When it comes to discussions of unbreakable NBA records, the combined 370 points scored in the Pistons’ 186-184 triple-overtime win over the Denver Nuggets on Dec. 13, 1983, has to be pretty high on the list. Considering that the average NBA game today features about half that many points, the record books probably won’t have to be altered anytime soon.
Given the gaudy point totals, one can safely assume that these were not your Bad Boys-era Pistons. It wasn’t until later in the decade that Detroit established itself as a dominant defensive force. But in 1983, Detroit could get up and down with the best of them, scoring 117.1 points per game - the third-highest average in the league. Doug Moe’s Denver Nuggets of the 1980s were among the league leaders in scoring for years, and the 1983-84 season was no different: 123.7 points per game, best in the league.
So if two teams were going to drop 180 points on each another, the Pistons and the Nuggets certainly had the street cred to pull it off. “At that time, if you go to Denver you know you’re going to be in for a scoring match,” said forward Kelly Tripucka. “They didn’t run a lot of plays, they just kept running. We knew we had to play a certain way with them.” It was a lot of running - and a run of incredible luck - that produced this spectacular exhibition.
In the early going, there was nothing to suggest that the 9,655 fans in attendance at McNichols Arena were witnessing history. The 74-74 halftime tie was a hefty total, to be sure, but when you consider that the Nuggets and their opponents scored 140 or more points in a game 14 times the previous season, media members weren’t exactly shouting “stop the presses” from their courtside seats. The Pistons led by five at the end of three quarters, but trailed, 145-142, with seconds remaining in regulation. Bill Laimbeer was fouled, and after making the first free throw, intentionally missed the second. Isiah Thomas tipped in the errant rebound, sending the game into overtime.
Incredibly, the Pistons actually left points on the court. Had they managed to shoot their season average at the foul line, 74.2 percent, Detroit would have won in regulation. Instead, they connected on just 61.6 percent (37-of-60) of their freebies on the night.
Entering the first overtime, nothing extraordinary appeared to be happening. The 290 points the teams scored in regulation were 26 off the NBA record at the time. That went to the 316 points put up by Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors in a 169-147 win over the New York Knicks on Mar. 2, 1962 - the night Wilt scored 100 points.
Detroit trailed by five before closing out the first overtime on a 7-2 run. The late surge was completed by Thomas, who connected on the Pistons’ lone 3-pointer of the night - yes, of Detroit’s league-record 186 points, only three came from beyond the arc. That bucket also broke the combined scoring record as the teams took 318 points into the second overtime.
Tripucka owned the second OT, scoring all 12 Pistons points. Apparently, he was eager to end the game. “The game lasted so long, we were wondering if we could find a place to eat after the game,” he said. “We were wondering, ‘is there an all-night diner in Denver?’ ” The Nuggets kept Tripucka and the Pistons hungry, forcing a third overtime tied at 171. Detroit finally edged ahead before a late Denver 3-pointer completed the 186-184 masterpiece.
In all, 12 players scored in double figures - Thomas (47), John Long (41), Tripucka (35), Terry Tyler (18), Laimbeer (17), and Vinnie Johnson (12) for Detroit and Kiki Vandeweghe (51), Alex English (47), Dan Issel (28), Mike Evans (16), Richard Anderson (13), and Danny Schayes (11) for the Nuggets. The teams combined to shoot a remarkable 56.6 percent from the field en route to a league-record 142 field goals.
The Nuggets and Pistons have been asked about that game over the years, and the reflections from both sides have been similar. “Everybody was just flowing,” English told ESPN.com’s Eric Neel. “It seemed like nobody could miss a shot.” Johnson remembers the game felt like “a summer league game, no defense at all . . . It was run and gun from the start.”
So can the record be broken? It’s certainly possible. Just last season, the Phoenix Suns and New Jersey Nets combined to score 318 points in a double-overtime game - good enough for No. 4 on the list. But that’s still 52 points off the mark, and games that reach three or four overtimes - the game length necessary to break the mark, in all likelihood - are pretty rare. The longest NBA game in the shot-clock era was on Nov. 9, 1989, when the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Seattle Supersonics, 155-154. Before that, in 1951, the Indianapolis Olympians topped the Rochester Royals in a record six overtimes, 75-73.
So it might happen in our lifetime, but it will take a perfect storm of offensive-minded teams and bonus basketball to make it happen. As Thomas said in Steve Addy’s book, Four Decades of Motor City Memories,“It might be a while before it happens, but in the NBA, you’re always going to see something phenomenal, something that just boggles your mind.”
A look at the official Nuggets score sheet:
A look at the official Pistons score sheet: