Jan 26, 2024, 11:17 PM ET
On Monday night, reigning MVP Joel Embiid dropped 70 points on the San Antonio Spurs, a season high in the NBA … which lasted all of four nights before Luka Doncic scored 73 to lead the Dallas Mavericks to a win against the Atlanta Hawks (coincidentally, the team that drafted Doncic before trading him to Dallas).
On the same night Embiid scored 70, Karl-Anthony Towns finished with 62 points in a loss to the Charlotte Hornets — a feat that was matched on Friday night, when Devin Booker did his best to keep pace with Doncic, also scoring 62 in a loss to the Indiana Pacers.
It’s the first time in the 77-season history of the NBA that four different players have scored at least 60 points in a game in a five-night span. After there were a grand total of four 70-point contests between 1964 and 2022, there have now been four in the past 390 days.
So what’s driving this incredible scoring output? And just how high can NBA players go? Is Wilt Chamberlain‘s 100-point game still untouchable? We asked our NBA experts to break it down.
1. What’s driving these big scoring nights?
Chris Herring: It’s a perfect combination of historic efficiency and astronomical usage rate — and astronomical use of the 3-point line — with games being played at a high tempo. Defenses are spread thinner than ever trying to guard 7-footers out beyond the 3-point line.
And it leaves them with little to no chance in one-on-one scenarios against players such as Embiid and Doncic, who lead the league in the share of offensive possessions that end with them controlling the ball. It’s not lost on me that Doncic, who already handles the ball a league-high 8.5 minutes per game, tallied 73 on a night where co-star Kyrie Irving was out, and that Towns had 62 on a night where Anthony Edwards wasn’t himself because of an illness. Those extra chances make a difference when leaguewide shooting efficiency is the highest it’s ever been.
Tim MacMahon: There are a lot of reasons, but No. 1 on the list is that the NBA has never seen this much skill. We’ve never seen anyone with Doncic’s blend of size, strength, savvy, handles, footwork and touch, allowing him to comfortably create his own shot anywhere within 30 feet of the hoop. Karl-Anthony Towns has proclaimed himself the greatest shooting big of all time, and while most would give the nod to Dirk Nowitzki, KAT can make a statistical case. Joel Embiid is a 7-foot-2, 280-pound center who makes midrange jumpers seem like layups. So does Devin Booker, who is potent whether he’s creating for himself or playing off the ball. And the modern schemes give these stars space to display their wide array of gifts.
Kevin Pelton: A combination of factors. NBA offenses have never been more efficient than they are right now, and the data showing which shots are more valuable has also made it possible for stars to maintain sky-high usage rates without sacrificing efficiency. Lastly, the calendar may play a role. Historically, there have been more 60-point games in January than any other month both overall and per total games played.
2. What, if anything, can defenses do to stop these big nights?
Herring: It seems too simplistic to say it this way, but just like I was confused by the Spurs not doubling Embiid earlier in the week, it was puzzling to me that Atlanta waited so incredibly long to throw a second body in front of Doncic. (At least San Antonio is a young team.) Blitzing and doubling shouldn’t only happen once you realize someone’s on pace to hit a scoring mark. Superstars have to see several looks over the course of the game — including doubles and backcourt pressures — or else they’re almost certain to torch you repeatedly.
Devin Booker drops 62 but Suns fade late
Devin Booker puts on a clinic with 62 points in the Suns’ slim loss to the Pacers.
MacMahon: Man, if I could figure this out, the Milwaukee Bucks would have given me $40 million or so to solve their defensive problems. The simple answer is to send a second defender at a superstar when he starts cooking. The Hawks tried that in the second half against Doncic, holding him to a mere 32 points after halftime. Not only did Atlanta hardly slow down Doncic, but the doubles and Doncic’s passing created wide-open looks for his teammates.
Pelton: I do think the Hawks might have been wise to trap Luka off pick-and-rolls from the start of a game the Mavericks played without Kyrie Irving. On the Atlanta broadcast, color analyst Dominique Wilkins — whose career high was 57 points — couldn’t believe how little resistance Doncic was getting in the first half. Per Second Spectrum tracking, the Hawks blitzed just two of Luka’s first-half pick-and-rolls with a pair of defenders before trying it six times after halftime. By then, it was too late.
3. Which 60-plus scoring performance this week was most impressive?
Herring: I’ll go with Luka’s, given that he nearly logged a triple-double on the road, and did it on the heels of getting heavy criticism earlier in the week. Much like Embiid’s showing on Monday, Luka’s showing was impressive because, aside from one corner try in the fourth, you didn’t get the sense he was forcing anything to reach his numbers. He simply possessed the ball enough and shot it well enough to get there relatively naturally.
MacMahon: I better go with Doncic — for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I believe it. He scored the most points on the fewest field goal attempts (25-of-33), did it without co-star Kyrie Irving in uniform and fell only a few assists shy of a triple-double. You also have to consider the circumstances: Dallas desperately needed a win after losing five of the previous seven games, and Doncic responded to 48 hours of criticism for his petulant performance in Wednesday’s loss to the Suns with the best game of his brilliant career.
Pelton: I’d also pick Luka, whose 64.0 game score surpassed Embiid’s 70-point game for the highest for any NBA player this season and was second only to Michael Jordan’s 64.6 in March 1990 among all games in the Stathead.com database since turnovers were first tracked in 1977-78. Although these Hawks won’t be compared to the 1995-96 Bulls, this was also a more competitive opponent on the road than Embiid’s matchup at home against the Spurs.
4. Fact or fiction: Luka’s 73 points will hold as the season’s high mark?
Herring: Fiction. Honestly, with so many people flirting with 70 this past week, it makes me think that Kobe’s mark will likely fall soon — if not this season, then probably in the next year or two. Guys are just too efficient, and defenses are often operating at too much of a disadvantage to hold down individual scorers.
MacMahon: Fact. I’ll play the percentages and say 73 will hold up, considering it has only been surpassed three times in the history of the league. Then again, I would have said the same thing about Embiid’s 70. Hey, the Mavs will face the Hawks again April 4 in Dallas.
KD has priceless reaction to Joel Embiid’s 70-point game
Suns star Kevin Durant looks at a reporter in disbelief after being informed about Joel Embiid’s 70-point performance for the 76ers.
Pelton: Fiction. There does seem to be something contagious about these huge scoring outputs in terms of convincing other players they can match or surpass the previous total. The bar has been set and the rest of the league now has two-plus months to surpass it.
5. What will it take for someone to score 82 (or, dare we say, 101)?
Herring: A couple of these games this week finished with pretty tight final scores. Overtime would certainly be one way to do it. From what we saw Friday, a club staying in the same defensive alignment despite how hot a player gets might be another way to all but guarantee it.
MacMahon: A superstar with a hot hand who gets a friendly whistle against one of the worst defenses of all time. There are a handful of superstars who are capable and a handful of teams with defenses that are that terrible.
Pelton: A defense that decides letting the opposing superstar go one-on-one the entire game is their best strategy, no matter the potential for being on the wrong side of a historic scoring effort. The fact that both 62-point games this week ended in losses provides some proof of concept, although Towns, and to a lesser extent Booker, going cold was a major factor in their teams losing leads.
Bonus! Which player will be next to reach 70?
Herring: I actually could see it being Luka, again. The fact that he handles the ball as much as he does, can get hot from deep and plays alongside a star teammate, Kyrie Irving, who misses action from time to time, makes him one of the best candidates.
KAT’s career-high 62 points not enough as Wolves fall to Hornets
Karl-Anthony Towns breaks his own franchise record with 62 points in the Timberwolves’ loss to the Hornets.
MacMahon: Is it Shai Gilgeous-Alexander‘s turn? The other three players averaging at least 30 points per game — Embiid, Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo — have all scored at least 64 in a game this season. Gilgeous-Alexander’s career-high is only 44 points, so maybe he’s due for an explosion. He’s not a prolific 3-point shooter, which limits his historic-high-volume scoring potential, but he’s as dangerous as anyone off the dribble — and he gets to the free throw line a lot, a staple of these sorts of nights.
Pelton: Antetokounmpo, whose 64-point game against the Indiana Pacers in December has almost been forgotten in the wake of this week.