Thursday, January 21, 2010

High-Altitude Halcyon Days

It has been well-documented that Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds Or Less” days with the Phoenix Suns and Don Nelson’s delirious machinations with the Golden State Warriors helped steer the NBA out of the darkness that was the late 1990s and early 2000s. Scoring has been up in the past few seasons, breaking away from the grind-it-out, overly physical, brick-laying games that alienated so many casual fans in the post-Jordan age.

One of the direct antecedents of those wide-open offenses was Doug Moe’s frenetic Denver Nuggets teams of the early 1980s. The high point of those freewheeling days came when another high-octane team, the Detroit Pistons, visited McNichols Sports Arena on Dec. 13, 1983.

It was clear that something was in the rarefied air of Denver when the score was 8-6 just 1:30 into the game. The teams combined to sink their first six shots, and the Nuggets’ Dan Issel scored six points in the first minute. On the Pistons Television Network, play-by-play man George Blaha and former Piston/future political hope Dave Bing struggled to verbally keep up with the action.

Three hours and three overtimes later, the Pistons had a 186-184 victory – the highest-scoring game in NBA history. The bone-tired players trudged off the court and, over 25 years later, even looking at all the statistical information is exhausting. ESPN stats guru John Hollinger or venerable numbers guy Al Einstein would probably get headaches from wading into the data.

The Nuggets and the Pistons both topped the single-game team mark of 173 points set by the Celtics in Minneapolis on Feb. 27, 1959. The aggregate of 370 points blew away the record of 337 in another three-overtime game, San Antonio’s 171-166 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on March 6, 1982.

Detroit’s Isiah Thomas had a career night with 47 points and 17 assists. John Long added 41 on 18-for-25 shooting and the mustachioed Kelly Tripucka’s 35 points included 12 points in the second overtime. Denver was led by Kiki Vandeweghe’s 51 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. A pre-acting-career Alex English had 47 points.

On a combined 251 shots, the Pistons shot .544 from the field and the Nuggets .591. Amazingly, the Pistons missed 23 free throws in a foul-happy game officiated by replacement refs because of a lockout.

But here is the most interesting stat: 2 for 4, the combined three-point shooting for the game. The three-pointer was fully instituted for the 1979-’80 NBA season, but most teams still viewed it almost as a curiosity. The offenses still mostly started well below the three-point arc.

Nowadays, when you hear “mid-range jumper” from hoops pundits it is mostly preceded by the phrase “the lost art of.” Most of that talk can be dismissed as bloviation, but it is hard to imagine a present-day NBA team draining 18-footers like the Pistons and the Nuggets were in this game. Issel drained his first eight shots of the game, mostly from mid-range, but the 14-year veteran in his penultimate season struggled to keep up the pace. Moe gave Issel long breathers, but fatigue was definitely a factor when Issel missed a 20-footer at the end of regulation, failing to break a 145-145 tie. He missed another at the end of the first overtime, which ended in a 159-159 stalemate.

The Pistons finally broke away in the waning minutes of the third overtime, forcing a turnover by Bill Hanzlik that Thomas took for a breakaway layup and a 183-179 lead. A drained Hanzlik spent the ensuing timeout prostrate next to the Denver huddle.

It was an overwhelming game, one that might never be matched, even by teams coached by D’Antoni and Nelson on their best days.

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