Here’s a quick summary of the eight NBA teams that have come back from a 3-1 series deficit:
MVP Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns (54-28) rallied to beat scoring champ Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers (45-37) in the first round and made it to the Western Conference Finals before losing to the Dallas Mavericks. The Suns also had Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. The Lakers had Kwame Brown and Smush Parker.
The Detroit Pistons (50-32) rallied to beat Tracy McGrady’s Orlando Magic (42-40) in the first round. That was the season T-Mac made what may be the most unfortunate quote of his career, noting that it was “great to finally be in the position to advance to the second round (of the playoffs)”. All these years later, he still hasn’t advanced, and probably never will.
Tim Hardaway’s Miami Heat (61-21) rallied to beat the New York Knicks (57-25) in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but they lost to the Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Hakeem Olajuwon’s defending champion Houston Rockets (47-35) rallied to beat Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns (59-23) in the Western Conference Semifinals and went on the win the NBA title. This was Houston’s famous “Never underestimate the heart of a champion” season.
MVP Runner-up Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics (62-20) rallied to beat MVP Dr. J’s Philadelphia 76ers (also 62-20) in the Eastern Conference Finals and went on to defeat the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals. Boston had homecourt advantage thanks to a win over Philly on the final day of the regular season. You want to know how close this series was? Game 1 was decided by one point, Game 4 was decided by two points, Game 5 was decided by two points, Game 6 was decided by two points, and Game 7 was decided by one point.
The Washington Bullets (54-28) rallied to beat the San Antonio Spurs (48-34) in the Eastern Conference finals and then advanced to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Seattle Super Sonics.
The Los Angeles Lakers (46-36) rallied to beat the Phoenix Suns (39-43) in the Western Conference Semifinals and then advanced to the NBA Finals, where they lost to Willis Reed’s New York Knicks. That L.A. team had Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.
Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics (54-28) rallied to beat the Wilt Chamberlain’s defending champion Philadelphia 76ers (62-20) in the Eastern Conference Finals — winning Game 7 in Philly — and then went on to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. It was Russell’s 10th championship.
As Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference notes: “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.”
The closest comparison is between this series and the 1980-81 Sixers-Celtics series. That matchup also included an MVP and an MVP runner up. The teams were well-matched and the games were close. In Game 2, the score was tied at 73-73 with under five minutes to go. In Game 3, the Bulls were down only 68-65 to start the fourth quarter. Last night, Chicago was up by five points to start the fourth.
This isn’t all-out domination, even if it feels that way, and the Bulls have had a puncher’s chance in every game they’ve lost. So winning three games in a row is certainly possible.
It’s just not very probable.