NBA

Stephen Curry vs. Bradley Beal and the history of the league's closest scoring title races

Kobe Durant
Getty Images

"Did you know that Bradley Beal scored 50 before starting tonight's game?" Golden State Warriors star guard Stephen Curry was asked in his postgame press conference just minutes after he had dropped 49 points in 29 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

"Of course I knew," he responded. "Every time someone scores 50, you find out. (The scoring title race) was the second thing I thought about, for sure."

Curry's competitive response about that extra motivation heading into a dominant performance over the Thunder leads us to the home stretch of what has been a career-year in terms of scoring average for the two-time MVP. While Beal posted 50 points in that same night, Curry's total of 49 easily could have been higher had Oklahoma City kept the game closer than it was. Nonetheless, the scoring title between these two prolific scoring seasons will come down to the final buzzer of the regular season.

Heading into the final day of the regular season, Curry's scoring average of 31.8 points edges Beal's 31.4 points per game. Here's what would have to happen for Beal to surpass Curry:

Another factor in the scoring title race: both the Warriors and Wizards are still fighting for positioning in the playoff race in their respective conferences. Curry is slated to play after sitting out Golden State's win over New Orleans and Beal is set to return following a three-game absence.

The intriguing thing about the battle for the scoring title is that it's rarely ever close. In fact, since the NBA's inaugural season in 1946, only four times has the season's top scorer out-scored the player in second place by less than five-tenths of a point. Four times in 74 (!) seasons.

And while Curry and Beal are set to give us a fifth rendition of a scoring title duel, let's take a look at the four others in league history.

1977-78: George Gervin vs. David Thompson

The battle between Gervin and Thompson for the 1978 scoring title is the banner example for this subject. It is undoubtedly referenced any time a scoring title race is brought up.

Gervin approached the final day of the regular season with an average of 26.8 points, but his production fell off over the final eight games of the season, only averaging 20.9 points over that span. Thompson, on the other hand, entered the final contest of the season with 26.6 points, but was trending in the right direction, averaging 26.8 points over his last nine games.

On the final day of the regular season, the Denver Nuggets young star had an unfathomable performance, scoring a career-high 73 points against the Detroit Pistons to raise his scoring average to 27.2 points per game to pass Gervin for the time-being, but Gervin still had one game remaining.

In his final contest, knowing he needed at least 59 points to retake the scoring crown, Gervin was a man on a mission. The Iceman dropped 53 points by halftime (!) and would finish the contest with 63 points in just 33 minutes against the Utah Jazz, attempting 49 shots. It was clear Gervin entered the game with a purpose - to beat out Thompson - and he did just that despite the Spurs losing 153-132 in a shootout.

The scoring title would come down to the one-hundredths of a point, as Gervin would finish the season averaging 27.22 points per game, while Thompson would finish posting 27.15 points per game.

The title was decided by 0.07 points.

1997-98: Michael Jordan vs. Shaquille O'Neal

The NBA had to wait 20 years for another race as close as Gervin vs. Thompson, but in a battle between two of the biggest legends in NBA history in Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal, it did not disappoint.

Going into their final games, Jordan's average of 28.6 points edged Shaq's 28.2 points. Chicago played its last game of the season a day prior to Los Angeles, and Jordan exploded for 44 points in a two-point win over the New York Knicks to give him some peace of mind in the race.

That brought Jordan's scoring average to 28.74 points, but O'Neal had one last chance, needing to score 59 points against the Jazz to take the title. If he did so, it would give him his second scoring title in four seasons after leading the league in scoring with the Orlando Magic three years back.

However, Shaq wasn't able to do his best Gervin impersonation. The tough interior defence of Utah's frontcourt - big men Greg Foster and Greg Ostertag - did not let the Lakers superstar get close to the total he needed, as O'Neal would finish with 33 points on the night.

As a result, Jordan took home his 10th and final scoring title.

2009-10: Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James

Fast forward over 20 years later yet again, and two of the league's brightest stars were going head-to-head to decipher the league's leading scorer. A 21-year-old Kevin Durant faced off against LeBron James, who was nearing the end of his tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

There was some added drama here, though - James missed the final four games of the regular season, which put the ball in Durant's court to take home the scoring crown. LeBron would have had to average 34 points over the final four games of the season to take the title from Durant, so it was up to KD to maintain his scoring average with James out.

Prior to James' absence, the scoring margin was just two-tenths of a point in favour of Durant (29.9 to 29.7 points per game). With a strong finish to the season, Durant was able to bump his scoring average up to 30.1 points per game, retaining the first of what would become three-consecutive scoring titles for the prolific bucket-getter.

He put himself in such a comfortable position heading into the final game that he could have scored zero points and still won the scoring title. However, he would go off for 31 points against the Memphis Grizzlies to solidify the crown.

2011-12: Kobe Bryant vs. Kevin Durant

And last, but not least, the epic scoring duel between two of the best to ever do it: Kobe and KD. Three years removed from Durant's battle with LeBron, he found himself literally going toe-to-toe with Bryant to decide the season's scoring champion.

With just a week remaining in the regular season, Braynt's scoring average of 28.1 points had the advantage over Durant's 27.8. But in the first game of the final week, Braynt only scored 18 points while Durant dropped 29 points on the same night.

As a result, the difference between the two stars was reduced to one-tenth of a point: 27.9 for Kobe versus 27.8 for KD, and their next matchup was against each other.

The game itself was extraordinary as the Lakers would outlast the Thunder 114-106, but although Bryant's team came away with the win, it was Durant who had the scoring advantage. Kobe went for 26 points on a rough 9-for-26 from the field, and while Durant wasn't very efficient either (11-34 FG), he still dropped 35 points.

After the game, in a storybook feel, the two stars were dead-even at 27.9 points per game.

The Lakers only had one game remaining on their schedule, but with their playoff spot already solidified, head coach Mike Brown decided to rest Bryant. That was all Durant needed to take home the scoring title, raising his average to 28 points per game after scoring 32 points in each of his last two games of the season.

Durant would end up winning by the slim margin of just one-tenth of a point: 28.0 to 27.9. If Bryant had gotten the green light to play from his head coach, he would have needed 38 points to surpass Durant.

Would Kobe have accomplished that feat? Probably. After all, we're talking about someone who scored 60 points in his final NBA game, so how can we doubt the Black Mamba?

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

More from NBA.com

LeBron James acknowledges the crowd after passing Kobe Bryant on the all-time scorers list
How soon can LBJ pass Kareem on all-time scoring list?
Kane Pitman
NBA Foundation grantee spotlight: The Collective Blueprint
NBA Foundation grantee spotlight: The Collective Blueprint
NBA.com Staff
Jaren Jackson Jr., Kevin Porter Jr. and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are among the leading MIP candidates for 2021-22 NBA season
Our picks for this season's Most Improved Player
NBA.com Staff
Washington Wizards trade acquisitions from the 2021 offseason
Wizards depth chart for 2021-22 season
Yash Matange
Washington Wizards
Are retooled Wizards ready to take next step?
Yash Matange
Toronto Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes
Raptors rookie Barnes says he 'couldn't be happier'
Scott Rafferty
More News