, more shots, more points for everyone.

Much of that offense was fueled by a dramatic increase in 3-pointers. In the late 1990s, teams averaged four to six 3-pointers per game. Ten years ago they did 7.2. In 2017-18, the total surpassed 10 for the first time, and this season the average is 12.2, with 34.3 tries.

In eight of the 14 50-point games this season, the player has made at least six 3-pointers, with Thompson and Garland hitting 10 points each. (Congratulations to Antetokounmpo for scoring 55 by hitting 0 of 3 of 3.)

Golden State coach Steve Kerr this week named 3-point shooting and pace as key factors in increasing 50-point performances. Him also blamed the defense.

“Transition defense is at an all-time low in this league,” he said. “Every night on League Pass, you see five guys standing there, somebody shoots, somebody runs and everybody says, ‘Oh, the guy’s playing down there.’

“We do it, every team does it. I think the game has become very loose and the players are so talented that it’s made for a lot of big goal nights.

This season’s 14 games have featured 10 different players, and the trend in recent years has seen players with much smaller profiles than Antetokounmpo or Doncic. Detroit’s Saddiq Bey had 51 points last March. The Raptors’ Fred VanVleet did it in 2021, and TJ Warren had 53 points in a game for Indiana in 2020.

In the past, 50-point games were typically the reserve of the big ones. Wilt Chamberlain had 118 of them (one of them, of course, reaching 100 points). Next up are Michael Jordan with 31 and Kobe Bryant with 25.

While some lesser-expected names are showing up to 50 these days, the big names are doing so less often than the Chamberlains, Jordans and Bryants. Among active players, James Harden has 23, LeBron James has 14 and Damian Lillard has 12. Of the players who have scored 50 this season, Stephen Curry tops with 11 career 50-point games.

As you might expect, with 50-point games going up so much, so too will games in the 40-49-point range. Ten years ago, there were only 33 of these games. In recent seasons, there have normally been around 100. But this season it’s already 76.

A single player scoring 40 points in an NBA game? Ho-hum.