As in any other sport, nothing is as satisfying for a National Basketball Association (NBA) as dominating their opponent by outscoring them to a point where victory is beyond their reach. Aside from the obvious perks that come with winning a game, blowouts provide other advantages such as allowing coaches to rest their star players which in turn reduces the likelihood of injuries or fatigue. In such instances, a team is expected to show their fighting spirit by at least attempting to make a comeback. More often than not, however, such comebacks bear no fruit. There are however instances where teams that appear set for certain defeat refuse to go quietly into the night and successfully stage comebacks to the utter delight of their fans and equal and proportional chagrin of their opponents.
What is the biggest blown lead in NBA history? The biggest blown lead in NBA history occurred on November 27, 1996, when the Denver Nuggets gave up a 36-point deficit in a road game to fall 107-103 to the Utah Jazz. No other team has equaled or surpassed the Jazz’s historic comeback. The Los Angeles Clippers however almost did when they overcame a 35-point deficit in late September 2022 to beat the Washington Wizards 116-115.
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A Little Background
Going into the match, the Jazz and the Nuggets were fresh off a third and tenth place respectively the previous season. The former was a battle-tested perennial contender while the latter was a franchise that was still trying to find its footing in the ultra-competitive western conference.
The Jazz fielded a talented backcourt of John Stockton and marksman Jeff Hornacek and a dominant frontcourt of small forward Bryon Russell, power forward Karl Malone, and center Greg Ostertag. Unlike their opponents, the Jazz had had enough time to develop the necessary chemistry to complement each other on the court led by the potent pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop action of Stockton and Malone.
Denver on the other hand had an equally capable backcourt of playmaker Mark Jackson and shooting guard Bryant Stith who was averaging just shy of 15 points that season. Forwards Dale Ellis, Antonio McDyess, and center Ervin Johnson rounded off their starting five.
While the hosts enjoyed a clean bill of health all season, the Nuggets had to field different players from time to time as Stith was limited by a foot injury. They also lacked the services of one of their best offensive weapons in forward LaPhonso Ellis who averaged nearly 22 points and 7 boards that season.
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Breakdown in Communication
Contrary to their normal composed nature, the Jazz won the tip but quickly turned the ball over after some defensive pressure from Nuggets point guard Mark Jackson, who intercepted a pass from Stockton to Russell. On the other end of the floor, McDyess caught Malone napping for an easy layup to set the tempo of the match.
The Jazz quickly responded with two points of their own after Hornacek found Malone for an easy jumper and tightened things on the defensive end to deny the visitors a response. The Nuggets however repaid their efforts in kind by forcing another turnover after some quick action between Malone and Russell.
Utah’s offense then went cold characterized by misses from Malone and Hornacek from both the post and long distance. The visitors on the other hand seemed to be having one of their best nights offensively, effortlessly finding the bottom of the net almost at will.
The Nuggets also utilized their size advantage to find mismatches, especially with both of the Jazz’s guards, and to frustrate the visitors on offense by constantly switching to deny passes and double-teaming their biggest offensive weapon in Malone.
The Turning Point (inexperienced coach)
After ending the first and second quarters down 18 (37-19) and 34 (70-36) points respectively, the Jazz were booed off the floor by their own fans as they headed into the locker rooms for halftime. The jeers along with the earful that the Jazz must have received from head coach Jerry Sloan jolted them back to action because they entered the second half with a renewed sense of urgency and focus.
Utah’s stars also aligned since the Nuggets were historically known to struggle in the third quarter which, coupled with the overconfidence from their impressive outing in the first half, worked against their favor. Coach Sloan also made a timely adjustment by placing Ostertag on McDyess, who had outclassed Malone for most of the first half.
Making Malone work on defense also had the equal and opposite reaction of tiring him out on offense evidenced by the numerous missed jumpers and layups he normally made. Ostertag also imposed himself on the offensive end by grabbing key offensive rebounds and cleaning up his teammates’ misses.
A Tale of Two Halves
By the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, the Jazz had cut the deficit down to just 13 seconds with all the momentum squarely on their side. Constant pressure from the Jazz landed the Nuggets in foul trouble and diluted their defensive intensity. A characteristically great free-throw shooting team, Utah utilized the opportunity to further cut Denver’s lead.
The hosts also doubled their efforts on the glass earning key offensive rebounds which they converted successfully. To put the changing tide into context, Malone grabbed an offensive rebound from a broken play and dished it out to forward Chris Morris, who sank a three – his first of the season.
On another ensuing play, the Nuggets failed to score a basket despite offensive rebounds and subsequent attempts by two players. Jazz guard Shandon Anderson then got a steal and dished the ball out to Stockton who returned the favor to high-flyer for an emphatic dunk which brought all fans in Utah’s 19000-capacity Vivint Arena to their feet.
With around nine minutes left in the ball game, the Jazz had reduced Denver’s lead to just 8 points by outscoring the 24-2 in the paint.
After successfully converting an amazing 73% of their field goals in the first half, the Nuggets’ field goal percentage plummeted to just 13% in the second half as compared to Utah who in turn shot 33% and 61% respectively.
With less than a minute left in the game, Hornacek hit a dagger three that put the Jazz two points ahead. Russell capped off Utah’s amazing comeback with a dunk of his own with around 15 seconds left much to the anger of Nuggets head coach Dick Motta, who immediately his team to call for a timeout.
A visibly stunned Mark Jackson failed to notice the gesture and ended up wasting five valuable seconds. Denver then fouled Stockton – a career 82.6% free throw shooter – who both of the ensuing free throws to seal the win for the Jazz.
Though the comeback was a team effort by the hosts, the real heroes of the game were Malone and Hornacek, whose stellar offense enabled the Jazz to outscore the Nuggets 71-33 in the second half. Denver’s 40 turnovers didn’t help their case either.