The NBA Playoffs are my favorite time of year. Any given night history can happen. There’s maybe no bigger historical quirk in the NBA than the collective record of teams who find themselves down 3-0 down in a best of 7 game NBA Playoff series.
How many NBA teams have come back from 3-0? No NBA team has ever won a playoff series after being down 3 games to 0. Since the introduction of the best-of-seven series format in 1947, over 150 NBA teams have faced a 3-0 series deficit. 11 teams managed to win 2 games, losing in 6. Only 4 teams have won 3 straight to force a Game 7 after trailing 3-0, but none of them were able to complete the comeback in the final game and win the series.
Below is a complete list of all 11 NBA playoff series in which a team won 2 games after being down 3 games to 0, losing the series in game 6. Of the 150+ teams that have faced a 3-0 series deficit the below teams count for just 7% who managed to take it to 6 games.
|Best of 7 Game NBA Series where 3-0 went 6 games|
|2022||Eastern Conference First Round||76ers defeat Raptors 4-2|
|2015||Eastern Conference First Round||Bulls defeat Bucks, 4-2|
|2013||Western Conference First Round||Thunder defeat Rockets, 4-2|
|2013||Eastern Conference First Round||Knicks defeat Celtics, 4-2|
|2010||Eastern Conference Finals||Celtics defeat Magic, 4-2|
|2007||Eastern Conference Semifinals||Pistons defeat Bulls, 4-2|
|2000||Eastern Conference Semifinals||Pacers defeat 76ers, 4-2|
|1996||NBA Finals||Bulls defeat SuperSonics, 4-2|
|1962||Western Division Finals||Lakers defeat Pistons, 4-2|
|1949||NBA Finals||Lakers defeat Capitols, 4-2|
|1947||Semifinals||Stags defeat Capitols, 4-2|
How many NBA teams have forced a game 7 after being down 3-0?
There are 4 teams who managed to go one game better than the 11 NBA teams listed above. These 4 NBA teams managed to take a 3-0 deficit all the way to 7 games. None of them was able to ultimately win the final game and claim the series. They still stand out as magnificent competitors who turned adversity around to defy the odds. They account for just over 2% of the 150+ NBA teams to have faced a 3-0 deficit. The NBA Playoff series to go to 7 games after being 3-0 are listed below:
- 1951 NBA Finals: Rochester Royals vs. New York Knicks
- 1994 Western Conference Semifinals: Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz
- 2003 First Round: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Dallas Mavericks
- 2023 Eastern Conference Finals: Boston Celtics vs Miami Heat
Below we break down each of these 4 magnificent series. Looking at how the games fell, who had home court advantage and any storylines that helped drive such unique results. Spoiler warning, brace yourself, none of the comeback teams actually managed to win the series. In the NBA fighting back from 3-0 only leads to heartbreak.
Royals vs. Knicks: 1951 NBA Finals
In just the 5th ever NBA finals the New York Knicks found themselves down 3-0 to the Rochester Royals. The 1951 NBA Finals saw two teams from the same state facing off, both in their first ever NBA Finals.
The 36-20 Knicks had finished 3rd in the Eastern Division. The Royals had finished second in the Western Division with a 41-27. In the early days of the NBA the league was so small, just 11 teams, that the traditional East/West Conferences that we know today hadn’t yet been established. The Royals had the better Regular season record, so when they met in the Finalist was the team from Rochester who had home court advantage. Like today, the 1951 NBA Finals followed a 2-2-1-1-1 format between home and road.
How the dramatic 1951 NBA Finals series took shape.
|1951 NBA Finals Game Scores|
|Date||Road Team||Score||Home Team||Series Score|
|7 Apr 1951||New York Knicks||65-92||Rochester Royals||Knicks 0 – 1 Royals|
|8 Apr 1951||New York Knicks||84-99||Rochester Royals||Knicks 0 – 2 Royals|
|11 Apr 1951||Rochester Royals||78-71||New York Knicks||Knicks 0 – 3 Royals|
|13 Apr 1951||Rochester Royals||73-79||New York Knicks||Knicks 1 – 3 Royals|
|15 Apr 1951||New York Knicks||92-89||Rochester Royals||Knicks 2 – 3 Royals|
|18 Apr 1951||Rochester Royals||73-80||New York Knicks||Knicks 3 – 3 Royals|
|21 Apr 1951||New York Knicks||75-79||Rochester Royals||Knicks 3 – 4 Royals|
The favored Royals jumped out to an expected 2-0 lead by taking the first 2 games at home. They had seen off the Pistons 2-1 (best of 3) in the first round before vanquishing the George Mikan Lakers in the Conference Finals. Against the Lakers they had dropped the first game before winning 3 straight to win the best of 5 game series 3-1. With the hot start against the Knicks they rode a 5 game winning streak into New York for game 3. The Royals took a narrow 3 point lead into the 4th quarter, but managed to extend it to 7 points and take a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead in the series.
|Rochester Royals 1951 NBA Finals Series Stats|
The Royals were led by Arnie Risen and Bob Davies who stayed steady throughout the Finals. Risen would lead the 1951 Playoffs in both points and rebounds and prove to be decisive as the series progressed.
Facing elimination, the Knicks earned a six-point win in Game 4, seen at the time as a mere consolation. Saving a bit of face in front of a rabid MSG crowd. The Knicks stormed out to a 21-10 lead in the first quarter before holding on to win. Harry Gallatin lived at the line going 12/15 totalling 22 points while teammate Nat Clifton grabbed 17 rebounds and 14 points. The Knicks had finally arrived in the series, but now they had to face the Royals back on their home floor with the series on the line again.
|New York Knicks 1951 NBA Finals Series Stats|
In game 5 back in Rochester, with the series at 3-1 and the Knicks facing elimination the Royals took a 5 point lead into the second half. Risen and Davies looked too good for the Knicks. In the third quarter the momentum of the game and the series would shift. Huge performances from Connie Simmons and Max Zaslofsky saw the Knicks take a 3 point lead into the final quarter. Continued good play for Simmons and Zaslofsky and some timely assists from Nat Clifton saw the Knicks hold their 3 point lead and make it 3-2. This time heading back to New York for game 6.
The nip and tuck game back in New York saw the young Knicks team stick together and fend off a monster (27 points 15 rebounds) game from the Royals Arnie Risen. It wasn’t until the 4th quarter that the Knicks managed to pull away. The Knicks team with an average age of just 24 had done the impossible. The series was level and the momentum had shifted. 3-3.
With the series back in Rochester for Game 7 the young Knicks continued to stick together. All 5 starters finished in double digit scoring and they grabbed 34 rebounds between them. Risen powered the Royals as usual, finishing with 24 points and 13 rebounds, getting to the line 14 times for 10 makes. The Knicks closed a 6 point halftime Royals lead to just 2 points heading into the 4th. But the Royals had too much for them, eventually winning game 7 79-75 and claiming the 1951 NBA title.
The Knicks would lose the following year’s 1952 Finals 4-3 to the Lakers and the 1953 Finals 4-1, again to the Lakers. Despite their resilience they never managed to get over the hump and win a title.
Jazz vs. Nuggets: 1994 Western Conference Semifinals
The 1994 Nuggets were an exceptional story and wrote their name all over the history books. After finishing the season ranked 8th in the West with a 42 and 40 record, no one gave the Denver Nuggets much hope of making an impact in the 1994 NBA Playoffs. Drawn in the first round against the 63-19 Seattle Supersonics, who had the best record in the league, a quick exit in a 5 game series was expected.
Watch this great breakdown of how the series unfolded above
Led by Sean Kemp and Gary Payton, the Sonics cruised out to a 2-0 series lead. Hoping to take advantage of Michael Jordan’s retirement and bring a title home to Seattle.
The Nuggets, led by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in scoring and anchored on defense by Dikembe Mutombo scrapped and clawed their way back. Winning 2 games at altitude in Denver before toppling the title favorites 98-94 back in Seattle to advance to the second round. Coached by Dan Issel, this Nuggets team was far from done in the 1994 Playoffs.
After becoming the first No. 8 seed to advance past the first round and the first side in NBA history to overturn a 2-0 deficit in a best of 5 game series, the Nuggets would face the 53-29 Utah Jazz who finished 5th in West. Once again a swift exit was to be expected.
|1994 NBA Second Round Game Scores – Jazz (5) vs Nuggets (8)|
|Date||Road Team||Score||Home Team||Series Score|
|10 May 1994||Denver Nuggets||91-100||Utah Jazz||Denver 0 – 1 Jazz|
|12 May 1994||Denver Nuggets||94-104||Utah Jazz||Denver 0 – 2 Jazz|
|14 May 1994||Utah Jazz||111-109||Denver Nuggets||Denver 0 – 3 Jazz|
|15 May 1994||Utah Jazz||82-83||Denver Nuggets||Denver 1 – 3 Jazz|
|17 May 1994||Denver Nuggets||109-101||Utah Jazz||Denver 2 – 3 Jazz|
|19 May 1994||Utah Jazz||91-94||Denver Nuggets||Denver 3 – 3 Jazz|
|21 May 1994||Denver Nuggets||81-91||Utah Jazz||Denver 3 – 4 Jazz|
The Jazz took care of business in Utah over the first 2 games. Karl Malone led all scorers and John Stockton, as usual, supplied him the bullets to do so, averaging almost 10 assists for the series. Game 3 was a different matter back in Denver. It needed a combined 50 points from Stockton and Malone with a game high 27 from Jeff Hornacek and 19 from starter Tyrone Corbin just to edge out the Nuggets by 2 points. 111 – 109. The series was 3-0, despite Denver’s resurgence the series looked over.
John Stockton and Karl Malone formed the most formidable pick and roll partnership the NBA has ever seen
In Game 4, Denver won by one point to stave off elimination. A very low score in a gritty defensive game, 82-83 reflected the cagey nature of the game. It took Nuggets 6th man Robert Pack chipping in with 14 points to make the difference.
As the series moved back to Utah for Game 5 with the Nuggets facing elimination for the 5th time in the 1994 Playoffs, the narrow win in game 4 was seen as nothing more than a blip and Utah were confident of reaching the Conference Finals. 7 Blocks from Mutombo disrupted the Jazz offense in agame where the Nuggets clamped down on them from the second quarter. Running out 109-101 winners and forcing a game 6 back in Denver.
|Utah Jazz 1994 NBA Playoffs Second Round Series Stats|
The Jazz looked to be in control of game 6 as Malone put up 31 points and hauled in 17 rebounds. The Jazz were leading by 13 points going into the 4th quarter. Once again Robert Pack was the difference maker off the bench as the Nuggets won the 4th quarter 27-17 and took the game by 3 points. Tied at 3-3 the Nuggets had seemingly once again done the impossible. They had now staved off elimination for 6 games in the 1994 NBA Playoffs and faced a decisive game 7 back in Utah. If the Nuggets won, they would be the first team in NBA history to win a best of 7 game series after being 3-0 down.
|Denver Nuggets 1994 NBA Playoffs Second Round Series Stats|
Back in Salt Lake City 31 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists from Karl Malone propelled the Jazz to a 10-point win, taking the series and moving on to face the Houston Rockets in the West Conference Finals. Denver would go home, a sizeable footnote in the history of the NBA.
Mutombo averaged 5.5 blocks per game in the series vs the Jazz
Mavericks vs. Trail Blazers: 2003 First Round:
In the 2003 NBA Playoffs the 3 vs 6 Matchup between the 60-22 Dallas Mavericks and the 50-32 Portland Trail Blazers wasn’t supposed to capture the imagination of the nation.
Behind the play of Dirk Nowitzki who had finished the season with 25-10-3 averages, the favored Mavericks got out to a 3-0 series lead over the Trail Blazers in the opening round of the 2003 NBA Playoffs. So far, so expected. The stacked Dallas roster featuring future MVPs Dirk Nowitski and Steve Nash were a dark horse to win the NBA title in 2003.
|Dallas Mavericks 2003 NBA Playoffs First Round Series Stats|
|Nick Van Exel||31||7||15.3||2.1||5|
Portland had looked way off the pace in the first 3 games of the series losing by an average margin of almost 9 points, looked dead and buried going into game 4.
|2003 NBA First Round Game Scores – Mavericks (3) vs Trail Blazers (6)|
|Date||Road Team||Score||Home Team||Series Score|
|19 Apr 2003||Portland Trail Blazers||86-96||Dallas Mavericks||Trail Blazers 0 – 1 Mavericks|
|23 Apr 2003||Portland Trail Blazers||99-103||Dallas Mavericks||Trail Blazers 0 – 2 Mavericks|
|25 Apr 2003||Dallas Mavericks||115-103||Portland Trail Blazers||Trail Blazers 0 – 3 Mavericks|
|27 Apr 2003||Dallas Mavericks||79-98||Portland Trail Blazers||Trail Blazers 1 – 3 Mavericks|
|30 Apr 2003||Portland Trail Blazers||103-99||Dallas Mavericks||Trail Blazers 2 – 3 Mavericks|
|2 May 2003||Dallas Mavericks||103-125||Portland Trail Blazers||Trail Blazers 3 – 3 Mavericks|
|4 May 2003||Portland Trail Blazers||95-107||Dallas Mavericks||Trail Blazers 3 – 4 Mavericks|
It was a huge defensive display from Portland which turned game 4 and the series in their favor. However it wouldn’t come until the second half. With Dallas posting their usual 52 points in the first half, Portland trailed by 3 going into the third. The Mavs crumbled, scoring only 10 points in the 3rd quarter and just 17 in the 4th as the Blazers ran away with the game. Nash who played just 20 mins in the game didn’t score a point and finished with only 3 assists.
On the other side the Portland offense had come to life, led by Rasheed Wallace (25) and Zach Randolf (23) in scoring the Blazers dominated the interior to stave off elimination.
Back in Texas game 5 was closer. But the Blazers managed to pull out an edgy win, 103-99 to take the series back to Portland at 3-2 with momentum now shifting in their favor. Dirk had played all 48 minutes to record 31-11 in the loss and Nash was back on form with 11 assists, but it hadn’t mattered, the size and physicality of the Blazers was a problem.
|Portland Trail Blazers 2003 NBA Playoffs First Round Series Stats|
Game 6 in Portland was another blow out. Portland got well ahead in the second quarter and stayed there. Dirk Nowitski hardly played in the second half, going 2-11 for 4 points. However, for the first time in a while Steve Nash had started to score the ball, finishing with 21 points. The series was tied at 3-3 with a huge game 7 coming in Dallas. The momentum was all with the Trail Blazers.
Back home in Dallas, Nowitzki’s 31 points and 11 rebounds combined with the resurgent Nash who delivered another 21 points and 7 assists saw a 107-95 win for the Mavs. Portland had 6 players in double figure scoring as they stuck together as a team and fought to the end. Ultimately talent was the deciding factor, Nash and Dirk were just too much when it mattered.
For the 3rd time in NBA history a team had clawed their way back from 3-0 down only to lose in a dramatic game 7.
Celtics vs. Heat: 2023 Eastern Conference Finals:
Fast forward 20 years and the Boston Celtics found themselves in a 3-0 hole to the Miami Heat. Their chosen slogan for the 2023 NBA Playoffs was “Unfinished Business”, in reference to their narrow defeat to the Warrriors in the 2022 NBA Finals. Miami, who were swept by the Celtics 12 months earlier, seemed to have some unfinished business of their own as they pushed the Celtics aside easily winning the first 3 games, 2 of which were on the Celtics home floor.
As the Celtics became the 4th team in NBA history to make it all the way to a game 7, it’s worth keeping in mind the following;
This Celtics team were the favorites to win the series. They were the Easts 2 seed, with a 57 and 25 record which as the second best in the NBA. The Miami Heat were the Easts 8th seed, finishing the regular season with a 44-38 record and almost falling out of the Playoffs via the Play-in tournament. Most importantly this meant that the Celtics held home court advantage. So when they made it to game 7, unlike the Blazers, the Nuggets and the Knicks who came before them, the Celtics had the advantage of hosting Game 7.
|2023 NBA Eastern Conference Finals Game Scores – Celtics (2) vs Heat (8)|
|Date||Road Team||Score||Home Team||Series Score|
|17 May 2023||Miami Heat||123-116||Boston Celtics||Celtics 0 – 1 Heat|
|19 May 2023||Miami Heat||111-105||Boston Celtics||Celtics 0 – 2 Heat|
|21 May 2023||Boston Celtics||102-128||Miami Heat||Celtics 0 – 3 Heat|
|23 May 2023||Boston Celtics||116-99||Miami Heat||Celtics 1 – 3 Heat|
|25 May 2023||Miami Heat||97-110||Boston Celtics||Celtics 2 – 3 Heat|
|27 May 2023||Boston Celtics||104-103||Miami Heat||Celtics 3 – 3 Heat|
|29 May 2023||Miami Heat||103-84||Boston Celtics||Celtics 3 – 4 Heat|
The Boston Celtics first had to survive Game 4 in Miami. With Derek Jeter and A-Rod showing up to witness the sweep in person, omen’s turned in favour of the Celtics. A-Rod and Jeter had been part of the NY Yankees baseball team that blew a 3-0 lead to the Boston Red Sox, losing the series. 3-1 heading back to Boston.
“Don’t let us win 1”
Ahead of Game 4 Marcus Smart and Jaylen brown of the Celtics had echoed the words of 2004 Red Sox legend Kevin Miller. A warning to the Heat that if they let this young Celtics team get a shoulder up off the mat they might have more than they can handle on their hands.
Going in to Game 5 back in Boston, Brown stayed on message. “Don’t let us win another”. The ensuing 97-110 hammering sent shockwaves through the Heat Team.
|Boston Celtics 2023 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals Series Stats|
The Heat were confident that they would still win the series. A team full of verterens, led by Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Coach Erik Spoelestra, they knew better than to panic. Game 6 was their last chance to win it at home in Miami. The Celtics led the game for most of the 48 minutes. Then with 4 mins left in the 4th quarter Butler started to do Jimmy Buckets things.
Suddenly the Celtics lead was gone. Butler was at the line about to put the Heat 102-103 ahead and send the Celtics packing. There was just 3 seconds left on the game clock and the Celtics looked absolutely shook.
|Miami Heat 2023 NBA Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals Series Stats|
Game 7 back in Boston looked set to be one of the most dramatic moments in NBA Playoff history. Two teams that just don’t know how to die. The Zombie Heat vs the surging Celtics, in BOSTON!
The Celltics started off with fire, Jaylen Brown aggresively claiming the ball from the opening tip. The ball moved through Al Horford in the high post, a swing to Tatum in the corner, Caleb Martin closed out, Tatum pumped and drove past him, Gabe Vincent rotated over too late, a strong move from Tatum. Contact, a whistle. Free Throws. A good aggressive start from the Celtics.
Tatum was slow to get up, he’d twisted his ankle on the play. He would be a shell of himself for the rest of the game, scoring just 14 points on 13 shots. Jaylen Brown who had struggled all series had 8 turn overs and played one of the worst playoff games of his career. The Heat brished the hobbled Celtics aside 103-84 in a Game 7 that was never really a contest.
Despite the Celtics best efforts, no NBA team has ever come back from 3-0 down in a best of 7 series.