Analysis: 3-point shooting leads to more NBA scoring binges

NBA scoring
Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid (21) goes up for a shot against Los Angeles Clippers’ Ivica Zubac (40) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022, in Philadelphia.
AP Photo/Matt Slocum

By NOAH TRISTER AP Sports Writer

Giannis Antetokounmpo set a career high with 55 points last Tuesday in Milwaukee’s victory over Washington — and it wasn’t even the week’s top scoring performance in the NBA’s Central Division.

That belonged to Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell, with a staggering 71 the previous night.

The NBA these past few weeks has featured an almost nightly display of one-upmanship among the game’s greatest scorers. Whether it was Mitchell’s extraordinary effort for the Cavaliers or Dallas’ Luka Doncic reaching 50 points three times in a nine-day span, everywhere you turn, it seems like another player is putting up a huge total.

“I think there are a lot of layers to it. You just see night after night, guys are having enormous offensive games,” Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said. “It’s fun to watch as a fan, of course. Frustrating when you’re trying to game plan to stop some of these guys because they’re scoring at all levels — the paint, the 3s, getting to the line.”

Ten different players have already scored 50 points in a game this season: Antetokounmpo, Mitchell, Doncic, Joel Embiid, Devin Booker, Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, Pascal Siakam, Darius Garland and Stephen Curry.

Before 2016-17, no more than eight different players had ever had a 50-point game in one season, according to Sportradar. Since then, at least 10 have done it every season, including a record 14 in 2021-22. Some of this is to be expected in what has become a very high-scoring era. NBA teams were averaging 113.8 points per game entering Monday night, which if it continues would be the highest mark for the league since 1969-70. But the overall scoring environment tells only part of the story.

In that 1969-70 season, teams averaged 116.7 points, but only two players had a 50-point game. In 1984-85, the highest-scoring season of the 1980s, teams averaged 110.8 points. But only five players — Bernard King, Larry Bird, Purvis Short, Kevin McHale and Moses Malone — produced a 50-point game that season.

So what’s happening lately is not just higher scoring league-wide. The top players are also producing huge games with remarkable frequency. Expansion may play a role. The number of teams is 30% higher than it was in 1985. More teams means more games, so it makes sense that there are more examples of a player scoring 50.

But the sport has changed in other ways, too.

“Guys come into this league, and the most impressive thing is the skill set — the handle and the shooting,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “What’s lacking, I think, is the foundation, the institutional knowledge that players used to have when they came into the league after a few years of college. Sometimes the defense isn’t great. Transition defense is at an all-time low in this league.”

Nowadays, basically every top scorer has some degree of proficiency from 3-point range, whereas back in the ’80s, some stars largely ignored the shot and nobody attempted all that many.

“Guys are taking 15 or 16 3s in some games,” Los Angeles Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “Teams are encouraging guys to take those shots, and if you take so many shots, and if you get hot and make some, you can score a lot of points.”

So current players have a variety of ways they can accumulate points in a hurry, and the 3-point shot affects the game even beyond that. With so many players capable of making open 3s, teams can space the floor in a way that punishes defenses for double teams.

“You have to pick and choose the guys you try and double team and get the ball out of their hands because they are not great passers, but there are some guys who can score, but can also pick you apart with their passing,” Lue said. “So, when you have guys like that, you want to let those guys try and get theirs and take everyone else out, but sometimes it can backfire on you as well.”

When King scored 60 points on Christmas in 1984, he didn’t attempt a single 3. Even this year, Antetokounmpo didn’t make any when he scored 55. But Mitchell attempted 15 and made seven in his 71-point game.

“I think that 3-point line, as we’ve seen over the years, has definitely changed the game,” Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said. “Now you’re getting more guys to embrace that. The volume of attempts creates those opportunities. It’s pretty rare that guys are shooting 2 repeatedly to get to that 50-point mark. It’s definitely the evolution of our game to see more of that. I would expect that trend to continue.”

AP Sports Writer Pat Graham contributed to this report.