Siddarth Sharma - sidbreakball

10 teams that clawed back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Playoffs

Published on
February 24, 2014

It’s not over till it’s over. Being down 3-1 in a best of 7 series will find precious few takers for the team which has to climb the deficit. A deficit which would generally be held insurmountable were it not for these ten cases when teams defied the odd makers and probably bankrupt quite a few Vegas gamblers in the process.

Of the nine teams which have come back from a 3-1 deficit, four of them went on to win the Finals. Whether the Golden State Warriors can add to that remains to be seen.

The first round of the NBA playoffs was a best of five affair till 2003 when the first round started going 7 games. Here is a look at the ten teams which have scratched, clawed and climbed back from the abyss of a 3-1 deficit in the NBA playoffs.

#1 2016 Western Conference Finals: Golden State Warriors defeat Oklahoma City Thunder

In Game 5 Stephen Curry yelled "We ain't going home! We're not going home!" He made sure they didn't with his 31 points. After staving off elimination, the Warriors kept trading punches with the Thunder to inch away in Game 6. Meanwhile, Game 7 saw the Thunder try to pull away early, and they would have managed that too.

This series would have been the ultimate validation for Coach Popovich for resting his players during the regular season. The Warriors had expended considerable energy in the regular season to chase 73 wins. It seemed that fatigue had caught up with them at last.

Until Curry and Thompson decided to go Wild Wild West from beyond the arc that is. Curry dropped 36 points to validate his status as the MVP and led his team one step closer to the promised land. 

Also for some inexplicable reason, Steven Adams was off the floor for most of the fourth quarter of Game 7. His presence was a major deterrent to the Warriors throughout the series and in his absence, the defending NBA champions didn't fail to capitalize. 

This play with the series all but over was pretty much the exclamation point from Stephen Curry in this series.

Comeback scorelines:

Game 5: Warriors 120, Thunder 111 (At Golden State)
Game 6: Warriors 108, Thunder 101 (At Oklahoma)
Game 7: Warriors 96, Thunder 88 (At Golden State)

#2 2016 Western Conference Semifinals: Houston Rockets defeat the Los Angles Clippers

This series ended up as being a classic example of viewing the grass as greener on the other side as the Clippers followed this loss by taking Josh Smith and Pablo Prigioni away from the Rockets the very next season. Not that it made a difference to the seemingly cursed franchise.

In Game 5, James Harden powered the Rockets with 26 points to stave off elimination. But Game 6 was a different story. The Clippers had the Rockets right where they wanted them.

Down 19 in the 3rd quarter of Game 6, the Rockets mounted an improbable comeback which saw James Harden warm the bench. The Clippers were outscored 40-15 in the fourth quarter of the game as they tied the series.

James Harden came up big in Game 7 with 31 points to lead the Rockets over the Clippers. The Rockets went on to lose 4-1 to the eventual champions Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.

Comeback scorelines:

Game 5: Rockets 124, Clippers 103 (At Houston)
Game 6: Rockets 119, Clippers 107 (At Los Angles)
Game 7: Rockets 113, Clippers 100 (At Houston)

#3 2006 Western Conference Quarterfinals: Phoenix Suns defeat the Los Angles Lakers

The Lakers faced the resurgent Suns who were taking the league by storm with their 7 seconds or less offense. It seemed that the purple and gold, however, had put the nail Mike D’Antoni’s coffin when Kobe Bryant sank a memorable dagger in Game 4 to put the Lakers up 3-1. That though, would prove to be the last high point for the Lakers in this series. 

The renaissance man Boris Diaw dropped 25 points in Game 5 to help the Suns pull away. Game 6 went to overtime behind a Tim Thomas three-pointer. The Lakers were never quite able to recover from the game as Suns routed them in Game 7.

This series was infamous for Kobe Bryant adopting a passive role at times and backing off from his trademark aggressiveness. Some speculated that this was a petulant way to shut up the critics who exhorted him to play an unselfish game.

The Suns then went on to defeat the Los Angles Clippers in the Western Conference Semi-Finals in 7 games. However, they fell to the Dirk Nowitzki inspired Dallas Mavericks 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals.

Comeback scorelines:

Game 5: Suns 114, Lakers 97 (At Phoenix)
Game 6: Suns 126, Lakers 118 (At Los Angles)
Game 7: Suns 121, Lakers 90 (At Phoenix)

#4 2003 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Detroit Pistons defeat the Orlando Magic

This series went a long way in painting Tracy McGrady of the Magic as a superstar who just couldn't move deep into the playoffs

After being routed in grand fashion in Game 5 of the series, Chauncey Billups stole the show with 40 points in Game 6 and a 37 point effort in the deciding Game 7. Detroit went on to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, but they were swept by the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Comeback scoreline:

Game 5: at Pistons 98, Magic 67 (At Detroit)
Game 6: Pistons 103, at Magic 88 (At Orlando)
Game 7: at Pistons 108, Magic 93 (At Detroit)

#5 1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Miami Heat defeat the New York Knicks

Back in the days when the Eastern Conference may have held the edge over the West, the Heat and the Knicks battled their way to a series-deciding brawl. P.J. Brown expressed his displeasure towards Charlie Ward for fighting his way to a rebound. The benches were then cleared of John Starks, Larry Johnson, Allan Houston and Patrick Ewing. 

The resultant suspension left the Knicks handicapped. Ewing, Houston, and Ward missed Game 6 whilst Larry Johnson and John Starks missed Game 7 which they dropped 101-90.  Meanwhile, Tim Hardaway led the charge for the Miami Heat with 38 points in the decider.

The Heat went on to lose to the Chicago Bulls 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Comeback scorelines:

Game 5: Heat 96, Knicks 81 (At Miami)
Game 6: Heat 95, Knicks 90 (At New York)
Game 7: Heat 101, Knicks 90 (At Miami)

#6 1995 Western Conference Semi-Finals: Houston Rockets defeat the Phoenix Suns

This series gave us the Kiss of Death. Lest one visualizes a Sam Cassell and Charles Barkley smooch, the kiss referred to Mario Elie's three-pointer which sang through the net with 7.1 seconds left and gave the Rockets the lead for good in Game 7.

Game 5 was powered by Hakeem Olajuwon helping send it to overtime. He drove a stake through the heart of the Suns in Game 6 with 30 points. 

The Rockets mounted one of the most improbable runs by defeating the Spurs to make it to the Finals where they bested the Magic 4-2.

Comeback scorelines:

Game 5: Rockets 103, Suns 97, (At Phoenix)
Game 6: Rockets 116, Suns 103 (At Houston)
Game 7: Rockets 115, Suns 114 (At Phoenix)

#7 1981 Eastern Conference Finals: Boston Celtics defeat the Philadelphia 76ers

Larry Bird led the Celtics to a memorable comeback

Larry Bird was just a couple of years old in the NBA, and he was quick to stamp his name on the big stage. Bird's bank shot in the final minute helped the Celtics pull away from the Sixers in Game 7.

Boston seemed to need all the luck of the Irish when they faced a six-point deficit in Game 5. That comeback set the tone for the rest of the series. Game 6 saw the Celtics overcome a 15 point deficit in the third quarter and Game 7 witnessed a 7 point comeback halfway through the fourth quarter.

Bird had a sour taste in his mouth as the Celtics had lost to the Sixers the previous year in the Eastern Conference Finals. He got his revenge here.

The win proved even sweeter as the Celtics ended up defeating the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals 4-2.

Comeback scorelines:

Game 5: at Celtics 111, 76ers 109 (At Boston)
Game 6: Celtics 100, at 76ers 98 (At Philadelphia)
Game 7: at Celtics 91, 76ers 90 (At Boston)

#8 1979 Eastern Conference Finals: Washington Bullets defeat the San Antonio Spurs

The Bullets sported some neat threads back in the day

George Gervin played his part dropping 34 points in Game 1 and 42 points in Game 4. It seemed that the Spurs had the series under control behind the play of the Iceman. The Bullets had some reprieve thanks to Elvin Hayes who helped push the series to 7 games.

The Spurs resembled a pretty boy walking through a prison corridor in the last 3:39 of Game 7 as they drew 7 whistles. They ended up losing a heartbreaker of a series 107-105 in Game 7 as the Bullets shot their way for a 10-2 run in the last two minutes to pull away.

Game 7 belonged to Bobby Dandridge who had 37 points, including a baseline jumper which helped seal the deal for good.

The Bullets, however, ended up losing to the Seattle Supersonics in the finals 4-1.

Comeback scoreline:

Game 5: Lakers 138, Suns 121 (At Los Angles)
Game 6: Lakers 104, at Suns 93 (At Phoenix)
Game 7: Lakers 129, Suns 94 (at Los Angles)

#9 1970 Western Division Final: Los Angles Lakers defeat the Phoenix Suns 

Another reason Jerry West is called the Logo

The Suns’ fans can console themselves as their team returned the favour of a 3-1 upset a few decades down the line. 

The Lakers had one of the biggest Big 3 of all time in Jerry WestWilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor. West and Chamberlain dropped 36 points each in Game 5 to set the tone for the rest of the series. 

One of the reasons that the Lakers struggled early in the series was that they were still trying to incorporate the might of Wilt in their lineup. He had struggled through the regular season with a knee injury, and it took some time for him to get in his stride. 

However great this team, it fell short in the finals as they lost to the New York Knicks.

Comeback scorelines:

Game 5: Lakers 138, Suns 121 (At Los Angles)
Game 6: Lakers 104, Suns 93 (At Phoenix)
Game 7: Lakers 129, Suns 94 (At Los Angles)

#10 1968 Eastern Division Finals: Boston Celtics defeat the Philadelphia 76ers

1968 NBA Playoffs first saw a 3-1 deficit erased

For the Sixers, Hal Greer did his best to stave off the Celtics with 40 points in Game 6. But the men in green were not to be denied. 

Game 7 saw six Celtics score in double figures to mount a balanced attack. Sam Jones helped power the Celtics in Game 7 over the defending champions. He had 22 points in Game 7 which the Celtics won.

One of the biggest reasons the Sixers came up short in the final three games had to do with Wilt Chamberlain’s free throw woes. He shot 20 of 48 from the charity stripe in the final three games, thereby missing out on 28 points combined. The Sixers lost those three games by 30 points combined. 

After falling 3-1, the Celtics took the next three games as follows:

Comeback scorelines:

Game 5: Celtics 122, at 76ers 104 (At Philadelphia)
Game 6: Celtics 114, 76ers 106 (at Boston)
Game 7: Celtics 100, at 76ers 96 (At Philadelphia)

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