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Steve Aschburner

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Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs got a measure of revenge for the Heat's big comeback in 2006.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Mavs' Game 2 effort latest in long line of Finals comebacks


Posted Jun 4 2011 3:59PM

DALLAS -- A fellow would have to be a pretty good pitcher to go 28 starts across three major league seasons without winning a game. And a team would have to be pretty good to blow a double-digit lead late in a game of the NBA Finals.

Just as Toronto Blue Jays hurler Jo-Jo Reyes couldn't have stuck around through his awkward victory drought that mercifully ended the other night with a rout of Cleveland, the Miami Heat -- like every other team that has lost control, hit the wall, spit the bit and seen a sure thing snatched away in The Finals -- couldn't have been in position to blow Game 2 against the Dallas Mavericks Thursday night without doing an awful lot right prior to their trap-door moment.

Miami put itself in position to squander its 15-point lead over the final seven minutes by A) getting to The Finals in the first place, with its clincher over Chicago in the East coming on a similar 18-3 snatchback in the closing minutes, and B) building the 88-73 cushion over the Mavericks.

No one but the Mavericks knew they were going to put the whoopee! in that cushion.

"No matter what happens in the game, we're going to play until it ends," Dallas center Tyson Chandler said that night.

And just how did Chandler and his teammates learn that lesson? They had been on the wrong side of Portland's comeback from 24 points down in the first round. The Mavs drew on that the night they dug out of a 16-point hole against the Lakers in the next round.

"When we pulled our first comeback," Chandler said, "we came to the bench and said, 'Listen, if it could happen to us, it could happen to somebody else.' "

So it has gone through the ages, with good teams dominating for some part or even most of Finals game, only to have the lead and the outcome slip-slash-snatched away. Sometimes the disappointed team gets lucky and squanders only that one game. Other times, it leads to a squandered series -- or it happens in the final game, at which point there is zero chance of coming back from the other guys' comeback.

And that really is the proper term for it: Comeback. A half-full perspective seems appropriate at this point. Collapses happen to lottery teams.

So here, in chronological order, are some of the greatest comebacks in Finals history:

1948: Baltimore vs. Philadelphia, Game 2

The Bullets, refugees from the old American League who had found a new home with the big boys of basketball, trailed by 21 points at halftime of Game 2 against Philadelphia. "In those days, if you got behind that far, the game was over," Baltimore player-coach Buddy Jeannette recalled much later. "There was no 24-second clock to help you come back."

But the Bullets methodically worked their way back, and the Warriors' Joe Fulks uncharacteristically started missing shots. A 20-7 run in the third quarter got Baltimore within 48-40, and from there, the Philadelphia fans sat stunned as the Bullets went on for a 66-63 victory that propelled them to the championship in six games.

1970: New York vs. Los Angeles, Game 5

Everyone remembers Game 7 or, at least, the first few minutes before and into Game 7 when Willis Reed hobbled through the tunnel and hit his first two shots in his defining "Captain" moment. But that doesn't happen if New York doesn't survive Game 5 without Reed.

The Knicks center had fallen while shooting and left with a leg injury just eight minutes into the game at Madison Square Garden. The Lakers pounced and opened a lead of 16 points in the third quarter, until Knicks coach Red Holzman's pressure defense and the players' drive to "win one for the Captain" took over. New York got L.A. to cough up 19 turnovers in the second half, Bill Bradley's shot tied it at 87-87 and the Knicks pulled away for a 107-100 victory. They couldn't win Game 6 for Reed back in L.A. but did win the series clincher with him, in that famous cameo appearance.

1975: Golden State vs. Washington, Game 4

OK, maybe there was a little bit of collapse in this one, but only from the standpoint that Washington -- in beating Boston to reach The Finals -- was considered a far superior team to Golden State and a heavy favorite to win the NBA title. Except that the Warriors, while lacking star power besides forward Rick Barry, were a true team and were dedicated to defense.

The Bullets had built and lost a lead of 13 points in Game 2, so what happened a few nights later when they already were down 0-3 in the series couldn't have been too surprising. Golden State trailed by 14 points this time, but scratched back with defense and Butch Beard's hot hand in scoring his team's final seven points in the 96-95 finale. The Warriors swept Washington but won the four games by a total margin of 16 points.

1983: Philadelphia vs. L.A. Lakers

This was a series of comebacks, all by Philadelphia near the end of its famous "Fo, Fi, Fo" playoff run (center Moses Malone had predicted that the 76ers would sweep through the postseason but they actually dropped one game to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference finals). The Lakers were hurt by injuries to Norm Nixon and Bob McAdoo, but Philadelphia's dominance and resilience were hard to deny.

The Lakers led each game at halftime, only to get caught and passed by Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and the rest. In the fourth and final game, the Sixers found themselves down by 16 points, which they whittled to 106-104 late. Out of a timeout, Erving got a steal and a dunk, then followed with a 3-point play and a one-hander from the perimeter. They won at the Forum 115-108.

1992: Chicago vs. Portland, Game 6

The Chicago Bulls always seemed to toy with The Finals a little, never needing a Game 7 in their dual three-peats but occasionally looking as if they might get pushed to one. That surely was the case against Portland, with the Blazers up by 15 points to start the fourth quarter and Michael Jordan sitting on the bench at Chicago Stadium.

But it was the Bulls' other Hall of Famer from that squad, Scottie Pippen, who got his team back into the game. Pippen, on his way to 26 points, sparked the Chicago rally and then Jordan sealed it. He got the Bulls in front with a steal and a dunk, and scored twice more in the final minute of the 97-93 victory.

1995: Houston vs. Orlando, Game 1

Nick Anderson would appreciate it if more people thought about this as a comeback game by the Rockets. Too many, for Anderson's liking anyway, recall it as the game in which the Orlando guard missed four free throws in the final minute of regulation.

The fact is, Houston needed to overcome an early 20-point deficit to even put Anderson in a position to, er, struggle. Guard Kenny Smith hit seven 3-pointers to bring Houston back and push the game into overtime, and then Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon got the tip-in in the final second to win it. This was the start of a sweep, with Houston winning its second consecutive NBA title and the Magic getting their only Finals trip with a young Shaquille O'Neal.

2006: Miami vs. Dallas, Game 3

It happened five years ago, but this game got a lot of attention the other night in Miami when some media folks referenced it in the wake of Dallas' comeback in Game 2. The situation was reversed and not quite as deep into The Finals, and the real similarities won't be known until this 2011 version plays out. But still, same teams, same stunning turnaround.

The Mavericks had taken a 2-0 lead in the series at home and, in Miami for Game 3, led 89-76 with 6:33 left to play. The series would not be heading back to Texas, it seemed. Then everything changed, fueled by Dwyane Wade scoring 12 of his game-high 42 points to lead Miami on a 22-7 run to close the game. Aging Gary Payton made the winning jumper that broke a 95-95 tie with nine seconds left and Dirk Nowitzki missed one of two free throws in a chance to force OT. Thus propelled, Miami then won the next three for its first NBA championship.

2008: Boston vs. L.A. Lakers, Game 4

Los Angeles seemed certain to even this Finals at two games each when it opened a 24-point lead in the first half against old rival Boston. But what once was a 45-21 advantage got obliterated when the Celtics outscored the Lakers the rest of the way, 76-46.

In Game 2, the Lakers had cut a 21-point Boston lead down to two points before falling short. But the Celtics finished the job, outscoring the home team 31-15 in the third quarter and then using all the arrows in coach Doc Rivers' quiver to get completely back in the fourth. James Posey scored 18 off the bench for Boston, Eddie House hit a pair of key 3-pointers, and Ray Allen converted a layup that sealed the victory. The Lakers won Game 5 at Staples Center but went all the way to Boston to suffer a 39-point spanking in the Celtics' championship clincher two days later.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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