Ninety-four percent of all playoff series that went to 2-0 were won by the team with the first two. When the figures about the teams that have escaped that hole and won are broken out, it’s never to inspire hope in a rally; instead that percentage is like hearing your probability of living after a grisly diagnosis. You have a 94 percent chance of not making it past the next month. Alert your kin. When we were bringing out those figures just a week ago in these NBA playoffs, though, we didn’t see the defibrillator being brought in the back door.
How else to explain the rise of the too-old Boston Celtics (2-2 entering tonight’s game against Miami) and the still-green Oklahoma City Thunder (up 3-2 on San Antonio)? In the case of the former, one-man show Rajon Rondo finally got the help from Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen missing so much in the first two. Out West, Thabo Sefolosha‘s two-way clinic in Game 3 stopped San Antonio in its tracks. By the time Game 5 happened last night, they were in disarray enough to force Gregg Popovich to try something he’d only done seven times before this season â€” start Manu Ginobili (the Spurs looked in sync late but their first-half confusion might as well have spotted OKC 10 points).
But this has happened before in the playoffs 14 times. It’s the first time since 2007 two teams have done it in the same postseason, and the first time since 2005 two teams have done it in the same round. We won’t try to jinx Boston or Oklahoma City, but here are the top five 0-2 comebacks in NBA playoff history.
5. 1993: Chicago over New York, 4-2, in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls had gone 15-2 in 1991 en route to a title and 15-7 in 1992 for a repeat. In ’92, they held off a Knicks team hell-bent to end that run in seven games in the East semis after New York had trailed 2-1. The three-peat would have to go through Madison Square Garden, again, in 1993, in a series between two of the best rivals in the game. This time, though, MVP Michael Jordan would have to lead Chicago out of a 2-0 hole.
In Game 4, Jordan brought out a haymaker of a game with 54 points to get Chicago to the tie. He also did it with an injured shooting wrist. He’d go on to average 41 points per game in the finals, a title that wouldn’t have happened by putting his foot on the Knicks’ throat a second year in a row.
1995: Houston over Phoenix, 4-3, in the Western Conference semifinals. That whole thinking that Charles Barkley was always the bridesmaid and never the bride (sorry for that mental image) came from this series. Two years after losing in the Finals to Chicago, and a year after coughing up a 2-0 lead against Houston in the Western Conference semis, Phoenix did it again.
Whiffing this bad two years in a row to the same team has to be some kind of cosmic karma, or at least is a valid reason why any Suns players would begin to believe in it. Houston went on to win its second straight NBA title after going 7 in this series. What made this one bizarre was the ease with which Phoenix took games 1 and 2. The margins in those games were 22 and 24 points â€” in Phoenix. The last dagger for Phoenix was by its own hand. Kevin Johnson had hit 21 free throws in a row in this game, but missed 27 to take the lead late.
3. 1969, Boston over Los Angeles, 4-3, in the NBA Finals. This wasn’t your typical comeback because it wasn’t your typical rivalry. Rather it was â€” and still is â€” the rivalry, largely because of the animus from this series, which was the sixth time they’d met for an NBA title. This goes down as one of the tightest series of all time with the largest winning margin of 13, but the other five decided by an average of 5.2 points per game. That includes the gut-wrenching final for Lakers’ fans, a 108-106 loss.
Jerry West was the Finals MVP, little consolation for another failure in the Finals for him, especially with Boston being coached by player-coach Bill Russell.
2. 2006: Miami over Dallas, 4-2, NBA Finals. This is of course, the series that turned Dwyane Wade into a superstar. He did it by not only scoring a ton (34.7 points, 7.8 boards, 3.8 assists per game) but by winning the close games a younger player should be able to yet. He was so precocious in his first finals that if you throw out a blowout Game 4 win, the Heat won by an average of just two points per game.
Game 3 was the first break in Dallas’ back. Up 13 points with half the fourth quarter to go, Wade scored 15 of his 42 points to lead Miami to the crucial first win that foretold three more.
1. 1977: Portland over Philadelphia, 4-2, NBA Finals. The Blazers were rolled in this series until one punch. Maurice Lucas landed a blow on Darryl Dawkins in Game 2 after Dawkins flipped Portland’s Bobby Gross onto the floor. Gross protested, Doug Collins held him back, and then Dawkins popped Collins when Gross ducked the punch. Then Lucas came hunting Dawkins from across the court. Everything changed in Portland’s attitude. “The Enforcer” was born.
The next two games were all Portland led by finals MVP Bill Walton (18.5 points, 19.0 boards and 5.2 assists per game). Portland won by 22 and 32 points, respectively, in Games 3 and 4 before winning tight closeout games back in the Northwest. Words like “playoff fight” sometimes get mentioned about a team clawing back from a hole. Lucas actually did it, and it lit a spark that carried the Blazers to a title. No team has ever come back quite like that.
The other nine comebacks:
1969: Los Angeles over San Francisco in the Western Division Semifinals
1971: Baltimore over New York in the Eastern Conference Finals
1994: Houston over Phoenix in the Western Conference Semifinals
2004: Los Angeles over San Antonio, Western Conference Semifinal
2005: Dallas over Houston in the Western Conference First Round
2005: Washington over Chicago in the Eastern Conference First Round
2007: Utah over Houston in the Western Conference First Round
2007: Cleveland over Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals
2008: San Antonio over New Orleans in the Western Conference Semifinals
Where would Boston and Oklahoma City rank?
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