NBA Playoffs: 9 Teams That Have Overcome the 3-1 Deficit
The Golden State Warriors were on the brink. After losing Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that was at times unbeatable in 2016 now faces a 3-2 (up from 3-1) deficit in the series. Now, the team that has done historical things all season long needs to accomplish another rare feat, as not many teams in the history of the NBA playoffs have overcome such a hole in a best-of-seven series.
More than 200 teams have faced the 3-1 deficit in a seven-game set. Only nine of those teams beat the odds and won the series in seven games. So, while not impossible, it’s clear that the Warriors’ order is a tall one — especially with how well the Thunder are playing. Let’s look back at the nine teams that completed the comeback — organized from oldest to most recent — as Golden State hopes to join the exclusive club and keep their hopes of a second-straight NBA title alive.
Boston Celtics over Philadelphia 76ers, 1968
During the ’60s, the Boston Celtics were accustomed to competing for NBA championships, as the franchise won an unprecedented nine titles during the decade. With the legendary Bill Russell at the coaching helm in 1968, it didn’t appear that the Celtics would add to that total when they were down 3-1 to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals.
This Phillies team included the likes of Hal Greer and Wilt Chamberlain. However, Russell (who not only coached, but also played back then), John Havlicek, and company rolled in Game 5 before outlasting the 76ers in Games 6 and 7 — the latter game occurred in Philadelphia — to become the first team to overcome the 3-1 deficit. Of course, Boston went on to win yet another title that season.
Los Angeles Lakers over Phoenix Suns, 1970
In NBA history, not many teams were as loaded as the Los Angeles Lakers of 1970. With three NBA legends on hand (Jerry West, Chamberlain, and Elgin Baylor), they were incredibly difficult to deal with. The Phoenix Suns though, with the likes of Paul Silas and Connie Hawkins, had the Lakers on the ropes in the first round of the NBA playoffs that season, winning three of the first four games of their series.
However, that 3-1 deficit only seemed to make LA more dangerous, as great performances by West and Chamberlain led the Lakers to three straight routs and a series win in seven games. Unfortunately, LA fell short in the Finals that season.
Washington Bullets over San Antonio Spurs, 1979
Coming off an NBA championship the previous season, the Washington Bullets hoped to repeat in 1979. Facing a San Antonio Spurs team that featured the likes of George Gervin in the Eastern Conference Finals though, the Bullets fell into a 3-1 deficit that seemed too difficult to come back from.
Led by the likes of Bob Dandridge and Elvin Hayes, Washington did just that — although all three of the games they won consecutively were absolutely dog fights. The Bullets squeaked out wins by four, eight, and two points, respectively, in the final three games to knock out the Spurs and advance to the Finals once again — where they lost to the Seattle Supersonics.
Boston Celtics over Philadelphia 76ers, 1981
Just like in 1968, the Celtics and 76ers battled for a trip to the NBA Finals in an Eastern Conference Finals bout in 1981. Also like ’68, Philadelphia managed to compete to a 3-1 series lead — this time led by Julius Erving and company.
Yet again, though, they couldn’t close out Boston with three chances to advance. Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, and the Celtics pulled off the comeback, winning the final three games by a total of five points. It was a tightly contested series, but the Celtics proved superior once again. They also won another NBA title that season.
Houston Rockets over Phoenix Suns, 1995
The ’90s were mostly dominated by Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but the Houston Rockets also managed their most successful stretch in franchise history during this decade, winning back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. During the ’95 run, the Phoenix Suns had the defending champs on the ropes in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Behind Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson, Phoenix seemed to be in position to move on to the conference finals after taking a 3-1 series lead with a win in Game 4. With clutch plays by Hakeem Olajuwon and great play by the likes of Clyde Drexler, the Rockets stormed back in the final three games to take the series — fueling a run to their second-straight title.
Miami Heat over New York Knicks, 1997
A series known for its physical play, which resulted in several altercations between the two teams, the Miami Heat and New York Knicks put on a show in the 1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Led by Patrick Ewing, the Knicks got out to a 3-1 lead, but things were only getting started at that point.
Miami won Game 5, but it’s really only remembered for one of the more memorable fights in league history. Behind Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning, the Heat completed the comeback to advance to the conference finals, where they were upended by the eventual champion Chicago Bulls.
Detroit Pistons over Orlando Magic, 2003
The Detroit Pistons were one of the better teams during the early 2000s, as they made six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals appearances at one point. The start of the streak came in 2003, but facing the upset-minded Orlando Magic in the first round that season, the Pistons were in serious trouble.
Tracy McGrady had the Magic rolling with a 3-1 series lead following a Game 4 win. Chauncey Billups and the Pistons figured things out quickly though, winning the final three games by double-digit margins to avoid the upset. The New Jersey Nets eventually swept them in the conference finals that season, but Orlando went on to win a championship the very next season.
Phoenix Suns over Los Angeles Lakers, 2006
With the duo of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, the Phoenix Suns used to be one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the entire NBA. That entertainment value never led to an NBA title, but it did lead the Suns on several long playoff runs. One of those runs occurred in 2006, when they overcame a 3-1 deficit against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the first round.
After Bryant hit a game-winner in Game 4 to give the Lakers a chokehold on the series, Phoenix used dominant efforts in Games 5 and 7 and an overtime victory in Game 6 to advance. They eventually lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the conference finals.
Houston Rockets over Los Angeles Clipper, 2015
The most recent 3-1 comeback is also one of the most memorable ones. In last season’s Western Conference Semifinals, the Houston Rockets seemingly had no hope against the Los Angeles Clippers, as they faced a 3-1 deficit following back-to-back blowouts in Games 3 and 4. A nice effort by James Harden got the team going again at home in Game 5, but after falling behind big in Game 6 entering the fourth quarter, the Rockets’ season appeared to be over.
However, a 40-15 final period in that game allowed Houston to earn one of the more stunning victories in playoff history and led them to a dominant performance at home in Game 7. They lost to the Warriors in the conference finals, but it was still one of the best comebacks in NBA history for the Rockets last season.