Each of the “Big Four” sports in the United States has its signature, historic comebacks that immediately come to mind when you think of their respective postseasons.
The NFL has the New England Patriots’ 25-point comeback against the Atlanta Falcons after Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and company found themselves down 28-3 late in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI.
MLB has the Boston Red Sox overcoming a 3-0 deficit against the New York Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, the first time in league history that a team came back from being down three games to win a series. You could even add in the Chicago Cubs’ coming back from a 3-1 deficit to break their own curse in the 2016 World Series.
The NHL has its fair share of historic comebacks. You could pick the Los Angeles Kings coming back from a 5-0 deficit against Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers in a single postseason game in 1982. Or, you could select those same Kings coming back from a 3-0 series deficit against the San Jose Sharks in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, en route to winning the Stanley Cup a few months later.
Finally, the NBA has its own unique list, spanning decades with 13 instances of teams coming back from down 3-1 in the playoffs.
But, many fans would probably have singled out the Cleveland Cavaliers’ comeback from a 3-1 series deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals against the 72-9 Golden State Warriors as their clear-cut choice when the 2020 season started.
Enter the 2020 NBA playoffs, the home of not one, but two different comebacks from 3-1 series deficits. Somehow, both instances came from the Denver Nuggets, the fifth seed in the Western Conference.
In the first round, the Nuggets rode the back of point guard Jamal Murray en route to a historic three-game stretch against Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz. Murray dropped 50 points in a loss in Game 4 of that series, before putting up 42 and 50 in Game 5 and Game 6, respectively.
Finally, the Nuggets finished off their historic stretch with an 80-78 victory in Game 7 to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals.
But, NBA fans watching the series at home had no idea what they were in store for next. The Nuggets likely didn’t have a clue themselves, and you can almost guarantee that their opponent, the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, were clueless.
After falling behind 3-1 once more, the Nuggets battled back in three straight games, overcoming a 13-point third-quarter deficit in Game 5, a 19-point third-quarter deficit in Game 6, and finally, a 12-point deficit in Game 7 to close out the heavily-favored Clippers.
Denver advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009, while the Clippers fell to an astounding 0-8 in games where they have a chance to clinch a spot in the Western Conference Finals, the longest streak in NBA postseason history.
Yes, this wasn’t the first time that a 3-1 series lead was blown in the NBA playoffs, and it wasn’t even the first time it happened in 2020. But, with all things considered, it seems right to label the Clippers’ latest collapse as the worst in NBA postseason history.
Going off the hunch that many NBA fans would pinpoint the Warriors’ woeful 2016 NBA Finals as the bar to exceed when it comes to postseason failures, the Clippers’ case seems to cruise over that standard in almost every sense imaginable.
No, it wasn’t a blown series lead in the NBA Finals, which will likely be the deal-breaker for many that stick by the Warriors as their pick. But, you have to look at the talent involved on both sides and the current circumstances if you’re trying to get the bigger picture.
In 2016, the Warriors entered the postseason with a 72-9 regular season record, and seemed like the obvious option when fans and analysts figured out their playoff predictions for the upcoming months. Then, the Warriors encountered adversity, going down 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals against an Oklahoma City Thunder lineup led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
The Warriors bounced back and forced a Game 7, and managed to close things out at home to advance to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row.
On the other end, the Cleveland Cavaliers advanced to represent the Eastern Conference, with a treacherous trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love eagerly awaiting a rematch against the team that took them down in the Finals the previous year.
The Warriors took a 3-1 series lead and could practically taste their second straight championship. Then, everything changed.
They lost Draymond Green to a one-game suspension for a Game 5 that could’ve ended the series, and were left without Andrew Bogut after an injury forced him out of Game 6 and Game 7. While you can argue the Green suspension was his own fault, a result of a totality of incidents from the 2016 postseason, none of those circumstances were as self-created as the issues the Clippers created in 2020.
The Clippers were at full strength throughout the 2020 Western Conference Semifinals. They had the roster they built for this exact moment, led by last year’s Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and his superstar sidekick Paul George.
They had the depth they wanted with names like Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Marcus Morris, Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac, and a variety of others on the bench. They were rested after finishing off the Dallas Mavericks in six games in the first round, and it all seemed like a perfect storm was heading Denver’s way.
No offense to the 2020 Denver Nuggets, but they weren’t even close to the 2016 Cavaliers from a talent perspective when evaluating opponents. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are superstars in the making, of course. But, stack that up against a prime LeBron James, a rising Kyrie Irving and a key piece in Kevin Love, and it seems like a no contest on paper.
It all seemed like a rout in the making for the Clippers, and looked like it was all coming true when they went up 3-1 in the series heading into Game 5.
Then, that unfortunate history crept back up on them, and fans began to wonder if they were seeing a repeat of the 2015 Western Conference Semifinals, where Doc Rivers’ Clippers blew a 3-1 lead against the Houston Rockets.
The Clippers didn’t get the same breaks the 2016 Cavaliers did. They had to face off against Murray and Jokic every night throughout the series. No suspensions, no injuries, just the Clippers’ best against the Nuggets’ best for seven games.
And, in the end, those underdog Nuggets came out on top.
Argue all you want about the shortened regular season due to COVID-19 and the lack of time for players like Leonard and George to get acquainted with each other in their first years in Los Angeles.
Those issues didn’t impact the Lakers, who rolled right through the Rockets en route to the Western Conference Finals. Or the Celtics, who added Kemba Walker and lost Gordon Hayward and managed to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Yes, this was a chemistry issue. But, that’s exactly it. An issue, not an excuse. The talent was there. The lead in the series was there. The leads in each of those elimination games were there. There weren’t even games on the road or extra travel to consider since the league adopted its bubble format for the 2020 postseason.
The puzzle pieces were right in front of the Clippers, and it proved to be too complex for them to solve.
Players were tired at the ends of games, despite the added rest the Clippers earned that the Nuggets didn’t get themselves. The conditioning, again, was an issue, not an excuse.
Kawhi Leonard went 6-of-22 in Game 7, missing all five of his shots in the fourth quarter. Paul George went 4-for-16 in Game 7, missing all six of his shots in the fourth quarter.
Jamal Murray went for 40 points, more than Leonard and George combined, and Nikola Jokic (16 points, 22 rebounds, 13 assists) almost had more rebounds than Leonard and George had in total points.
It was one of the worst Game 7 performances you could imagine from such a talented tandem, all at the tail end of the worst collapse in a series in NBA postseason history.
“It was obvious pressure to live up to the title expectations,” George said after the game. “But as a player, I mean, you want that. Like, you want that. Again, it’s the first time I’ve been in that situation where we’re expected to win. But you know, it is what it is. It’s no cop-out. Fact of the matter is, we didn’t live up to that expectation.”
The Warriors may seem like the easy case study to pick on given the weight of the circumstances they crumbled under, but don’t get fooled by that fact alone. The Clippers had everything they needed to make it happen, and collapsed three times in a row.
Now, when fans look back in the history books, the NBA has a new signature comeback to consider as its most iconic of all time: the Denver Nuggets taking down the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2020 Western Conference Semifinals.