Dirk Nowitzki’s Big Night

Against the Thunder on May 17, Dirk Nowitzki put together one of the great NBA Playoff scoring performances in recent memory, posting 48 points via 12-of-15 shooting from the field and a perfect 24-of-24 night from the line. Nowitzki’s performance was remarkable by a number of measures.

Game Score

While John Hollinger uses Player Efficiency Rating (PER) to compare players over the course of a season, he also has a simpler statistic called Game Score that rates a player’s performance in a single game. (Game Score Formula). Basketball-Reference.com keeps an archive of the best playoff Game Scores since 1991, and Nowitzki’s night ranks 5th over the last 20 years. Here are the top 10:

Charles Barkley5/4/19944123-313-47-91443125652.6
Michael Jordan4/29/19924320-300-016-18554225649.8
Charles Barkley6/1/19934716-220-011-1115102234347.1
Vince Carter5/11/20014519-299-133-3671415046.8
Dirk Nowitzki5/17/20114112-150-024-24640424846.5
Allen Iverson5/16/20014321-328-142-2274015245.3
Terry Porter5/19/19923812-144-513-14673014145.1
Charles Barkley6/5/19934612-201-119-222411114445.0
LeBron James5/20/20094120-303-66-10682324944.7
Allen Iverson4/20/20034721-323-510-11482045544.6

Even among those great games, Nowitzki stands out for a couple of reasons. First, he missed fewer shots than anyone except Terry Porter. Second, he had fewer total rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks than the others on the list. That means his Game Score was more dependent on scoring and shooting than most others on this list – especially Charles Barkley’s 1993 triple-double. If we take all the non-shooting and non-scoring stats out of Game Score, and recalculate, Nowitzki jumps up to second place, behind only Charles Barkley in 1994.

From The Charity Stripe

Nowitzki both got to the free low line and converted his attempts at very high rates Tuesday. His 24 free throw attempts were the 5th-most by in a playoff game, since 1991. The highest total belongs to Shaquille O’Neal, who went to the stripe 39 times in a game against the Pacers two years ago, converting only 18.

Dirk’s 24 made free throws were the most by a player in that time frame, meaning his 24-for-24 night was the most free throw attempts without a miss. The previous high-water mark (again, since 1991) belonged to Paul Pierce, who went 21-for-21 against the Pacers in 2003.

How likely was Dirk’s perfect night? Entering the game, in the 2010-11 regular season and playoffs combined, Nowitzki had shot 89.3% from the charity stripe. Using that as his “true” free throw shooting ability, we would expect him to make all 24 attempts about 6.6% of the time. So, while it was a bit unlikely, his high skill level means it wasn’t a tremendous surprise.

Points Per Miss

In the wake of game one, Bill Simmons Tweeted an interesting factoid – that Nowitzki scored 48 points on only 3 missed shots total (including free throws). He wondered if Dirk’s “points per miss” was a record for a 40-point game. While we didn’t look at every game throughout history, we can tell you that it’s a record for a playoff game, in the last 20 years. Here are the top 5:

Dirk Nowitzki5/17/201112-150-024-2448316.0
Terry Porter5/19/199212-144-513-1441313.7
Charles Barkley6/1/199316-220-011-114367.2
Chris Mullin5/8/199116-214-45-64166.8
Elton Brand5/8/200618-220-04-64066.7

If we lower the minimum points required from 40 to 35, one game sneaks into the top spot ahead of Tuesday night. That game? Another from Nowitzki, in last year’s first round series against the Spurs:

Dirk Nowitzki4/18/201012-140-012-1236218.0

That stat line is eerily similar to the one he posted in game one against the Thunder – both feature zero three point attempts, a perfect night from the free throw line, and 12 made field goals. When Dirk is on, he’s on.