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The long 82 game NBA grind ends in about five weeks on Wednesday, April 12. Once the Playoffs begin, the rigors of the schedule and travel ease up with teams not having to deal with games on back-to-back nights.

The beginning of March also brings to mind memories of the most extraordinary individual player performance in NBA history, the 55th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game.

It occurred March 2, 1962 at Hershey, Pennsylvania in a 169-147 Philadelphia victory over the New York Knicks. In those days NBA teams frequently played games at neutral sites and, although noted more for chocolate candies, on that night Hershey became part of NBA lore.

Chamberlain played for the Warriors prior to the franchise moving west and on that night he was a spectacular 36 for 63 from the field but an even more impressive 28 for 32 shooting free throws. That stat is noteworthy given Wilt’s career free throw percentage of .511.

His 100 points broke the previous record of 73, which Wilt had set just a few months earlier. He would average an amazing 50.4 points for the season. And although most of Wilt’s field goals were from near the basket it should be noted this was in the era well before the three-point shot was introduced.

Also worth noting from last week was a performance of a more dubious nature by the Pistons. Detroit was a woeful 3 for 17 from the foul line, missing its first 11 attempts. And to show they could also be futile when not attempting shots that were not contested, the Pistons were also 3 for 23 in shooting 3-pointers. It’s no surprise Detroit was blown out at New Orleans, 109-86.

Detroit’s performance set a new record for the lowest free throw percentage in NBA history for a minimum of 10 attempts (17.6 percent). The previous record had lasted more than 30 years with Houston having shot 3 for 14 (21.4 percent on February 22, 1983).

Free throws often have a significant impact on the outcome of games, especially in the final minutes of both NBA and college basketball games.

Poor free throw shooting teams often wreak havoc with pointspread results as well.

Often the act of committing repeated fouls that draw the final two minutes of a game into a 20 minute foul fest will be utilized when the trailing team is within a half dozen points or so in the final couple of minutes in an effort to narrow the deficit. Nothing is more frustrating than watching what may have once been a comfortable lead slip away because the team you have wagered on clanks free throws off the front or back of the rim.

March is often a good month to back teams that have been eliminated from a chance to make the Playoffs, or are on the verge. Although the team will be playing out the string over the final few weeks of the season there are still player incentives that serve as motivation. There is usually an extra point or more of value in the pointspread when facing teams needing to win to enhance or improve their chances of making the Playoffs and/or seed position.

Keep an eye on the league’s weakest teams – Brooklyn, the Lakers, Phoenix, Orlando and Philadelphia – when getting generous points (use +8 or more as a guideline), especially when facing a foe in a back-to-back night situation. The superior foe may be content to simply get the win, with margin of victory not nearly as important as giving key starters as many minutes of rest as possible.

Philadelphia remains the NBA’s best against the spread with a 38-24 ATS record through Sunday (61.3 percent). No other team has cashed at least 60 percent of its tickets. Miami (32-26, 58.7 percent) and Houston (36-27, 57.1 percent) are the next best behind the 76ers. The costliest teams have been Milwaukee and Portland, both of which are 25-36 ATS (41.0 percent).

Denver remains the strongest OVER play to date. The Nuggets have played 42 OVERS and just 20 UNDERs (67.7%). Three other teams are at 60% or higher. Phoenix is at 62.9% OVER (39-23-1) and both Milwaukee and Washington at 60% OVER (36-24-1).

The biggest UNDER team has been Chicago at 38-24 (62.7%). The next strongest UNDER has been Dallas at 37-25 (59.7%).

Here’s a look at three games this weekend.

Toronto at Atlanta (Fri.): These teams have met twice earlier this season with both games in Toronto. The Raptors blew out the Hawks, 128-84, on December 3 with Atlanta gaining revenge with a 125-121 road win two weeks later. Both teams started this week in second place in their respective Divisions, battling for the fourth and fifth seeds in the East.

Toronto led Atlanta by 2.5 games for that coveted fourth spot that carries with it home court advantage in the opening round of the Playoffs that matches the fourth and fifth seeds. This game could have major implications in this regard as it is their final meeting of the season and the winner will win the season series two games to one.

The situation favors the hosts on several fronts. This is the final game of a six-game homestand for Atlanta that plays at Memphis on Saturday. It is also the second to last game of a five-game road trip for Toronto that ends in Miami on Saturday. Both teams have performed at a similar level over the past couple of months with each having small winning and losing streaks but none of great length. ATLANTA

Utah at OKC (Sat.): Oklahoma City has won the last two meetings this season after Utah won the first meeting in late December. Utah started the week with a four-game lead over OKC in the Northwest Division and currently is seeded fourth in the West. OKC sits seventh with a comfortable 6.5 game lead over Denver so the Thunder are pretty certain to make the Playoffs.

The Thunder are a game behind sixth seeded Memphis and 2.5 behind the Clippers. Utah entered this week having won two in a row and 5 of 7, whereas OKC had lost three straight following a four-game winning streak. OKC has had more success against Class B teams than Utah, especially since the first of the year. Both Utah and OKC qualify as Class B teams.

Utah may be a small underdog in this road contest (although they were favored in their 109-106 road loss here on February 28). The Jazz have not performed well as underdogs this season, going 4-13 SU, 5-12 ATS in that role. OKC has won and covered its last five as a home favorite and is 21-5 SU, 18-7-1 ATS for the season. OKLAHOMA CITY

Cleveland at Houston (Sun.): It’s not a stretch to consider this as a preview of the NBA Finals with Golden State showing signs of vulnerability with Kevin Durant sidelined. Houston added depth at the trading deadline and can be considered sort of a “Golden State lite” with all of their options on offense. Cleveland remains the prohibitive favorite to win the East.

These teams met way back on November 1 with Cleveland winning an entertaining contest, 128-120, but failing to cover as 9.5-point home favorites. Cleveland is still dealing with injury issues and assimilating some of their recent acquisitions into the rotation. The teams enter the week with virtually identical records (both have 19 losses but the Cavs have two more wins) with Houston playing in the more difficult conference.

As defending champs Cleveland is getting each opponent’s best effort. And with Houston playing well since the All Star break (4-1 through Sunday) they should approach this game as another opportunity to prove – to themselves as much as the rest of the basketball universe – that they are legitimate Title contenders. HOUSTON

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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