This NBA season has already seen a number of marquee players return to their teams well after the first game of the season. A few more joined this weekend in the Lakers’ Steve Nash and Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki, with the Celtics’ Avery Bradley close to his first practice. Now that the Mayans were wrong and the world hasn’t ended, fans in Los Angeles, Dallas and Boston must face that they’re still stuck with deeply flawed teams. While all three of those players have been given minor savior status for their projected effect in their returns, they’re just the latest to be so deigned: Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, to name a couple, have breathed life back into Minnesota already after their comebacks already this season.
Taking a longer view, however, who’s had the best comeback game in the last 25 years? That’s what we wanted to find out. Here’s our top 10 “return games” in the last 25 years.
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5. CHRIS WEBBER, 2004
This was the beginning of the end for C-Webb, not only in Sacramento, but in his career. The day after his 31st birthday, and after missing nearly a year for microfracture surgery and a torn meniscus in a knee, he came back to put up 26 points and 12 boards against the Clippers on March 2, 2004. It’s hard to argue that getting 12-of-18 from the field in 30 minutes wasn’t a successful return, but Webber would say, a couple years later, that the first game back wasn’t an accurate barometer for the rest of his career.
“I tried to come back at 8 months, I had a pretty good game, but the pain I had never left,” he said. “It hurts you to do certain things, and you develop bad habits and your mind feels that pain all the time. If I were just now coming back, I would come back with the mentality that I never left, [because] when you have that pain you have to find new ways to play. It’s going to make him change his game, become a better outside player. You can’t pound as much.”
4. SHAQUILLE O’NEAL, 1995
From a place he wasn’t accustomed to coming from came a performance like we’d always expected: Shaq put together 26 points, 11 rebounds and just one turnover in 24 minutes off the bench against Utah and Karl Malone on Dec. 15, 1995. Even though he technically came off the bench, the offense flowed through O’Neal just the same as it ever had before his injury: His usage rate of 46 percent was almost double any of his teammates in that game.
3. DEREK FISHER, 2001
No disrespect is meant to Brian Shaw or Ron Harper, both consummate and capable veteran guards, but the 2000-01 guard situation in L.A. was a problem much like the 2012-13 season’s is with Chris Duhon and Darius Morris. Fisher sat for 62 games with a stress fracture in his foot (hello, Steve Nash?) and a fill-in cast waited Fisher’s comeback. His debut was a sign that things would be OK for the eventual champs. Fisher had 26 points, eight assists, six steals and four boards in L.A.’s win over Boston.
2. KEVIN LOVE, 2012
He was already mentioned before, but Love’s first game back this season on Nov. 21 was enormous â€” and not just for the Timberwolves’ psyche. His 34 points and 14 boards belied some rustiness â€” he was just 2-for-9 on threes, where he normally shot past 40 percent on in his career â€” but took Minnesota off life support. How good is Love? The points and rebounds he got in his first game back from a broken hand, when easing back into the game’s flow should be expected, has only been equaled or beaten by Anderson Varejao and Zach Randolph this season.
1. MAGIC JOHNSON, 1996
The last time Earvin was on the Lakers sideline, he’d been their coach. The last time he’d been on the court in a purple-and-gold mesh uniform, it was June 12, 1991, in a triple-double performance that was the seeming (and appropriate) coda to his career. Of course, it wasn’t his final game, but when he did come back on Jan. 30, 1996, it was like he’d been gone two weeks, not five years. Magic lived up to his name with 19 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in just 27 minutes against the Warriors. In the video, it’s chilling to hear legendary L.A. broadcaster Chick Hearn let the Forum crowd do his job when Johnson walks to the scorer’s table to check in, saying “they speak for us.”
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HONORABLE MENTION: REGGIE MILLER, 2004
A broken left hand kept Miller out for the first 15 games of this season, but when he got back he hadn’t lost his legendary stroke. Miller went for 23 points, with 4-of-6 from three, in a loss to Golden State on Dec. 4, 2004. He didn’t exactly ease into it, either: He had eight points, two boards and a dime in the first quarter.
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