The NBA got a bit of history on Monday night when Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns became the fourth pair of players to each score 60 or more points on the same day. Embiid’s 70-piece went about as expected. Though the opposing San Antonio Spurs kept it a bit closer than Embiid would have liked, his Philadelphia 76ers ultimately escaped with the win. At that point, like 63 of the first 83 scorers in NBA history to reach 60 points in a game, Embiid was a winner on his historic night.
Of course, that means that entering Monday, we’d seen 20 players hit the 60-point mark in a game and still manage to lose. That figure rose to 21 an hour or so later, though, because Towns couldn’t lead his Minnesota Timberwolves past the lowly 10-31 Charlotte Hornets. Towns himself even managed to get blocked on a potential game-winner with five seconds to go and missed another possible game-tying shot as time expired.
A player losing a game in which they drop 60 points feels almost unthinkable, but it happens more frequently than you’d think. Around one-quarter of 60-point scorers ultimately fail to earn the victory. So let’s take a look at those players whose individual greatness was only overshadowed by their disappointing teammates.
From the NBA’s inception in 1949 through the 1976-77 season, only one player ever scored 60 points in a game without earning a victory. However, that player did so a staggering 11 times. You’ve probably guessed by now that the player in question was Wilt Chamberlain. Suddenly, that ridiculous statistic makes a whole lot more sense. A player who averaged 50 points per game across an entire season was bound to lose plenty of enormous individual performances.
In the grand scheme of things, Chamberlain did fairly well in his 60-point outings. He may have lost 10 of them, but he won 22. That’s a win rate of 68.75%, not terribly far from the roughly 79% his contemporaries posted. As you’d suspect, Chamberlain holds the highest-scoring loss in NBA history. On Dec. 12, 1961, Chamberlain reached 78 points in a triple-overtime loss to the Lakers.
Interestingly, all 11 of Chamberlain’s 60-point losses came within a single four-year period. The first came in 1961 and the last came in 1964. The Big Dipper played nearly another decade, but won his last five 60-point games between 1966 and 1969. Chamberlain is the only player to lose more than two 60-point games. In fact, only one other player in league history has scored 60 and lost more than once.
Yes, that’s right, even Michael Jordan is mortal. Well, at least his teammates were. Technically, Jordan has a below-.500 record in 60-point performances. In the regular season, which is what we’ve been tracking so far, he went 2-2. The first of those two losses came in 1987 to the Atlanta Hawks, and the second came in a 1993 defeat at the hands of the Orlando Magic. He had 60-point wins over Detroit and Cleveland to even out his regular-season record, but we haven’t even covered Jordan’s most well-known 60-point game.
That one came in the playoffs. In 1986, Jordan set an NBA record that hasn’t yet been broken by scoring 63 points in a first-round game against the Boston Celtics. Those Celtics were arguably the greatest team in NBA history, winning 69 regular-season games and losing just 13. Boston may have needed two overtimes to get there, but they ultimately beat the Bulls 135-131. Larry Bird famously said after the game that it was “God disguised as Michael Jordan” playing against the Celtics that day. It’s proof that a 60-point loss doesn’t need to be embarrassing. Its one of the most amazing things arguably the greatest player ever accomplished.
Only once in NBA history have we seen two separate players reach 60 points and lose on the same day. Ironically, those two defeats came as part of one of the most famous scoring races the league has ever seen. Let’s turn the clocks back to 1978, when David Thompson and George Gervin are both averaging roughly 27 points per game entering the last day of the season, April 9.
Thompson played first and wanted to lock up the scoring title. He very nearly did so with the fourth-highest scoring output in NBA history. Thompson scored 73 points, but with his Nuggets already locked into their No. 2 seed as a division winner, they had little motivation to actually win their game and ultimately fell 139-137 to the Detroit Pistons. The Spurs were in the same position later in the day when they suited up, because as a division winner, their seed was set and the outcome didn’t matter.
However, Gervin came into the game knowing he needed exactly 59 points to win the scoring title. He finished with 63, but he easily could have had more. He scored 63 in the first half, secured his title, and went to the bench having played only 33 minutes. To this day, that is the fewest minutes ever played in a losing 60-point effort, and the Gervin-Thompson battle was the closest scoring race in league history.
This time period produced only one more 60-point loser, and it also came from a scoring champion. Bernard King’s legendary 1984-85 campaign saw him average 32.9 points per game when no other player even reached 29. Sadly, it’s often forgotten as it came on a pathetic 24-58 Knicks team. Sure enough, the New Jersey Nets managed to ruin King’s Christmas when they defeated the Knicks 120-114 at Madison Square Garden despite a Herculean 60-point effort. King’s monster day is still the highest-scoring Christmas game in NBA history, but his Knicks teammates couldn’t find it within themselves to put a victory underneath his tree.
The new wave
We’ve covered 16 of the 21 regular-season 60-point losses thus far as well as the only playoff defeat. That leaves us with five more. All of them have come since 2017, meaning we went 24 years without a 60-point defeat after Jordan’s last one. Let’s cover the last five in chronological order:
- On March 24, 2017, Devin Booker joined Chamberlain and Thompson as the only players ever to score 70 points in a game and still lose. Booker’s game was somewhat controversial at the time, as Suns coach Earl Watson called two timeouts down the stretch to create extra looks for Booker despite the outcome of the game being out of reach. Yet even to this day, only nine players have ever reached the 70-point threshold, so it’s hard to find too much fault when anyone does so.
- Kemba Walker (60 points) did just about everything he reasonably could have done to help the Charlotte Hornets defeat the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 17, 2018. He scored 19 of Charlotte’s 24 fourth-quarter points and finished with more than half of the 119-point total, but he faded in overtime by scoring just two points in those last five minutes. The more balanced 76ers got the win behind 33 Embiid points.
- Poor Damian Lillard. He may not have two 60-point losses like Jordan, but he managed to lose both a 50-pointer and a 60-pointer in the same calendar. The 50-point defeat came in March of 2019, and then, eight months later in November, the Nets beat the Blazers 119-115 to give Lillard his 60-point loss. He reached double-digit points in all four quarters and scored 34 in the second half, but his teammates shot 21-of-64 from the field while the Nets got 67 combined points from Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie.
- Bradley Beal’s marvelous performance on the road in Philadelphia was one of the best games of his career. On Jan. 6, 2021, Beal put on a show, but offense and defense don’t always align in the end. Beal’s 60 helped the Wizards score 136, but the 76ers outdid them with 141 behind 38 from 60-point slayer Joel Embiid.
That leads us to tonight. Towns scored 44 points in the first half, the most ever in the play-by-play era (starting in 1996-97). He slowed down with 18 in the second, a strong half by normal standards, but he needed 18 field goal attempts to get there. The Timberwolves force fed him the ball when they led by double-digits, and it slowly chipped away at their lead. After leading by as many as 18 points, the Timberwolves fell by three thanks to a furious Charlotte rally.
It’s a disappointment to be sure, but Towns made plenty of history on Monday. As The Ringer’s Zach Kram noted, there have been only five 60-point games from centers since Wilt Chamberlain’s last one in 1969. Towns is the only center with two of them. He fortunately won his first, which came in March of 2022. That should make this one a bit easier to swallow. If nothing else, his defeat put him in very good company.