The NBA’s 10 Most Unlikely Comebacks

Not since 1999 at Brookline has the chaste golf world let its hair down quite like it did yesterday at Medinah for the Ryder Cup. If you didn’t happen to catch the only tournament that sounds like a college football game, Europe tied a record for largest comeback to beat the U.S., and rallying from a 10-6 hole to win 14.5-13.5. It sent the Euros into a Moet-soaked celebration and the wife of former world No. 1 Luke Donald to tweet, “FYI Sergio gets drunk on 1 beer…”

At Dime today we’ve already pondered the significance of one aspect of the comeback and its crossover to basketball. Let’s talk about the comeback itself, though, and that pure and unknown commodity known as momentum. If it can stretch across a golf course with players a hole away from each other, then of course it’s been a part of basketball. If there was ever a time to talk about the top 10 NBA’s most unlikely rallies, this is it.

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Brandon Roy always made the rain of the Pacific Northwest palatable. The ROY played in a way that made things always seem sunny in Portland, even coming out of the dark Jail Blazers era. A change in that disposition meant this 2011 first-round playoff game wasn’t just remarkable for the 23-point deficit Roy single-handedly pulled his team out of in the fourth quarter. He did it just two games after saying he was “hurt” to only have played 8 minutes in Game 2, effectively rocking the boat and causing coach Nate McMillan to fire back in public. He showed in Game 4 why he was still the man in Portland by dropping 18 points in the final frame. At least, for a little while longer.

The Mavs had their own comeback on Dec. 30, 2008, with a 29-point rally against the Timberwolves, and they did it without their coach. Rick Carlisle got ejected before halftime, so he watched the comeback in the 107-100 win, seeing Dirk Nowitzki go for 24 points and 13 boards and the Mavs clinch it with a 34-16 advantage in the fourth quarter. Anytime you have a “rim-rocking” dunk by Desagana Diop in the highlights, you know absolutely everything was working for Dallas.

Watching this Jan. 26 comeback on TNT is still fresh in our minds, as it is for anyone left in Orlando who wasn’t blown away by Dwight Howard‘s collateral damage. The harbinger for the rest of the Magic’s season (they scored 25 points in the entire second half) was notable because of its 27-point rally, sure, but also because it was only a month into the season. Like an old car you have to warm up for 15 minutes on a winter day, Paul Pierce — who did the damage with 24 points and 10 dimes, hitting two straight threes and then a pull-up to get it within four points — was still getting comfortable from the abbreviated start and yet still looked like he was back in Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals.

Not to be forgotten: Boston played without Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen.

It also inspired one of the best soundbites, via Kevin Garnett, to ever come out of a Craig Sager interview.

How big was this comeback? When this happened on April 29 to open the first round of the playoffs, I was in England sightseeing. Just for a quick background, trying to keep updated on the NBA in England is like talking to someone through the wall of a sound-proofed room you see in audio testing facilities. There’s zero coverage — Wayne Rooney‘s surgically enhanced hairline had more references in the papers than LeBron James when I was there. And yet, this game’s ridiculous comeback on the road somehow made it through the basketball firewall and was mentioned a few times. Why? Just watch the tape and see CP3 take over the fourth quarter — again.

Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals in 1989 is still the largest playoff comeback ever in a 97-95 win. It was the final win in a second-round sweep for Los Angeles after being down 43-14 but the game wasn’t as lopsided as the series was. The Sonics’ best players nearly won it by themselves, with 30 points by Xavier McDaniel, 28 from Dale Ellis and 26 from Derrick McKey. The rest of the team combined for only 11 points, though.

Dallas is either doing in teams or getting punked by comebacks, making this its third entry on the list. It’s Dec. 6, 2002, and the Lakers fire back from 30 points down to stun the Mavs in L.A., 105-103, in part because of a blistering 44-15 fourth quarter. What made this so unlikely was Dallas’ 17-1 record coming into this game was making statisticians breakout the red pens in case the NBA record book needed to be edited, while the Shaq and Kobe Lakers were just 8-13. Watch for the comeback video, but stay for the shots of an increasingly uncomfortable Mark Cuban.

Just four days before Christmas in 2009, the Kings put a 35-point lump of coal into Chicago’s stocking with a comeback of near-record proportions. While these weren’t the regular-season juggernaut Bulls we’ve come to expect the last two seasons, these were still the woeful Kings. They won 102-98 by outscoring Chicago by 23 in the fourth quarter. Chicago’s Luol Deng and Derrick Rose combined for 50 points, which is a good sign most nights, but Chi hit just ONE field goal in the fourth quarter. How does that happen?

Reggie Miller‘s 8 points in 9 seconds are still the hallmark of the NBA’s one-man scoring show, but he was a Knicks killer already; it was his destiny to do that. Tracy McGrady‘s 13 in 35 and Paul Millsap‘s 11 points in 28 seconds came out of nowhere. McGrady’s was maybe the most unlikely because happened in 2004 on Dec. 9 against the Spurs, which was right in the middle of San Antonio’s mid-2000s run of excellence (in fact SA won the title in the 2004-05 season). T-Mac had 33 on the night, and if it wasn’t pretty overall (he shot just 12-of-29) it was a thing of beauty at the finish.

Millsap’s was unlikely because of his 3-for-3 shooting from deep to get this game to overtime was so outside of his game’s personality. In a season where he averaged just 0.3 threes per game, Millsap’s deep touch was huge in the victory, en route to his 46-point “Miracle in Miami” night. Henry Abbott of TrueHoop dug up this telling stat the day after: In his 328 games before the win in Miami, Millsap had hit just two three-pointers. Total. Yeah, we’d call that an unlikely comeback.

The Jazz in their mid-90s run, which included an NBA Finals trip the season of this comeback, 1996-97, made sure few won on their home court. In 1996-97, in fact, the Jazz were 38-3 at the Delta Center. That could easily have been 37-4, if not for an NBA-record 36-point rally against Denver. Karl Malone‘s 30 points and Jeff Hornacek‘s 29 carried the Jazz after scoring a point less at halftime (36) than the Nuggets had in their first quarter. What made this comeback even more unlikely was how average John Stockton played. He had nine points and 10 assists but shot just 2-of-12 from the field.

The rally of all rallies would have held up well in the regular season at 24 points, even if it was any combination of teams playing anywhere. It could be Phoenix at Toronto in February and it might have snuck on this list. But factor in that not only was this in Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals but also that it was Celtics vs. Lakers, and it’s a no-brainer selection. The game effectively tilted the series in Boston’s favor. Just when a 2-1 Boston lead looked to slip into a 2-2 deadlock in routing fashion, Boston woke up.

The 24-point comeback in the 97-91 win didn’t close it out — they’d wait until Game 6’s 39-point blowout to do that. A 31-15 third-quarter edge for Boston helped them on their way to the win. But if KG was ever going to yell out “Anything is possible” it should have been after this win on the Lakers’ floor.

What do you think?

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