Phoenix Suns pregame. Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
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Thursday, October 11, 1990. Phoenix Suns vs Denver Nuggets. The Story of 186 points in regulation
Game 1 of the 1990-91 Preseason. Arizona State University Activity Center.
Phoenix Suns entering the game:
This game began year three of the Cotton Express led by Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, Dan Majerle, Tom Chambers, et al. Cedric Ceballos was a rookie, and Eddie Johnson – two years removed from winning the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award – would eventually be traded mid-season for Xavier McDaniel.
After being ousted in the Western Conference Finals by the Portland Trailblazers in the 1989-90 playoff, 4-2, the Suns had hopes that they had the core group that could put them over the top and into the NBA Finals.
Expectations were high and the team would open their regular season in Tokyo, the first time two American professional teams would play outside of North America.
The Nuggets hired Head Coach Paul Westhead – formerly of Loyola Marymount University – that offseason, and he promised a run-and-gun offense that the league had never seen before.
Remarking “you ain’t seen nothing yet,” at his introductory press conference, Westhead’s system coupled fast break offense with a full court press defense.
His style led him to a 105-48 record in five seasons at Loyola Marymount, and an offer from the Denver Nuggets to replace former Head Coach Doug Moe in 1990.
The 1990-91 Nuggets were coming off of their ninth consecutive playoff season under Moe, but only reached the Western Conference Finals once, and the Western Conference Semis only three other times in that span.
Underachieving and the need for a new vision, the Nuggets hired Westhead, and adopted his unorthodox style.
The words “rout” and “blowout” do not even seem to do the Suns justice.
Suns Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons had remarked after the game that “I believe in attacking…I don’t think it’s a feat to get the ball across the 10-second line. I definitely believe you should make a team pay if it’s going to press you. I told our guys not to settle for those (outside) shots. I wanted them to go inside and throw it down.”
And throw it down, they did.
A game that looked more like a reported 2 hour and 22 minute series of “suicides,” (an exercise in which players sprint back and forth to pre-determined points on a basketball court during practice) the Suns shattered the Nuggets’ full court press with a constant barrage of passing that led to endless layups and slam dunks, chiefly by Dan Majerle, Mark West, Tim Perry, Cedric Ceballos, and Tim Perry.
After one quarter the Suns cruised to a 47-33 lead, and after 42 points in the second quarter (believe it or not, their lowest scoring quarter of the game) led the Nuggets 89-64 at half.
Rookie Cedric Ceballos saw his first action with about four minutes left in the second quarter. It was in that brief appearance that Suns fans got their first taste of the point-a-minute man as he scored 11 points in those four minutes, and drained all 12 shots by the end of the game for 29 points in 16 minutes.
“It could be a big step toward making (the) team,” said the humble Ceballos.
But like Westhead prophetically announced, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Dropping 50 points in the third quarter, the over-matched Nuggets managed only 26 leading to a Suns 49-point cushion heading into the final stanza where they finished off the surely embarrassed Nuggets with 47 points, and a 186-123, 63-point win.
Following a game in which neither team made a three-point field goal – Dan Majerle missed the only outside shot the Suns attempted – the ever-polite Cotton Fitzsimmons offered his sympathetic opinion on the Nuggets new Head Coach saying, “hey, they have all new players, a new system, and in time he’ll get the job done.”
Had This Game Counted:
If this had been a regular season game, the Suns would have tied or set a number of records:
Their 89 points in the first half and 186 points at the final horn would both tie NBA records, although the 186 points would have tied a Detroit Pistons’ triple-overtime effort against the Denver Nuggets in 1983.
The 186 points would also have broken the points scored by a team in regulation record, eclipsing 173 set by Boston over Minneapolis in 1959, and break the Suns’ franchise record of 160 against Portland in 1972.
The Cotton Express rolled into the regular season and faced off against the Utah Jazz in Tokyo, splitting two games. The Suns would face the Denver Nuggets four times during the regular season, winning all four in high-scoring fashion.
It was their first regular season matchup, a mere one month after the preseason bout, that would count and that did set a number of franchise and NBA records – but more to come on that matchup in a “This Week in Suns History,” in a few weeks.
The 1990-91 Denver Nuggets would play abysmally. While they did lead the league in scoring at 119.9 points per game, they allowed an unfathomable 130.8 to their opponents. Finishing 20-62 and 24-58 in his two seasons, Westhead was fired in 1992.
And if the 186-123 preseason victory by the Suns wasn’t rough enough for the Denver Nuggets, the Atlanta Hawks scored an unbelievable 194 with an incredible 64 points in the fourth quarter, en route to 26-point victory in Denver six days later.