Ranking the Worst NBA Playoff Collapses of All Time

Preston EllisContributor ISeptember 16, 2020

Ranking the Worst NBA Playoff Collapses of All Time

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    There's a reason the Denver Nuggets' playoff victories over the Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz have garnered such attention. Only 13 teams have ever clawed out of a 3-1 deficit in 257 instances in NBA history, and the Nuggets just did it twice.

    It's supposed to be an unassailable advantage. Overcoming such odds takes a combination of veteran leadership, Hall of Fame-level play, perhaps a little luck and an opponent's failure to respond. 

    Much attention and praise can go to the unlikely winner in these instances, but a good deal of criticism needs to be levied at the loser, as playoff failures like this linger more than most. 

    Here are the teams to forfeit a 3-1 advantage in the most heartbreaking fashion, ranked in order of smallest to largest disappointment based on the losing club's expectations heading into the series.

8. Phoenix Suns, 1995 Western Conference Semifinals

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    David Phillip/Associated Press

    May 20 marked 25 years since Mario Elie's "kiss of death" finished the Phoenix Suns in a series they appeared nearly certain to win.

    Charles Barkley and his second-seeded Suns lost in seven games to the Houston Rockets in back-to-back seasons after advancing to the NBA Finals in 1993. In each instance, they held 2-0 leads only to drop four of the next five games.

    In 1995, the Suns took a 3-1 lead with two home games remaining. At 32-9 in the regular season, the Suns held a top-five home record. With 59 regular-season wins to Houston's 47, it appeared the Suns were the stronger team and would avenge their prior postseason loss. 

    It wasn't enough. 

    Kevin Johnson collected 46 points and 10 assists, while Barkley added 18 points and 23 rebounds in Phoenix's heartbreaking one-point Game 7 loss. Elie's late three-pointer plus 58 combined points from Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon proved too much to overcome. 

7. New York Knicks, 1997 Eastern Conference SemifInals

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The 1990s New York Knicks famously pushed Michael Jordan to his limits, perhaps more so than any other opponent outside the Bad Boy Pistons. Jordan and the Chicago Bulls ended the Knicks' season five times from 1989 to 1996. 

    While Jordan impeded Patrick Ewing and the Knicks' championship aspirations, he wasn't the only culprit. New York fell to the Rockets in the 1994 NBA Finals despite taking a 3-2 lead (with Jordan playing baseball that year). 

    Three seasons later, the Knicks collapsed, this time at the hands of the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. However, it wasn't their play that failed the Knicks so much as their tempers. 

    Near the end of Game 5, Charlie Ward set a low, continuous boxout of P.J. Brown. Brown responded by flipping him through the air like a wrestler. 

    The ensuing suspensions of Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston in Game 6 followed by Larry Johnson and John Starks in Game 7 was too much for the Knicks to overcome. The Knicks became just the sixth team ever to fall once up 3-1. 

6. Utah Jazz, 2020 Western Conference 1st Round

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Despite losing a nearly insurmountable series lead to the Denver Nuggets, the Utah Jazz deserve a pass.

    They carried the strife created between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell after the big man behaved irresponsibly regarding the coronavirus before the pair tested positive.

    Oh, and the Jazz lost their second-leading scorer and most viable perimeter threat, Bojan Bogdanovic, to a wrist injury before bubble play began. 

    Despite all of this, the Jazz were one desperation Mike Conley three away from advancing to the second round. 

    Allowances aside, the Jazz still gave up a 3-1 advantage to these cardiac Nuggets. Nikola Jokic led the group in Game 7 with 30 points and the winning basket on a turnaround hook shot. The Nuggets held the Jazz to just 78 points in the decisive contest during their third consecutive series with a Game 7 through two seasons. 

5. Orlando Magic, 2003 Eastern Conference 1st Round

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    DUANE BURLESON/Associated Press

    The Detroit Pistons were nothing more than a plucky upstart before their unlikely surge to a championship in 2004. Advancing past the Toronto Raptors in the 2001-02 Eastern Conference first round was hardly worthy of acclaim. The Canadian franchise had managed just one postseason victory in its history, and this was Detroit's only series victory dating back to 1991 and the Bad Boy Pistons

    However, the Pistons' underwhelming performance in dropping to a 3-1 against Tracy McGrady and the Orlando Magic in the 2003 Eastern Conference first round should have led to their elimination. After all, it was the first season in which the seven-game format was introduced in the opening round. In the years prior, the top-seeded Pistons would have been eliminated. 

    Instead, the makings of a future champion were forged as Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace and Co. crawled back from eradication. Led by Billups' combined 77 points in Games 6 and 7, the Pistons won this series and the next to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals—where the New Jersey Nets swept them.

    Still, that foundation of responding to adversity would lead to their unlikely upset of the Kobe Bryant- and Shaquille O'Neal-led Los Angeles Lakers one season later. 

    The Pistons' come-from-behind victory is appreciable, but the manner in which the Doc Rivers-led Magic failed to respond is reprehensible. The Pistons took Game 5, 6 and 7 by a combined 61 points

4. Oklahoma City Thunder, 2016 Western Conference Finals

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The 73-win Golden State Warriors preceded their legendary Finals collapse with near defeat at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. 

    The Warriors may have held the league's best-ever regular-season record, but Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were quietly putting together one of the best playoff performances in history. After conquering the 67-win San Antonio Spurs in the semifinals, the Thunder threw haymaker after haymaker at the Warriors, winning Games 3 and 4 by 52 points. OKC's combination of bigs and Durant's rise as a defensive presence stymied the Warriors while the Thunder took a 3-1 lead.

    Then, Klay Thompson responded in Game 6 in Hall of Fame fashion. Thompson and Stephen Curry scored 16 of the Warriors' final 19 points, while the Warriors held the Thunder to just five over the last five minutes. Thompson finished with 41 points on only 18 shots and hit the game's final pair of free throws. 

    We highlight Thompson's efforts, but the Thunder's inability to score late ultimately damned their championship hopes and what should have been a generational combination. 

3. Los Angeles Clippers, 2015 Western Conference Semifinals

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    David Phillip/Associated Press

    The Chris Paul-Blake Griffin tandem in Los Angeles failed to realize expectations thanks in part to a Western Conference dominated by the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors, and in part to their own playoff shortcomings. 

    Take the 2014-15 semifinals against James Harden, Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets. In building a 3-1 advantage, the Clippers put the Rockets exactly where they wanted them by winning Games 3 and 4 by a combined 58 points. 

    Responding to a disadvantage like that is commendable on its own, but the way Houston did it was even more noteworthy. Harden and Howard weren't responsible for the Game 6 win. With a 13-point disadvantage as the fourth quarter began, the Rockets didn't get a single field goal from the pair. Harden left at the 1:32 mark in the third quarter and didn't reenter until the final minute of the game. 

    Instead, it was Josh Smith who led the 40-15 fourth-quarter surge with 14 points in the frame. He'd finish with 19 points on just nine shots and a plus-11 mark, with Harden carrying a minus-21. 

    The Clippers held the lead in the game and the series and erased Houston's best player. It wasn't enough for Doc Rivers' squad to avoid collapse, as the Clips dropped Game 6 went on to lose Game 7 by 13 points.

2. Los Angeles Clippers, 2020 Western Conference Semifinals

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Clippers collapsed against the Nuggets with far less room for excuse than the Jazz. They held the advantage in both wins and star power in this year's Western Conference semis. Led by two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and the man the Clippers moved heaven and earth to acquire in Paul George, the Clips were heavy favorites, per DraftKings (via Action), to advance to the conference finals even after they dropped Games 5 and 6. 

    Instead, the Clippers became just the 13th team to ever fail after holding a 3-1 lead. 

    A great deal of credit goes to the Nuggets, who faced a Game 7 for the fourth consecutive series, the first ever to do so. Jokic's prowess was on display as he averaged 24.4 points, 13.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.4 blocks per game during the series. The Clippers had no answer. 

    Jamal Murray's emergence was the more shocking revelation. Going toe-to-toe with Mitchell is one thing. Outplaying Leonard and George is another thing entirely. 

    Still, enough blame cannot go to the Clippers. They folded again and again in the waning stages of the series. 

    In Game 5, the Clippers led by 13 with just over 13 minutes to play, only to be outscored 44-25 the rest of the way. In Game 6, the Clippers led by 16 points as the third quarter got underway, only for the Nuggets to outscore them 64-35 through the rest of regulation. 

    After L.A. took a seven-point lead early in the third quarter of Game 7, the Nuggets outscored the Clippers 50-28 over the final 23 minutes. L.A. scored just 15 fourth-quarter points. 

    The Nuggets deserve plenty of praise for showing poise in critical moments, but Rivers and his Clippers' failure to respond should prompt plenty of offseason questions.

1. Golden State Warriors, 2016 NBA Finals

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    LeBron James' chase-down block and the Cleveland Cavaliers' toppling of the 73-win Warriors might be the greatest series comeback in NBA history given Golden State's previous success and the grand stage on which it occurred. 

    The Warriors were a juggernaut heading into the 2015-16 NBA Finals. It can't be overstated. Beginning the season 24-0, they never dropped consecutive games in the regular season before giving up three straight to the Cavaliers.

    Their closing unit, which featured two-time NBA MVP Curry as well as future Hall of Famers Thompson and Andre Iguodala, was dubbed the Death Lineup.

    James didn't care. Despite falling into a 3-1 hole, he and Kyrie Irving combined for 199 points over the final three games to knock off the Warriors. Draymond Green's one-game suspension and Andrew Bogut's knee injury are linked to the collapse, but those don't take away from the accomplishment. The Cavaliers also gave the Warriors a six-game series one season prior in the Finals despite just one combined appearance from Irving and Kevin Love. 

    This championship cemented LeBron's legacy as one of the greatest ever. However, Curry, Klay, Iguodala and Harrison Barnes' 45 points on 52 shots in Game 7 should draw plenty of criticism. 


    Stats via NBA.comBasketball ReferenceCleaning the GlassBBall Index and ESPN unless otherwise noted. 

    Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @PrestonEllis.