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It’s highly unlikely this Sunday in April will be as dramatic as one in 1978, but there is still one unique factor.
Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant could settle the NBA scoring race man-to-man.
Entering Sunday’s game at the Staples Center, Lakers guard Bryant has a 27.9 to 27.8 lead over Oklahoma City forward Durant in the battle for the crown. No race has finished closer than 0.4 points since San Antonio guard George Gervin nipped Denver guard David Thompson 27.22 to 27.15 in 1977-78.
On the season’s final day, Thompson scored 73 points in an April 9 day game that Denver lost 139-137 at Detroit. Needing 58 points to win the title, Gervin came up with 63 in a game the Spurs lost 153-132 at New Orleans that same night.
Nobody is expecting similar displays at the Staples Center. Still, Thompson is anxious to see what might happen.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Thompson said by phone from his home in Charlotte, N.C. “They’re going head-to-head this late in the season. That didn’t happen with me and Gervin. They’re two great players.”
Durant is currently seven points shy of having a higher average than Bryant. After their meeting, the Thunder have two more games and the Lakers one before the regular season ends Thursday.
Durant will close at home Tuesday against Sacramento and Wednesday against Denver while Bryant will finish up Thursday at Sacramento. While it remains to be seen if either player could be rested, Thompson said it’s an edge getting the final opportunity in a scoring race.
“That’s a big advantage,” Thompson said. “You know what you’ve got to shoot for.”
Thompson knows all about that. His game started at 1:30 p.m. that day in 1978 while Gervin’s began at 7:30 p.m.
Thompson, who entered the day needing to outscore Gervin by 15 points to win the crown, claims he initially wasn’t setting out to do that. But he got off to such a great start, scoring 32 points in the first quarter, he figured he might as well go for it. He had 53 points in the first half.
“You don’t set out to score 73 points,” Thompson said. “But I was so hot. I made 20 of my first 21 shots. You don’t have games like that too often. So I just kept shooting. They were double and triple-teaming me in the second half and I got a little tired. But at one point in the second half, when I had about 60, (Pistons forward) M.L. Carr said to me, ‘Looks like you got the scoring title.”‘
When Thompson flew back to Denver, he assumed the title was his. There were 300 fans that met the team at the airport.
Not so fast. In the evening game, Spurs coach Doug Moe wanted Gervin to win the scoring title so badly he threatened to bench players who shot instead of feeding that ball to him.
Gervin entered his game against the Jazz needing 58 points for the crown. He had 53 at halftime, all but locking it up.
“I went home and I turned on the radio and then I heard what (Gervin) had done in the first half,” Thompson said. “I knew that he had won it, so I turned off the radio. I was a little disappointed, but it was the greatest scoring battle ever and something to really be proud of being a part of.”
Gervin, who finished with 63 points before taking the rest of the night off, declined in an email to be interviewed for this story. But he has spoken plenty about the epic scoring duel in the past.
“‘I was just in a zone,” Gervin has said about locking up what would be his first of four career scoring titles. “I was like Casper the Friendly Ghost. I was going through guys. … It was a meaningless game, and we had one goal: To get me my first scoring title. And we did. … It was the greatest scoring race in basketball history.”
There hasn’t been one to measure up to it since. In 1993-94, it looked as if there could be a similar battle when San Antonio center David Robinson had entered the final day of the season needing to outscore Orlando center Shaquille O’Neal by four points to win the crown.
Robinson, with Gervin on the Spurs bench as an assistant, came up huge with 71 points in an afternoon game against the Los Angeles Clippers. But O’Neal only was able to score 32 points in a game that night against New Jersey and lost the crown 29.8 to 29.4.
The NBA has changed since then, which makes it less likely there will be crazy performances put up late in the season by guys trying to win the scoring title. Players on teams heading to the postseason are now regularly rested at the end of seasons, and the Lakers might not want to take any chances in Thursday’s finale with Bryant since he recently missed seven games due to a shin injury.
Also, both Gervin and Thompson, who would never win one of his own, were then going for a first scoring title. Bryant and Durant each have two, the latter having won the past two seasons.
Still, Thompson would like to see this race go down to the wire in a fashion dramatic enough for it to become part of NBA lore. Thompson always will be linked to Gervin. The two fittingly were both inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996, and they often have battled in retirement in shootouts at All-Star Games or fantasy camps.
“It could happen, but everything is so tight with the playoff positions that they might not want to just ride these guys,” Thompson said of one or both Bryant and Durant coming up with a huge scoring effort down the stretch. “We (the Nuggets and Spurs) had our playoffs spots settled. But it’s great that two of the greatest scorers in the game are going head-to-head (Sunday), and (the scoring title) could be decided.”
Gervin and Thompson last faced each other during their scoring race on March 23, 1978. Thompson only can imagine the theatrics if the Nuggets and Spurs had played down the stretch that season.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson