Every 3-1 Series Comeback in NBA Playoff History
Teams hoping to fight their way back into an NBA playoff series face one of the game’s toughest challenges. Here is a look back at all the 3-1 series comebacks in the NBA Playoffs history.
Overcoming a 3-1 deficit in an NBA playoff series is a challenging feat that requires teams to win three straight elimination games. The difficulty of this task is compounded by the grueling regular season and numerous playoff games that precede it.
Nevertheless, when players muster the determination to dig deep and fight back, the outcome can be awe-inspiring. The decisive Game 7s that culminate comebacks have been some of the most remarkable NBA playoff games in league history, and this list encompasses them all.
Here is a look back at all comebacks from a 3-1 playoff series deficit to date. The list contains the only team to do it in the NBA Finals, the only team to do it in consecutive playoff rounds, and some of the greatest NBA playoff series of all time.
How many teams have come back from a 3-1 NBA playoff series deficit?
In the history of the NBA, only 13 teams have overcome a 3-1 playoff series deficit and gone on to win Game 7. It's an impressive achievement when one considers that each series winner had to win three consecutive elimination games.
To complete a 3-1 comeback, teams must win at least one game on the road. In cases where the comeback team is a lower seed, it must win two away games.
The feat has only been achieved once in the NBA Finals. The last time it happened in a playoff series was during the relatively recent 2020 Western Conference semifinals. Will we see another 3-1 turnaround during the 2023 NBA playoffs? It’s anyone’s guess, but there is no doubt that NBA fans love a good series comeback.
NBA Teams that came back from a 3-1 series deficit in the NBA Playoffs
- 1968 Eastern Division Finals - Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers
Series Result – Celtics won 4-3
The Boston Celtics entered the 1968 NBA playoffs as one of the tournament favorites. Bill Russell, the team’s player-coach, would come up against the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers and their superstar Wilt Chamberlain.
After winning the series opener, the Celtics dropped three in a row and looked like they would not reach the NBA Finals for a second straight season. That was unheard of for Celtics teams of the 1960s.
Russell made some tactical changes that helped the Celtics overcome the odds and advance to the NBA Finals after completing the first 3-1 comeback in NBA history. Once they got there, Boston took down Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and the Lakers to win yet another title and reclaim their status as NBA champions.
- 1970 Western Division Semifinals - Los Angeles Lakers vs Phoenix Suns
Series Result – Lakers won 4-3
After splitting the first two games at the Forum, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and their Lakers teammates lost both games in Phoenix to go down 3-1 in the series.
Gail Goodrich was helping the Suns run away with the series, but West and Wilt inspired the Lakers to keep their hopes alive in Game 5. They headed back to Arizona to tie things up at 3-3 before completing the comeback at home, routing the Suns 129-94 in Game 7.
- 1979 Eastern Conference Finals - Washington Bullets vs San Antonio Spurs
Series Result – Bullets won 4-3
The 1979-79 Washington Bullets had stormed through the NBA regular season and entered the playoffs as the East’s No. 1 seed. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they came up against the San Antonio Spurs, who had just won a close series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Bullets dropped Game 1 at the Capital Center in Landover, Md., before tying the series 1-1. However, they struggled with Spurs star George Gervin on the road and fell behind 3-1.
In a gripping series, the Bullets went on to win three straight close games. Two of the games were decided by four points or fewer. Bob Dandridge was Washington’s hero in Game 7, hitting the winning bucket with eight seconds left to send the Bullets to the NBA Finals.
- 1981 Eastern Conference Finals - Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers
Series Result – Celtics won 4-3
The 1981 Eastern Conference Finals between Larry Bird's Celtics and Julius Erving's Sixers is one of the all-time great playoff series in the history of the NBA. Both teams were playing at their best, with star-studded rosters and future Hall of Famers everywhere one looked.
The Sixers won Game 4 to take a 3-1 series lead. It was a remarkably close game decided by just two points. Little did fans know that this game would set the tone for the three nail-biters that followed.
Boston clawed itself back into the series by winning game after game. Each victory came by just one or two points, providing some of the best playoff scores the NBA has ever seen.
The Celtics took Game 5 with a 111-109 win and Game 6 with a 100-98 victory in Philadelphia. Larry Bird completed the Boston comeback by hitting a series-clinching jumper in Game 7. The 91-90 Celtics win sent the Boston Garden into a frenzy as the team headed for the NBA Finals.
Bird’s Celtics would go on to win the championship by beating the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals, claiming that series in six games.
- 1995 Western Conference Semifinals - Houston Rockets vs Phoenix Suns
Series Result – Rockets won 4-3
The 1994-95 Houston Rockets entered the playoffs as defending NBA champions but faced an uphill climb as the Western Conference’s sixth seed. They got past the Utah Jazz in the opening round to set up a series with Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns, who took them to the brink of elimination.
Houston fell behind in the series 3-1. The Rockets hit the road for a win-or-go-home Game 5 at America West Arena in Phoenix. That game went to overtime, where Houston eventually pulled away to keep its title-defense hopes alive.
It all came down to a Game 7, where Mario Elie had the last word in sinking the series-winning 3-pointer for the Rockets – a shot dubbed the “Kiss of Death”. Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Kenny Smith and Co. eventually reached the NBA Finals and swept Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic. That enabled Houston to win back-to-back titles in the two years between the Chicago Bulls’ pair of 1990s three-peats.
- 1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals - Miami Heat vs New York Knicks
Series Result – Heat won 4-3
The 1997 playoff series between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks sparked a rivalry between the two franchises.
The Heat fell behind in the series after the Knicks won Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden. Trailing 3-1, Miami looked to be down and out.
That was the moment when Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway and Co. took charge -- firing their way back into the series. Game 5 was a physical encounter with an aggressive feel that eventually boiled over when a scuffle between P.J. Brown and Charlie Ward prompted the benches to clear.
Several players were suspended, including Patrick Ewing, who was barely involved in the incident. Missing several starters, the Knicks dropped Game 6 and lost their momentum in the series. Suddenly, they had to win a Game 7 at Miami..
It didn’t work out for the Knicks. Miami prevailed to complete its 3-1 deficit comeback and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals series against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
- 2003 Eastern Conference First Round - Detroit Pistons vs Orlando Magic
Series Result – Pistons won 4-3
The 2003 playoffs marked the first time the postseason’s opening round was played in a best-of-7 format after many years as a best-of-5. This expansion offered more first-round drama, and the Pistons-Magic series immediately delivered on its potential for greater entertainment value.
Tracy McGrady and the underdog Magic stole the opening game of the series on the road. Back in Orlando for Games 3 and 4, McGrady was the Magic’s high-scorer in both games as his team took a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Detroit wasn't done yet. The Pistons stunned the Magic in Game 5 with an ugly 98-67 win, flipping the momentum in a major way. Detroit then won the series’ final two games by double-digit margins, thanks in part to a combined 77 points from Chauncey Billups in Games 6 and 7.
- 2006 Western Conference First Round - Phoenix Suns vs Los Angeles Lakers
Series Result – Suns won 4-3
The 2006 Phoenix Suns finally got revenge on the Lakers for Los Angeles’ 3-1 series comeback in 1970. Phoenix went into this series as the higher seed against the No. 7 Lakers, who were just under two years removed from the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal feud that had ended with Shaq leaving the team.
The Suns claimed Game 1 at home but a poor performance in the second outing cost them an important win in Phoenix before going to the Staples Center.
After losing both Games 3 and 4 on the road, the Suns had to fight for survival while facing elimination in Game 5. Boris Diaw put on an inspired Game 5 performance and came within one assist of triple-double to keep Phoenix alive. Back in L.A. for Game 6, the Suns were moments away from elimination when Tim Thomas hit a 3-pointer with just seconds to play, forcing the game into overtime. The Suns went on to win Game 6 in OT despite Bryant’s 50-point performance for the Lakers.
After battling their way back into the series, Phoenix won Game 7 by a comfortable margin and became the eighth NBA team to overcome a 3-1 playoff series deficit.
- 2015 Western Conference Semifinals - Houston Rockets vs Los Angeles Clippers
Series Result – Rockets won 4-3
Nearly a decade passed after the Suns’ 2006 win over the Lakers before we saw another 3-1 playoff comeback. This time it was James Harden and the Houston Rockets achieving the feat against the “Lob City” Los Angeles Clippers.
Clippers stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul were in their prime, and Los Angeles looked like it would be a dangerous team in the postseason. The Clippers proved it by getting out to a 3-1 lead over the favored Rockets.
Harden and Dwight Howard had been electric all year, but it took their very best to climb back into this series. After winning Game 5, Houston fell behind by 19 points in Game 6 before rallying for a stunning 40-15 fourth-quarter scoring run to reclaim the lead. The Game 6 comeback set up a winner-takes-all matchup back in Houston, where the Rockets prevailed 113-100.
This series marked the second time that head coach Doc Rivers squandered a 3-1 lead. Rivers had also been in charge of the Magic when Orlando dropped its 2003 series against the Pistons.
- 2016 Western Conference Finals - Golden State Warriors vs Oklahoma City Thunder
Series Result – Warriors won 4-3
In one of the very best playoff series in NBA history, the defending champion Golden State Warriors found themselves facing a dangerous Oklahoma City Thunder team in the NBA Western Conference Finals.
The Warriors, who had crushed Cleveland in the 2015 NBA Finals, had gone 73-9 during the 2015-16 regular season, setting a league record for wins as they prepared to defend their title. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were in their absolute prime and were labeled the “Splash Brothers” during this dominant era.
On the other side were MVP-caliber players Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. Both were also at their peak and looking to put their own stamp on the Western Conference as title contenders.
After the Thunder jumped out to a 3-1 lead that included a Game 1 road win at Oracle Arena, it seemed that the Warriors' incredible season might end earlier than the team had hoped.
The Warriors rebounded to win Game 5 at home and returned to Oklahoma City for the sixth meeting, where the Thunder were favored to close out the series and advance to the NBA Finals. Thompson had other ideas, dropping a playoff-record 11 threes for a series-high 41 points. Riding his big night, the Warriors won, and momentum shifted back to Golden State, which would host Game 7.
The Warriors went on to win the series, completing the biggest NBA playoff comeback in franchise history and setting up a reunion with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. That series would end with another comeback from a 3-1 deficit, but fate was no longer on Golden State’s side.
- 2016 NBA Finals - Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden State Warriors
Series Result – Cavaliers won 4-3
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ comeback from a 3-1 series deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals stands as a defining moment in LeBron James’ truly remarkable career, and for good reason.
While only a handful of teams had rallied out of a 3-1 hole, it had never been done in the NBA Finals prior to 2016. Having already suffered an agonizing loss to Golden State in the 2015 NBA Finals, LeBron and the Cavs found themselves on the wrong end of a series once again just one year later.
Golden State kicked off the 2016 Finals by winning its two home games. Cleveland responded by winning Game 3, and the series looked like it might go the distance because the teams were so evenly matched. That was until Steph Curry scored 38 points in Game 4, enabling the Warriors to upset the Cavs in their own back yard. Up 3-1 in the series, Golden State had suddenly tipped the balance heavily in its own favor.
The Warriors returned home for Game 5 with an opportunity to win back-to-back titles, but LeBron and Kyrie Irving each scored 41 points to spoil the party and rewrite the narrative for what was becoming a legendary Finals.
LeBron’s stats in the series speak to his excellence. He came back in Game 6 with another 41-point effort at Cleveland to force a Game 7 in California. The Cavs headed back to Oracle Arena hoping for another upset on the road that would enable them to claim the title.
They managed to pull it off when Irving hit an eventual game-winning 3-pointer in the clutch. After trailing the series 3-1, LeBron and the Cavs had come all the way back to bring the city of Cleveland its first NBA championship. The Cavs’ feat is undoubtedly the biggest comeback in NBA playoff history.
- 2020 Western Conference First Round - Denver Nuggets vs Utah Jazz
Series Result – Nuggets won 4-3
The 2020 Denver Nuggets became the only team in NBA history to complete back-to-back comebacks from a 3-1 playoff series deficit. This took place under a unique set pf circumstances, because all games were played in Orlando, Fla., as part of a “bubble” created to protect NBA players from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Nuggets staged their first comeback in the playoffs’ opening round against Utah – a series in which Denver won Game 1 in overtime before dropping three straight to Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz. Game 4 of the series featured a 51-point performance by Mitchell, countered by 50 points from the Nuggets’ Jamal Murray. That marked the first time in NBA history that players from both teams scored 50 points in the same playoff game.
Murray followed with 42 points in Game 5 and another 50 in Game 6 – compiling some of the greatest NBA playoff stats ever recorded by any modern-era player over a three-game span. The Nuggets survived and completed the comeback after Utah’s Mike Conley barely missed a potential series-winning 3-pointer in Game 7.
- 2020 Western Conference Semifinals - Denver Nuggets vs Los Angeles Clippers
Series Result – Nuggets won 4-3
Look away, Clippers fans, this will not be fun for you to read.
The Denver Nuggets hadn’t learned their lesson in the opening round of the 2020 playoffs, because they again fell behind 3-1 in their next series a strong Los Angeles team. With both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard on the floor, the Clippers jumped out in front, winning by double-digit margins in Games 1 and 4.
Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray saved the Nuggets from the brink of elimination once again. After Denver tied the series 3-3, Murray turned in an inspired 40-point performance in Game 7 to seal the victory and make Denver the first NBA team to complete back-to-back series wins after trailing 3-1.
The headlines were not so bright for the Clippers, who dropped yet another 3-1 series lead -- their second in six years and the third in head coach Doc Rivers’ career.
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