The incredible numbers behind the Memphis Grizzlies’ record-breaking blowout win over the Oklahoma City Thunder
The Grizzlies started hot, taking a 15-point lead after one quarter, and never let up. They outscored Oklahoma City by at least 15 in all four periods, maxing out at a 22-point margin in the final quarter as they completed the largest win in NBA history: 152-79, a whopping 73-point differential.
Entering Thursday’s game, Memphis had actually been outscored by 92 points over the course of the season despite compiling an above-.500 record (11-10). A huge margin erased much of that deficit, taking the Grizzlies’ season-long point differential from -4.4 per game to -0.8. The Thunder tumbled the opposite direction; their -10.1 differential is now the league’s worst.
Certainly, it won’t always be this bad for Oklahoma City, playing without leading scorer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (in concussion protocol) as well as their leader in both rebounds and assists, rookie Josh Giddey (non-COVID illness) and veterans Derrick Favors (illness) and Kenrich Williams (ankle sprain).
It also won’t always be so good for Memphis, which previously was on the wrong end of the league’s worst loss this season by 43 points at Minnesota last month. Still, let’s see what we can take from a record-setting game.
No rubber-band effect
Typically, we don’t see outcomes like Thursday’s in large part because of a factor known as the “rubber-band effect.” In his new book “The Midrange Theory,” author Seth Partnow builds on research from Nathan Walker of Stats Perform to discuss the effect where a trailing team tends to play better during regular-season games. (Partnow noted this effect is muted in playoff games when teams with leads have less incentive to take their foot off the gas and trailing teams may be quicker to rest their starters.)
After all, the Grizzlies’ 51-point lead through three quarters merely tied for the 10th-largest such margin in the shot-clock era, per Stathead.com. The average final margin for teams with leads of 50-plus entering the fourth period was just 52.1 PPG. Collectively, Memphis’ predecessors were outscored in the final quarter and only the Syracuse Nationals (on Christmas Day 1960) outscored their opponents — the New York Knicks — by even 10 points, completing a 62-point win. (The Knicks must’ve received coal that morning.)
By contrast, the Grizzlies were plus-22 in the fourth quarter. Credit the Memphis bench, which outscored Oklahoma City as a team 94-80. No team had ever had a double-digit bench advantage over the opposing team, per ESPN Stats & Info. Of the seven Grizzlies reserves who saw action, only Killian Tillie fell short of double-figure scoring. Collectively, those Memphis bench players shot 39-of-61 (64%).
Lingering point differential impact
As substantial as Thursday’s margin affected both teams’ point differentials to date, it figures to have lingering effects all season. If the Grizzlies continue to play nearly even with their opponents, a 73-point win would add nearly a point to their final differential over all 82 games. Same with Oklahoma City, albeit slightly muted by the fact that the Thunder’s point differential will likely be worse than even.
Amusingly, the results of this game will add multiple wins to Memphis’ expected total and vice versa. On average, outscoring your opponents by an extra point per game translates into a little less than three wins over the course of the season. Based on that, a 73-point win is worth 2.4 “expected wins” (or losses).
By that measure, any win by at least 31 points will be worth more than one expected win. There had been 12 such games in the NBA this season before Thursday. However, none of them had produced more than 1.5 expected wins.
Historically, a huge lopsided win hasn’t necessarily translated into postseason success going forward. Of the six teams to previously win by at least 60 points, only the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers won the title. None of the other five reached the NBA Finals, though three — the 1960-61 Nationals, 1991-92 Cleveland Cavaliers and 1997-98 Indiana Pacers — lost in the East finals.
Syracuse somehow managed that playoff run with a below .500 record (38-41). The 2017-18 Charlotte Hornets also finished below .500 despite their win by 60-plus, missing the postseason.
In their next game, these teams went 4-2. Only the 1997-98 Pacers, who won by 27, had a margin better than eight points the next time out.
On the flip side, three of the six teams to lose by at least 60-plus points in NBA history went on to reach the playoffs. None of them won a series, though the 1971-72 Golden State Warriors advanced directly to the conference semifinals back when just four teams per conference made the playoffs.
Remarkably, three of the six teams on the wrong end of the NBA’s biggest blowouts went on to win their next game, including a 20-point win for the Warriors. None of them lost by more than 11. So Thursday’s loss may not carry over if the Thunder can get healthier by the time they return to the court Monday in Detroit.
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