Remembering Scott Skiles' 30-Assists Game 25 Years Later

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By John Denton
Dec. 29, 2015

ORLANDO – Scott Skiles is leading an Orlando Magic revival now the same way that he put the fledgling franchise on the map 25 years ago – by insisting that the basketball keep moving to the open target.

Wednesday marks the 25-year anniversary of Skiles setting the NBA record for assists in a game with 30 while playing point guard for the Magic. It’s a mark that not only has stood the test of time, but one that has rarely been threatened because it took such a perfect storm of events to ever happen in the first place.

Now the Magic’s demanding and driven head coach, Skiles has Orlando light years ahead of where it was during the last three seasons because of his unyielding principles for how the game should be played. Skiles’ fingerprints are all over this Magic team – just as they were the NBA record books following his awe-inspiring performance on Dec. 30, 1990. Skiles didn’t go chasing records that night, but he earned a mark that he is still synonymous to him some two-and-a-half decades later because he was playing the right way and getting the ball the ball to the open shooters. Those are things that he still rams home now to the current-day Magic.

``Sometimes this game is pretty simple,’’ Skiles likes to say. ``You shoot when you’re open and you pass when you’re covered.’’

Skiles’ Magic (18-13) will host Brooklyn (9-22) Wednesday on the anniversary of his all-time record night. Clearly, Orlando is channeling its coach’s love for passing, racking up 27, 31 and 28 assists in the past three games – ball movement that has helped the Magic rank first in the NBA since Dec. 13 in field goal percentage (51.9 percent) and 3-point percentage (42.5 percent).

``Scott always talks about us making the right play. He did that when he was playing, he knows the game really well and he knows that’s how we have to play,’’ said Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who tied his personal high for assists on Monday with seven. ``It just makes the game so much more fun for everyone. Those extra passes, it boosts the energy of the team so much. And, for us, it comes from (Skiles) playing like that when he was a player.’’

`A PERFECT STORM’

Skiles found both himself and his teammates open quite a bit early in the Magic’s second season when they hosted the Denver Nuggets at the old Orlando Arena. As a player Skiles was always known for his off-the-charts basketball smarts and his savvy running the pick-and-roll, but he need not be a rocket scientist to tell beforehand that he and his teammates would be able to rack up big numbers against the Nuggets that Sunday night in late December of 1990.

Coached by Paul Westhead, Denver employed a strategy where they pushed the pace frenetically in hopes of getting up as many shots as possible. The Nuggets led the NBA in scoring that season at 119.9 points per game, but the problem was that they surrendered a league-worst 130.8 points a night. Why, in the first game of that season that ended up with a 20-62 record, the Nuggets lost 162-158 to Golden State.

That Denver team started 0-7 and 1-11 before notching its second win of the season on Nov. 27 in a 124-113 defeat of the Magic. That night, Skiles was used as a reserve, played just 16 minutes and contributed 15 points and three assists.

Denver limped into Orlando on Dec. 30 at 6-22 after having lost 161-133 a night earlier in Washington. The Magic were also playing on the second night of a back-to-back, having lost a night earlier in Charlotte – a game where Skiles had seven points and 10 assist in 28 minutes.

It didn’t take him long on Dec. 30 to realize that the track meet against defense-less Denver would be unlike other game he had ever played in his career.

``It was a perfect storm,’’ Skiles recalled. ``I knew absolutely going in that it was going to be a high assist game as long as we could make shots. You never know sometimes if that’s going to happen, but we had so many fast breaks and (Denver) just literally would in-bound the ball, take three or four dribbles and then shot a three for a good portion of the game. If they had been making them then we’d be taking the ball out of the net and the whole thing doesn’t happen.’’

Playing in a golden age for point guards – a time when superstars such as Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Mark Price, Mark Jackson, Tim Hardaway and others dominated the action – Skiles got the most out of his abilities as a playmaker.

In the first three years of his career with Milwaukee and Indiana, Skiles had 10 games with 10-or-more assists, including a night in his third season with 17 assists. At the urging of then-assistant coach Brian Hill, the Magic picked Skiles in the expansion draft in 1989 and he had games with 17 and 16 assists and nine other times with 10-plus assists in Orlando’s inaugural season.

Skiles’ best individual season in the NBA came during that 1990-91 season – one that saw him end up winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. That season, he averaged 17.2 points and 8.4 assists and he closed the regular season with three monster games (25 points and 10 assists; 32 points and 10 assists; and 25 points and 18 assists). And in the days and weeks leading up to his record-setting performance, Skiles – 26 years old at the time – had big assist nights with 18 against the Warriors, 14 against the Kings and 17 against the Rockets.

Skiles was able to thrive, former Magic teammate Jeff Turner said, because of his complete understanding of how to read defenses and react as a playmaker in pick-and-roll sets.

``To me, he’s one of the best I’ve ever seen or been around at playing pick-and-roll,’’ said Turner, who is now a game analyst for Fox Sports Florida. ``It wasn’t because he had blazing speed going to the basket, but because he would read the defense and take exactly what they gave him. So he was difficult to guard.’’

`ICE, JUST SHOOT IT!’

Orlando was all over Denver on Dec. 30, 1990, racing to a 35-23 lead after one quarter. And by the time Skiles handed out his 14th assist, Orlando had a commanding 72-49 advantage at intermission.

``That night, it was just a combination of their style of play, coupled with guys on my team knocking down shots, making some difficult ones, hitting the easy ones and I just kind of fell into it,’’ Skiles said.

As the Magic’s lead swelled to 110-80 by the end of the third quarter, Skiles’ assist total was hitting rarified air. He broke the 20-assist barrier for the first time as a NBA player early in the fourth quarter and started to draw close to the previous record of 29 assists set by New Jersey Nets’ guard Kevin Porter in 1978.

Said Hill, who had a good vantage point from his seat on the Magic bench as an assistant coach: ``There were a lot of quick shots and long rebounds which ended up in fast breaks and it was like watching your team do a three-on-two and two-on-one fast break drill in practice. And with Scott handling the ball in the middle of the break, there weren’t too many better than him.’’

The funny thing is that Skiles had no idea he was even close to the record. And he likely could have sent his assist total soaring into the mid-30s had he not shot the ball so often. Not only did he end up scoring 22 points that night, but 13 of them came in the fourth quarter as the Magic were en route to a record-setting 155-116 victory. (For the record, Skiles has been involved in the two highest scoring games in Magic history – once as a player (Dec. 30, 1990) and once as a head coach (Oct. 30, 2015)).

``The impression is if you are going to get 30 assists, you are just giving it up every time, but he was scoring as well,’’ raved Turner, referring to Skiles’ 22 points, six rebounds and two steals to go with the 30 assists.

Added Skiles: ``I was just playing the game and that’s not my style anyway to go for any sort of records. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know until they made the announcement with 7-8 minutes to go in the game that I had tied (the NBA record). I was already talking to (then-Magic head coach) Matty (Goukas) about coming out of the game. He told me, `You’ve got one more (assist) to get the record.’ Then, we couldn’t make a shot!’’

Jerry ``Ice’’ Reynolds was Orlando’s leading scorer that night with 27 points despite coming off the bench. Many of those points came in the lopsided 45-point fourth quarter and his dunk – off a no-look feed from Skiles – resulted in the 29th assist with 6:57 remaining.

Like Skiles, Reynolds was oblivious to the fact that history was being written and he repeatedly dribbled upon receiving a Skiles’ pass late in the game – effectively killing the chances of a 30th assist.

``We all knew what was going on, but for some reason Jerry seemed to be oblivious to it,’’ Turner said with a laugh. ``So it became, `Ice, just shoot it and don’t dribble it.’ And it ended up Jerry was the guy who made the jump shot.’’

Finally, Reynolds realized why the 15,077 in attendance were cheering every time Skiles touched the ball in that fourth quarter. With 25 seconds to play – and Skiles in his 44th minute on the floor – he passed to Reynolds, who didn’t hesitate in drilling a jumper from the wing for the record-setter.

``I sat at midcourt and the play happened to my left. (Reynolds) shot it from the left wing from just inside the 3-point line, so I had a direct line with my view to the basket,’’ recalled then radio play-by-play man David Steele, who has called Magic games on radio and television for 27 seasons.

``(Reynolds) shot it with a little sideways spin on it. When it leaves a shooter’s hands there’s a split-second when you’ve watched so much basketball and you think, `Well, this has no shot (of going in).’ Well, this one had no shot of going in,’’ Steele added. ``But it’s almost like a Devine force steered it from right to left and into the basket. The shot that finally did it, had no chance of going in, but it did.’’

STANDING THE TEST OF TIME

Even though some analysts – and even Skiles from time to time – have discounted the record because of the souped-up style of basketball played by the Nuggets in 1990, the 30-assist night has stood up over the past 25 years.

John Stockton, the NBA’s all-time leader in assists with 15,806, had games with 28 (1991), 27 (1989) and 26 assists (1988) and how owns 35 of the 120 20-assist games in NBA history. But he never eclipsed Skiles’ mark. Neither did Magic Johnson (24 assists twice and 12 20-assist games) nor did Jason Kidd (25 in 1996).

Sacramento point guard Rajon Rondo has the NBA high for assists this season with 20, but he’s never handed out more than 24 in a game (done in 2010 with the Celtics).

``I really don’t think the record will ever be broken,’’ said Brian Hill, who works now as a studio analyst for Fox Sports Florida. ``Today’s point guards are more scorers than they are assist point guards. And back in the day everybody ran for layups and you tried to get your wings out and running. Today, the wings are running for the 3-point line. So you’d have to have a pretty good night knocking down 3-point shots catching and shooting from a point guard if somebody is going to break the record. I don’t think it’ll ever be broken, I really don’t.’’

In addition to his record 30 assists, Skiles had three other games when he handed out at least 20 assists and his second-highest total was 21 while playing for the Magic in 1993. He finished his 10-year career with 3,881 assists or 6.5 a night over 600 NBA games. He averaged 8.4 assists in the record-breaking 1990-91 season and his career high came in 1992-93 when he distributed 9.4 assists a game.

During a trip with the Magic to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for an October preseason game, Skiles was asked about his all-time record by a Brazilian reporter. Somewhat annoyed and somewhat playfully Skiles said, ``I wish someone would break it so I didn’t have to keep talking about it.’’

Hardly the sentimental type, Skiles – now 51 – never got the ball from that game and said he only thinks about his place in NBA history when he’s recognized by fans and the topic arises. To him, the joy he shared with teammates such as Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott, Terry Catledge, Greg Kite and Turner that night is more important than his place in history.

``Obviously, it’s going to be broken at some point,’’ Skiles said. ``Honestly, it rarely crosses my mind. Over the years, somebody might run across me or recognize me in an airport and somebody brings it up. So I know it’s attached to me. I’m not trying to downplay it, but it’s such a team thing. If we don’t make shots that night, it’s nothing. It really is a team thing as opposed to say Wilt (Chamberlain) getting 100 (points), but somebody still had to throw him the ball. That’s just how I will always look at (the record).’’

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