While it wasn’t one of the greatest playoff game comebacks in the history of the NBA, the 53 point-performance by Isaiah Thomas in the Boston Celtics 129-119 victory over Washington Tuesday night was a thriller.
Thomas, playing on his late sister’s birthday, poured in 53 and antagonized the Wiz all night long as the Celtics overcame deficits throughout the contest to win it in OT.
It was a stirring performance from Thomas, whose sister Chyna died in a car crash on April 15 and who would have celebrated her 23rd birthday Tuesday. It was reminiscent of Brett Favre’s 399-yard, four-TD effort the day after his father died in 2003.
Thomas went 18-for-33 from the floor and 5-of-12 from beyond the arc as the Celtics took a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semi-final series. He scored 29 of his points in either the fourth quarter or overtime. The 53 points were the second-most in a playoff game in Celtics’ history, behind only John Havlicek’s 54 in 1973.
Now, there have been some real huge comebacks in NBA playoff history, including one this year. Here are 10, from smallest margin overcome to largest.
10. 20 Points – 1995 NBA Finals Game 1, Houston vs. Orlando
This series, on paper, looked like a slam dunk for Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic, who finished first overall in the Eastern Conference at 57-25. They were facing the upstart Rockets, who were sixth in the West at 47-35 and had to go the distance to beat Phoenix in the Western Conference Semi-finals and then took six games to dispose of top-ranked San Antonio in the West finals. In Game 1 of the finals, the Magic jumped out to 20-point lead before the end of the first half. Then the Rockets’ Kenny Smith went to work. His finals’ record seventh three-pointer (part of a 23 point effort) sent the game into OT with the team’s tied 110-110. They would see-saw in the extra frame, with Hakeem Olajuwon tipping one in with 0.3 seconds left to win it 120-118. Of note, Orlando’s Nick Anderson missed four free-throws in the final minute, allowing Houston to stay in the game. The Rockets would shock the Magic by winning in a sweep.
9. 20 Points – 2015 Western Conference First Round Game 3, Golden State vs. New Orleans
Not only does this one go down as one of the all-time comebacks, but the Golden State Warriors erased a 20-point deficit going into the fourth quarter. And this would mark the ascendancy of Stephen Curry as one of the clutch players of all-time. The Pelicans were at home and hoping to get back in a series they trailed 2-0 to the NBA’s best regular season team. By the time the third quarter ended, Anthony Davis and the gang had a commanding 89-69 lead. Enter Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry and Thompson scored some clutch points among their 40 and 28, respectively, erasing the 20-point Pelicans’ bulge and sending the game into OT, where they won it 123-119. The Dubs completed the sweep two nights later with a resounding 109-98 win.
8. 23 Points – 2011 Western Conference First Round Game 4, Portland vs. Dallas
The Trail Blazers were in tough against the might Mavs in the 2011 first round and quickly found themselves in a 2-0 hole. They would win Game 3, but fall behind badly, to the tune of a 23-point deficit in the third quarter and 18 by the start of the fourth. The hero for Portland in this giant comeback was Brandon Roy. He came off the bench to score 18 of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter, including a 4-point play and the go-ahead jumper with 39 seconds left. Roy outscored Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks 18-15 in a quarter that saw Portland outscore Dallas 35-15 to win it 84-82 and send the series back to Dallas tied at 2-2. Nowitzki and the Mavericks would have the last laugh, though, winning the next two games and then rolling all the way to a championship.
7. 24 Points – 2002 Western Conference Finals Game 4, L.A. Lakers vs. Sacramento
The testy and rough 2002 Western Conference finals was the Sacramento Kings for the taking. They were up 2-1 on the Lakers of the Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant era and in Game 4, they outscored L.A. 40-20 in the first quarter and led by as many as 24 before the half. Shaq, who had 18 rebounds and 27 points, along with Kobe’s 25, rallied the Lakers back into striking distance by the fourth quarter. With just 11 seconds left on the clock and the score 99-97 Kings, the Lakers had the ball. Bryant drove into the paint and put up a shot and missed, followed by O’Neal rebounding the ball on the far side of the basket and missing when challenged by the Kings Vlade Divac. There was a scrum for the rebound and Divac batted the ball away from the basket in an attempt to drain whatever time remained.The ball went straight to Lakers forward Robert “Big Shot” Horry, one of the game’s all-time clutch-shooting role players, and he calmly drained it for the 100-99 win.
6. 24 Points – 2008 NBA Finals Game 4, Boston vs. L.A. Lakers
Over the years, the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers rivalry has had many dramatic moments. The teams met three times in the championship in the 1980s, the Lakers taking two of three. They wouldn’t butt heads again until 2008, with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett of the Celtics doing battle with Kobe, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Boston won the first two games at home and then fell in Game 3 at the Staples Center. In Game 4, the Lakers came out like gangbusters, outscoring Boston 35-14 in the first quarter and taking as much as a 24-point lead in the second, before going into the half u 58-40. Undaunted, the Celtics chipped away, going on a 23-3 run in the second half to eventually win 97-91 and take a stranglehold on the series. The Lakers would win game 5 by a narrow margin, only to get wiped out in game 6 (131-92) as the Celtics won their first championship in over two decades.
5. 24 Points – 2012 Western Conference Semi-finals Game 3, San Antonio vs. L.A. Clippers
Forever a playoff bridesmaid, the Los Angeles Clippers luck was at its worst in the 2012 West Conference semis. Well, it was a combination of bad luck, bad timing and bad play. It was their misfortune to have to grapple with Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, who were poised to win their fifth title in 14 seasons. The bad play came in games 1 and 2 of the series with the Spurs, as they lost by margins of 16 and 17 points, respectively. Then, the worm turned early for the seemingly hapless Clips at home in game 3, when shot 64 percent in the first quarter and took a 33-11 lead. They would lead by as much as 24 in the first half and went on a 20-2 run to end it. However, the Spurs being the Spurs, they got clutch scoring from Tim Duncan as San Antonio engineered a 24-0 run to take a lead in the third quarter they would never relinquish on the way to a 96-86 victory and eventually a 4-0 sweep of the Clippers. The Spurs, however, wouldn’t win another title until 2013.
4. 26 Points – 2017 Eastern Conference First Round Game 3, Cleveland vs. Indiana
We said earlier that one of the biggest comebacks in NBA playoff history happened in this year’s playoffs and it is apt that the defending champion Cavaliers were the architects of it. The Pacers were game in the first two contest of the series, but would find themselves in a 2-0 hole, losing by just a point in game 1 and by six in game 2. Indiana seemed intent on drawing close at home in game 3 and led by as much as 26 in the first half and by 25 (74-49) at the half. However, these are the Cavaliers of LeBron James and with a furious rally in the third quarter, cut the lead to seven. Then, in the fourth, they dominated again, scoring 35 to Indiana’s 24 to win it 119-114. Cleveland moved on with a 106-102 triumph in game 4.
3. 26 Points – 2002 Eastern Conference Finals Game 3, Boston vs. New Jersey
It seems that 2002 was the year of the playoff game comeback. While the Lakers put one on Sacramento in the Western Conference finals, their old foes, the Boston Celtics, pulled out a win against New Jersey in the Eastern finals. And it would be one of the all-time greatest comebacks, as Boston erased a 21-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter. The series between the Nets and Celtics was knotted 1-1 with game 3 in Boston. The Nets stormed out of their locker room and held a 54-34 lead at the half, at one point by as much as 26 points. In the third New Jersey outscored Boston 20-19 to head into the final frame up 74-53. But, Paul Pierce, the author of much playoff heartbreak for his foes, drilled 19 of his 28 points that game while Boston ripped the Nets 41-19 to win it, improbably, by four (94-90). The Nets, though, would win the series 4-2.
2. 27 Points – 2012 Western Conference First Round Game 1, L.A. Clippers vs. Memphis
Before they got kyboshed by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2012 Western Conference semi-finals, the Clippers put together the second best comeback, points-wise, in playoff history against the Memphis Grizzlies. It was game 1 of a series that would go seven games (with L.A. coming out on top 4-3) and the Grizz came out like gangbusters, leading by 27 at one point in the game and taking a 21-point lead (85-64) into the fourth quarter. With a 26-1 run in the fourth quarter, including three straight three-pointers from sub Nick Young, the Clippers not only erased the second largest deficit (27 points) but tied the mark for the biggest differential heading into the final frame of any NBA playoff game (21 points). Chris Paul’s two successful free throws with 23.7 seconds left in the game sealed the 99-98 win.
1. 29 Points – 1989 Western Conference Semi-Finals Game 4 – L.A. Lakers vs. Seattle
The old cliche goes that the hardest game to win in any seven-game playoff series is the fourth one. That is exactly where the 1989 Los Angeles Lakers found themselves, up 3-0 in a West semi-final against the Seattle SuperSonics. And the Sonics would prove that theory, for the first three quarters, anyway. They built a crazy 29-point lead tat they held twice early in the second quarter and still led 54-43 at the half. Even though they were outscored 22-19 in the third quarter, Seattle still lead by 73-65 going into the fourth. The Lakers’ James Worthy would be seal the Sonics doom that day, scoring 12 of his game high 33 in the fourth quarter as the Lakers swept Seattle away with a 97-95 victory.