B/R NBA Staff: 5 of the Greatest Playoff Series Comebacks Since 2000
One year ago today, the Toronto Raptors completed an Eastern Conference Finals comeback against league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. After losing the first two games on the road, Kawhi Leonard's group took the next four, advancing to the NBA Finals en route to the franchise's first title.
One year later, the Raptors remain our freshest memory of a successful playoff surge. Any other season, we may have two or three series comebacks under our belts by this point in the calendar, but with basketball still on hiatus, Bleacher Report got nostalgic and asked five NBA writers to recall five of the greatest playoff swings of the past 20 years.
2003 Detroit Pistons (Eastern Conference Quarterfinals)
The Detroit Pistons were a minor blip on the NBA's radar through the 2002 playoffs, advancing past the Toronto Raptors in five games before getting knocked out by the Boston Celtics in the second round (also in five). The next year, it looked like they were nothing but an also-ran, falling behind Tracy McGrady and the Orlando Magic in the opening round 3-1. It was the first year the quarterfinals expanded to the best-of-seven format, and the Pistons took full advantage.
The core of what was soon to be a championship roster began to emerge with Rip Hamilton scoring 24 points and Ben Wallace grabbing 21 rebounds in a Game 5 blowout victory (98-67). In Game 6, Chauncey Billups went for 40 in a 15-point win on the road 103-88. To close out the comeback, Billups scored 37 in the finale. McGrady hit just seven of 24 from the field (29.2 percent) in the 108-93 loss.
Detroit beat the Philadelphia 76ers (4-2) in the next round before getting swept by the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals. The 2003 playoffs were a coming-out party of sorts for the Pistons. They were still a piece or two short (notably Rasheed Wallace), and just a year later, they beat the Los Angeles Lakers to win the title.
2015 Houston Rockets (Western Conference Semifinals)
This second-round series is remembered, it seems, more so for the Clippers blowing their 3-1 lead. It was another missed opportunity in what would become a long line of them for the Lob City era, during which L.A. never made it to the conference finals despite being billed as a contender almost every year.
In hindsight, and inarguably, this series represented those Clippers' best chance of advancing to the third round. But then the Rockets ruined it. And what's most memorable about their comeback isn't the Game 5 drubbing they doled out or their Game 7 and series-clinching victory. It's their Game 6 come-from-behind win and dagger by none other than...Josh Smith.
Houston entered the fourth quarter trailing by 13, its season seemingly over. And had someone told you that James Harden and Dwight Howard wouldn't make a single field goal between them during that final frame, you'd have assumed the Rockets' season was over.
That is, until Smith happened.
He tallied 14 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the fourth, including a very unSmithian 3-of-4 from deep, as Houston outscored L.A. 40-15 and took home the W. It was at that moment the Rockets' comeback attempt felt not only real, but successful. Smith and friends unmade the Clippers in the final quarter. Even with a Game 7 left to play, the series seemed over.
And it was.
2016 Golden State Warriors (Western Conference Finals)
The stage was set for a stunning upset of the 73-win Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals.
Following back-to-back victories by 28 and 24 points, the Warriors' historic regular season appeared to have reached its previously unfathomable end. The Thunder, meanwhile, sat at the brink of immortality just one win short of eliminating 67- (San Antonio) and 73-win teams in back-to-back series.
The Thunder's frontcourt rotation dominated the boards and the Warriors' patented "Death Lineup" (196-167 through four games) while Durant emerged as a defensive force in the series (1.7 blocks, 1.7 steals per game).
Facing elimination for the second straight game and down seven with 5:09 to go in Game 6, the Warriors seemed destined for elimination after losing Games 3 and 4 in the same Chesapeake Energy Arena by a combined 52 points.
Then, Klay Thompson would alter the course of history.
Thompson and Steph Curry scored 16 points in a game-deciding 19-5 run that ultimately flipped the series, sending Game 7 back to Oakland. In those final five minutes, the Thunder shot 1-of-5 from the field and turned the ball over six times. They imploded.
Thompson's 41 points and game-clinching free throws laid the groundwork for his Hall of Fame legacy, saved the genesis of the Warriors dynasty and impelled Durant to defect in the summer of 2016.
The Warriors took Game 7 by eight points at home, cementing one of the wildest come-from-behind series victories in NBA history.
2016 Cleveland Cavaliers (NBA Finals)
Going down 3-1 in an NBA Finals used to be a death sentence. Leading up to 2016, 32 teams had fallen into such a deficit, with all 32 going on to lose in the championship round.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were tasked with not only having to win three straight games in the Finals but doing so against the greatest team in regular-season history.
The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors started the season 24-0 and finished with an NBA-record 73 wins. They didn't lost two games in a row all regular season, much less three. Stephen Curry was also the league's first unanimous MVP, and Golden State was extremely deep while boasting their "Death Lineup" of Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green.
Still, the Cavs had LeBron James.
Faced with elimination in Game 5, James and Kyrie Irving scored 41 points apiece to send the series back to Cleveland, where even Draymond Green's return from a one-game suspension couldn't stop the Cavs' comeback.
After another 41-point performance from James in Game 6, Cleveland forced a Game 7 at Oracle Arena.
The rest is history. James posted a triple-double while delivering the most famous block of all time on Iguodala. Irving hit the go-ahead shot over Curry, and Kevin Love locked the reigning MVP up twice in the last minute.
The Cavaliers would win Game 7 by a score of 93-89, completing the first-ever 3-1 NBA Finals comeback and ending a 52-year title drought for the city of Cleveland.
2018 Golden State Warriors (Western Conference Finals)
Whoever said the Warriors have never been challenged forgot about the Rockets.
The 2017-18 Houston Rockets were an NBA-best 65-17, atop the league in net rating (8.4) and had the defending champion Golden State Warriors on the ropes, up 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals.
Then, Chris Paul injured his hamstring, missing the final two games of the series. The Rockets calculus was scrambled.
Klay Thompson delivered a vintage "Game 6 Klay" game, shooting 9-of-14 on threes and scoring 35 points. Stephen Curry went for 29 points and Kevin Durant chipped in for 23, while Draymond Green nearly had a five-by-five. Everything that had gone wrong for the Warriors to that point was now in their favor. They blew out the Rockets 115-86 to force a Game 7.
The Rockets got off to a strong start in Houston for the rights to go to the Finals. Still without Paul, they led by 11 going into the half. The Rockets' superpowers disappeared as they shot only 1-of-21 from deep in the second half, including an 0-of-27 stretch between the second and fourth quarters. It was a meltdown of epic proportions that epitomized the saying "live and die by the three."
The absence of Paul and Andre Iguodala during such important games down the stretch of this series allows for some fun debate, but the Warriors were once again able to flip the switch and manufacture a historic comeback win en route to their third championship in four seasons.