Cleveland Cavaliers guard Donovan Mitchell scored 71 points on Monday, six seasons after Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker last scored 70 points in March 2017, marking the shortest timespan between 70-point games since (who else but ...) Wilt Chamberlain did it six times over a 16-month period in the early 1960s.
Mitchell's performance was comfortably the most efficient of the dozen 70-point games in NBA history, both in terms of true-shooting (78.9) and effective field-goal (75) percentages. He also recorded the lowest usage rate and highest assist rate in any 70-point effort. Nobody has ever scored so proficiently in the flow of a game. Granted, Mitchell required overtime to get his 70 points, but the Cavaliers needed each of his 42 second-half points, unlike how Booker added 18 of his points in the final four minutes of a lopsided loss.
Mitchell's night was another reminder that Kobe Bryant's single-game scoring record of 81 points for non-centers is well within reach, especially if one of today's many prolific scorers takes as many shots as he did.
Fifty-three seasons and 50,964 games passed between the campaigns in which Chamberlain registered his final 70-point game and Booker logged his first. The NBA witnessed just three 70-point outings in that span (roughly one every 17,000 games): David Thompson (1978), David Robinson (1994) and Kobe Bryant (2006).
That Mitchell halved the average time between 70-point games over the previous six decades might seem anomalous. Except, 40-, 50- and 60-point games are also occurring with increased frequency. NBA players registered 13 60-point games, 105 50-point games and 743 40-point games in the 2010s — all record highs for a decade since Chamberlain's video-game numbers muddied most individual data mining in the 1960s.
The number of individual 40-point performances increased by 55% from the 1990s to the 2000s, as pace increased and 3-point attempts skyrocketed. During that same time period, the number of 50- and 60-point games more than doubled from decade to decade. The 2010s saw another spike, and as we near the midway point of the third season of this decade, players are on pace to produce 30 60-point games, 195 50-point games and 1,376 40-point games — obliterating all other decades from the post-Chamberlain era.
50-point games by decade (post-Chamberlain)
1970-79: 55 (once every 143 games)
1980-89: 66 (once every 145 games)
1990-99: 41 (once every 269 games)
2000-09: 84 (once every 145 games)
2010-19: 105 (once every 115 games)
2020-now: 46 (once every 62 games)
60-point games by decade (post-Chamberlain)
1970-79: 4 (once every 1,968 games)
1980-89: 7 (once every 1,371 games)
1990-99: 3 (once every 3,672 games)
2000-09: 8 (once every 1,517 games)
2010-19: 13 (once every 928 games)
2020-now: 7 (once every 410 games)
Bryant required 46 field-goal attempts to get his 81 points against the Toronto Raptors in January 2006. He is also the only player to attempt so many shots in a single game since, scoring 60 points on 50 shots in his April 2016 farewell outing. Only three players have attempted 40 shots in a game since Bryant's retirement: Booker (his 70-point game), Russell Westbrook (twice) and James Harden. They shot 34.5% combined from 3-point range in those 40-shot games, and only Booker had a true-shooting percentage better than 63.6%.
Mitchell scored his 71 points on 22-for-34 shooting from the field. Applying the same methodology that has made NBA offenses as efficient as ever, Mitchell took 31 of his 34 shots from either the paint (12-16 FG) or 3-point range (7-15 3P). He attempted just three midrange shots, two of which were largely uncontested, and made all of them. He also got to the line 25 times and made 20 of them, a staple of the 70-point game. (No one has scored 70 points on fewer than 20 free-throw attempts since Chamberlain did it on 19 in 1962.)
70-point performances in NBA history
Elgin Baylor (Nov. 15, 1960): 71 PTS (28-48 FG, 15-19 FT, 63 TS%) 1 AST
Chamberlain (Dec. 8, 1961): 78 PTS (31-62 FG, 16-31 FT, 51.6 TS%), 1 AST
Chamberlain (Jan. 13, 1962): 73 PTS (29-48 FG, 15-25 FT, 61.9 TS%), 0 AST
Chamberlain (March 2, 1962): 100 PTS (36-63 FG, 28-32 FT, 64.9 TS%), 2 AST
Chamberlain (Nov. 3, 1962): 72 PTS (29-48 FG, 14-18 FT, 64.4 TS%), 1 AST
Chamberlain (Nov. 16, 1962): 73 PTS (29-43 FG, 15-19 FT, 71.1 TS%), 1 AST
Chamberlain (Nov. 10, 1963): 70 PTS (27-38 FG, 16-22 FT, 73.4 TS%), 3 AST
Thompson (April 9, 1978): 73 PTS (28-38 FG, 17-20 FT, 78 TS%), 2 AST
Robinson (April 24, 1994): 71 PTS (26-41 FG, 1-2 3P, 18-25 FT, 68.3 TS%), 5 AST
(53.4 USG%, 34.9 AST%)
Bryant (Jan. 22, 2006): 81 PTS (28-46 FG, 7-13 3P, 18-20 FT, 73.9 TS%), 2 AST
(56.8 USG%, 23 AST%)
Booker (March 24, 2017): 70 PTS (21-40 FG, 4-11 3P, 24-26 FT, 68 TS%), 6 AST
(50 USG%, 38.6 AST%)
Mitchell (Jan. 2, 2023): 71 PTS (22-34 FG, 7-15 3P, 20-25 FT, 78.9 TS%), 11 AST
(42.8 USG%, 47.6 AST%)
Mitchell's true-shooting percentage of 78.9% on Monday is remarkable, but on 52 occasions already this season players have yielded a true-shooting percentage of 75% or better on 20 or more field-goal attempts in a single game. This is a new normal. We haven't hit the halfway mark of this season, and that is already twice the number of times players achieved those same marks during the season Bryant scored 81 points.
Bryant managed his 81 points in a more difficult manner. He attempted 14 shots from midrange and made eight of them, including five of his eight 2-point attempts from 17-21 feet. Reallocate those shots to more efficient locations — a step back into a 3-pointer or a drive forward into the paint, where he was more likely to be fouled — and Bryant may have been closer to 90 points without making any more of his 46 attempts.
In fact, if Bryant had recreated Mitchell's shot chart on those 46 attempts (plus 18 made free throws), based on his production from those shooting zones throughout the 2005-06 campaign, he would have scored 74 points on average, and that does not even account for a hot shooting night from any location on the court.
Take Stephen Curry, for example. He has never attempted more than 36 shots in a game. Just by jacking up his attempts for one night to 46 from the field and 20 from the free-throw line, keeping his shot chart and percentages the same, his average output would be 76 points. It is easy to imagine Curry catching fire for 80-plus points if he were ever to increase his workload. (Bryant's usage rate in his 81-point game was a startling 56.8%. Curry has not used more than 37.5% of his team's possessions in any game this season.)
Now, consider Curry is third in true-shooting percentage among the nine players currently averaging 29 or more points per game, and all nine of those players are scoring more efficiently than Bryant ever did.
Bryant's ability to assume that heavier workload and score his 81 points is even more remarkable when you consider what the NBA has learned about efficiency in recent years. It also feels inevitable that someone will match or exceed 81 points, given the fact that players are hitting every scoring benchmark with greater frequency. Nights like Mitchell's 71 points on 34 shots might just be the next evolution of the efficiency era.
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