Ranking the Biggest NBA Playoff Comebacks Since 2000

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2022

Ranking the Biggest NBA Playoff Comebacks Since 2000

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    NBA playoffs series are remembered for any number of reasons, but huge comebacks tend to hold a prominent place in history.

    No team facing a 3-0 postseason deficit has recovered to advance. Thirteen teams, however, have climbed out of a 3-1 hole—including one that managed it twice during a single postseasonfor the biggest, by deficit, comebacks ever in the NBA playoffs.

    And seven of those 13 occurrences have happened in the last two decades and change.

    The ranking is subjective but considers the round of the series, along with important context from each particular year and series.

6. Top-Seeded Pistons Storm Back (2003)

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    Saved by a rule change, these Detroit Pistons.

    Prior to 2003, the opening round of the postseason included a five-game series. But the 2003 campaign marked the debut of seven-game sets to begin the playoffs.

    Detroit, which held an Eastern Conference-best 50-32 record, took on Tracy McGrady and the Orlando Magic in the first round. Orlando jumped out to a 3-1 lead behind a pair of 40-point performances from McGrady, who peaked at 46 in Game 2.

    However, the Magic tumbled as Detroit cruised to a 31-point Game 5 victory before Chauncey Billups exploded. He netted 40 and 37 points, respectively, in the last two matchups to save the Pistons.

    Despite losing to the New Jersey Nets in the Eastern Conference Finals, Detroit won a championship the next season.

5. Suns Overpower Kobe, Lakers (2006)

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    After securing a Game 1 triumph in this first-round series, the Phoenix Suns nearly fell apart. They dropped three straight games to the Los Angeles Lakers by no more than seven points.

    But this iconic offense bounced back.

    Led by two-time MVP guard Steve Nash, the "Seven Seconds or Less" scoring attack propelled the Suns to a 114-97 win in Game 5. Boris Diaw finished an assist shy of a triple-double, too.

    Then, the Suns survived Kobe Bryant's 50-point day in Game 6 with a 126-118 overtime victory. They thoroughly dominated Game 7, soaring to a 17-point first-quarter lead and blowing out the Lakers 121-90 to reach the conference semis. 

    Phoenix later reached its second straight Western Conference Finals, though it fell to the Dallas Mavericks.

4. Rockets End Clippers' Best Title Shot (2015)

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    One of the biggest what-if questions in the 2010s is focused on the Los Angeles Clippers. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan composed a dynamic Big Three that always put Los Angeles in the conversation as a preseason title contender.

    However, the Clips could not figure out the playoffs.

    Looking back, 2015 offered the era's best opportunity to make a championship run. Plus, the Clips zoomed out to a 3-1 advantage on the Houston Rockets in the second round. Los Angeles seemed destined for a trip to the Western Conference Finals.

    Houston had other plans. Following a 21-point win in Game 5, the Rockets pieced together a dramatic 19-point comebacklargely thanks to unexpected hero Josh Smithfor a 119-107 stunner in Game 6. They finished off L.A. with a 13-point Game 7 triumph.

    The Clippers' meltdown was the second time a Doc Rivers-coached team squandered a 3-1 lead in the postseason. He also endured the 2003 Magic's collapse to Detroit.

3. Denver's Back-to-Back 3-1 Comebacks (2020)

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    Inside the Orlando bubble, the Denver Nuggets made history.

    Denver recovered from a 3-1 hole against the Utah Jazz in the opening round. Jamal Murray scored 42 points in Game 5 and netted 50 in Game 6, setting the stage for a dramatic Game 7. Nikola Jokic tallied a game-high 30 points, also hitting the winning shot with 27.8 seconds left in regulation.

    And then, Doc Rivers furthered his very unfortunate record. Already the first coach to blow multiple 3-1 leads, he added a third to his postseason career because of the Nuggets.

    Murray and Jokic once again fueled the comebacks versus the Los Angeles Clippers. Most notably, they controlled the decisive Game 7 with a 40-point showing from Murray and a triple-double by Jokic.

    Denver's remarkable playoff run ended in the Western Conference Finals against the eventual-champion Lakers.

2. Warriors Shock the Thunder (2016)

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    Golden State's recovery against Houston in 2018 is also famous, but the Warriors trailed 3-2 in that series. Two years earlier, they faced a 3-1 hole opposite Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

    Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson responded by unleashing the height of their "Splash Brothers" powers.

    They combined for 58 points in Game 5, guiding the Dubs to a 120-111 victory at home. Thompson hit a record 11 threes in Game 6 for a 41-point explosion, while Curry finished an assist shy of a 31-point triple-double. Curry went for 36 in Game 7 as Thompson buried six threes and chipped in 21 points.

    Although the Cleveland Cavaliers dashed Golden State's hopes for a second straight title in unceremonious fashionmore on that momentarilythe 2016 season marked the second of the Warriors' fifth consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals.

    During the ensuing offseason, Golden State swiped Durant in free agency and proceeded to win back-to-back titles.

1. Cavs Overcome 3-1 Finals Deficit (2016)

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    One flailing arm changed the course of the 2016 NBA Finals.

    As the Warriors closed out a Game 4 victory, key forward Draymond Green hit LeBron James. The action resulted in a one-game suspension, so the Warriors would try to close out their 3-1 advantage without Green but still on their home court.

    Instead, his absence helped LeBron and the Cavaliers put together a legendary comeback. James and Kyrie Irving both scored 41 points in Game 5 for a 112-97 triumph, and LeBron repeated that in Game 6 as Cleveland won 115-101. He added 11 assists in the victory, setting up a championship-deciding Game 7.

    Shortly after LeBron's iconic chase-down block, Irving drained a clutch three-pointer with 53.0 seconds to play. Cleveland held on for a 93-89 victory and won the city's first major sports title in 52 years.