The NBA playoffs have already yielded one sweep in the first round. Two more semifinals series are on the verge of ending in just four games.
It is well known that the NBA is the only one of the three major American sports which feature playoff series that has never seen an 0-3 comeback. The NHL and MLB have both had this unlikely event happen at least once.
Most intriguing is that this kind of comeback seems more likely in the NBA than either the NHL or MLB. The NHL relies on physicality, goal scoring and goalie play, one of which can usually stay consistent to complete a series win. The MLB, as any sports fan will tell you, is impossible to predict on a game-to-game basis. Momentum plays a huge roll and the team in the 0-3 hole has a massive task robbing the opposing team of it. On top of that, pitching and hitting needs to be near flawless for four games straight.
In the NBA, however, teams can flat-out go cold from the floor. A defense can be exploited, and shots falling can rattle even the best teams. As Brad Stevens of the Celtics has proven, a solid game plan can defeat better talent.
Here, we will take a look at the teams that are currently up 3-0, how they got there, and what the road to history looks like for the teams trying to claw out of that hole.
In the history of the NBA playoffs, teams up three games to none are 129-0 in their series.
In those 129 series, only nine of them have seen the team down 0-3 get to a Game 6. Of those nine series, only three of them have gone to a Game 7. The most recent example is the 2007 Bulls-Pistons semifinal round when the Bulls forced a Game 6 after going down 0-3. The last forced Game 7 was back in 2003 when Portland came back against the Dallas Mavericks. Portland eventually lost by 12 points in the winner-take-all matchup.
Teams winning series after being down three games to one is much more common. In fact, in the 2016 NBA playoffs, it happened twice. The Golden State Warriors came back on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. In the NBA Finals, that same Golden State team blew a 3-1 lead to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
So where is the disconnect? Why is it so hard to win four NBA games in a row?
Common sense would say fatigue.
Of the three series that have gone to Game 7 after a team went up 3-0, the average margin of defeat in that Game 7 has been eight points. That stat suggests the losing team had enough to give to keep it close, but had spent enough to lose the hustle battle.
As stated earlier, game plans can beat talent. So playing a single team seven times in a row can allow either team to cancel out certain strategies. It is likely that this would come into play in a winner-take-all game more so than the games leading up to it.
Simply put, a lot of factors go into winning four games in a row. Defense, the ability to make shots, hustle plays and coaching. Coming back from an 0-3 deficit is not an impossibility, and the NBA will eventually see this kind of come back. It just simply has not happened yet.
In the semifinal round, both the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers are up on their opponents 3-0.
Boston, without its two best players, has bested the younger Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. All but written off, regardless of their second seed, this injured Boston team has proved NBA pundits wrong at every turn. In my series preview, I even picked the Sixers to win in six games.
In a postgame interview on Saturday night, Stephen A. Smith of ESPN alleged that Brett Brown has lost the 76ers all three of these games. The latest mistake being unable to run a play in overtime that did not involve Joel Embiid being near the top of the key. On the inbound play, down by one, the Sixers had the ball stolen by Al Horford, which demanded free throws be taken to increase the Celtics’ cushion to three points.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are up by three games on the best team in the East, the Toronto Raptors. This is due to the ageless LeBron James, and some remedying of problems that plagued the Cavs in their seven-game series against Indiana.
James has scored 26, 43 and 38 points in the first three games respectively. This includes another incredible buzzer beater in Game 3. The Raptors have a reputation of falling apart against these Cavaliers, as they have lost to Cleveland in the last two NBA playoffs.
While the Cavs can become a steamroller during the playoffs, this Raptors team is definitely stronger than past iterations. They have a great bench, two legitimate stars and two great role players. While the Raptors lifted their Game 1 woes during their series against the Wizards, it seems like Cleveland may really be their kryptonite.
Road to Game 7
While a series win is obviously the goal, first these teams will have to reach Game 7. According to history, only 2.3 percent of teams down 0-3 have reached that point. Then, they have to win that game, which no one ever has.
For the 76ers, the road starts with finding better plays in late game situations. Embiid may be their best player, but he is not their only solid option. Belinelli was clutch in Game 3, with a buzzer-beating shot to send the game to overtime. His 3-pointer to try to tie the game in the closing seconds of overtime was almost good, too. Ben Simmons is struggling, and he is a terrible shooter anyway. But he does not need to be inbounding the ball on the final play. He should be cutting to the hoop or ready to pass.
The 76ers also blew a 22 point lead in Game 2. So saying that the Sixers need to build a lead is not enough. Their foot needs to stay on the gas, and they need to forgo the early shot clock jumpers that built them the lead. The Celtics are too well coached to be out of any individual game. Both teams play great defense, but Philly’s offense has been their Achilles’ Heel.
If they can find a way to stop their own bleeding and get out of their own way, they can make a comeback. As far as Game 7 goes, the Celtics will be formidable, as Brad Stevens’ game plan will almost assuredly be better than Brett Brown’s. But the Sixers have the raw talent necessary to maybe surprise everyone.
Speaking of getting out of their own way, the Raptors have to have some serious conversations with themselves about their identity if they don’t want to get swept out of this second round.
As the East’s top seed the Raptors were supposed to be the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. As it stands now, it seems as if history is doomed to repeat itself. The last two years have seen Toronto be a stepping stone on Cleveland’s path towards the NBA Finals. Shockingly down 0-3, they must not only erase their own history but make NBA history in the process.
The key is to stop LeBron James. This is possibly the toughest thing any team in the NBA could be asked to do, but it is truly the only way. James is currently averaging 34.8 points per game in the entire playoffs and 35.7 points in the series. DeRozan was benched in the fourth quarter of Game 3 due to lack of production, which cannot happen again, because Lowry and DeRozan need to be the ones to stop that bleeding.
Kevin Love is averaging 13.9 points per game, as Cleveland’s second best scoring option. If Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas can play up to their potential, that would cancel out Cleveland’s small, but important, safety valve. Past that, VanVleet, Anunoby and the rest of the role players just need to contribute consistently on both ends of the court.
The formula is deceptively simple for Toronto to find their way to Game 7. If that should come to pass, then they will have to get past elimination-game LeBron, who is, somehow, even better than the LeBron they have been seeing the past three games.
In conclusion, these will probably not be the series where the NBA finally sees an 0-3 comeback. It will eventually happen, just as a 16 seed upsetting a number one seed finally happened in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but the two teams that find themselves up 3-0 are too talented and driven to lose to their opponents.
Toronto may be able to force a Game 6, as they will pull out all the stops to halt LeBron’s historic performances, but James, as he always does, will eventually get the best of them.
Philadelphia is showing its youth. The coaching is simply not good, Simmons is playing horribly and teams cannot win against a Stevens-led team with just a center and some backup wing players. The injured Celtics will continue to defy all expectations and knock them out. As far as forcing a Game 5 or 6, the 76ers may be able to pull out a close one, but do not count on it.
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