In 2022, the season finale could feel like 1978.
If we are lucky.
Let’s go back to the greatest scoring race in NBA history, one that was decided 44 years ago, the epic battle to the last day between David Thompson and George Gervin.
They each had a game on April 9, 1978, the last day of that season. Thompson’s game came first; he scored 73 points as the Denver Nuggets took the scoring lead. Gervin, who would play a few hours later, would need 58 points to regain first place.
He scored 63 for the San Antonio Spurs. The crown was his, 27.22 points to 27.15 for Thompson.
Imagine such a scene this season on April 10: the scoring title once again drops to the last day of the season. Only this time, with three players in the race.
Entering Tuesday, the NBA finds itself on course for the closest three-man scoring race in league history. LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers leads the list with an average of 29.96 points (which would round up to 30.0), Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers is second with 29.83 and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks is third with 29.80. .
The last time a race finished so close to the top three was, well, never. The closest three-way race was in 1985-86, when Dominique Wilkins averaged 30.3 points, half a point better than Adrian Dantley and Alex English. And a decade ago, Kevin Durant, then with Oklahoma City, beat the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant by a tenth of a point, 28.0-27.9 for the second-closest head-to-head race in history.
Obviously, the numbers will change. Embiid could get another game or two down the stretch to rest his body. If the 76ers have nothing to play for on the final day of the season, you wouldn’t expect him there with only a scoring title on the line. The same goes for Antetokounmpo; if the Bucks are locked into a seed, it would seem silly for Milwaukee to play much, if at all, with the reigning NBA Finals MVP. And the Lakers’ only path to the playoffs is through the play-in, which means James could be called upon to play big minutes, and potentially rack up big numbers, until late.
“At the end of the day,” James said, “all I care about is the wins and the losses.”
However, a point race would add an extra dimension to the end of the season, just another reason to tune in and pay attention to what’s going on.
The Western Conference race will be over by then; realistically, it’s now, as there’s no way to avoid an unthinkable, catastrophic collapse of Phoenix not being the No. 1 seed. The Eastern Conference race is considerably closer, and the potential is pretty high regardless of who finishes. seeded, where the first-round series will be in that half of the bracket.
But anything involving James is sure to be intriguing. The same goes for Antetokounmpo. The same goes for Embiid. Put them together and the levels of intrigue will skyrocket.
The only downside to all of this is that it could have been a four-man race.
Brooklyn’s Durant is fourth in the league in scoring, four-tenths behind James and two-tenths behind Antetokounmpo and Embiid at 29.6 per game. But Durant basically can’t win the scoring title since he won’t meet the NBA minimum (58 games in an 82-game season) to qualify.
So unless someone gets really, really hot down the stretch, the scoring race comes down to three.
Trae Young, Luka Doncic, DeMar DeRozan, Ja Morant and Jayson Tatum are all within 3.0 points of James’ average right now (as is Kyrie Irving, who obviously won’t meet the minimum games played threshold). If any of those guys go on an outright bender, not unheard of in this day and age, he too could make a title run.
The potential is there for an exciting finish, just like the league had in 1978.
It would be the perfect appetizer for the playoffs.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to treynolds(at)ap.org
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