What a Game: In Daly’s first season, Pistons helped set NBA all-time scoring record
Andrew D. Bernstein (NBAE/Getty)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Pistons.com continues its period series looking back at some of the greatest and most significant games in franchise history. Next up: The highest-scoring game in NBA history.)
Fans who bought tickets to the Pistons-Nuggets game at McNichols Arena for Dec. 13, 1983 expected to see a lot of points put up. They got their money’s worth. They got, in fact, the highest-scoring game in NBA history – and more than three hours of entertainment.
There was a coaching axiom often cited in the NBA of that era: “First team to 100 wins.” The Nuggets and Pistons were the first and third highest-scoring teams in the NBA that season, Denver at 123.7 points and the Pistons at 117.1. A different standard was in order that night.
“Before the game, I told (Denver coach) Doug Moe that we should make it the first team to 140 would win the game,” first-year Pistons coach Chuck Daly said after the 186-184 win in three overtimes. “Little did I know how prophetic that would be.”
The game looked like a track meet from the opening tip, points produced on the first seven possessions without a shot being missed. It was barely a minute old when Bill Laimbeer finally threw up a shot that didn’t find the bottom of the net.
“I hope these nets can last through this game,” the ex-Pistons star and future mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, said on the Pistons telecast after Denver’s Rob Williams hit a jumper over Isiah Thomas from the left wing early to make it 16-10. “I tell ya, they’re burnin’ ’em up right now.”
Remarkably, the two teams combined to take only four 3-point shots and each made one. Isiah Thomas – who finished with 47 points, 17 assists and four steals with just two turnovers – took both triples for the Pistons, who averaged 1.7 3-point shots a game for the season. Denver’s only made triple came from reserve big man Richard Anderson in the final seconds after the Pistons had taken a 185-179 lead.
John Long scored 41 for the Pistons and Kelly Tripucka, like Thomas in his third NBA season, scored 35, hitting 14 of 25 shots, in his shootout with Nuggets forward Kiki Vandeweghe. Vandeweghe led all scorers with 51, hitting 21 of 29 shots, and teammate Alex English added 47.
Because the game started at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time on a weekday night, the next day’s Detroit papers had just a brief wire story on the game. But on Dec. 15, the Free Press ran a photo on 1-A of the scoreboard at game’s end – Pistons 186, Nuggets 184 – under a headline that read, “This is Basketball?”
The Pistons were playing their fourth game in six nights to end a Western Conference road swing that had taken them to Golden State, Portland and Seattle – all losses. They came into the game with a 10-12 record on their way to a 49-33 season and the No. 4 seed in the East. It would be a few more years before Daly impressed upon the Pistons the necessity to play more stringent defense – and Jack McCloskey a few more moves like adding Dennis Rodman, John Salley and Rick Mahorn to give Daly some defensive difference makers – but for that moment the Pistons needed to score to win.
“At that time, if you go to Denver you know you’re going to be in a scoring match,” Tripucka said for a 2005 ESPN.com story on the game. “They didn’t run a lot of plays, they just kept running. We knew we had to play a certain way with them.”
The Pistons led 38-34 after one quarter and were tied at 70 at the half, neither team able to build a double-digit lead at any point. Denver led by five after three quarters and by two points with four seconds left in regulation when Bill Laimbeer intentionally missed a free throw that resulted in a Thomas layup to force the first overtime with the game tied at 145.
Dan Issel had a chance to win it for Denver but missed a shot at the first overtime buzzer, then Thomas’ layup to end the second overtime – in which Tripucka scored all 12 Pistons points – came just late. Long broke the last tie of the game with a basket to give the Pistons a 181-179 lead with 1:11 to play and Thomas followed with a steal and layup for a four-point lead. Another Long layup put the Pistons ahead by six and that was that.
“It takes a lot of stamina and a lot of heart, especially in Denver with the altitude problems,” Daly said after the marathon. “We’ve been running more (in practice) and I feel like it’s paying off. We’re in good shape.”
Years later, Tripucka remembered fatigue setting in.
“It was a road game for us and I remember looing up at the clock during timeouts and it was getting late and I was wondering whether we were going to be able to get dinner out after the game. I thought maybe we could take the scorebook and show it to the guy through the restaurant window and maybe he’d open up for us.”
When the Pistons arrived back in Detroit the next day, a Wednesday, Pistons trainer Mike Abdenour told the Free Press, “The team was totally exhausted.”
The 370 combined points smashed the record of 337 set 21 months earlier by Milwaukee and San Antonio, the Spurs winning 171-166 on March 6, 1982. The 93 combined assists broke an NBA record, as did the 142 combined field goals. Team records fell in droves.
Will the record stand forever?
Fifteen years ago, it sure seemed like it. When the Pistons won the 2004 NBA championship, they averaged 90.1 points for the season. But the explosion of reliance on the 3-point shot has revolutionized the NBA over the past decade. The Milwaukee Bucks averaged 118.6 points per game before the NBA season was suspended in March. Houston averaged 118.1. On Oct. 30, the Rockets beat Washington 159-158 in a regulation game.
One of these nights when the conditions are right – two high-scoring teams, a close game, 3-pointers falling – chances are there will be a game that goes past 48 minutes and eclipses the 1983 meeting of the Pistons and Nuggets.
But it’s been 37 years and counting now. It will be twice as long as that and more before it’s forgotten in Pistons lore.