In the 75-year history of the National Basketball Association (NBA), hundreds if not thousands of regular season and playoff games have been played. Being a highly-competitive league, most games usually come down to the last few possessions of the fourth quarter with the margin of victory often being 10 or fewer points. This is particularly true in the postseason where teams clamp down on defense resulting in a much slower pace of play. There are however instances where some teams have been blown out of the water – figuratively speaking, of course – by their opponents resulting in lopsided wins with margins of 20 points or more. One such unfortunate team recently set the record for the biggest NBA loss of all time in such an embarrassing fashion that they wish it could be erased from the minds of NBA fans and the history books.
What is the biggest NBA loss of all time? The biggest NBA loss of all time was the Oklahoma City Thunder’s disastrous 152-79 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies that occurred on December 3, 2021. The historic 73-point blowout on that fateful Friday replaced a record that had lasted three decades which had been set when the Cleveland Cavaliers outclassed the Miami Heat 148-80 in 1991 – a 68-point walloping.
Doomed From the Start
Going into the match, the Thunder had only managed to scrounge together 6 wins from 22 matches, which was to be expected from a franchise that was not only on a seven-game losing streak but had also recently entered a rebuild and seemed intent on tanking in order gain fresh talent from the draft.
Further compounding OKC’s problems was the absence of their starting backcourt as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey had been replaced by the ill-prepared duo of Tre Mann and Ty Jerome, who rarely saw north of 25 minutes a game.
Though the Grizzlies were also undermanned with starting point-guard Ja Morant out with injury, their backup Tyus Jones was more than up to the task with a supporting cast that included three-point marksman Desmond Bane, capable wing Dillon Brooks and a front court of twin towers Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steve Adams.
The hosts made their intentions known from the word go by opening the game with a 20-8 run and scoring a season-high 41 points in the second quarter to double OKC’s output 72-36 and effectively put the game beyond the visitors’ reach by halftime.
From Bad to Worse
Things only got worse for the Thunder in the second half as the Grizzlies opened up a 40-point lead which took whatever little hope OKC had of acquitting themselves honorably. With a little over six seconds remaining in the third quarter, the scores stood at 113-62.
Proving that offense is indeed the best defense, the Grizzlies poured in over 30 points in the fourth and had at one point opened up a 78-point lead. Memphis exploited OKC’s lack of size that was brought about by the absence of Derrick Favors to grab 27 more rebounds than their opponents and score at will.
While the box score summarized OKC’s woes, the statistics revealed the true extent of their struggles as they shot a paltry 32.9% from the field and a miserable 28.9% from three compared to the Grizzlies’ 62.5% and 52.8% in the same categories respectively.
The Thunder also had twice as many turnovers with 20 to Memphis’ 10. Eight Grizzlies players ended the match with double digits with Jaren Jackson Jr. leading his side with 27 points while shooting 9/11 from the field and making all three of his free throws.
Reasons for Big Losses in the NBA
When an NBA team loses a game by a wide margin, there are often a few contributing factors. The main ones are:
- Absence of key players – contrary to popular opinion, not all NBA players have the skill or endurance to become starters. Some players are only able to contribute 15 to 25 productive minutes a night and only a few are able to play 40+ minutes at a high level. For context, four-time NBA Champion and Golden State Warriors point guard has averaged less than 35 minutes a night over the last four seasons. Therefore, losing a key player or two puts a team at a great disadvantage.
- Game plan – basketball is very much like a game of chess where teams match up their pieces (players) against those of other teams and endeavor to exploit weaknesses and utilize advantages like size, speed, and shooting. A well-executed game plan often overwhelms the opposition and can turn their most prized pieces into liabilities who are better off on the bench than on the court.
- Quality of players – teams with more than one superstar or All-Star often have a competitive edge since their skills are often a bar above their opponents. Their ability to score, control the pace of a game, draw defenses, and share the ball puts their teammates in positions to be successful. A deep roster with a variety of players ensures that a team can match up against whatever their opponents may throw at them. In recent seasons, three-and-D players have become a hot commodity due to their ability to guard multiple positions and score the ball from long range.
- Players’ experience – teams with experienced players often have a mental edge over their opponents as they are better placed to handle adversity. Young teams often fail to execute game plans and are less likely to fight their way back from huge deficits in instances where they are outscored. Some veterans like Miami Heat’s Udonis Haslem and Jared Dudley have extended their NBA careers by being great “locker room guys” who foster camaraderie and bring teams together when it matters most.
Other Big NBA Losses That Are Worth Mentioning
In as much as OKC’s loss to the Grizzlies is in a class of its own, it is not the only notable instance where a team has been bested by their opponents by an uncharacteristically large margin. The Heat’s 68-point defeat to the Cavaliers which was mentioned previously is proof of this assertion. Others include:
- The Portland Trail Blazers’ 65-point loss (124-59) to the Indiana Pacers in late February 1998.
- The Warriors’ 63-point defeat (162-99) at the hands of the Lakers in March 1972.
- The Kings’ 62-point loss (153-91) to the Warriors in early November 1991.
The biggest loss in NBA playoffs history happened in Game 3 of the 1998 NBA Finals when the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls beat a Utah Jazz team that consisted of perennial All-Stars John Stockton and Karl Malone by 42 points.