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

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Ron Schwane/AP, file

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell (45) shoots against Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic (9) in the second half Monday, January 2, 2023 in Cleveland.

Giannis Antetokounmpo set a career-high 55 points in Milwaukee’s win over Washington last Tuesday — and it wasn’t even the week’s leading scorer in the NBA’s Central Division.

That belonged to Cleveland’s Donovan Mitchell, who scored an amazing 71 last night.

The NBA has put on an almost nightly display of superiority among the game’s top scorers for the past few weeks. Whether it was Mitchell’s exceptional performance for the Cavaliers or Dallas’ Luka Doncic, who scored three 50 points in nine days, it looks like another player is making a huge statement.

“I think there are many layers. You just see night after night that the guys have tremendous offensive plays,” said Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. “It’s obviously fun to watch as a fan. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to stop some of these guys because they score on all levels – the suit, the 3’s, hitting 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 a 50-point game in a season, according to Sportradar. At least 10 have made it each season since, including a record 14 in 2021-22. Some of this is to be expected in a very high scoring era. NBA teams were averaging 113.8 points per game as of Monday night, which, if things continue, would be the highest mark for the league since 1969-70. But the overall scoring environment only tells part of the story.

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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 — have scored a 50-point game this season.

So what’s happening lately isn’t just a higher score across the league. The top players also produce huge games with remarkable frequency. Expansion can play a role. The number of teams is 30% higher than in 1985. More teams means more games, so it makes sense that there would be more examples of a player scoring 50 points.

But the sport has changed in other ways too.

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

Today basically every top scorer has some level of skill from the 3 point range, while in the 80’s some stars largely ignored the shot and nobody attempted that many.

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

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So, current players have a variety of ways to earn points quickly, and the 3-point shot has an impact on the game beyond that. With so many players capable of making open 3s, teams can split the ground in a way that penalizes defense for double teams.

“You have to pick the guys you’re trying to double down and knock the ball out of their hands because they’re not great passers, but there are some guys who can score but can also excel at your passing,” Lue said . “So when you have guys like that, you want to let those guys try to get theirs and take out everyone else, but sometimes it can backfire on you too.”

When King scored 60 points at Christmas 1984, he didn’t attempt a single 3. Even that year, Antetokounmpo didn’t 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,” said Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins. “Now you’re getting more people to embrace that. The volume of trials creates these opportunities. It’s pretty rare for guys to repeatedly shoot 2 to get that 50 point mark. It’s definitely the evolution of our game to see more of this. I would expect this trend to continue.”

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AP sportswriter Pat Graham contributed to this report.

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