The Los Angeles Lakers made a little bit of history Tuesday night when they rung up 51 points in the third quarter of their 127-96 demolition of the New York Knicks at Staples Center.
It was just the 37th time in NBA history a team has dropped a half a hundred in the span of one quarter, the first time since the Indiana Pacers dumped 54 in the third quarter on the Denver Nuggets on Nov. 9, 2010, in a 144-113 win.
So why the significance? Because those are the only two 50-point quarters in the NBA in more than 20 years.
The count of 50-point quarters by decade tells the story:
- 1950s: 1
- 1960s: 10
- 1970s: 6
- 1980s: 18
- 1990s: 0
- 2000s: 0
- 2010s: 2
It wasn’t exactly common in the 1980s, but it was a heckuva lot more frequent then that it has been at any other point in the game’s history.
Of course, the 1980s were the halcyon days for fast-paced and efficient offense in the NBA—the 1960s featured lots of fast pace, not so much with the efficiency.
Here’s the complete list of 50-point quarters:
Perhaps the most amazing feat of 50-point quarter legerdemain was performed by the 1988-89 Golden State Warriors, who turned the trick three times in 17 days in March of that season.
The 1988-89 Warriors under Don Nelson were a frenetic crew, with Chris Mullin averaging 26.5 points a game and Mitch Richmond going for 22 points a night (alas, this was before the Run TMC days; Tim Hardaway wouldn’t be drafted until the following season).
This Warriors team averaged 116.6 points per game (fourth in the league), but ranked only 14th in offensive rating at 107.4 points per 100 possessions because of their second-fastest-in-the-NBA pace of 107.3 possessions per game. Shot clock? We don’ need no steenking shot clock!
The only team that played at a faster pace than the Warriors was Doug Moe’s run-and-gun Nuggets, but again, it was a very different era for the NBA. The average pace that season was 100.6 possessions per game, with the average offensive rating at 107.8 points per 100 possessions.
Compare that to this season, where the average pace is 94.1 possessions per game and no team averages 100—the fastest-paced team in the NBA this season is the Philadelphia 76ers at 99.4 possessions per game (and we know how well that’s worked out for them).
More telling is the slowest pace in 1988-89. That would be the Detroit Pistons at 95.5 possessions a game, a figure exceeded by only nine teams this season.
Of course, that was the same Detroit Pistons team that won the first of its back-to-back titles in 1988-89 with its grind-it-out, defensive-oriented style, a style that would permeate the entire league by the middle of the next decade and a style that still holds sway over much of the NBA today.
But perhaps the best way to show how the league has changed over the years is to compare the league averages for field-goal percentage, offensive rating and pace in five-year intervals, beginning with 1958-59, the first time a team recorded a 50-point quarter.
*-1998-99 season shortened to 50 games because of a lockout
The other interesting factoid from the list—only once in NBA history have there been two 50-point quarters in the same game. On Nov. 10, 1990, the Phoenix Suns hung 50 on the Nuggets in the first quarter to open a 50-37 lead. Then they put up 57 more in the second period en route to a 107-67 halftime lead in a game they would win 173-143 … the night the Suns tied the record for most points in a regulation game, first set by the Celtics on Feb. 27, 1959, in a 173-139 win over the Minneapolis Lakers, the first time a team scored 50 points in a single quarter (the Celtics scored 52 in the fourth period).
But that Suns-Nuggets track meet only matched the second-highest scoring game in history in terms of total points scored with 316. The Cincinnati Royals and San Diego Rockets had 316 in a game on March 12, 1970, two shy of the record of 318 set by the Nuggets and Spurs on Jan. 11, 1984.
And the record for points in a quarter is 58, set by the Buffalo Braves against the Celtics on Oct. 20, 1972. Buffalo outscored Boston by 35 points in that fateful fourth quarter. Too bad the Braves were down by 43 at the start of it.