Will load management impact NBA scoring race?

Will load management impact NBA scoring race?

The most famous scoring race in NBA history was probably the 1978 edition, when George Gervin edged out David Thompson by seven hundredths of a point.

Thompson scored 73 points in his team’s final game of the regular season, only for Gervin to answer with 63 later that day. It was an example of how two talented players — with a tight margin separating them — can push each other to some impressive heights.

Will we see anything similar this coming week from Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic?

Embiid is the current leader at 32.97 points per game. Doncic is at 32.75. The regular season ends April 9 — 45 years to the day after Thompson and Gervin produced their fantastic finish to the 1977-78 season. Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers are scheduled to play at Brooklyn at 1 p.m. That game should end around the time Doncic and the Mavericks tip off against San Antonio.

So it’s easy to imagine Embiid putting up a huge number and leaving Doncic to try and answer with his own scoring binge. And that would be fitting, given that this season has already had two 71-point games from Donovan Mitchell and Damian Lillard.

(Lillard is a close third in the scoring race at 32.17 ppg, but he’s had a calf injury and hasn’t played since March 22 for the out-of-contention Portland Trail Blazers. He has appeared in 58 games — the exact number needed to qualify for the scoring title.)

Doncic scored 60 points in a Dec. 27 game against the New York Knicks, and Embiid had 59 on Nov. 13 against Utah. There’s no telling how high they might go if there’s enough motivation to chase the scoring championship.

Of course, that’s the big question: How big a priority is it? Especially for Embiid, who won last year.

The 76ers have four games remaining. They’re currently third in the Eastern Conference, three games behind Boston and 2 1/2 ahead of Cleveland. If Philadelphia’s postseason seeding becomes certain, would Embiid — who is also an MVP candidate — sit out to rest up for the playoffs?

Doncic may not have that choice. The Mavericks are a game out of the last play-in spot in the West, and they need him in the lineup as they try to salvage their rapidly deteriorating season. Of course, that means winning games is the priority, so Dallas may not be in a position to feed Doncic the ball in an effort to get him the scoring crown.

Gervin finished the 1977-78 season at 27.22 ppg, with Thompson at 27.15. That is, according to Sportradar, the closest race since 1969-70, when the NBA started using points per game to determine the scoring champion instead of total points.

Here are the other four closest races since then — and how they ended:

1993-94: David Robinson 29.79, Shaquille O’Neal 29.35.

Robinson and O’Neal gave the NBA a Thompson vs. Gervin redux in ’94. Well, half of one. Robinson poured it on in San Antonio’s finale, scoring 71 points against the Los Angeles Clippers. That performance broke the team record for single-game scoring — set by Gervin in his 63-point game 16 years earlier. It left O’Neal needing 68 points for the title, but he managed only 32. Brian Hill, Shaq’s coach in Orlando, called the Spurs-Clippers game a “farce.”

1997-98: Michael Jordan 28.74, Shaquille O’Neal 28.32.

Another near-miss for Shaq, although he played only 60 games that season while Jordan played all 82. Jordan scored 44 points in his final regular-season game for Chicago. O’Neal needed 59 the following day and scored 33. It was the 10th and last scoring title for Jordan.

2009-10: Kevin Durant 30.15, LeBron James 29.71.

This was a close race, but it wasn’t overly suspenseful because James was rested at the end of the season and didn’t play in any of Cleveland’s last four games. Durant scored 31 points in Oklahoma City’s finale, but even if he’d gone scoreless, he’d have won.

2011-12: Kevin Durant 28.03, Kobe Bryant 27.86.

Durant won his third straight title after scoring 32 points in the regular-season finale. Bryant could have passed him with a 38-point effort the following night, but he sat out the Lakers’ game at Sacramento as the team prepared for the playoffs. James finished at 27.15, making this the last time the top three scorers were within a point of each other — a scenario that could be repeated this year.

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