What Was the Lowest Scoring NBA Game?

By D. MurrowsLast Updated Apr 17, 2020 6:24:11 AM ET
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The National Basketball Association (NBA) has enjoyed a rich, colorful, exciting history over the years. Fans have packed arenas to watch professional teams and players engage in unbelievable acts of athleticism, and over time, those teams have grown in popularity and expanded their dedicated fan bases.

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One thing that has never changed in all the years NBA teams have dominated sports is the basic essence of the game. The players put the ball through the shiny metal hoop and try to score as many points as possible. Sometimes, teams completely blow fans away with how many points they score in a game. At other times, the points on the board at the final buzzer end up being a little underwhelming.

Fans and reporters love to talk about amazing high-scoring games, but they don’t usually give much time or attention to games with low scores. That doesn’t mean low-scoring games aren’t equally interesting — imagine the defense that must have been played! So, what is the lowest scoring NBA game off all time? Let’s find out!


The 1950 Season

Unknown to many fans today, the NBA actually started as the Basketball Association of America in 1946. In 1949, it merged with the competing National Basketball League to form the National Basketball Association.

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Photo Courtesy: Minnesota Historical Society/CORBIS/Getty Images

According to NBA history books, 17 teams existed at the time of the merger, but financial difficulties forced the new league to reduce the number of teams to only eight. Among those eight teams, the Minneapolis Lakers — long before the days of L.A. — were an early dominating force in the league. The team’s star player at the time was George Mikan.

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When the 1950 season started, the eight teams were highly mismatched, which allowed the Lakers to run roughshod over most of the other teams. The team won its last 29 home games and showed no signs of slowing down or showing any mercy.

Fort Wayne Pistons vs. Minneapolis Lakers

On November 22, 1950, a new team to the league, the Fort Wayne Pistons, was set to play the Minneapolis Lakers. The Pistons’ coach knew his team didn’t have a prayer of defeating the incredibly talented Lakers, but instead of merely accepting the presumed punishing loss, the coach decided to stall the ball when his team possessed it on offense. He instructed his players to keep passing the ball among themselves — never shooting or driving for the goal — in an attempt to rattle the champion Lakers.

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Photo Courtesy: Bettman/Getty Images

They were able to get away with this maneuver because the time clock hadn’t been introduced yet in the NBA. That meant there were no limits at the time on how long a team could possess the ball without shooting. For a while, the ploy worked very nicely. At halftime, the Pistons were only losing 13-11.

They were only down 17-14 at the end of the third period, and then the unbelievable happened. The Lakers were up in the fourth period, but the Pistons stole an inbound pass and scored a basket to take the lead at 19-18 — and that’s how the game ended!

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The Lakers’ coach was dismayed, to say the least, and he vehemently argued that "play like that will kill professional basketball." The idea alarmed many people, and basketball fans started calling for a limited time period for the team holding the ball to shoot it. These early discussions started the movement that led to the introduction of the shot clock in professional NBA games.

The Shot Clock in the Modern Era

In the early NBA games in the 1950s, other teams started following the same game-stalling example set by the Pistons to defeat the previously unbeatable Lakers. As a result, NBA basketball games became much slower paced — and dare we say, boring? — with less scoring and more time watching the players pass the ball using the non-competitive strategy. This quickly posed an obstacle to the popularity and the growth of the league.

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Photo Courtesy: Mike Stobe/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

At one point, the NBA was in danger of becoming another lost sport. It’s understandable that teams didn’t enjoy being obliterated on the court by a far superior team, but the tactic they developed to even the playing field almost destroyed the game entirely. Finally, three NBA executives met to discuss how to make the game exciting again. They put their heads together and figured out the math.

Based on previous season’s numbers, they determined the best basketball games were the ones where each team took about 60 shots each, for a total of 120 shots per game, on average. They then divided the number of seconds in the game — 2,880 seconds based on 48 minutes for all four quarters — by the number of desired shots (120).

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The result was 24 seconds, so that was the amount of time they decided was practical for each team to score in a fast-paced manner that would keep the game lively and exciting. Thus, the 24-second shot clock was created. Today, it is still seen as one of the league’s best innovations.