Top 10 Comebacks In NBA History

Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce (photo. Gary Land)

“He’s incredible. The Broncos gave him NO shot! They don’t believe in him. John Fox and John Elway are secretly hoping he screws up so they can point their noses up at fans and say ‘I told you so!’ Tim Tebow has the clutch gene. This kid is special.”

Forgive me for getting my Skip Tebow on for just a second but I had to vent. Tim Tebow may not be a great player in the historical sense of the word – we don’t even really need to argue whether he can pass well enough to make it longterm or if he’s simply a fad. Tebow has become the story of the NFL season because he’s done the incredible. He turned a weak Denver team in a probable playoff and division-winning group that has so much confidence trailing in the fourth quarter that teams should probably start thinking about letting them take leads.

We can’t put our finger on how they’ve done it. How much of it is the defense? How much is Tebow? How much is it luck? But one thing is for sure: People love watching it.

The NFL might win the popularity contest, but nothing beats the drama that comes from a last-second shot. Even better, hardly anything can beat the excitement of a team rallying in mere minutes to turn a situation upside down. For fans, the extremes are unbearable. For the NBA, nothing lasts like a comeback. It’s timeless.

So in honor of Tebow – or I guess we’ll say the Broncos to keep everyone happy – here are the top 10 team comebacks in a single game in NBA history:

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HONORABLE MENTIONS:

1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1 – Indiana 107 New York 105
The definitive moment for the definitive clutch shooter in NBA history came in Madison Square Garden in the course of nine seconds. Let’s thank Spike Lee for being an idiot, Anthony Mason for being an airhead, Greg Anthony for tripping and falling over, and of course, Reggie Miller for not being human.

While it’s slightly overrated – the man hit a three, stole a pass and hit another three. We’ve seen that before – it still happened in the playoffs against his most bitter rival. It was like he planned it. Miller always saved his best for the Knicks, a grudge he could never get rid of. For Knicks fans, it was like going to see Transformers 3 knowing it would suck, and then leaving the theater a few hours later saying “Yep, that was one of the worst movies I’ve seen.”

It was inevitable.

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1994 NBA Western Conference Semifinals Game 2 – Phoenix 124 Houston 117
For a while, this was the biggest fourth quarter comeback in NBA history. Phoenix was down by 18 at the start of the quarter and 20 with only 10 minutes to go. Charles Barkley went off for 34 points, and the Rockets were held to only eight in the fourth quarter. By the time overtime began, mentally, Houston was a defeated team. Ironically, it was the Suns who blew a 2-0 series lead and lost in Game 7, and then had to watch the Rockets march all the way to a title.

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2011 Western Conference First Round Game 4 – Portland 84 Dallas 82
Now that Brandon Roy has left the building, his final fleeting, standout performance in the NBA is all the more memorable. At the time he dropped 18 fourth quarter points to bring the Blazers back from 18 down (and 23 in the final minute of the third), we were sure things were changing in Portland. But no one expected Roy to call it a career just months later. Not after this. Not after the way he carved up Dallas’ “vaunted” defense in the closing quarter.

Roy’s output in the series is all you need to describe how miraculous it was. He dropped 21 in this game-closing run, but scored only 35 total points in the rest of the series (six games). The Blazer fans, knowing they were seeing something special from a player who clearly was never going to be the same, had it popping like a concert… a far cry from the way they sounded after Portland missed their first 15 shots of the game.

It was a flashback to better days for Portland fans, and only the third time in the shot clock era that a team has overcome a deficit of at least 18 in the fourth quarter.

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HONORABLE MENTIONS

2000 Western Conference Finals Game 7 – L.A. Lakers 89 Portland 84
The day the Earth stood still. That’s what it felt like after the Lakers finally broke through, after years of disappointment, to make the NBA Finals. For a while, it seemed they were going to choke and fall apart again, down 15 in the fourth quarter to what was probably the most talented team in the NBA (Portland) after blowing a 3-1 series lead.

The iconic lob from Kobe to Shaq punctuated a comeback that propelled the Lakers to three straight titles, and at the same time, broke the backs of this Blazer team. They never seriously challenged again. It could probably be higher simply because people were used to seeing the Lakers fall apart in the playoffs. No one would’ve been surprised had they blown a Game 7 at home.

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1992 NBA Finals Game 6 – Chicago 97 Portland 93
While it wasn’t as deep a comeback as a few others on his list, Chicago’s second team did the unthinkable: When Michael Jordan and the starters couldn’t, the backups came through in the final quarter against Portland to win a championship for the Bulls. Down 15 at the start of the quarter, players like Bobby Hansen, B.J. Armstrong and Stacey King were the difference between a second-straight title and an all-or-nothing Game 7.

2002 Western Conference Finals Game 4 – L.A. Lakers 100 Sacramento 99
Robert Horry. All I have to say…

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10. 1977 – Milwaukee 117 Atlanta 115
If I played on a team where we gave up a 29-point lead in nine minutes, and had to withstand a 35-4 run to end the game, I’d probably just quit basketball and never come back. Seriously. That’s pathetic. Milwaukee was down in this one by 29 points a few minutes into the fourth quarter, and proceeded to pull off the greatest fourth quarter comeback ever. The Hawks were actually a playoff team that year, led by John Drew, so we can’t blame it on Atlanta being inept. But this sort of stuff always seems to happen with Atlanta, the perennial “Not quite good enough” franchise.

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9. 1995 NBA Finals Game 1 – Houston 120 Orlando 118/OT
How much respect does a comeback deserve when it’s directly aided by one of the biggest choke jobs ever? Without Nick Anderson missing four straight free throws in the final seconds, all of Houston’s work, coming from 20 down, probably goes up in dust. Kenny Smith stole Superman‘s cape and hit seven threes while Houston’s Hall of Fame duo (Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler) combined for 54 points, 17 rebounds and 14 assists. One game does not make a series. At the very least, Shaq wouldn’t have had to hear about his run of consecutive sweeps in the playoffs.

Some fans of the mid-1990s Orlando teams still believe this one game shifted the balance of power in the NBA Finals. The Magic win Game 1, they have the confidence to go ahead and win the series. They lose Game 1, the after effects are so debilitating that their poise scatters. Just by asking that question, I think it proves everything you needed to know about this comeback: Houston believed. Orlando didn’t.

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8. 1986 NBA Eastern Conference First Round Game 1 – Washington 95 Philadelphia 94
You want miraculous? Try finishing a game – a playoff game no less – on an 18-0 run, in only three minutes, and THEN hitting a spinning banker from about 26 feet out at the buzzer for the win.

In another instance of complete commentating failure, literally right as the ball is being inbounded with three seconds left, the announcer proclaims Philly will most likely leave Dudley Bradley open to concentrate on other players. Bradley ended up being the man who hit the shot. He did only make 17 threes all season, but there must have been a reason for him being in at the end right? Turns out he could’ve been the team’s No. 1 H-O-R-S-E player.

The Sixers won the series and Dudley Bradley was basically never heard from again, losing out on the chance to be included as a member of the “worst names in NBA history” team. We can safely say that Philly won this war.

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7. 1989 Western Conference Semifinals Game 4 – L.A. Lakers 97 Seattle 95
The greatest playoff comeback ever by the numbers. Down 43-14 in the second quarter, the Showtime Lakers somehow made it all the way back to win and sweep the Sonics. This year, the Lakers swept through the West playoffs and had to deal with a number of injuries to their best players in the Finals.

After it was all over, every Seattle player – from Dale Ellis to Olden Polynice – echoed the same thing: the Lakers were just too relentless to keep locked down. Even before Orlando Woolridge hit two free throws with six minutes left to give the Lakers the lead they’d never relinquish, it was a 16-0 L.A. run that really did the job at the end of the second quarter. James Worthy led the future Western Conference champs with 33.

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6. 2009 – Sacramento 102 Chicago 98
If you’re up by 35 with less than nine minutes to go in the third quarter, short of the Monstars coming down from the rafters and stealing your talents, how can you ever let someone come back in your own house and win? And against the Kings? Tyreke Evans outscored the Bulls by himself 11-3 in the final two minutes. Chicago could’ve let him score 40 and they still should’ve walked away with the game.

Even though this came in the middle of winter between two teams struggling to stay upright, I think this Kings’ team should be given a little more respect for coming up with the second-largest comeback ever behind a rookie, Ime Udoka, Beno Udrih and Sergio Rodriquez.

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5. 1996 – Utah 107 Denver 103
Down 36 points early in the third quarter to the Nuggets, this Utah comeback is the single greatest come-fom-behind win in NBA history in terms of sheer numbers. No one has ever been spotted 36 points and lost besides this one. Karl Malone went off for 31 points, 17 rebounds and six assists while Jeff Hornacek added 29 of his own in helping the Jazz outscore Denver 71-33 in the second half.

Utah was so good this season that they ended up getting all the way to the Finals. The Nuggets? They went 21-61, and were led by players like Dale Ellis (will give him credit as one of the best shooters ever) and Bryant Stith in this one. This comeback was smack in the middle of a 15-game winning streak, so it begs the question: How exactly did Utah fall behind by so much?

I love the way Karl Malone explained it after the game: “I started believing it when we cut it from 36 down to like 18 and you started seeing the look in their face. They didn’t want to take those shots but they kept shooting those threes. Then all of a sudden, we cut it to 13 then we cut it down to nine then we cut it down to eight and then four and I was like okay…”

Okay Karl.

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4. 2008 NBA Finals Game 4 – Boston 97 L.A. Lakers 91
Down 24 points in the first quarter, trailing by 20 midway through the third, Laker fans spent all 48 minutes pleading with the clock to speed up. Boston controlled this series from start to finish – grabbing Game 1 comfortably after Paul Pierce‘s Golden Globe-winning performance and then dismembering the Lakers and tossing their body parts into the ocean in the Game 6 clincher. But it wasn’t like the Lakers didn’t have their chances, winning the first half of Game 1, the second half of Game 2 and then this one. All they had to do was finish, and this series would’ve been one, tied 2-2.

Staying in Boston at the time of something like this – let alone a championship – is like having the world’s most obnoxious little sister. They are relentless, just like Boston was on this night. It especially hurt having to hear how great Eddie House was.

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3. 2002 Eastern Conference Finals Game 3 – Boston 94 New Jersey 90
Any comeback that can help turn Paul Pierce into the Second Coming and Antoine Walker into the best motivational speaker since Jimmy V deserves respect. The Celtics of this era were loveable because of the way they played (shooting threes at a pace J.R. Smith would envy) and the characters involved (all of these knuckleheads on the same team: Kenny Anderson, Eric Williams, Tony Battie and the Boston legend Walter McCarty.)

Perhaps the most amazing statistic was the Celtics scored 53 in the first 36 minutes, and then dropped 41 in the final quarter. Also, there’s no question about the defining moment here. In a huddle at the start of the fourth, Walker lit into the Truth in plain view of the TV cameras, screaming at him to take the ball to the hoop with Boston down 21 (they were once down 26). Pierce proceeded to shred New Jersey.

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2. 2003 – L.A. Lakers 105 Dallas 103
It was 88-61 entering the fourth quarter and I had already given up on seeing a good game. We were in Florida. I was on vacation. We were in a restaurant. Dinner. The game was on a TV just a few feet away, and it was a good enough view to watch the Lakers hit 16 out of 18 shots from the field during their comeback. After Kobe Bryant (21 points in the fourth) hitting a spinning J in the lane with eight seconds left and the Mavs failed to convert on their last opportunity, it became the greatest comeback from a halftime deficit in NBA history, made even more special because Dallas was 17-1 at the time.

As Mike Tirico observed on air: “All is right in the land of the champs.” Maybe for that one night; this game was only a sample of the up-n-down season L.A. had. They were eventually destroyed in a second round Game 6 at home against San Antonio, ending a shot at a four-peat.

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1. 2004 – Houston 81 San Antonio 80
You can hear it on the video. Less than a minute to play. 10-point Spurs lead. Boos raining down. Game over right? Tracy McGrady hit four threes and scored 13 points in less than a minute, and sent Tim Duncan pouting back to the locker room. If there was a list counting down the greatest single-man comebacks ever, this is right up there with Robert Downey Jr. (or Paul Millsap, who scored 11 points in 28 seconds last season to beat Miami in South Beach).

I still don’t have an idea exactly what happened. It was like one of those times with your boys where he’s kicking your ass in Madden, then pauses to take a piss. You rush into settings, make a few changes and soon he’s freaking out, not knowing what’s happening as you suddenly turn invincible. The Rockets won this game because T-Mac and Yao Ming combined for 60; Their next best offensive weapon was Juwan Howard… with five points. McGrady hit just 5-for-12 from deep, but as the cliché goes, he made the ones when it counted. You know you’ve made history – and done something that will forever be associated with your name – when fans start coining phrasing after it. 13 in 35 will live on well past McGrady’s sorry end-of-career state.

Did I miss any? What do you think is the greatest comeback in NBA history?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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