When the BAA started out in 1946 (and would merge with the NBA in 1949), most professional basketball players could only really dribble with one hand, the jump shot was a novelty used only by a handful of players, no shot clock, and there wouldn’t be a three-point line for another three decades.
Back in the day, however, things were a bit different, especially before the shot clock era. Due to several of the aforementioned factors (including racism), the league doesn’t even remotely resemble the dynamic, artistic, athletic, game seen across millions of screens during any given day during the season. From those more simpler times, the offensive repertoire of the NBA player has dramatically improved across the board.
As we compiled a list of the all-time lowest-scoring NBA games, it’s no coincidence that all of them we’re in the early years of the league. To determine the lowest scoring games, we ranked them by total points scored combined.
|1||37||19-18||Fort Wayne Pistons||Minneapolis Lakers||1950-51|
|2||83||50-33||Washington Capitols||Detroit Falcons||1946-47|
|3||85||47-38||Boston Celtics||Washington Capitols||1946-47|
|4||89||49-40||Washington Capitols||Pittsburgh Ironmen||1946-47|
|5||90||46-44||Boston Celtics||Pittsburgh Ironmen||1946-47|
|6||91||48-44||Boston Celtics||Pittsburgh Ironmen||1946-47|
|7||96||50-46||Toronto Huskies||St. Louis Bombers||1946-47|
|7||96||50-46||Cleveland Rebels||Detroit Pistons||1946-47|
|9||97||49-48||Boston Celtics||New York Knicks||1946-47|
|10||98||52-46||Boston Celtics||New York Knicks||1946-47|
The lowest scoring game of all-time actually happened a couple seasons after the inaugural season. According to media referee, the game between the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers occurred on November 22nd, 1950. The final score was 19-18 and more resembled a score from college football than a basketball game.
The shot-clock had not yet been introduced. Teams figured out that if they got a lead, they could hold on to the ball without shooting. The stall tactics put forth by the Detroit Pistons might have won them the game, but definitely wasn’t exciting for the fans that paid for tickets.
George Mikan scored 15 of the 18 points for the for the Minneapolis Lakers, while no Pistons player managed to score over 5 points despite them winning the game.
A not so fun fact is that save for that Pistons-Lakers game in 1950, the top ten lowest scoring games all occurred in the first season of 1946-47. In fact, 46 of the 59 games with the lowest outcomes all happened in the first season, and all of them occurred during the NBA’s first seven seasons according to Land of Basketball.
You Have To Start Somewhere
We’ve determined that the lowest scoring games all happened within a few years of the NBA’s inception, but why were those early games so low scoring?
If you think about it, it’s not a big surprise that a new sports league isn’t going to be polished on the offensive end. Every team is new. The players are learning how to play with one another and there’s very little chemistry. As the game develops, teams figure out which skills are necessary to be successful. Not to mention any sort of proven offensive strategy.
The games were certainly a lot more unpredictable. In other words, if were to head to the casino back in the day, I would suggest playing the spielautomaten spiele than betting on NBA games at the sports book. All these different factors contributed to the low scoring games in the league’s first couple seasons.
This theory that the league was still developing plays out in the numbers. Take a look at how the league’s overall field goal percentage increased across the first ten seasons. Small increments in percentage season over season, but a clear trend in improvement.
The NBA’s overall field goal percentage in that first season was a paltry 27.9%. It moved less than a percentage point the next season. The third season brought significant efficiency improvements when the general FG% jumped over three percentage points from 28.4% to 32.7%. By the end of the league’s first decade, the overall field goal percentage jumped by nearly eleven full percentage points; from 27.9% to 38.7%
It would jump above 40% for the first time in 1959-60 season. The improvements may have been small, but consistent throughout the first decade of the league and built the early foundation for eras that followed.
Lowest scoring game in the shot-clock era
The introduction of the shot clock has really saved the game of basketball and transformed it into a spectator sport. In the 1954-55 season, the NBA introduced the 24-second shot clock which forced teams to take a shot within 24 seconds of a possession or lose possession of the ball.
This is how the modern NBA is structured. The shot clock inherently improved the pace and excitement of the game. More possessions translated to higher scores and a more competitive game. Still, it wasn’t without it’s relatively low scoring games. In the year after the shot clock was introduced, the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Hawks combined for a total of 119 points with the Celtics pulling out a 62-57 win..
Fast forward to 1999 when the Chicago Bulls scored the fewest points after the introduction of the shot clock with a meager 49 points against the Miami Heat. Not so coincidentally, this was the season following Michael Jordan’s second retirement after completing his third threepeat in 1998. The Heat may have won, but their 82 points pales to the game scores of today’s games. The Bulls and Heat combined for just 131 points; not that far from the 119 points scored in that 1955 game between the Bucks and Celtics.
Kornél Dávid led the Bulls; scoring more than a fourth of the Bulls points that game with 13 points. Toni Kukoc shot 4-16 from the field to add 10 points and Bill Wennington had 7 points off the bench. Chicago shot a very 1946-like 26.4% from the field.
When all is said and done, we should all be thankful for the league for introducing the shot clock, but even with more shots at the rim teams still have to make those shots.
For more about that 19-18 game between the Lakers and Pistons, read this great game summary from Stew Thornley.