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Throwback Thursday: George Gervin vs. David Thompson in ’78

This has been one of the most exciting and most competitive Western Conferences in my NBA lifetime. From start to finish, the West went nine teams deep (and 10 when the Suns were still in it), and other than the Warriors, no team was able to pull away in the standings from the second seed to the sixth seed.

Because of this competitiveness, every day somewhere on the TV guide had a game I wanted to see. However, all these close teams came back to bite me in the butt. With so much on the line in terms of playoff posturing, we were robbed of what could have been a much more high-stakes final day. With the Rockets fighting for the second seed and the Thunder desperate to make the playoffs, James Harden and Russell Westbrook were unable to make a shameful run at the scoring title, and I lost my best chance to see a reboot of the 1978 mega-showdown between George Gervin and David Thompson.

It was 37 years ago, long before Harden and Westbrook became masters of the paint. Going into the final game of the regular season, Gervin was averaging 26.8 points to lead the NBA. Thompson was a shade behind at 26.6.

That year, the Nuggets had already clinched first place in the Midwest division of the Western Conference, and with nothing to play for on the court, Thompson etched his name in the record book.

Thompson scored 73 points, the second-most in NBA history at the time after Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. He shot the ball 38 times to get to that number, with his teammates constantly deferring to him and encouraging him to go for the scoring title. As a bonus, Thompson set the record for most points in a quarter with 32. His efforts increased his scoring average to 27.15 points, tops in the league.

Luckily for Gervin, he had his last game a little later that night. They might not have had advanced analytics in 1978, but someone in San Antonio put pen to paper and figured out that Gervin would need 58 points to regain his lead. The Spurs had already clinched the second seed in the Eastern Conference (yes, the Spurs were in the East for some reason), so Gervin had the green light to go for it.

It took 10 less minutes and 11 more field goal attempts, but Gervin scored 63 points of his own that night. To add insult to injury, he put up 33 points on the board by himself in the second quarter alone, making Thompson’s 32-point quarter one of the most short-lived records in the history of sports.

Gervin won the scoring title with a final output of 27.22 points per game. The 0.07 point differential is the closest in NBA history.

Team efficiency has become so important in a time where statistics like points per possession and opponent field goal percentage are such huge aspects of day-to-day life. Team success is the focus of the game at every level, and many players are judged for what they take away from the team as opposed to what they bring to it.

That’s why I so craved this very individual showdown. Westbrook scored 54 points on Sunday night to stretch his scoring lead out ahead of Harden. Importantly, Westbrook did so in a loss, leaving the Thunder in desperation mode if they hoped to make the playoffs.

Had the Thunder already clinched the playoffs, Westbrook would have been in better position to score on offense without caring if he was hurting the team by shooting too much. Harden and the Rockets, in a gruesome battle for the second seed and the right to play the Mavericks, were unable to to set themselves in their playoff seeding. Had the team been set in its playoff slot, Harden likely could have tried to keep pace with Westbrook’s Sunday performance. That could have set up an even more exciting regular-season finale.

Unlike 1978, the Rockets and Warriors both played at the same time on Wednesday. Had they still been as close in scoring as they were a week ago, and with nothing tangible to play for, it’s easy to imagine that these two fierce competitors would have kept passing to a minimum as they chased the scoring title without apology. The only thing that may have kept them back was resting in advance of the postseason.

Could Harden have matched Thompson’s 73 points in an attempt to overtake the lead in scoring? Could Westbrook have rang the scoreboard up for another 50-plus point performance in four days? Could Harden have taken 30 free throws? Could Westbrook have chucked up 60 field goal attempts?

I don’t know if they could, but I sure as hell would have liked to see them try. Either way, Wednesday would have been must-watch basketball on a whole new level. Eyes would have been glued to the television, with Americans across the nation switching back and forth between the two games. Phones would be ringing with updates at every quarter, and Twitter might have exploded with Westbrook chucking up long-range bomb after long-range bomb.

Westbrook won the scoring title, but his team missed the playoffs. Harden is sitting great as the best player on the second-best team in the West, but might never have a chance this good to lead the league in scoring again in his career, although something tells me he’ll be back near the top for years to come. Worst of all, in 37 years the closeness of this specific regular season will fade off, and if it’s remembered for anything, it’ll be the 67 wins the Warriors managed.

With a few more breaks, the fans could have gotten a pair of games that were much more interesting, and like those final games of 1978, it could have been a day that would be remembered forever.

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