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Every Time an NBA Team Came Back From a 3-1 Deficit (and What It Means for the Warriors)

Posted by Jonah Gardner on May 25, 2016

It was just a couple of weeks ago that we were all admiring the Golden State Warriors' latest feat in a season full of them: keeping up their winning ways without the help of the NBA MVP. While Stephen Curry has returned, the winning has come to a sudden halt.

After spending Sunday and Tuesday night getting obliterated by the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Bay Area's most popular export since 99% Invisible is just one loss away from an early start to their summer. In their last six games, the Warriors went 3-3 with a point differential of -20. During their disastrous excursion to Oklahoma City, they were outscored by 52 points and out-rebounded by 30 boards.

The Warriors are on the brink of a very dark abyss, but they have some historical precedent to look to. There have been nine times in the history of the NBA Playoffs where a team was down 3-1 in a series and came back to win. Looking back at those examples, we can see if any patterns emerge that give the Warriors a roadmap for digging themselves out or show the Thunder what mistakes they need to avoid.

1968 NBA Playoffs: Boston Celtics over Philadelphia 76ers (Eastern Division Finals)

The first time a team came back from 3-1 was 1968, in the 7th showdown between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. However, with Wilt and Russell in their 30s, this would also be a series that featured other, somewhat younger stars like Hal Greer for Philly and John Havlicek for Boston. After the Celtics stole Game 1 in Philly, the Sixers won the next three games, taking a 3-1 lead with 2 games in Philly left to play. And they managed to do all that without future Basketball Hall of Fame Inductee Billy Cunningham, who was injured in the previous series

From there, the Celtics turned it around. A dominant, 37-point Game 5 from Sam Jones helped revive the moribund Celtics. In Game 6, they survived a 40-point onslaught from Greer to send the series back to the Spectrum for Game 7, a four-point nail-biter that saw the Celtics through to the 1968 NBA Finals, where they'd go on to beat the Lakers.

The biggest lesson for the Thunder: don't get carried away. Although the Sixers, not the Celtics, came into this series as defending champs, the Celtics had won the 8 titles before 1967's. In other words, like the Warriors, they were a very, very good basketball team. And a team that good is more than capable of winning 3-straight, even when facing one of the greatest to ever play the game.

Speaking of Wilt, one of the few weaknesses in his game popped up at the worst possible time in the series. From Games 5-7, Wilt shot 20-48 from the free throw line, leaving 28 points on the table in 3 games that the Sixers lost by a combined 30. The Thunder will have to carefully guard against the return of some of the shortcomings -- like Russell Westbrook's 3-point shooting or the team's generally poor execution in crunch time -- that caused people to underestimate them in the first place.

1970 NBA Playoffs: Los Angeles Lakers over Phoenix Suns (Western Division Semifinals)

Not all 3-1 leads are built the same. The one the Thunder enjoyed over the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, for example, was fairly safe, given the relative gap in quality between the two teams. On the other hand, a 3-1 lead over a Lakers team that included Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt is still a relatively precarious one. The Suns found that out the hard way after beating the Lakers in 3 straight games to put themselves one win away from the 1970 Western Division Finals.

To be fair, part of the Lakers early struggles could have come from the fact that they were reintegrating Wilt into the team, after the center missed most of the regular season with a knee injury. While the team struggled to work Chamberlain in early, they clearly started to click in Game 5. From that point, the Lakers dominated the series, winning the final three games by a combined 63 points. Jerry West had 2 35-point games and Wilt chipped in 30 in Games 5 and 7 to end Phoenix's hopes of an upset.

And it would have been a big upset, given that the Suns had a -1.66 in Simple Rating System, 8th best in a 14-team league, and their best player, Connie Hawkins, was worth 10 Win Shares. In contrast, this year's Thunder had an SRS of 7.29 (although the gap between them and the Warriors in SRS, 3.29, is more or less the same as the 3.42 one between the Lakers and Suns) and two players who topped Hawkins' season by four Win Shares (Russ and Kevin Durant).

In other words, while the Thunder winning this series would be an upset, they're also good enough to do it on the merits, without requiring a crazy amount of magic or luck.

1979 NBA Playoffs: Washington Bullets over San Antonio Spurs (Eastern Conference Finals)

After the NBA-ABA merger, the Spurs spent a few years in the Eastern Conference, giving us this somewhat strange Eastern Conference Finals matchup. For a moment, it seemed like the Spurs, who were in their 3rd season in the NBA, were going to knock off the #1-seed Bullets. This was thanks mainly to the hot scoring of George Gervin, who dropped 34 in Game 1 and 42 in Game 4.

However, the Bullets turned it around in Game 5 and 6, thanks to some effective work from Elvin Hayes, and pulled out a tight, somewhat controversial comeback win in Game 7. The Spurs led for most of the second half, until a furious Washington rally late in the 4th led the Bullets to the 1979 NBA Finals. Even in a seven-game series, and even with a 3-1 win, the margins are very narrow. Doubly so, when you're facing a defending champion, like the 1978 champion Washington Bullets or, say, that team that won it all last year.

1981 NBA Playoffs: Boston Celtics over Philadelphia 76ers (Eastern Conference Finals)

Just two years later, in the same round, history would repeat itself. In more ways than one, in fact, since the Celtics would once again weather a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the 76ers. This time the culprit was Larry Bird, who was looking for revenge after the Sixers had beaten the Celtics in the ECF the year before.

Bird had a 32-point Game 5, when the Celtics were most desperate for a spark, and chipped in 25 and 23 in Games 6 and 7. Despite a great series from Julius Erving and Darryl Dawkins, the Sixers again failed in three chances to close out the Celtics.

This series is notable for a number reasons, including sheer entertainment value, but one thing that jumps out is the scoring lines. 5 of the 7 games were decided by one-score, including two that came down to a single point. Of the others, only Game 2, an 18-point Celtics win, was a true blowout.

That's a stark contrast with the 2016 Western Conference Finals, which have already had three blowouts in four games. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Warriors can't come back; they were, after all, on the winning side of one of those three blowouts. However, it's also a sign that the gap between the Thunder and Warriors is larger than the one separating Boston from Philly in their series.

1995 NBA Playoffs: Houston Rockets over Phoenix Suns (Western Conference Semifinals)

This series marked the first time since 1968 that a lower seeded team came back from a 3-1 deficit, but the Rockets, en route to their second title in as many years, were no ordinary 6-seed. Unlike 1981, this series more closely mirrored Thunder-Warriors, with three blowouts and one close Suns' win leaving Phoenix with a 3-1 lead heading into Phoenix. And, unlike the Thunder, the Suns had two chances to close it out at home.

Unfortunately, however, they still had to deal with Hakeem Olajuwon. The Dream averaged 30 points per game for the final three games of the series, including a consciousness-expanding 30-point, 10-assists, 8-rebounds, 5-blocks performance in Game 6. Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson were just as brilliant, especially in Game 7 where the former had 23 rebounds and the latter had 46 points, but Hakeem, along with players like Clyde Drexler and Kenny Smith, proved too much to handle.

For the Thunder, the lesson is obvious. No matter how well things are going, they need to watch out for the MVP.

1997 NBA Playoffs: Miami Heat over New York Knicks (Eastern Conference Semifinals)

One of the most entertaining rivalries of the 1990s gave us this series, when Pat Riley got one over on his former employer after falling behind the Knicks 3-1. This series was a bruiser; the pace rating was 87.6 and the teams managed to clear 100 points just once between them.

This series epitomized what we talk about when we talk about the brutal, physical basketball of the 1990s, although it's more remembered now for the infamous moment in Game 5 where P.J. Brown picked up and threw Charlie Ward

The resulting suspensions to Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Allan Houston, and John Starks, four of the Knicks' Top 6 players in Win Shares, completely changed the course of the series. So much so, in fact, that more conspiracy-minded fans think Riley encouraged Brown to start the fight. Either way, the Knicks, who had cruised to a 3-1 lead in the series, had to play Game 6 and 7 shorthanded (due to the NBA staggering the suspensions), and the result was the first trip to the Conference Finals in Miami Heat history.

In 2016, it seemed for a moment like a suspension could impact the series, when Draymond Green kicked Steven Adams. Dray beat the rap, but maybe the Warriors would have been better off without his -30 performance in Game 4. Either way, both teams are under immense, palpable pressure, which will only ratchet up as the series goes on. Hopefully, they learn from the Knicks and keep their cool.

2003 NBA Playoffs: Detroit Pistons over Orlando Magic (Eastern Conference First Round)

In the first year that First Round series were eligible for this list, thanks to their expanding to a best-of-7 format, one made it. Had the Magic taken a 3-1 lead on the Pistons one year earlier, they would have won the series and eliminated the 1-seed Pistons. But, under the new rules, the Pistons still had a chance to come back.

Orlando's poor luck aside, this series featured a brilliant Tracy McGrady, who averaged 31.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game (not to mention 4.7 assists). On Detroit's side, Ben Wallace was a monster on the boards, averaging 17.9 per game. Oh, and he also posted an 88 defensive rating, which is bonkers. His lockdown D was one of the reasons the Magic scored just 67 points in Game 5.

2006 NBA Playoffs: Phoenix Suns over Los Angeles Lakers (Western Conference First Round)

Like the Magic, the Lakers relied on a brilliant superstar to challenge one of the season's best teams, as Kobe Bryant averaged 27.9 PPG, with an effective field goal percentage of .545 (who says he couldn't be efficient!). That said, the narrative of this era of Lakers as a team being dragged along by Kobe is somewhat unfair to Lamar Odom, who was brilliant in his own right, averaging 19.1 PPG, 11.0 RPG, and 4.9 APG in the series.

But despite having two superstars going at full tilt, it wasn't enough to beat the Suns, the league's fastest team being led by a 2-time MVP PG with a sniper jump shot. Is this ringing any bells?

However, despite the superficial similarities between the two teams, there's a very big difference in how the series themselves played out to this point. In 2006, the first four games were very close, all being decided by single-digits and one Lakers win coming down to a single point. The Lakers simply didn't put together two victories as dominant as the two in Oklahoma City.

While the Suns started pulling away, winning Game 5 by 17 and Game 7 by 31, it's much harder to see the Warriors flipping a switch like that.

2015 NBA Playoffs: Houston Rockets over Los Angeles Clippers (Western Conference Semifinals)

Finally, there's the most recent example. If the Warriors do come back, it would be the first time in NBA history that there've been 3-1 comebacks two years in a row. A year removed from this comeback, it seems all the more improbable. The Rockets would go on to utterly collapse in 2016 while the Clippers seemed like legitimate contenders until their playoff run was derailed by injury.

One place where Houston gained a major advantage in the series? Offensive rebounds. The Rockets grabbed 25.1% of offensive rebound opportunities, compared to 21.2% for the Clips. That's bad news for the Warriors, who are losing on that front to the Thunder by almost the same margin (25.9% for OKC vs 21.2% for Golden State).

There is better news for the Warriors, though. Like the Dubs, the Rockets were absolutely annihilated in Games 3 and 4, losing them by a combined 58 points. Then there's this: One popular theory for why the Clippers collapsed so suddenly is that they were emotionally and physically worn out from their last series, which also happens to be against the team OKC beat to make it to the WCF.

However, Clippers-Spurs in 2015 was a tight, 7-game battle that came down to the very end. Thunder-Spurs, on the other hand, only went 6 games, ending with a blowout victory for Oklahoma City.

In short, there's no road map for Golden State. They can point to some teams who got blown out in early games and came back to take the series. There's examples of teams that were better in the regular season eventually finding their form and overcoming weaker opponents.

But there's a reason all of these series remain well-remembered today: teams rarely blow this kind of lead. Oklahoma City just need to win 1 out of their next 3 games, a winning percentage that would rank slightly below the Minnesota Timberwolves this year. Golden State, on the other hand, needs to be perfect. That wasn't hard for them from October to April, but it sure seems to be now.

5 Responses to “Every Time an NBA Team Came Back From a 3-1 Deficit (and What It Means for the Warriors)”

  1. Ven Senires Says:

    Please remind Kerr that by playing small against tall, very tall, OKC players, there is a very slim chance that the Warriors will win. As one OKC "smart" player said, "We will play small with our 7 footers."

    A group of small midgets who are the best in basketball has a very slim chance of winning against taller non-midget players. That is a fact.

    Kerr should start using his big men (at least two of them at the same quarter) in the Western Conference Final games. He should always keep Curry, Thompson and Green playing with two big men (like Bogut and Ezeli or Ezeli and Mo or Verajao).

  2. Den Says:

    @Ven Senires
    Interesting points, but I think GSW is simply not built for that. Their bigs are in there either for creating the chances (Bogut and Green for the passes) or cleaning up the mess (Ezeli and Verajao for the hustle). Green is a descent scorer, but the rest of them cannot score without help. They cannot even make simple pull up jump shots consistently. Any combination of 2 bigs without Green is committing suicide because the offense becomes simple - their scoring option is only the other 3 players (if they even play 3 capable scorers at the same time).

    As for post up baskets, none of the big above is good enough. Green could be an option but he is no Charles Barkley offensively. Playing post up overtime, he's height will quickly be neutralized by the height and length of OKC in the paint.

    I think the key to GSW's victory would be if they could if keep Bogut on the court. Bogut is known to be very foul prone and has been committing silly fouls in this series. He's been averaging more than 3 fouls playing just under 15 minutes! He's a capable passer and a huge body in the paint. He could be the catalyst for GSW need Bogut as the catalyst, but if he just cannot stay on the court playing, god helps them.

  3. Thunder On The Brink Of Collapsing | The Basketball Network Says:

    […] It looks very grim for the Thunder, who travel back to Golden State with zero momentum; Game 7 is Monday, May 30 at 9:00 PM EST. If Golden State wins and finished their comeback from being down 3-1, it would be the tenth such feat in NBA history. […]

  4. Roast Beef Says:

    @Ven Senires

    The chances of those "midgets" winning are so slim, they only managed 140 regular season wins over the past two seasons, plus an NBA title. Playing a PF/C at SF and loading the floor with slow players who cannot score or defend quicker players would be a recipe for disaster.

    I'm not sure if you've been in a coma for the last two years, but I'm pretty sure Steve Kerr knows his team a little bit better than you do.

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