The NBA playoffs have given fans plenty of exciting moments throughout its history. This includes teams coming back to win their series after trailing 3-1.
Throughout the league's 75 years, only 13 times has a team successfully come back to win their series after trailing 3-1. The first time this happened was in 1968 and the last time happened in 2020.
1968 Eastern Division Finals: Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers
As stated earlier, the first 3-1 comeback in NBA playoff history occurred in 1968, in the Eastern Division Finals. The series involved the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers.
This series featured one of the greatest rivalries in NBA history: Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain. These two have always been in talks as the greatest big men to ever play the game, and once again they'd battle it out in the playoffs.
The Celtics were coming off a fluke season where they didn't win the NBA championship. They won the previous eight years in a row, so they were looking to climb back on top.
Wilt Chamberlain was on the team that knocked Bill Russell's Celtics out of the playoffs in 1967. This was the year that Chamberlain won his first of two career NBA titles.
Now, in the 1968 NBA playoffs, Chamberlain's 76ers were looking to knock the Celtics out once again. Russell and his Celtics had other ideas as they won Game 1 by a score of 127-118.
The 76ers would take command of the series, winning the next three. It appeared that Chamberlain's 76ers would bounce Russell's Celtics out of the playoffs for the second straight year.
The Celtics would come together as a team to win the next three to defeat the 76ers 4-3. This became the first time in NBA playoff history where a team came back from trailing 3-1 to win the series.
1970 Western Division Semifinals: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Phoenix Suns
Two years after the Boston Celtics made history in 1968, the Los Angeles Lakers would do the same. Wilt Chamberlain, who saw his team's 3-1 lead get blown in 1968, was on the other side of history this time.
Chamberlain played for the Lakers in 1970, and after the Lakers won Game 1, the Suns ran off three straight victories. The Lakers would storm back into the series after winning Game 5 and Game 6, setting up a classic Game 7.
Chamberlain showed the world why he's one of the greatest to ever play in Game 7. He scored 30 while grabbing 27 rebounds in the Lakers 129-94 blowout victory. This completed the Lakers comeback from being down 3-1.
1979 Eastern Conference Finals: Washington Bullets vs. San Antonio Spurs
Nine years after Wilt Chamberlain led the Lakers back from a 3-1 hole to win their series, the Washington Bullets were presented with the same fate. The Bullets fell 3-1 in their series against the San Antonio Spurs in 1979.
It was the Eastern Conference Finals between the top-seeded Washington Bullets and the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs. The Bullets were led by Elvin Hayes and the Spurs were led by the 1978-79 scoring champion, George Gervin.
The Bullets would win the next two games to force a Game 7 and there, the Bullets would find a hero in someone not named Elvin Hayes. Now, Hayes had a good game, scoring 25 points while grabbing 15 rebounds.
The Bullets needed to give Hayes help, since Gervin had a monster game for the Spurs, scoring 42 points. They would get it from forward Bob Dandridge.
Dandridge scored a team-high 37 points, but more importantly, he hit the game- and series-winning shot with eight seconds remaining. The Bullets won the game by a score of 107-105.
1981 Eastern Conference Finals: Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The NBA would only have to wait two years before watching another 3-1 comeback. This time, it was the Larry Bird-led Boston Celtics.
Bird, along with Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, dominated the 1980s. Before Bird could take reign in the 80s, he needed to get past the Julius “Dr. J.” Erving led, Philadelphia 76ers.
This wouldn't be a small task, as the 76ers matched up well against the Celtics, and because of this, fans would be in for a treat of a series. According to ESPN's John Hollinger in a 2012 article, the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and 76ers is the greatest NBA playoff series of all time.
The reason Hollinger boldly claimed this could be because five of the seven games were won by either one or two points. This includes the three straight wins by the Celtics after falling 3-1 in the series.
After winning Game 5 (111-109) and Game 6 (100-98) by two points each, the Celtics, behind Bird's 23 points, won Game 7 by a score of 91-90. The Celtics would go on to win their first championship with Bird on the team.
1995 Western Conference Semifinals: Houston Rockets vs. Phoenix Suns
The NBA had to wait 14 years until another successful 3-1 series comeback in the playoffs. This time, it was the Houston Rockets taking on the Phoenix Suns.
The Suns were the second seed in 1995, and they were led by their brash talking star, Charles Barkley. The Rockets were the sixth seed, and they were led by their soft-spoken leader, Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Suns defended their home court, winning the first two games in Phoenix. The Rockets followed suit in Game 3, winning in Houston. Game 4 is where the Suns took control in the series, winning in Houston.
The Rockets, who were the defending champions, looked like they were about to be dethroned. Then, the Rockets found their championship DNA, winning the next two games to force a Game 7.
Like the 1981 series between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, Game 7 would be decided by a single point. The Rockets won the game by a score of 115-114.
Barkley struggled in Game 7, scoring 18 on 7-16 shooting. Suns' guard, Kevin Johnson, stepped up and had a monster game. Johnson scored 46 points on 12-26 shooting.
The Rockets showed why they were defending champions, having a balanced attack to combat Johnson's huge game. Olajuwon and star teammate, Clyde Drexler, each scored 29 and Sam Cassell added 18 off the bench.
The hero in the game was Mario Elie. He only scored 8 points in the game, but he hit the game-winning three with 7.1 seconds remaining. The shot is known as the “kiss of death”, which saw Elie the fans in Phoenix goodbye.
1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Miami Heat vs. New York Knicks
The 1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat was an interesting series. The Knicks took a 3-1 series lead and looked to be in full control of the series.
Game 5 changed everything. The Heat blew the Knicks out, winning 96-81, but this wasn't the reason the series shifted in the Heat's favor. The Heat got a lucky break from a bench-clearing brawl.
The brawl proved to be deadly for the Knicks, as their five best players were suspended. This includes Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, John Starks, Charlie Ward, and Larry Johnson.
Ward was a part of the brawl and the other players left the bench, which is an automatic suspension. The only Heat player to be suspended was the one who started the brawl, P.J. Brown.
The league split up the suspensions, so the Knicks would have enough players to play Game 6. Ewing, Houston, and Ward were all suspended in Game 6 and the Heat won by a score of 95-90.
Ewing, Houston, and Ward all returned for Game 7 as Johnson and Starks were forced to miss. Brown was suspended for a second game for the Heat, but it didn't matter as they won 101-90 in Game 7 to complete the comeback.
2003 Eastern Conference First Round: Detroit Pistons vs. Orlando Magic
The number one seed Detroit Pistons of the 2002-03 season were in the shock of their lives when they found themselves down 3-1 against the eighth seed Orlando Magic. No number one seeded team has ever fallen 3-1 and comeback in playoff history.
Tracy McGrady of the Orlando Magic was playing at an extremely high level, scoring 43 in Game 1 and 46 in Game 2. The Pistons knew if they wanted any chance to win this series, they needed to slow McGrady down.
In the win or go home Game 5, the Pistons slowed McGrady and the entire Magic team. The Pistons held the Magic to 67 points as a team, and McGrady scored 19 on 8-20 shooting. The Pistons won the game by a score of 98-67.
After another blowout win in Game 6 (103-88), the Pistons didn't leave any room for dramatics in Game 7 as they easily won the game by a score of 108-93. The Pistons successfully became the first number one seed to come back from being down 3-1 to win the series.
2006 Western Conference First Round: Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant was on a mission in the 2005-06 season. After missing the playoffs for the first time in his career the year before, Kobe brought his seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers into Phoenix with confidence.
The second-seeded Phoenix Suns had the two-time MVP Steve Nash, and they were looking to make it back to the NBA Finals for the first time since the 1992-93 season. They would learn that their quest wouldn't be easy.
After losing Game 1, the Lakers won the next three games to take that oh, so commanding 3-1 series lead. This was capped off by an incredible Kobe Bryant game-winner in Game 4.
Despite the incredible game-winner by Kobe, the Suns didn't panic, and they made their way back into the series with two straight wins. This set up a Game 7 where all eyes would be on Kobe.
After having a dominant season averaging 35.4 points per game, Kobe was quiet, especially at times, only scoring 24. The game wouldn't be close as the Suns, led by Leandro Barbosa's 26 points.
This marked the first time in head coach Phil Jackson's career that one of his teams lost after taking a series lead. Jackson's record before this season was 44-0.
2015 Western Conference Semifinals: Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Clippers
The 2015 Western Conference Semifinals between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers made history, and not in a good way for a certain coach. Doc Rivers was the coach of the Clippers, and he found himself in familiar territory.
Rivers was the head coach of the Orlando Magic in 2003, where the Magic blew a 3-1 series lead. This time, Rivers' third-seeded Clippers would blow a 3-1 series lead over the second-seeded Houston Rockets.
Rivers became the first head coach in NBA history to have the team he coached blow two 3-1 series leads in NBA playoff history. This isn't the side of history you want to be on as a head coach.
2016 Western Conference Finals: Golden State Warriors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
The 2016 NBA playoffs had multiple moments that made history. The first history in the making moment occurred in the Western Conference Finals between the defending champion Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Warriors had a record-breaking regular season, winning 73 games, but they didn't look like themselves against the Thunder. The Warriors quickly fell into a 3-1 series hole, and their season looked like it may end early.
This didn't happen. The Warriors bounced back to their regular-season selves, winning the next three games to advance to their second straight NBA Finals. Leandro Barbosa, who played for the Warriors, became the first player in league history to be a part of two 3-1 series comeback wins.
2016 NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors
The 2016 NBA Finals may be the greatest series in NBA history, despite the ranking given by John Hollinger of ESPN. Hollinger wrote his article four years before the Warriors and Cavaliers met in the 2016 Finals.
The 73-win Warriors made an epic 3-1 comeback in the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. They didn't want a repeat of the Western Conference Finals, so they came out hot against the Cavaliers.
The Warriors won three of the first four games and were poised to win back-to-back titles. At this point, no team in NBA Finals history had ever come back from down 3-1 in a series. No team that faced this fate had LeBron James on its team, either.
James, along with teammate Kyrie Irving, went off in games five through seven, playing at a ridiculously high level. James and Irving each scored 41 points in Game 5.
The Warriors rhythm was broken after Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5. Green hit James in the groin after feeling disrespected by James, who stepped over him after Green fell to the floor. It was Green's fourth flagrant foul point of the playoffs, which resulted in an automatic suspension.
The Warriors also saw their center, Andrew Bogut, go down with an injury to his left knee, which ended his season. All these incidents didn't fare well for the defending champs.
Green returned for Game 6, but at this point, it didn't matter. James went off for another 41 points while grabbing 8 rebounds and handing out 11 assists. The Cavaliers won Game 6 by a score of 115-101, to force an epic Game 7 showdown in Oakland.
The first six games of the series ended up being a blowout victory for each team that won. Game 7 would be close throughout the entire game. This would set up one of the greatest finishes in NBA Finals history.
1:51 seconds remained in the game with the score tied at 89. Andre Iguodala attacked the basket during a frantic, fast break.
What happened next may be the greatest sequence in NBA Finals history. First, James blocked Iguodala's shot from behind. Next, with 53 seconds left in the game, Irving drilled a three-pointer to put the Cavaliers up by three.
James would tack on one more free throw and the Cavaliers 3-1 comeback was complete, winning the game 93-89. More importantly, the Cavaliers won their first NBA championship in franchise history.
The Warriors became the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. They also became the first team to first overcome a 3-1 deficit to win a series and lose a 3-1 lead in the same playoffs.
The 2020 Denver Nuggets vs. The Utah Jazz And The Los Angeles Clippers
The 2020 NBA season was a wild one. The season shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, just to restart over the summer in what's known as the “bubble” at Disney World.
The 2020 NBA playoffs would be the last time we've seen a team come back and win a series after trailing 3-1. In fact, we witnessed it twice by the same team for the first time in league history.
This team was the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets were the third seed in the West and they were led by future MVP, Nikola Jokić and sharpshooter Jamal Murray.
The Nuggets were the third seed, and they played the sixth-seeded Utah Jazz. This series saw incredible performances by Murray and by Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz.
The two players combined to have four 50-point games, including them both having 50 or more in Game 4. After a high-scoring series, Game 7 was a throwback to the 90s. The Nuggets pulled off the 3-1 comeback, winning 80-78 on a Jokić go-ahead hook shot in Game 7.
After making their incredible series comeback against the Jazz, the Nuggets found themselves in a 3-1 hole against the Los Angeles Clippers in the semifinals. Like in the first round, the Nuggets wouldn't quit and they'd force a Game 7.
This time, there wouldn't be any drama or low scoring, at least not on the Nuggets side of the ball. The Nuggets blew out the Clippers 104-89 behind Murray's 40 points.
The Nuggets went on to lose to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals, but the Nuggets made history with their two 3-1 series comebacks in the same playoffs. As of now, it's the last time this has happened, but the world of basketball knows it'll happen again.
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