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Mailbag: The 8 Teams That Came Back From a 3-1 Deficit

Posted by Neil Paine on May 25, 2011

Yesterday, Kenneth wrote:

"I am seeking more information on NBA playoff series where one team fell into a 1-3 hole, but was able to win the next 3 games and the series.  As per the TV NBA analysts, in past NBA playoff series, 200 of them  reached the point where one team was up 3-1; only 8 of those series concluded with the down team ultimately winning the remaining 3 games and the series.

[Who were] the teams in those 8 series?  I know the 1995 Houston Rockets were one of those teams (their 1-3 down situation occurred against the Phoenix Suns) and ended up winning the title.  I'm also curious how many of the 8 teams who managed to claw their way back from a 1-3 hole ultimately played in the Finals that year and how many won the title."

This became even more pertinent last night when the Bulls fell behind the Heat 3-1, giving us two teams currently facing 3-1 deficits. Here were the 8 series where teams dug their way out of a 3-1 hole:

1968 Eastern Division Final

Game 1 April 5 Boston Celtics 127 @ Philadelphia 76ers 118
Game 2 April 10 Philadelphia 76ers 115 @ Boston Celtics 106
Game 3 April 11 Boston Celtics 114 @ Philadelphia 76ers 122
Game 4 April 14 Philadelphia 76ers 110 @ Boston Celtics 105
Game 5 April 15 Boston Celtics 122 @ Philadelphia 76ers 104
Game 6 April 17 Philadelphia 76ers 106 @ Boston Celtics 114
Game 7 April 19 Boston Celtics 100 @ Philadelphia 76ers 96

(Celtics won series 4-3)

1970 Western Division Semifinal

Game 1 March 25 Phoenix Suns 112 @ Los Angeles Lakers 128
Game 2 March 29 Phoenix Suns 114 @ Los Angeles Lakers 101
Game 3 April 2 Los Angeles Lakers 98 @ Phoenix Suns 112
Game 4 April 4 Los Angeles Lakers 102 @ Phoenix Suns 112
Game 5 April 5 Phoenix Suns 121 @ Los Angeles Lakers 138
Game 6 April 7 Los Angeles Lakers 104 @ Phoenix Suns 93
Game 7 April 9 Phoenix Suns 94 @ Los Angeles Lakers 129

(Lakers won series 4-3)

1979 Eastern Conference Final

Game 1 May 4 San Antonio Spurs 118 @ Washington Bullets 97
Game 2 May 6 San Antonio Spurs 95 @ Washington Bullets 115
Game 3 May 9 Washington Bullets 114 @ San Antonio Spurs 116
Game 4 May 11 Washington Bullets 102 @ San Antonio Spurs 118
Game 5 May 13 San Antonio Spurs 103 @ Washington Bullets 107
Game 6 May 16 Washington Bullets 108 @ San Antonio Spurs 100
Game 7 May 18 San Antonio Spurs 105 @ Washington Bullets 107

(Bullets won series 4-3)

1981 Eastern Conference Final

Game 1 April 21 Philadelphia 76ers 105 @ Boston Celtics 104
Game 2 April 22 Philadelphia 76ers 99 @ Boston Celtics 118
Game 3 April 24 Boston Celtics 100 @ Philadelphia 76ers 110
Game 4 April 26 Boston Celtics 105 @ Philadelphia 76ers 107
Game 5 April 29 Philadelphia 76ers 109 @ Boston Celtics 111
Game 6 May 1 Boston Celtics 100 @ Philadelphia 76ers 98
Game 7 May 3 Philadelphia 76ers 90 @ Boston Celtics 91

(Celtics won series 4-3)

1995 Western Conference Semifinal

Game 1 May 9 Houston Rockets 108 @ Phoenix Suns 130
Game 2 May 11 Houston Rockets 94 @ Phoenix Suns 118
Game 3 May 13 Phoenix Suns 85 @ Houston Rockets 118
Game 4 May 14 Phoenix Suns 114 @ Houston Rockets 110
Game 5 May 16 Houston Rockets 103 @ Phoenix Suns 97
Game 6 May 18 Phoenix Suns 103 @ Houston Rockets 116
Game 7 May 20 Houston Rockets 115 @ Phoenix Suns 114

(Rockets won series 4-3)

1997 Eastern Conference Semifinal

Game 1 May 7 New York Knickerbockers 88 @ Miami Heat 79
Game 2 May 9 New York Knickerbockers 84 @ Miami Heat 88
Game 3 May 11 Miami Heat 73 @ New York Knickerbockers 77
Game 4 May 12 Miami Heat 76 @ New York Knickerbockers 89
Game 5 May 14 New York Knickerbockers 81 @ Miami Heat 96
Game 6 May 16 Miami Heat 95 @ New York Knickerbockers 90
Game 7 May 18 New York Knickerbockers 90 @ Miami Heat 101

(Heat won series 4-3)

2003 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal

Game 1 April 20 Orlando Magic 99 @ Detroit Pistons 94
Game 2 April 23 Orlando Magic 77 @ Detroit Pistons 89
Game 3 April 25 Detroit Pistons 80 @ Orlando Magic 89
Game 4 April 27 Detroit Pistons 92 @ Orlando Magic 100
Game 5 April 30 Orlando Magic 67 @ Detroit Pistons 98
Game 6 May 2 Detroit Pistons 103 @ Orlando Magic 88
Game 7 May 4 Orlando Magic 93 @ Detroit Pistons 108

(Pistons won series 4-3)

2006 Western Conference Quarterfinal

Game 1 April 23 Los Angeles Lakers 102 @ Phoenix Suns 107
Game 2 April 26 Los Angeles Lakers 99 @ Phoenix Suns 93
Game 3 April 28 Phoenix Suns 92 @ Los Angeles Lakers 99
Game 4 April 30 Phoenix Suns 98 @ Los Angeles Lakers 99
Game 5 May 2 Los Angeles Lakers 97 @ Phoenix Suns 114
Game 6 May 4 Phoenix Suns 126 @ Los Angeles Lakers 118
Game 7 May 6 Los Angeles Lakers 90 @ Phoenix Suns 121

(Suns won series 4-3)

Of the eight teams,  five (1968 Celtics, 1970 Lakers, 1979 Bullets, 1981 Celtics, 1995 Rockets) went on to the Finals and three ('68 & '81 Celtics, '95 Rockets) won it all.

Also of note: 6 of the 8 played Game 5 at home, which is encouraging news for the 2011 Chicago Bulls, but not so for the Thunder, who will have to play their Game 5 in Dallas tonight.

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13 Responses to “Mailbag: The 8 Teams That Came Back From a 3-1 Deficit”

  1. Chad Says:

    So if it is 8/200 overall, how many of those teams had homecourt to start the series? Looks like 6 of the winners, but how many losers? Seems like it would probably only be 50 or 60. Which makes the Bulls chances not look so bad.

  2. Neil Paine Says:

    Arbitrarily excluding the BAA (which had 4 3-1 deficits and 0 comebacks) for my own dataset convenience, you get 196 total series where somebody went down 3-1. Of those teams, 61 played Game 1 at home. Teams that played Game 1 at home and went down 3-1 came back 6 times, or 9.8% of the time. Teams that played Game 1 on the road and went down 3-1 came back twice, or 1.5% of the time.

    It's dire for both OKC and Chicago, but if you had to pick one team to come back, the Bulls would be a far better bet than the Thunder.

  3. Neil Paine Says:

    Also, how about the 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 format in that 1968 series? Sounds great on paper, until you consider the insanity of the travel involved.

  4. huevonkiller Says:

    The last couple of times were in the first round. I don't think it is happening this year Neil.

  5. Ray Says:

    I wonder how much point differential can tell us, if anything, about a team's chances of coming back. On the one hand, close losses (especially in OT) probably mean the match-up is more even than 3-1 would indicate, but it also seems like there is usually an emotional sucker-punch involved for the team finding itself in a hole.

  6. huevonkiller Says:

    Regular Season SRS might be telling here. More talented teams have a better chance of coming back.

    The 05 Suns against the 05 Spurs for example, not as much. Even though the Suns won more games the Spurs had a better point differential.

  7. Brandon Lee Says:

    Great info here. How many times has the team down 3-1 even forced a game 7? [even if they lost the deciding game]

  8. Cort Says:

    The 1981 ECF series between Philly and Boston is the best playoff series I ever saw. Two hated rivals, plenty of great players, great drama and last-minute heroics - last 4 games decided by 2, 2, 2 and 1 points. McHale saved game 6 with a block and rebound of a Toney drive after Bird's high-bouncing leaner gave Boston the lead.
    Bird's banker in the final minute won game 7 91-90. Over the last five minutes or so Boston shut out the 76ers from the field with some of the fiercest defense in NBA playoff history.
    Boston almost did it again the next year to the 76ers. After blowing them out by 40 in game 1, Philly took control and won the next 3 after Nate Archibald went down with a separated shoulder. Boston won the next two but Philly rose up and took game 7 in Boston, making them (at the time) the only team other than the 73 Knicks to win a game 7 in the Garden.
    Ironically, Boston was also down 1-3 in that series too after another shoulder injury, this one to Havlicek. Both times the Celtics had the best record in the league but didnt win it all. With all the titles they have won, it is even more ironic that they year they posted the best record in franchise history (68-14) that Boston didnt win it that time.
    Of course, with a healthy Havlicek, league MVP Cowens and Jo Jo White they likely would have won it all over LA. Wilt retired after getting a chery pick dunk with 1 second left in the game 5 Finals loss to the Knicks.

  9. Cort Says:

    I'd like to see the NBA give a conference playoff MVP, like baseball does for its LCS (League Championship Series), only in the NBA it would be for the 3 total rounds performance. Sometimes a guy gets the Finals MVP but isnt the total playoff MVP.
    For this year of course Dirk would be the West playoff MVP. If things keep going the same in the East, LeBron would likely get it, or Wade. Rose if Chicago came back to in it probably.
    I'd like to see retro-active playoff MVPs given too, from 1947-68. Jerry West got the first MVP in 69, and is still the only man to win it from a losing team. I suspect Russell would have a boatload of Finals MVPs.
    Bird would have won the East playoff MVP in 1981-84-85-86-87.

  10. Matt Says:

    #8. I'm very glad I wasn't around to be a Sixers fan in 1981, though I guess the '83 title could help soothe things.

    To go up 3-1 only to lose 3 consecutive games by a combined 5 points must really, really hurt.

  11. AHL Says:

    More! More game logs from pre-1985!

  12. Bill Says:

    The 1997 series deserves an asterisk -- Stern suspended 5 Knicks starters for the last two games due to the game-5 brawl. The Knicks team that lost the last two games was very different from the team that was up 3-2.

  13. JeremyD Says:

    12 - I agree it deserves an asterik, but it wasn't 5 starters for 2 games. LJ, Houston and Ewing were starters. Ward and Starks were both coming off the bench at that point, although they were getting about 45-50 minutes combined a night. And only Starks and LJ were suspended for Game 7.

    I remember watching that series, and being amazed that the Knicks still had a lead in the 4th.