The Greatest Comebacks in NBA Playoff History

Last night we almost saw two amazing comebacks in the NBA playoffs:

  • In Indiana, the Pacers were down by as many as 30 points to the Hawks in the third quarter before a furious rally cut the deficit to nine points with 1:54 remaining. That was as close as the Pacers would get, though, and they eventually lost by 10 points.
  • In Dallas, the Spurs led the Mavericks by 20 points in the third quarter but saw that lead dwindle to just one point with 0:19 remaining. San Antonio held on, though, for a four-point victory.

Those games got me thinking: What was the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history?

I don’t have play-by-play data earlier than the 2001 playoffs, so I can’t necessarily find the largest deficit a team has overcome in a given game.

However, I do have scoring by quarter for almost every game in NBA history, so I used data from the 1980 playoffs — the first year the 3-point shot was used — through the 2013 playoffs to build models to predict the home team’s win probability after each of the first three quarters. Here are the results:

Qtr Logit
1 0.5389056 + 0.1067448 × homeDiff
2 0.4405203 + 0.1501432 × homeDiff
3 0.3297903 + 0.2131430 × homeDiff

The logit (“z”) can then be used to estimate the home team win’s probability:

p = 1 / (1 + e-z)

For example, last night the Pacers trailed the Hawks by 20 points after three quarters. Thus their estimated win probability was:

p = 1 / (1 + e-(0.3297903 + 0.2131430 × -20)) = 0.0192

Which, of course, makes Atlanta’s win probability:

1 – 0.0192 = 0.9808

Using this method, here are the ten biggest playoff comebacks from 1980 to the present:

Rk Date Matchup Description WP
1 2012-04-29 LAC at MEM LAC down 21 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0081
2 1994-05-11 PHX at HOU PHX down 18 after 3rd quarter and won game (OT) 0.0153
3 2002-05-25 BOS vs NJN BOS down 21 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0156
4 2011-04-23 POR vs DAL POR down 18 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0291
5 2009-04-19 PHI at ORL PHI down 14 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0351
5 2001-05-03 DAL at UTA DAL down 14 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0351
7 1986-04-22 MIL at NJN MIL down 18 after 2nd quarter and won game 0.0414
7 1980-04-27 LAL at SEA LAL down 18 after 2nd quarter and won game 0.0414
7 1989-05-02 PHX at DEN PHX down 18 after 2nd quarter and won game 0.0414
7 2008-06-12 BOS at LAL BOS down 18 after 2nd quarter and won game 0.0414

As you can see, just two years ago the Clippers had the greatest playoff comeback of the 3-point era, rallying from a 21-point deficit after three quarters to defeat the Grizzlies.

While I was at it, I decided I might as well build models for the era beginning with the introduction of the shot clock (1955) and ending with the last season before the 3-point shot (1979). Here are those results:

Qtr Logit
1 0.6486317 + 0.1190319 × homeDiff
2 0.5370106 + 0.1590951 × homeDiff
3 0.4309060 + 0.2541083 × homeDiff

And here are the ten greatest comebacks of that era:

Rk Date Matchup Description WP
1 1973-04-22 NYK vs BOS NYK down 16 after 3rd quarter and won game (2OT) 0.0257
2 1967-04-23 SFW at PHI SFW down 12 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0299
3 1970-04-12 LAL at ATL LAL down 15 after 2nd quarter and won game 0.0510
4 1967-04-12 SFW at STL SFW down 18 after 1st quarter and won game 0.0578
5 1975-05-18 GSW at WAS GSW down 14 after 2nd quarter and won game 0.0593
5 1970-04-29 NYK at LAL NYK down 14 after 2nd quarter and won game (OT) 0.0593
7 1978-05-30 WAS at SEA WAS down 9 after 3rd quarter and won game (OT) 0.0619
7 1960-03-12 MIN at DET MIN down 9 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0619
9 1974-03-30 BOS vs BUF BOS down 12 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0680
10 1978-04-28 MIL at DEN MIL down 8 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0784
10 1977-04-17 BOS at PHI BOS down 8 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0784
10 1974-04-05 NYK at CAP NYK down 8 after 3rd quarter and won game (OT) 0.0784
10 1967-03-23 STL at CHI STL down 8 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0784
10 1979-05-13 SEA at PHX SEA down 8 after 3rd quarter and won game 0.0784

Not surprisingly, comebacks from extreme deficits were less common before the introduction of the 3-point shot.

Looking at the raw data, from 1955 through 1979 there were 21 cases out of 857 playoff games (2.45 percent) where a team overcame a double-digit deficit to win the game, but from 1980 through 2013 there were 84 such cases out of 2,477 playoff games (3.39 percent).

***

Let me end this post by returning to my original question: What was the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history?

Given the results above, I would have to chose the Clippers incredible 21-point comeback on the road against the Grizzlies.

I have the play-by-play for that game, and amazingly the Grizzlies held a 24-point lead with less than 8:00 remaining in the game. From that point forward, though, the Clippers outscored the Grizzlies 28-3. That run included a brilliant stretch of shooting by Nick Young, as he nailed three 3-pointers in a 1:00 span to trim a 12-point deficit to just three points.

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