Top 7 biggest comebacks in NBA playoff history
Anything can happen in the NBA playoffs. In 75 years, there have been some epic comeback victories, including two huge ones in the last two seasons.
There is a saying: down, but not done. The NBA playoffs have been around 75 years and in that time, we’ve seen some teams look like they were definitely down and out, only to make unexpected comebacks to win the game. In fact, we already saw the Memphis Grizzlies overcome a 26-point deficit to win Game 3 against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of playoffs in 2022, which is tied for fourth in the biggest comeback wins in NBA playoff history. Let’s take a stroll through memory lane to see some of the other biggest comebacks in the NBA playoffs.
1. LA Clippers vs Golden State Warriors
2019 Western Conference - First Round - Game 2 - Final Score: 135-131 (Clippers)
The biggest comeback in NBA playoff history came in 2019 when it looked like the Clippers were doomed. The Golden State Warriors had a lot on their side, including a stacked team with Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry. They were two-time defending champions and had already won the first game against the Clippers. They were sitting pretty with a comfortable 94-63 lead in the third quarter. The Warriors had the game in the bag…until they didn’t. The Clippers came back and went absolutely insane. Bench stars Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell were the big contributors as the Clippers scored 85 points in the second half, outscoring the Warriors 72-37 in 19 and a half minutes to take back the lead and go home with the win. Harrell went a perfect 9-for-9, finishing with a double-double of 25 points and 10 rebounds. Williams scored 36 points and had 11 assists in the epic 31-point comeback win. As incredible as it was, the Warriors still went on to win the series in Game 6. They lost to the Toronto Raptors in the Finals. Head coach Doc Rivers would go on to experience another crazy comeback victory a few years down the line, but more on that later.
2. LA Lakers vs Seattle SuperSonics
1989 Western Conference - Semifinals - Game 4 - Final Score: 97-95 (Lakers)
The second-largest comeback win came decades ago, in a thrilling matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Seattle SuperSonics in 1989. Seattle was up by 29 points just 14 minutes into the game against the Lakers, and ended up eliminated from the playoffs by the end of it. The Lakers came back to life in a way rarely ever seen before. After the SuperSonics held the Lakers to just 4-for-20 shooting in the first quarter, leading 43-14, Magic Johnson told the team this: “Let’s just cut it to 15″. That was before halftime, and LA did that and then some, going on a 16-0 run to cut the lead to 11. By the fourth quarter, the Lakers had taken back the lead after an 18-6 run with 6:14 to go. James Worthy’s three-pointer, A.C. Green’s baseline jump shot, and several free throws kept the Lakers’ lead to the end. They swept the SuperSonics 4-0 in the semifinals, part of an 11-game winning streak in the playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they were swept by the Detroit Pistons in the final.
3. LA Clippers vs Memphis Grizzlies
2012 Western Conference - First Round - Game 1 - Final Score: 99-98 (Clippers)
The Clippers are no strangers to comeback wins, but their dramatic comeback playoff victory against the Memphis Grizzlies was one of the most epic. The Clippers ended the first quarter already down by 20 points. The Grizzlies added even more to their lead, still up, then by 27, late in the third. With just under two minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Grizzlies were at a nice 84-57 lead. The Clippers chipped the lead to 21 going into the fourth, and they were just getting started. They shot 76.5%, making five out of six 3-point attempts, and closing out the game on a 28-3 run to tie the NBA record for largest deficit overcome in the fourth quarter. It was Nick Young who hit two consecutive three-pointers to make it a close game, the Grizzlies up just 96-93 at that point and a minute, 47 seconds to go. Then it was Blake Griffin’s free throws that put them within a point with 1:30 left. Reggie Evans finally put the Clippers in the lead on a layup, 97-96 with 50.3 seconds remaining. It was anybody’s game at that point, but the Grizzlies fouled Chris Paul, who hit both free throws to make is a 99-98 lead with 23.7 seconds left. They held off the Grizzlies to end it there, steal the win, and go on to win the series in seven games. They went on to get swept by the San Antonio Spurs 4-0 in the semifinals.
At number four, we have a four-way tie of 26-point deficits comebacks.
Tie-4. Boston Celtics vs New Jersey Nets
2002 Eastern Conference - Finals - Game 3 - Final Score: 94-90 (Celtics)
The first to come back from a 26-point deficit in the playoffs were the Boston Celtics in 2002. They pulled off the greatest fourth quarter comeback in NBA playoff history at that time. The Nets had outscored the Celtics in all three quarters and they went into the fourth quarter down 74-53. The Celtics then turned it around dramatically and outscored the Nets 41-16. Paul Pierce had missed 12 of 14 shots earlier in the game. Then in the final 12 minutes, he scored 19 of his 28 total points. Antoine Walker added 23 points to the score. The Celtics celebrated as if they’d just won Game 7, and understandably so. Sadly for them though, the Nets went on to win the next three games in a row to win the NBA championship, 4-2.
Tie-4. Cleveland Cavaliers vs Indiana Pacers
2017 Eastern Conference - First Round - Game 3 - Final Score: 119-114 (Cavaliers)
The Pacers were down 2-0 in the series and looking to get back on top. Their chances were looking hopeful in Game 3 when they were in the lead 74-49 at halftime, scoring a franchise record for points in the first half. LeBron James and the Cavaliers had other ideas, though. James registered a triple-double and scored 28 of his game-high 41 points in the second half, leading the Cavaliers to an incredible comeback win. The game remained close until the end until James hit a three with 2:50 remaining, making it a 111-107 game. It was Channing Frye who hit the next 3-pointer with less than a minute remaining to seal the deal and dash the Pacers’ hopes of winning. They outscored Indiana 70-40 in the second half to take the series to 3-0 before sweeping them in the next game, 4-0. The Cavaliers made it all the way to the finals, when the Golden State Warriors beat them 4-1.
Tie-4. Atlanta Hawks vs Philadelphia 76ers
2021 Eastern Conference - Semifinals - Game 5 - Final Score: 109-106 (Hawks)
We have had two exciting comeback victories in the playoffs over the last two seasons, starting with the Atlanta Hawks’ 26-point comeback over the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2021 playoffs. Remember when we said Doc Rivers would experience another crazy comeback win? This was it, except this time, his team was on the losing side. The Sixers had a 26-point lead in the third quarter before the Hawks completely took over. Trae Young contributed 25 points and six assists in the second half and the Hawks shot for over 60% from the field for a grand total of 69 points. Meanwhile, the Sixers, who had the No. 2-ranked defense, committed 10 turnovers, missed eight free throws, and shot under 38% in the second half. Besides Trae Young, it was Rivers’ former bench star Lou Williams who came in clutch, scoring 15 points off the bench in just 23 minutes. The Hawks won the series 4-3 to move on to the conference finals, where they lost to the eventual champions, the Milwaukee Bucks, 4-2.
Tie-4. Memphis Grizzlies vs Minnesota Timberwolves
2022 Western Conference - First Round - Game 3 - Final Score: 104-95 (Grizzlies)
The last and most recent tie for fourth-greatest NBA playoff comeback win in NBA history came just last month, April 2022 when the Memphis Grizzlies pulled off a 26-point comeback over the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was Game 3 and the series was tied 1-1. It was just the second quarter when Minnesota found themselves in the lead by 26 points. The Grizzlies made a bit of a comeback, cutting the deficit to just seven points in the third quarter, but the Timberwolves came right back, leading 73-50 late in the third quarter. That’s when the Grizzlies and Ja Morant took over and never looked back. Minnesota allowed them to go on a 21-0 run. Ja Morant became the first player in Grizzlies playoff history to record a triple-double as they finished 104-95 and took the lead in the series 2-1. The Grizzlies ended up winning the round 4-2 before being taken out by the Golden State Warriors in the conference semifinals, 4-2.