Where Donovan Mitchell's 71 Points Ranks vs. Kobe's 81 and NBA's 10 Greatest Games
Donovan Mitchell rang in the new year with as much fireworks as anyone, scoring 71 points on the Chicago Bulls and tying David Robinson and Elgin Baylor for eighth-most points ever scored in a single game.
The point total is just the beginning for Mitchell's career night. With 11 assists, he also became the first player in league history with 70-plus points and 10-plus dimes in a game.
And the overtime period that helped him achieve his seemingly impossible line would not have happened without Mitchell's heroics at the end of regulation.
Beyond scoring 42 of his 71 between halftime and the fourth-quarter buzzer, Mitchell pulled off the miraculous "intentionally miss a free throw and go for the offensive rebound because you're down two with no time left" gambit.
In the extra frame, Mitchell tacked on 13 points on 4-of-4 shooting (including 3-of-3 from three) to cap off the historic win.
But where does this rank among the greatest individual regular-season performances in league history?
Because NBA stats have evolved so much since the days of Wilt Chamberlain, it's tough to find a truly objective way to compile that list. Game score and single-game box plus/minus are two good ways to measure individual greatness from a single game, but the absence of blocks, steals, turnovers and distinction between offensive and defensive rebounds makes those marks impossible for games from the 1950s, '60s and much of the '70s.
Still, we'll use those two stats, good old-fashioned "points plus rebounds plus assists" for the league's earliest eras and plenty of subjectivity as guides to find the 10 greatest games in NBA history. And just to make things more fun, we'll limit the list to one entry per player (because how boring is a list that's just a bunch of Wilt and Michael Jordan lines?).
10. Elgin Baylor's 71-point Game
November 15, 1960 at the New York Knicks: 71 points, 25 rebounds and one assist, 28-of-48 shooting from the field and 15-of-19 from the free-throw line
Analyzing the game's formative years in the same space as the modern game is tricky (maybe even impossible). Video is sparse, and what's available is grainy (to put it generously).
The level of competition and number of teams players competed against was dramatically different than what the league has now.
But the pioneers are more than worthy of recognition, and that's especially true of Elgin Baylor.
In an era dominated by Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, Baylor was a revolutionary.
"The style of basketball that we accept as conventional today all comes out of him," Bijan C. Bayne wrote in Elgin Baylor: The Man Who Changed Basketball (h/t Jason Reid of The Undefeated). "The things that we accept as routine today, like changing direction after one has left one's feet. A spin move, double-pumping, any improvisation off the dribble, hesitation dribbles, all of that comes out of Elgin. And even to some degree, for a person of his size, no-look passes. That's all from Elgin."
With a repertoire that was essentially unprecedented for his time, Baylor had a number of huge games. There's an argument to have his 63-point, 31-rebound, seven-assist performance from December of 1961 here, but he was more efficient in this contest, and there's just something about hitting that magic 70.
9. David Robinson's 71-point Game
April 24, 1994 at the Los Angeles Clippers: 71 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and two blocks, 26-of-41 shooting from the field, 18-of-25 from the free-throw line and 1-of-2 from three, 51.8 game score, 19.7 box plus/minus
Sure, there may have been some stat-chasing going on here. David Robinson's 71-point explosion took place in the San Antonio Spurs' final game of the 1993-94 season. And the gaudy single-game total secured the scoring title for Robinson.
But so what?
This is a peak of one of the NBA's most underrated careers (he's fifth all-time in career box plus/minus), and Robinson's teammates were clearly on board with the pursuit of a scoring average to top Shaquille O'Neal's.
"I looked up at the scoreboard," Robinson told reporters that night. "I said, '71 points. Oh, my goodness!' It was unbelievable. My team has been behind me the whole year. They always push me to do a lot of individual things. As a leader, I just try to win games, but tonight they really wanted me to shoot it. When the game started they were looking for me almost every time down the court."
8. David Thompson's 73-point Game
April 9, 1978 at the Detroit Pistons: 73 points, seven rebounds, two assists and one block, 28-of-38 shooting from the field and 17-of-20 from the free-throw line, 57.0 game score
Much like Robinson, David Thompson's career high came in the finale of a season in which he wound up pursuing a scoring title.
Prior to the game, Thompson's coach, Larry Brown, asked his star if he wanted to chase the honor. Thompson declined, but making 13 of his first 14 shots put him on the path anyway.
"Back then, they didn't have your scores up on the scoreboard, so I really didn't know how many points I had. I only found out that I had 53 at halftime," Thompson said in a recent interview. "Obviously, [the Pistons] didn't want me to go for 100, so they had two or three guys on me. And it was very difficult. There were real physical back then. I did manage to have a decent half, scored 20 points in the second half."
Who knows what Thompson could've pulled off in today's game, where defenders are indeed far less physical (largely due to rule changes)?
A few more points would've given him that scoring title over George Gervin, who had 63 of his own that night to secure the league lead for points per game.
7. James Harden's 60-Point Triple-Double
January 30, 2018 vs. the Orlando Magic: 60 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds, four steals and one block, 19-of-30 shooting from the field, 5-of-14 from three and 17-of-20 from the free-throw line, 56.6 game score, 27.6 box plus/minus
Long before the 2022-23 season started to warp our perception of what a big NBA performance is, James Harden dominated just about every defense in his path for nearly a decade with the Houston Rockets.
And no game illustrated that better than his 60-point triple-double against the Orlando Magic.
At the time, it was the first 60-point triple-double in league history (and remained so until a performance you'll see a bit further down the slideshow).
Even after Houston's heliocentric offense became one of the most predictable attacks in basketball, there was still almost nothing defenses, including Orlando's, could do to impede Harden.
With a lightning-quick first step, one of the best foul-drawing games in league history and an almost preternatural sense for how and when to hit his kickout options, the Magic were helpless.
6. Donovan Mitchell's 71-point Game
January 2, 2023 vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers: 71 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and one block, 22-of-34 shooting from the field, 7-of-15 from three and 20-of-25 from the free-throw line, 60.8 game score, 22.7 box plus/minus
After witnessing what Donovan Mitchell did this week, it's kind of hard to fathom how it can be outside the top five (and maybe it isn't for you). It's a testament to the heights others have reached throughout history (and in one case, earlier this season).
If there's any way to knock Mitchell's performance, which is only possible in the context of comparing it to the rest of the top 10, it might be on the fact that the game went to overtime.
Had it ended after regulation, Mitchell would've finished with 58, and this list probably wouldn't have been produced.
Still, as was noted earlier, Mitchell forced the overtime and deserves a ton of credit for going 4-of-4 from the field in that frame after all he'd already given through regulation.
Again, this list isn't definitive. If you have Mitchell's 71-pointer higher, fine. You won't get much argument from here, but the lines from this point are absurd.
5. Karl Malone's 61 Points in 33 Minutes
January 27, 1990 vs. the Milwaukee Bucks: 61 points, 18 rebounds, three steals and two assists, 21-of-26 shooting from the field and 19-of-23 from the free-throw line, 60.2 game score, 32.4 box plus/minus
Yes, there are four 70-point games behind this masterpiece from Karl Malone (plus Devin Booker's 70-pointer in 2017), but the efficiency on this one sets it apart.
Of the performances on the all-time, single-game game score leaderboard, only this one from Malone (which only required 33 minutes) and Joel Embiid's 59-point outburst from earlier this season happened in less than 40 minutes.
Malone got to the 60-point club by shooting over 80 percent from the field and averaging nearly two points per minute on the floor against the Milwaukee Bucks.
You can maybe discount the total by pointing out John Stockton's 16 assists. The pace of the game in that era was astronomical, too.
But the fact of the matter is that there are only two 60-point games in league history that came in fewer minutes (Klay Thompson did it in 29 minutes in 2016, and Harden did it in 31 in 2019). Only one (that Harden game) required fewer field-goal attempts.
And oh, Malone had 18 rebounds to go along with the scoring.
4. Luka Dončić's 60-point Triple-double
December 27, 2022 vs. the New York Knicks: 60 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists, two steals and one block, 21-of-31 shooting from the field, 2-of-6 from three and 16-of-22 from the free-throw line, 56.3 game score, 25.3 box plus/minus
A 60-point triple-double in itself probably would've been enough to get on this list, but Luka Dončić had to overachieve by notching the first 60-20-10 game in NBA history and capping a comeback that was even less likely than Cleveland's in Mitchell's 71-point performance.
Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks were down nine with less than 30 seconds on the clock when they started a seemingly impossible run punctuated by this intentionally missed free throw and follow-up.
Like Mitchell, Luka maybe gets docked a bit for needing overtime to finish off his line, but he was also responsible for getting his team there.
And of course, the big differentiator between Dončić and some of the other performances here was his dominance on the boards.
Even for a player tasked with doing a little bit of everything for his team every time he plays, Luka somehow found another level against the New York Knicks.
3. Michael Jordan's 69-point Game
March 28, 1990 at the Cleveland Cavaliers: 69 points, 18 rebounds, six assists, four steals and one block, 23-of-37 shooting from the field, 2-of-6 from three and 21-of-23 from the free-throw line, 64.6 game score, 30.8 box plus/minus
Michael Jordan has plenty of records, but this may be one you're unaware of. In the game in which he set a career high for points in a game, MJ also put up the highest game score of all time.
Even in today's era of bonkers individual performances (particularly this season), there still isn't anyone who quite controls an entire game on both sides of the floor like Jordan did.
He brought a sense of inevitability that no one has been able to replicate since, and that was in the air throughout this performance.
2. Kobe Bryant's 81-point Game
January 22, 2006 vs. the Toronto Raptors: 81 points, six rebounds, three steals, two assists and one block, 28-of-46 shooting from the field, 7-of-13 from three and 18-of-20 from the free-throw line, 63.5 game score, 33.6 box plus/minus
In a career packed with iconic moments and performances, the one that may stand above the rest for Kobe Bryant is his 81-point performance against the Toronto Raptors in 2006.
Inside, outside, from the mid-range or the post, Kobe was truly unstoppable throughout his 42 minutes that night.
He averaged more points per minute than Malone did during the No. 5 performance on this list. He scored more points than all but No. 1. And he registered a higher game score than all but Michael Jordan's 64.6.
1. Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point Game
March 2, 1962 vs. the New York Knicks: 100 points, 25 rebounds and two assists, 36-of-63 shooting from the field and 28-of-32 from the free-throw line
There's a real argument to bump Wilt Chamberlain from the top spot. As was mentioned in the Baylor slide, it really was a different game back then, and the league simply couldn't offer Wilt a physical rival.
But come on, it's 100 points. From one player. In one game.
There's a mythical quality to this performance that no other will ever achieve. The game wasn't televised, so most are reliant on their knowledge of the raw total of 100, the picture above and eyewitness accounts to even know what happened.
When we see something like Mitchell's 71-point performance this week or Kobe's 81 in 2006, we can't help but think: That's still 29 (or 19) points shy of Wilt's 100.
Even with the three-point line, a pace that is starting to rival the '80s' (though is still shy of Wilt's era) and an incredible distribution of skill and talent throughout the league, no one's even threatened Wilt's record.