A collapse is a little different in the NBA than it is to the NFL for example. In the NBA it is possible to build a seemingly insurmountable lead in any game, any series or over the course of a season. For the reason collapses in the NBA seem to resonate more than they do in other sports.
The anatomy of a collapse however is very interesting. A collapse can sometimes be a choke job, where the better team suddenly relaxes and lets their weaker opponent begin to run them down. It can be something as simple as a change of luck, perhaps the breaks that were going for one team suddenly spin the other way. It can even be a team who started hot, and performed above their actual level, just regressing back to the level they are actually at.
With all that in mind it becomes obvious that each collapse is unique and that no two teams can be classified in the same way when they give up a big lead. Collapses can even trigger an effect which sees a team fall from relevance for a longer period of time. A team that falls apart from a 3-1 series lead for example can often find themselves starting the next season slowly as the playoff hangover takes effect. If this malaise is not turned around quickly, then the fortunes of a franchise can be dramatically different from the year before.
With all that in mind here is a look at the 10 most epic collapses in the history of the NBA.
10 2006-07 Minnesota Timberwolves
The most epic second half collapse in the history of the NBA belongs to the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Timberwolves are franchise which has been so downtrodden for so long that it kind of feels like piling on at this point, but a post All Star break record of 7-23 guarantees the team a place on this list. The T-Wolves hit the All Star break with a record of 25-27, not great admittedly but good enough in the NBA to have a shot at the playoffs. They also had Kevin Garnett, one of the greatest power forwards in the history of the league, driving them forward and singlehandedly winning games. During the season's second half however the Timberwolves completely fell apart. A midseason coaching change did nothing but make the team worse and by the end of the season the playoffs were a distance away and Garnett was about to leave for pastures new.
9 Philadelphia 76ers vs. Portland Trailblazers – 1977 NBA Finals
The oldest entry on this list is also one of the more bizarre. The 76ers were led by three All-Stars in Julius Erving, George McGinnis and Doug Collins, and also boasted a host of semi-stars on a load roster. The Traiblazers countered with Bill Walton and the youngest roster ever to appear in the NBA Finals. In the first two games Walton did what he could, but the Blazers just didn’t have the depth to take on Philly. Near the end of Game 2 however the series changed on a punch thrown by Darryl Dawkins of the 76ers at Portland’s Bobby Gross. Gross punched Dawkins right back, firing up his teammates who rode a wave of emotion to win the next four games and stun Philly in six.
8 Dallas Mavericks vs. Golden State Warriors – 2007 Western Conference Quarterfinals
This series wasn’t even supposed to be a contest. The Mavericks had rolled through the regular season with 67-15 record claiming the number one overall seed in the Western Conference. Golden State had scraped their way into the playoffs with a 42-40 record, with no player resembling a superstar and little to no playoff experience on the roster. It was the Warriors' first playoff appearance in 14 years and some marketing genius put together a “We Believe” campaign which the players bought into as much as the public. The result was a 4-2 series win for the Warriors, with an average winning margin of 10 points per game over a shell shocked Mavs squad.
7 Seattle SuperSonics vs. Denver Nuggets – 1994 Western Conference Quarterfinals
In a time before the Mavericks imploded against the Warriors, there was no precedent for what the Nuggets did to the Sonics in 1994. Seattle had dominated the NBA regular season putting up a 63-19 record in the process. The Nuggets stumbled into the playoffs with a 42-40 record, the worst of any playoff team in the league that year, and we supposed to just be happy to be in the knockout tournament at all.
With Michael Jordan having retired from the NBA, the Bulls were no longer championship favorites and the door seemed to be open for the Sonics to win it all.
When Seattle took an easy 2-0 series lead, winning the two games by a combined 34 points, everything was going exactly as predicted. The Sonics had three chances to close out the series, as the opening round at the time was a best-of-five series.
Denver though rallied at home, winning Game 3 comfortably and Game 4 in dramatic fashion in overtime. Seattle had the final game at home, where they had been virtually unbeatable all year. The Nuggets however would not be denied and led by a young Dikembe Mutumbo they because the first no.8 seed to beat a top seed in NBA history.
6 New York Knicks vs Indiana Pacers (Reggie Miller) – 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1
In Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals Reggie Miller singlehandedly produced one of the most famous comebacks of all time. The Knicks were already thinking ahead to Game 2, leading 105-99 with just 18.7 seconds left in the game. Miller though had other ideas. He first hit a three off of an inbound pass with 16.4 second to play. He then stole one of the most ill-advised inbound passes in NBA history, dribbled out behind the three-point stripe, and drained another trey to tie the game with 13.3 seconds to play. Miller completed the comeback with two free throws to put the game to bed, and to silence the New York crowd in the process. The Pacers went on to win the series in seven games.
5 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics – 2008 NBA Finals Game 4
Things seemed to be rolling along just fine for the Lakers in Game 4 of the 2008 Finals. The Celtics' vaunted Big Three had been kept in check offensively and their defensive work was simply not good enough as the Lakers raced off to a 24-point third quarter lead. The Celtics though embodied that tough, no-nonsense Boston style and simply refused to go away even as the game appeared out of reach. Spurred on by the combination of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, the Celtics roared back to win the game 97-91. Boston was able to hold Kobe Bryant to just 6-of-19 from the field and went on to take the series in six games.
4 2010-11 Utah Jazz
This Jazz team was rolling along quite nicely before the All-Star break, compiling a 31-26 record which should have allowed them to push on and comfortably pick up a low seed in the Western Conference playoff field. Instead the Jazz ownership decided that the best combination of events around the All-Star game was to trade away franchise player Deron Williams. Jerry Sloan resigned from the head coaching position with reports of conflicts with his players being the reason for his departure.
Replacing either a point guard or a head coach is always tough, but trying to do both at the same time in the middle of the season makes it a lost year. So it proved as the Jazz limped to the finish line, collapsing after the break with an 8-17 record.
3 Dallas Mavericks vs. Miami Heat – 2006 NBA Finals Game 3
In perhaps the most epic single game collapse in NBA Finals history, the Dallas Mavericks saw Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals slip from their grasp. The Mavs were up by 13 points with just six minutes remaining in the game, a seemingly unassailable position. With the Mavs also up 2-0 in the best of seven series the Miami Heat were running out of time and options to have any shot of a claiming the 2006 NBA Title. The Heat did however have one trump card; Dwyane Wade. The 24-year-old went off, scoring 42 points on the night and single-handedly dragging the Heat back into the game. Gary Payton gave the Heat the lead for good with 9.3 seconds remaining and a Dirk Nowitzki missed free throw preserved the lead for Miami. The Mavs were unable to regroup and the Heat rattled off three more victories in succession to win the NBA Championship.
2 Portland Trailblazers vs. Los Angeles Lakers – 2000 Western Conference Finals
This is a unique entry in our list as it was a collapse which led to an even bigger collapse. The 2000 L.A. Lakers had Shaq and Kobe doing their thing long before that particular marriage went south. In this Western Conference Finals series the Lakers quickly jumped to a 3-1 lead and the series appeared to be completely over. Something strange happened however, as Shaq and Kobe seemed to forget that they had to win a fourth game to put the Blazers away. Two upset wins later and the series was tied 3-3.
Even more remarkably Portland raced to a 75-60 lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7 and the Lakers looked on the verge of one of the biggest collapses in history. Instead the Portland players suddenly seemed to sense the magnitude of the situation and tightened up. They stopped hitting buckets, opting for jumpers instead of drives, and the Lakers scored the next 15 points to tie the game at 75. The Lakers churned on to win the game (and the NBA Title) while Portland was left ruing what might have been.
1 Los Angeles Clippers vs. Houston Rockets – 2015 Western Conference Semifinals
This may be an element of the cult of the new to this pick, but anyone who doubts that this Clippers collapse won’t stand the test of time hasn’t watched enough basketball this year. The Clippers became just the ninth team in NBA history to throw away a 3-1 lead in a playoff series and were the first to do so since L.A. neighbors the Lakers did so against the Phoenix Suns back in 2006. The key to the spectacular nature of this collapse is in the early games. The Clippers won Games 3 and 4 by a combined 58 points, taking a 3-1 lead in the series and looking like a worthy contender for the NBA Title.
It was at this point that the Clippers long and emotionally draining opening round series against the Spurs seemed to catch up with them. They just weren’t the same team in Games 5, 6 and 7 as Houston came roaring back to take the series and advance. Game 6 stands as the most damming part of the collapse, as the Clippers seemed to be on their way to a series win with a 19-point lead in the second half, but the Rockets would outscore the Clippers 51-20 from there, forcing Game 7 and going on to win that game convincingly as well.