As a regular lockout feature, we will be highlighting old masters through a series of classic NBA games in our Eye on the Classics series. For our first featured game, I'll be taking a look at Bernard King's classic 60 point bomb in Madison Square Garden during one of the few successful seasons in a long and rarely noted career.
As a statistician, I'm always one of the strongest proponents of the idea that the average fan vastly overrates the importance of a volume scorer on a contending team. Rebounding, passing, and lockdown defense are all roughly as important as volume scoring -- in a vacuum. But even the most curmugeonly among us (Berri exempted) can't deny the sheer joy a basketball fan can find in a virtuoso scoring performance. Players who end a game having scored over half their team's points in an altogether dominating fashion are, at the moment they take their leave of the court, the most important thing a basketball player can be. They're the franchise. At least for a game. They vindicate their decision to regularly dominate the ball, again, at least for a single game. And they captivate us. They get our attention, no matter how negative we are about their skills.
In short, scoring may not be the single most important thing a player can do on the court. But it is, without question, the most electrifying. And Bernard King, bless his soul, exemplifies it. This game in particular. Like all record-setting or challenging performances, this one didn't really start with any particular fanfare. A lot like Kobe's 81. King misses his first several shots and actually fades badly in the second half, enough so that the Nets win the game despite his outburst and despite the Knicks being one of the four best teams in the league that season. But the failures are important for our purposes -- his misses allow watchers of this game the levity to properly examine King's offensive game, as well as differences in the general offensive strategy in the 80s compared to today.
The first observation I had when I watched the full game is that King's offensive game would fit just fine in the modern NBA. He can finish with both hands smoothly, and would still be one of the best in the league at that today. His shot is wet as a newly beached seal. And, perhaps most importantly, he draws free throws like an absolute boss. In an era with less whistle-heavy refs, no less. The announcer says he's the most physical offensive player in the leauge in the 80s. I don't really have any players off the top of my head that would refute that opinion. One comparison I think is at least somewhat apt is that King is the Melo of his era. Pretty easy to see where it comes from. First, obviously, both are Knicks and both are borderline franchise guys. Their offensive games are somewhat similar -- both extremely physical in the post, but with a smooth enough midrange shot (both long and short) that both are a serious threat from any spot on the court inside the three point line. Even the best defenders can't really do much against either of them. Play them close? They'll outmuscle you and get to the hole. Lay off? Silky midrange stepback in your grill. It's tough. The best way is to force them to ballhog and turn it over.
Not particularly difficult to do, if one's honest. But still.
Where King separates himself from Melo is in the fact that he basically takes everything Melo does and does it a bit better. Where Melo puts no effort in on the defensive end, King puts a bit of effort in -- he isn't a great defender (just watch his decisionmaking in the second half if you don't believe me, it's atrocious), but you can't really say he's really lacking in effort on that end if he puts in even a modicum of effort in such a lights out offensive performance. He's a marginally better passer, and beyond that, has a markedly better sense on how to get his teammates into the game than Melo does. King's general quality as a player at his peak shows in how different his peak playoff record is from Melo's current grind. In Melo's prime, he was the best player on a talent-rich Pistons-esque Nuggets team that went to a WCF after beating a straight up bad Mavs team and a wildly mediocre and broken Hornets team, only to get subsequently crushed by the Lakers. Who were, quite frankly, barely even trying until the finals.
King, though? Just look at this game. The Knicks team featured here ended up pushing the would-be champion Celtics to 7 games in the second round after upsetting Isiah's Pistons in the first round. Both of those are all-time great teams, with the Pistons a year away from becoming a serious title contender -- the argument could easily be made that King's Knicks were the 2nd or 3rd best team in the league in 1985. Very hard to make that argument about any of Melo's teams, and despite that, Melo had far more talent. Bernard King's teams were all extremely bare in the cupboard when it came to supporting casts around his scoring, whether in defense or tertiary scorers. The great tragedy of his career is how, like many mid-80s stars, it got derailed by injury. A devastating ACL injury, as a matter of fact, that made him miss almost 3 seasons and sapped him of the majority of his explosiveness. While King came back from the injury and eventually was a productive player again (making him the first major pro athlete to return to his sport from an ACL tear -- a big triumph for medicine) he was still never quite the same. Which is a shame. In an era filled with high scoring wingmen (see: Adrian Dantley, Mark Aguirre) King was one of the better ones. And his injury was a ridiculous shame.
One last thing I'd like to mention. While you can get a sense of King's scoring from the video above that highlights all of his scored points, you don't really get a sense of what a game in Madison Square Garden was like in the 80s. And I think that's worth looking at, if you ever see an 80s Knicks game on TV. Madison Square Garden is essentially the most famous arena in the country -- so called mecca of basketball and all that. And I think it's worth asking... why, exactly? Why not the Forum? Why not the Boston Garden? Why, exactly, is MSG so special? It isn't the Knicks, honestly. They've been an irrelevant team more often than a contender over the last 30-40 years. The Forum and the Garden are both more historically relevant. This game gives a bit of insight into why MSG is so revered. The 80s crowd that MSG draws is nothing like any other regular season 80s game I've seen. The crowd is into it and rocking. But I find it sort of funny that despite how nice it is compared to other 80s games, the crowd honestly pales in comparison to the crowds that are drawn by big games nowadays. There's a tendency to exalt the past as some incredible time when every game was rocking and people "really" followed the NBA, unlike today's contrived arenas and poor crowds.
But honestly, a big game at any arena across the country would give you a similar atmosphere to the 80s MSG now, which is less a mark of how poor the 80s MSG was (it wasn't) and more a mark of how far the NBA has come in improving the crowds and the customer experience. MSG deserves its place in NBA lore, don't get me wrong -- as I said, this game is probably the most rockin' of any game I've seen from the mid 80s, and being one of the better arenas in terms of crowd coverage over the course of NBA history is undoubtedly worth something. But with the Knicks franchise being somewhat irrelevant over the course of most post-1975 basketball history and the majority of MSG's lore coming from boxing, college hoops, and New York's incredible streetball culture I don't think it's particularly accurate or reasonable to call it the mecca of basketball persay. New York? Sure, maybe. But MSG itself? It's an institution in and of itself, above basketball or any particular sport. The arena has its own mythos quite separate from the NBA -- it would be nice if TV announcers started recognizing it instead of going with the intellectually lazy conflation of New York's basketball culture with MSG's singular mythos and the almost entirely unrelated New York Knicks.
That's my two cents, anyway. It was a fun game. I really hope King makes the Hall of Fame sometime soon.