Why Do 50-Point Games Come So Often In Losses?

Back on November 17, Kemba Walker scored 60 points in a game his Hornets lost in overtime to the 76ers.

Since then, Kevin Durant‘s scored 51 in a loss, and James Harden scored 54 in a loss as well.

In fact, so far this season, players scoring 50 or better in a game are just 5-3 overall, a 51-win pace over 82 games. (Thanks are due to Basketball Reference’s excellent Play Index for making this analysis possible.)

These are some of the biggest scoring explosions you see in the league. A 50-piece is a crowning achievement. Heck, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s all-time scoring champion, didn’t have a 50-point game after the 1974-75 season.

Harden, curiously, scored 50-plus in a game four times last season, and the Rockets—who went 65-17 for the season—went just 2-2 in those games.

And in 2017, Devin Booker dropped 70 on the Celtics in a game his Suns lost by 10 points. Was he supposed to score 81 like Kobe Bryant and win the game himself?

Let’s keep this to the past three seasons so it gives us a decent sample size and a reasonably comparable structure to the way the NBA game is played.

Through games of Nov. 30, 2018, there have been 35 50-point games. In those games, teams are 25-10.

Which, of course, is a nice record (it’s 58-24 over 82 games), but 58 wins wouldn’t have been the 1 seed in either conference last year. Our All-Explosion Team would be playing Game 1 of the conference finals on the road.

Let’s see if we can find some similarities between the 50-point games in wins and those in losses and find out if there’s a right way and a wrong way to go bonkers on the stat sheet, shall we?

Shooting Percentage; Let’s Get There First.

Well, hi there, Russell Westbrook!

Westbrook has had four 50-point games in the past three seasons, and he has the distinction of being the only player in our sample to score 50 while making less than half his shots.

He shot 38.6 percent (17-of-44) from the field in that game, 2-of-10 from three, and 15-of-20 at the line, getting a triple-double in the Thunder’s 113-110 overtime win over the Suns on Oct. 28, 2016, just the second game of the season.

Westbrook owns four of the nine worst field goal percentage 50-point games, but the Thunder are 3-1 in those contests.

Speaking of those nine games, though, the teams involved are 4-5; teams other than the Thunder won just one of the five games where a player shot the ball poorly (compared to the rest of this sample; the best of the lot was Westbrook hitting 21-of-39 for 53.8 percent accuracy, and that was his loss.)

At the other end of the scale, eight of the top nine shooting performances came in wins for the player’s team; the lone exception is Kevin Durant, who scored 50 against Portland on Feb. 14, 2018, shooting 63 percent (17-of-27) in the 123-117 defeat.

In that game, the Blazers got 44 out of Damian Lillard, which both wraps up our first conclusion and invites our second question.

But yes, the better your player who goes for 50 shoots, the more likely it is the team wins.

Did the Enemy Play Well?

Let’s take the point totals for the other team’s leading scorer in all 10 of those losses where one team had a 50-point scorer.

Sorted chronologically:

Oct. 26, 2016 (DEN 107-102 NOP) Jusuf Nurkic 23, Anthony Davis 50

Dec. 6, 2016 (ORL 124-116 WAS) Elfrid Payton 25, John Wall 52

Mar. 7, 2017 (POR 126-121 OKC) Allen Crabbe 23, Russell Westbrook 58

Mar. 24, 2017 (BOS 130-120 PHX) Isaiah Thomas 34, Devin Booker 70

Dec. 20, 2017 (LAL 122-116 HOU) Kyle Kuzma 38, James Harden 51

Dec. 22, 2017 (LAC 128-118 HOU) Austin Rivers 36, James Harden 51

Feb. 14, 2018 (POR 123-117 GSW) Damian Lillard 44, Kevin Durant 50

Nov. 17, 2018 (PHI 122-119 CHA) Joel Embiid 33, Kemba Walker 60

Nov. 26, 2018 (WAS 135-131 HOU) John Wall 36, James Harden 54

Nov. 29, 2018 (TOR 131-128 GSW) Kawhi Leonard 37, Kevin Durant 51

So let’s take some basics away from this data.

For one thing, opposing teams’ best players have averaged 32.9 points per game, a sign that you still need to guard the other team’s star player; this is even more pronounced if you limit this to just the last two seasons, where in six games the opponent’s best scorer has averaged 37.3 a game.

And for another thing…well, let’s give this its own section.

Did Your Teammates Hang You Out to Dry?

Average points for the 50-point scorer in 10 losses: 54.7

Average points for the scorer’s teammates, total: 118.8

Percentage of points scored by one guy: 46.0.

When one guy is going off on the scoreboard, it never hurts to keep your teammates involved.

Two guys—Westbrook and Harden—have combined for six triple-doubles in games in which they scored 50 points.

Their teams are 6-0 in those games.

It’s not perfectly predictive, mind. Harden has at least eight assists in all seven of his 50-point games, but the Rockets, weirdly, are just 4-3 in those games.

On the other hand, when Isaiah Thomas went off for 52 for the Celtics on Dec. 30, 2016, he had no assists and just two rebounds, but the Celtics beat the Heat 117-114.

Also just plain weird: Teams are 5-7 when their 50-point scorer has at least three steals, and 1-2 when that rises to four steals or more. Does gambling for fast breaks hurt team defense when a guy’s gunning for 50? The sample’s too small for real data about that one.

So, About Dropping That 50 Piece.

There are some interesting lessons that seem to emerge here when we look at 50-point games by individuals.

First, it’s far from a guarantee of team success; 25-10 is good, but a lot of these 50-pieces have been put up by guys on great teams like the Warriors and Rockets (who account for 12 such games but are just 7-5 in them, a 48-win full-season pace, suggesting that when one of their guys goes off, they’re actually less likely to win.)

Second, you still have to play defense; in way too many of these high-scoring games, teams are so busy watching their star go bananas that they forget to guard the other team. In plenty of those games, the 50-point scorer’s defensive responsibility had a great game for his team as well, negating the advantage.

And third, if you’re having a big scoring day, keeping your teammates involved on offense will prevent ball-watching and wasted possessions. Everyone celebrating a big scoring day might forget there’s still a game to be won.

But if you noticed that teams have a nasty habit of losing games where one guy scores lots of points, you’re not seeing things. Teams actually do lose surprisingly often in those cases.