For just a few minutes, Russell Westbrook had us believing that we’d have a different Finals rematch. After storming back from a 0-2 hole in OKC, with Russ going for MJ numbers in Game 4 (40 points, 10 assists, five boards, five steals), the Thunder took a seven-point lead in the first quarter of Game 5. But unlike in 2012, when they won four straight after dropping the series first two games, Oklahoma City couldn’t withstand the Spurs. Had the Thunder pulled off another comeback this year, it would’ve probably topped this list. Instead, it’s another long summer for Durant and co., and a return to the Finals for a date with the Heat for the Spurs. With that, here are The 10 Greatest Comebacks in NBA Conference Finals History.
10. Lakers over Kings, 2002 Western Conference Finals
I feel bad for the younger generation that never had a chance to appreciate this series. Twelve years later and this is still the best matchup I’ve ever seen. Three of the NBA’s top ten players. Verbal ether thrown back and forth. Conspiracies. Rivalries. Two fan bases and two cities that hated each other. Fans will forever complain the referees snatched away a trophy that rightfully belonged to the Kings, especially after disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy alleged Sacramento had the league’s best team but the “referees/league didn’t allow the better team to win.” The truth is Sacramento also blew it. They know it. Their fans know it. The NBA knows it.
The Kings arguably had this series wrapped up twice. In Game 4, already up 2-1 after smoking the Lakers on their home court in the third game, Sacramento built a 24-point first half lead. In the second half, they succumbed to a deliberate Lakers rally and lost the game on a buzzer-beating Robert Horry three-pointer that must be considered one of the luckiest plays of the last 20 years.
After bouncing back with another win to go back up 3-2 in the series, the Kings had two chances—two!—of finally overcoming L.A. This was a team that won a league-high 61 games during the regular season and had a scheduled Game 7 at home, a scenario where no conference final road team had won in 20 years. It didn’t matter.
The Lakers took Game 7 in overtime, surviving after a barrage of missed Sacramento free throws and two ugly bricks in key moments from Peja Stojakovic and Doug Christie. The Lakers went on to win their third consecutive championship with the Shaq/Kobe core while Sacramento would never reach these heights again.2 of 11
9. Pistons over Heat, 2005 Eastern Conference Finals
In what was perhaps Shaq’s final season as the “real” Shaq, Miami looked like the best team in the league and had the NBA Finals within their grasp before Dwyane Wade got hurt and missed Game 6 because of a rib muscle injury. Up until that point, when the second-year superstar tweaked his rib on a crossover during the third quarter of a blowout Game 5 Miami win, Wade had barbequed the Pistons. Forty points in Game 2. Thirty-six more in Game 3. Another 28 in Game 4. There was no question which side had the better team.
But fate would postpone a San Antonio-Miami Finals matchup for another eight years. Richard Hamilton went off. Damon Jones fell apart in Game 7. And a hobbled D-Wade didn’t score a single point in the final 15 minutes of the do-or-die game.
The Pistons came back from a 3-2 deficit to shock the Heat in South Beach and went on to lose in a Game 7 against the Spurs in the Finals. Miami? They’d get payback in 2006, beating the Pistons in six before winning it all.3 of 11
8. Heat over Celtics, 2012 Eastern Conference Finals
It’s still difficult to process just how important LeBron’s Game 6 performance was. If Miami had lost that game, losing the series in the process, everything would’ve changed. At the time, ‘Bron had suffered three consecutive flameouts in the postseason, and fueled by The Decision in the summer of 2010 and later by James’ embarrassing performance in the 2011 NBA Finals, the critics were out for blood. Who knows if LeBron ever recovers from another playoff loss? Who knows if he ever gets back to the Finals? Who knows if the Big Three gets broken up? It was all on the table with that Game 6 looming in Boston. However, LeBron turned in the most important game of his career, hitting for 45 points (on 26 shots) and securing 15 rebounds, running the Celtics off their own floor and effectively putting a cap on the series.
Miami still had to win Game 7 back home, having fallen behind 3-2 before Game 6, but the damage was done. Switch James with any other player in the league and Boston goes to the Finals. He was THAT good. A few years from now, after Miami has won four or five titles, we’ll look back on this game as the night that started it all.4 of 11
7. Bullets over Knicks, 1971 Eastern Conference Finals
The Bullets and Knicks actually played each other in six straight postseasons, but this was the only year Washington came out on top. Trailing 2-0 after getting blown out in New York during Game 2, the Bullets regrouped, unleashing 26-point and 21-point beatdowns in Games 3 and 4.
The series ended up going to a Game 7 in the Big Apple, where Washington’s Earl Monroe dominated Clyde Frazier in a two-point win. New York liked what they saw. Ironically, the Pearl asked to be traded the following season and got his wish, getting shipped to the Mecca after only three games.5 of 11
6. Suns over Warriors, 1976 Western Conference Finals
It’s one thing to lose a Game 7 in the conference finals, one step away from the championship round. But it’s another to lose a Game 7 at home after being up 3-2, and losing it to a team that won just 42 games in the regular season.
In 1976, Golden State wasn’t just the No. 1 overall seed, having won 59 games and sporting a lineup that included 21-point-per-game scorer Rick Barry, legend Jamaal Wilkes, and Phil Smith. They were also the defending champs. They blew out the Suns in Game 1 by 25 and then did it again in Game 5 by 16. Leading the series 3-2, they had Phoenix on the ropes in Game 6, up one with 12 seconds left. However, Phoenix rookie Alvan Adams hit a layup to take the lead before teammate Gar Heard blocked a shot at the buzzer.
The Warriors had the best offense in the league, averaging 109.8 points per game during the season—Barry put up 27.6 a night during this series—but in the deciding Game 7, they were held to a measly 86 and got sent packing.
Based on win totals, this was the second-greatest upset in NBA Playoff history.6 of 11
5. Cavaliers over Pistons, 2007 Eastern Conference Finals
The Cavaliers and 22-year-old LeBron James became just the third team to overcome a 2-0 hole in the conference finals, and they did it in spectacular fashion. Game 5 in Detroit was the start of LeBron’s legacy. The King had his coming-out party by scoring Cleveland’s last 25 points in a double-overtime win. Every time his team needed a bucket, every time Detroit tossed in another dagger, James stepped up and converted. He hit on drives. He hit from deep. He broke down the Pistons’ vaunted defense over and over again. Steve Kerr, who was calling the game with Marv Albert, repeatedly gushed that he’d never seen LeBron make some of the moves he made.
Eventually, Cleveland walked away with a series lead. LeBron had 48 points.
Game 6 back in Ohio was a formality, and the Pistons melted away in the face of Daniel Gibson’s three-point onslaught. The Cavs won the fourth quarter by 15 and Gibson came off the bench for 31 points (on nine shots!) in what was the best game of his career.7 of 11
4. Bulls over Knicks, 1993 Eastern Conference Finals
A rivalry that had been brewing for five years was supposed to finally dip into New York’s favor during the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals. The Knicks had the East’s best record and had Patrick Ewing saying things like, “It’s rewarding to live up to our expectations.” New York hadn’t lost a game in Madison Square Garden since January, and with the home-court advantage in their corner, they didn’t believe they even needed to win in Chicago. That all changed in Game 5.
New York won the first two games at home, with John Starks hounding Michael Jordan into a combined 22-for-59 shooting. After the Bulls took care of business at home, winning the next two, they pulled off the shocker of the playoffs by winning Game 5 at MSG. You’ve probably seen the ending: Scottie Pippen blocking Charles Smith twice at the rim in the closing seconds with the Bulls up by one point.
It was over from there, and Chicago wrapped up the East crown back home in Game 6, finishing off an improbable four-game winning streak over the team many expected to FINALLY beat them.
Jordan and Chicago went on to beat Phoenix for a third consecutive title. The Knicks never won a championship during Ewing’s era.8 of 11
3. Bullets over Spurs, 1979 Eastern Conference Finals
In 1979, everyone expected a repeat of the previous year’s Finals. The Bullets beat Seattle in five to take the ’78 title and while that was somewhat of a surprise, both teams were expected to win in ’79. Before the postseason even started, Seattle’s Fred Brown went so far as to say, “Don’t be fooling yourself. You know it boils down to us against Washington one more time. Both teams have great people all the way through the lineup. They’re deeper, but we make up for that with our backcourt. I think it will be wild and picturesque all over again.”
We eventually did get the rematch we expected, but not before San Antonio nearly ended Washington’s season early. The Spurs, led by George Gervin’s 31 points per game, blew the Bullets out twice in the series’ first four games to jump out to a 3-1 series lead.
Eventually, it came down to a Game 7, a game many older Spurs fans undoubtedly remember. The Bullets finished on a 10-2 run in the final 112 seconds, winning 107-105 after Bobby Dandridge’s game-winning 16-footer with eight seconds left. Yet the way the Spurs wilted in the closing minutes wasn’t the story after it was all over. It was a power failure…and the refs.
In the third quarter, just as San Antonio was snatching the game’s momentum for good, there was a 15-minute power failure. Once order was finally restored, Washington quickly cut into the Spurs’ lead. Then in the fourth quarter, the Bullets were a plus-11 on free throw attempts, causing guard James Silas to tell postgame reporters that the game was stolen from San Antonio.
Spurs coach Doug Moe also chimed in, getting fined $5,000 for this: “The refs stole it. John Vanak and Paul Mihalik wouldn’t make a call for us at the end. It was a great refereed game and then they stole it at the end.
“It makes you wonder if it was on purpose. They should be set before the firing squad. They [Washington] stole their way into the Finals. Vanak just takes over and puts it to you. Who knows if it’s personal?”
Sound familiar?9 of 11
2. Thunder over Spurs, 2012 Western Conference Finals
There were a few noticeable differences between this year’s OKC/SA matchup and 2012’s: no James Harden, Serge Ibaka’s injury troubles, and the emergence of Kawhi Leonard. That’s where it all swung, closing the gap in athleticism to a point where it was virtually non-existent.
This year, Oklahoma City had won 10 of their last 12 games against the Spurs before Game 1, and once Ibaka came back to the fold, Parker’s drives didn’t look quite so breathtaking—in Game 3, they held the point guard to nine points. Too bad the Spurs didn’t even need him, blowing out OKC behind a pissed off Tim Duncan in Game 5, and then winning an overtime Game 6 on the road with Parker playing just 19 minutes due to injury.
In 2012, San Antonio diced up OKC’s defense in Texas, winning the first two games of the Western Conference Finals. Their offense was rolling, scoring 120 in Game 2 while Tony Parker embarrassed Russell Westbrook. That pushed the team’s winning streak to 20. No one could’ve predicted what happened next.
The Thunder won Game 3 in a blowout, then took Game 4 as Ibaka made all 11 of his field goal attempts. In Game 5 in San Antonio, the Thunder got 20-plus points from Durant, Westbrook, AND Harden to steal it in the closing minutes. Then they outlasted San Antonio in Game 6.
Four straight wins seemed like an unrealistic goal on the surface, but when broken down inch by inch, it made sense. OKC started clogging the lane and daring San Antonio to shoot over the top. They ran more isolations for Harden down the stretch, and they pushed Ibaka to start going at Duncan.
Two years later, with San Antonio riding hard for the championship the Heat stole from them last season, Durant and Westbrook couldn’t finish off the comeback. If you get blown out by a combined 80 points in three road games, you don’t deserve to win.10 of 11
1. Celtics over Sixers, 1981 Eastern Conference Finals
Was this the best series of all time? It’s a possibility. The rivalry had been burning for years, and both teams intended to win it all that year. They each won 62 games. The Celtics had Bird, McHale, and Parish. The Sixers had Erving, Toney, and Dawkins. In this series, five of the seven games were decided by two points or fewer, including the last four.
It was a classic even before you factor in Boston’s unbelievable 3-1 comeback. They won the last three games by a combined five points, and actually trailed by double-digits in all three games. Bird averaged 26.7 points per game for the series, but it was Kevin McHale and Mo Cheeks who decided it. In Game 6, McHale blocked Andrew Toney’s drive in the closing seconds to save Boston’s season. Then in Game 7, after just one basket in the final three minutes, Cheeks missed a free throw that allowed the Celtics the breathing room they needed to finally finish the Sixers off.
Boston went on to win the NBA Finals against Houston, but Philly got revenge the following season, beating the Celtics in Game 7 of a repeat Eastern Conference Finals.11 of 11