How many NBA teams have come back from 3-1 deficits? (updated)

NBA playoffs down 3-1 deficit

With the Golden State Warriors epic 108-101 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder in game six of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs, the internet is writing off and meme-ifying Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s chances in game 7 back in Oakland.

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Keep in mind, it was just a few days ago that the same internet was mocking Steph Curry and Draymond Green after the 73-9 Warriors went down 3-1 to the same Thunder team. It was Westbrook and Durant laughing at the league MVP Steph Curry in the post game interviews.

Now it’s down to Game 7 and no one is laughing.

Why Do Game 7s Feel So Different?

The finality of game 7s makes it a unique event in sports; simply, there’s no game 8. It’s been a hard fought series where both teams have battled to three games a piece.

The game representsthe team’s season where every detail, good and bad, is leveraged and exposed. The importance of executing your offensive strategy and playing focused defense on every possession is paramount.

So there’s clearly some added pressure. Not to mention, usually one team has momentum going into the game. There’s confidence and swagger, grit and toughness, the will of the players and the strategy of the coaches to consider. All of these factors are unquantifiable emotions and intangible actions that are mixed into the ultimate closeout game that will push the winner to the next round.

Every Series is Unique

With the internet writing off the Warriors just a few days before forcing a Game 7, and now that same World Wide Web is doing the same to the Thunder, so why do the “crying Jordans” shift so easily? It’s because, in part, of the aforementioned momentum and emotion. However, we can’t easily look at NBA history and articulate the atmosphere going into Game 7 of the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals and apply it here as a 1:1 comparison.

The players are different. The coaches are different. The mood. The drama. The journey. The era. In these ways, and more, every playoff series is unique.

What we can do is look at how previous scenarios ultimately played out and put some numbers behind why it feels like the Warriors now have the upper hand and try to answer the question: “Do they?”

How Many Teams Have Gone Down 3-1 in NBA Playoff History?

In all of the NBA’s seventy or so years of playoffs (as of this post), 234 series have had a team go up 3 games to 1. And most series have ended with the team up that was up three-one moving on. Read on for more.

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How Many Teams Have Come Back from 3-1 Deficit in NBA History?

If you’re behind 3-1, let’s look at the positive side. Of those 234 series that have went to 3 wins and 1 loss, only 9 10 11 teams have come back from that deficit to close out the series 3-4. That’s exactly a 4.7% chance of digging out of that hole. Looking at this level, it doesn’t bode well for any team finding themselves with just one victory to their opponent’s three.

NBA playoffs teams to come back down 3-1 series

Most recently, the Houston Rockets fought back from being down 3-1 against the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2015 NBA Playoffs during the Western Conference Semifinals. The Rockets advanced to the Conference Finals. Here’s the full list of series that have achieved the comeback.

NBA TEAMS THAT CAME BACK FROM 3-1
Year East/West Round Winner Loser Win Title?
2016 Finals Cleveland Cavs Golden State Warriors Yes
2016 West Conference Finals Golden State Warriors Oklahoma City Thunder No
2015 West Semifinals Houston Rockets Los Angeles Clippers No
2006 West First Round Phoenix Suns Los Angeles Lakers No
2003 East First Round Detroit Pistons Orlando Magic Yes
1997 East Semifinals Miami Heat New York Knicks No
1995 West Semifinals Houston Rockets Phoenix Suns Yes
1981 East Conference Finals Boston Celtics Philadelphia 76ers Yes
1979 East Conference Finals Washington Bullets San Antonio Spurs No
1971 West Semifinals Los Angeles Lakers Phoenix Suns No
1968 East Conference Finals Boston Celtics Philadelphia 76ers Yes

Prior to the Cavs pulling out from a 3-1 deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals, no team has ever come back won a Game 7 and come back from a 3-1 hole in the NBA Finals.

How Many Teams Have Accomplished That Turnaround in a Conference Final?

The Rockets came back in the 2015 conference semifinals, but what are the odds of coming back improve when the teams are further into the bracket?

Of the 10 times that teams have come back to win a series after going down 3-1, four of those times have been during the Conference Finals. That’s 40% of the time. Those teams? The 1968 Celtics, the 1979 Bullets the 1981 Celtics and the 2016 Golden State Warriors.

Considering the NBA went to seven game series in the first round in 2003, there are fewer opportunities for a 3-1 scenario in the first round. Just as there are fewer Conference Finals (approx. 140) compared to the amount of overall Conference Semifinals (approx. 280), so since there have been three times in history, the percentage of teams that have turned it around the Conference finals have a higher chance of pulling off the 3-1 comeback.

Not sure what that exact percentage is (don’t have the total number of conference finals), but it’s simple math to make that deduction.

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How Often do Home Teams Win Game 7s?

Let’s add another layer to these Game 7s by looking at all the Game 7s in NBA history. Of all the Game 7s that were ever played in NBA history, how often do the home teams win?

Often. And the percentage of times that home teams have won are very very good betting odds. In the 126 Game 7s that have been played in NBA history, the home team has won a staggering 80.1% of those games (101-25).

What are the Odds for the Warriors Defeating the Thunder at Oracle Arena in 2016?

Back to the Warriors and Thunder in 2016. How do all those numbers jibe with this particular series? Considering that the Warriors have only lost three home games all season, including the playoffs, and the Thunder’s reputation for the inability to close out games, this seems to put the ball back squarely in the Warriors’ court.

Game 7s are Playoff Milestones

This is anecdotal, but Game 7s seem as if they’re reflected on the most as turning points in a team’s journey. A shot here shifted the momentum. A lucky bounce. A rebound or steal. Every action is magnified in the ultimate closeout game.

And part of the fun is not being able to rely on what has happened in the past. The teams are different. The feelings and emotions are different. They both have to put the ball in the basket (and stop the other team from doing that), that’s why they play the game. Whatever happens, Game 7s have extra weight in NBA Playoff history because it usually separates the good teams from the great ones.

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