When Will We See an NBA Team Come Back from a 3-0 Deficit in a Best-of-7 Series?

By Scott Kacsmar

The 2024 NBA Finals are set between the Dallas Mavericks and Boston Celtics. Despite so many close games, we almost saw a pair of sweeps in the Conference Finals before the Minnesota Timberwolves won Game 4. But they fell hard in Game 5 at home, bringing the record of NBA teams who face a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-7 series to 0-156.

That’s 156 chances and 156 failures dating back to 1947. Now you can see why people thought the sportsbooks were crazy for offering +1100 odds (implied chance of 8.3%) for the Timberwolves to pull off something that’s never been done in the NBA.

This makes the NBA uniquely difficult as we have seen teams come back from a 3-0 deficit in NHL (four times) and MLB (once):

  • NHL teams are 4-206 (.019) when trailing 3-0 in a best-of-7 series as the 1942 Maple Leafs (vs. Red Wings), 1975 Islanders (vs. Penguins), 2010 Flyers (vs. Bruins), and 2014 Kings (vs. Sharks) were able to come back and win four in a row.
  • The 1942 Maple Leafs were the only team to do it in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Detroit Red Wings.
  • In MLB, only the 2004 Boston Red Sox came back from 3-0 to beat their hated rival, the New York Yankees, in the American League Championship Series.
  • The only other MLB team to force a Game 7 after trailing 3-0 was the 2020 Houston Astros, who still lost in Game 7 to the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2020 ALCS. Due to COVID, the series was played at a neutral site with no days off between games.

But in the NBA, only 4-of-156 teams (2.6%) were able to force a Game 7 after trailing 3-0. Here is the updated summary of how many games the series lasted with a 3-0 deficit in the NBA playoffs:

  • Swept in Game 4: 95 times (60.9%)
  • Lost 4-1 in Game 5: 46 times (29.5%)
  • Lost 4-2 in Game 6: 11 times (7.1%)
  • Lost 4-3 in Game 7: 4 times (2.6%)

So, why has it been so hard for an NBA team to come back to win after facing a 3-0 series deficit, who has come the closest, what kind of situation will it take to pull it off, and when will we see it finally happen?

Inevitably, it is going to happen someday, and perhaps soon in this modern NBA where leads are not as safe as they used to be.

Why Has It Been So Hard for NBA Teams to Come Back from a 3-0 Deficit?

For most of its history, the NBA has been the “chalkiest” of the four major professional sports leagues in America when it comes to the playoff results largely going the way of the teams favored to win it all.

The main talking point for the 2024 NFL season will be Kansas City’s attempt at an unprecedented 3-peat of Super Bowl wins after the Chiefs just ended the longest drought (19 years) in NFL history without a repeat champion.

But in the NBA, we have seen head coach Phil Jackson already do a 3-peat three times after expansion with the 1991-93 Bulls, 1996-98 Bulls, and 2000-02 Lakers.

We also watched LeBron James go to the NBA Finals eight years in a row (2011-18), including a 4-year run in 2015-18 of Finals matchups between the Cavaliers and Warriors. That was similar to the 1980s when the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics (or both) were in the NBA Finals every year from 1980 through 1989.

Regardless if Dallas or Boston wins the NBA Finals this year, every NBA championship since 1999 (25 seasons) has been won by just 11 franchises: Lakers (6), Spurs (5), Warriors (4), Heat (3), Pistons (1), Celtics (1), Mavericks (1), Cavaliers (1), Raptors (1), Bucks (1), and Nuggets (1).

Add in the Bulls (6), Rockets (2), and 76ers (1), and only 14 NBA teams will have won the 45 championships since 1980. Of course, Bill Russell’s Celtics also won 11 titles in a 13-season span in 1957-69, including a record eight championships in a row in 1959-66. That just does not happen in these other leagues.

Despite the presence of a long dynasty like the Patriots, the NFL has had 13 different franchises win a Super Bowl since 2001, and only the 2003-04 Patriots and 2022-23 Chiefs repeated. The one-and-done playoff format makes the NFL postseason ripe for upsets as your season can come to an end because of one bad penalty (or no-call in the case of the 2018 Saints) or missed field goal (2023 Bills).

Despite some major player spending inequality among its teams, the MLB has had 16 of its 30 franchises win at least one World Series since 2001, and no one has repeated since the 1998-00 Yankees. A dominant pitching staff can cool a hot bat during a playoff run, and some star hitters struggle with certain pitchers.

In the NHL, dynastic runs used to be common, including an 8-year period where only the Montreal Canadiens (1976-79) and New York Islanders (1980-83) won the Stanley Cup. But since expansion in the early 90s, only the 1997-98 Red Wings, 2016-17 Penguins, and 2020-21 Lightning have repeated since 1993.

This month, we will see a 14th different NHL franchise win the Stanley Cup since 2001. The low-scoring, physical nature of the NHL playoffs makes it one of the toughest championships to win as your team is likely going to have to survive a few sudden-death overtime games during their run to the Stanley Cup. One bad bounce of the puck can end a season.

With the NBA, upsets are harder to come by in a game that has so many possessions and scoring plays. More possessions are usually a good way for the superior team to build an edge on the scoreboard.

We also see homecourt tends to have a huge advantage in the NBA relative to other leagues. For whatever reason, be it the proximity of the fans to the court fueling runs, but role players often shoot better at home, and experienced referees may be more likely to show a bias to the home team.

Another problem with NBA teams falling behind 3-0 is selection bias in the data in regards to how many of these teams do not have homecourt for the series.

  • In the NHL, according to, 148 of the 205 teams (72.2%) to fall behind 3-0 in a best-of-7 series started the series on the road.
  • In the MLB, 23 of the 40 teams (57.5%) to fall behind 3-0 started the series on the road.
  • In the NBA, 132 of the 156 teams (84.6%) to fall behind 3-0 started the series on the road.

The Timberwolves losing the first two games at home to Dallas in the 2024 Western Conference Finals was rare as that was only the 24th time a team with homecourt went down 3-0 in a series.

Generally speaking, the team with homecourt in the NBA is going to have a better record and be the better team. They’ll also usually be favored to win the series before Game 1. So, if almost 85% of the teams falling behind 3-0 don’t have homecourt and are mostly underdogs to begin with, then it’s not that surprising they keep losing these series.

Something that was surprising is there is no correlation (-0.03) between the scoring margin in Games 1-3 of a 3-0 series and how many games that series will last.

Despite going down 3-0, the Timberwolves were only outscored by a total of 13 points against Dallas in Games 1-3 of the Western Conference Finals. Those games were tight and filled with lead changes in the fourth quarter. They could have all easily gone the other way.

The average team down 3-0 was outscored by 36.5 points, or just over 12 points per game.

You might think these close calls could have led to Minnesota, the No. 1 defensive team, making this series last longer, but it clearly did not. In Game 5, the Mavericks blew the Timberwolves out 124-103 in Minnesota, a game that had a single lead change early and that was it.

Of the 36 teams to fall behind 3-0 while only being outscored by no more than 25 points, just one of them managed to extend their series to Game 6. That was when the 1994 Nuggets were able to push the Jazz to Game 7 in the Western Conference Semifinals before Utah pulled it out at home in Game 7.

The NBA is a very difficult league to overcome a significant gap between teams and matchup nightmares. But could that be changing?

The NBA Teams Who Came the Closest to Coming Back from a 3-0 Deficit

Again, just 15 of the 156 teams down 3-0 have forced a Game 6 or better in a best-of-7 series. Here is the full list, which happens to include the first best-of-7 series in professional basketball history in 1947:

  • 1947 BAA Semifinals: Washington Capitols trailed Chicago Stags (lost Game 6).
  • 1949 BAA Finals: Washington Capitols trailed Minneapolis (lost Game 6).
  • 1951 NBA Finals: New York trailed Rochester Royals (lost Game 7).
  • 1962 Western Division Finals: Detroit trailed L.A. Lakers (lost Game 6).
  • 1994 Western Conference Semifinals: Denver trailed Utah (lost Game 7).
  • 1996 NBA Finals: Seattle trailed Chicago (lost Game 6).
  • 2000 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Philadelphia trailed Indiana (lost Game 6).
  • 2003 Western Conference First Round: Portland trailed Dallas (lost Game 7).
  • 2007 Eastern Conference Semifinals: Chicago trailed Detroit (lost Game 6).
  • 2010 Eastern Conference Finals: Orlando trailed Boston (lost Game 6).
  • 2013 Eastern Conference First Round: Boston trailed New York (lost Game 6).
  • 2013 Western Conference First Round: Houston trailed Oklahoma City (lost Game 6).
  • 2015 Eastern Conference First Round: Milwaukee trailed Chicago (lost Game 6).
  • 2022 Eastern Conference First Round: Toronto trailed Philadelphia (lost Game 6).
  • 2023 Eastern Conference Finals: Boston trailed Miami (lost Game 7).

We bolded the four teams who forced a Game 7, making them the closest to pull off the historic 3-0 comeback in the NBA.

1951 New York Knicks vs. Rochester Royals, NBA Finals: This is one of the more interesting Finals from the NBA’s olden days. After losing the first two games by 15-plus points, the Knicks played the Royals in five straight games decided by no more than 7 points. Game 7 was a tight one into the fourth quarter too, but the Royals prevailed 79-75 at home to win the championship. The Royals eventually became the Sacramento Kings in 1985.

1994 Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz, Western Conference Semifinals: We mentioned this series earlier. The Nuggets won 11 fewer games in the regular season than the Jazz, but Utah did not shoot well in the series (.432) against a tough defense led by Dikembe Mutombo, who averaged 5.4 blocks in the series. The Nuggets narrowly avoided a 4-game sweep with an 83-32 win in Game 4. They also came through at home with a 94-91 win in Game 6 to force Game 7. But after scoring just 12 points in the first quarter on the road, the Nuggets were chasing all game in a 91-81 loss that wasn’t particularly close in the fourth quarter.

2003 Portland Trail Blazers vs. Dallas Mavericks, Western Conference First Round: The 60-win Mavericks had a heck of a scare from 50-win Portland in the first round after taking a 3-0 lead. Portland won a pair of blowouts at home while winning a close Game 5 in Dallas. This set up a Game 7 in Dallas where Portland took a 2-point lead into the fourth quarter. Portland led 90-88 with just under 5:00 left and the game was tied with under 3:00 left. That’s when Dallas, led by Dirk Nowitzki, finished the game on a 14-2 run to avoid catastrophe.  

2023 Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat, Eastern Conference Finals: Last year, this certainly felt like it was going to be the one that made history with the Celtics against the No. 8 seeded Heat. The games in this series were rarely close, but Boston survived elimination in Miami with a clutch 104-103 win after Derrick White’s putback just beat the buzzer:

Remember that one? Boston was then a big home favorite in Game 7, but Jimmy Butler and company came out hot and took control early in a 103-84 win that eliminated the Celtics on their home court, something that used to never happen in Game 7 in Boston.

While it felt like the Timberwolves had the right stuff to make things interesting with Dallas this week, Luka Doncic came out with a purpose in Game 5 and dropped 20 points in the opening quarter, leaving no doubt who was taking this series.

The 3-0 comeback will have to wait for another series.

What Will It Take for the 3-0 Comeback to Happen in the NBA?

We know some team is inevitably going to come back from a 3-0 series deficit in the NBA playoffs someday. Most of us thought the Celtics had that in the big last year only to flop in Game 7.

But it likely will happen from a team like Boston that was heavily favored before the series, meaning they have homecourt. At least the mindset behind what’s needed for such a comeback is easy to follow.

If they have homecourt, then this way, they can go into Game 4 with the mindset that they’re not getting swept and losing four games in a row. That’s embarrassing, and the other team up 3-0 may let up knowing that the series is “over” without technically being over yet.

Then you go back home for Game 5, the crowd gets back into it, and you pull that game out to make it 3-2. Easier said than done – just ask Minnesota after Thursday night. But Game 6 is the tricky one as the other team has to feel the anxiety of not wanting to risk it in Game 7 on the road, so they better treat this one like the season is on the line. Plus, if you just won two games in a row, you might struggle to maintain effective shooting for a third-straight game.

But if you can get over the Game 6 road hump, then you get Game 7 at home and a chance to complete history. Just have to hope you don’t run out of fumes by then.

It also could help if a star player is injured, which happens far too often in the NBA playoffs these days. Imagine a team goes up 3-0, their star player gets injured and misses the next few games or the rest of the series. That could certainly help this 3-0 comeback happen for the opponent.

Conclusion: Expect to See a 3-0 Comeback in the NBA Soon

While there have not been many great 3-0 comeback attempts in the NBA in recent years outside of the 2023 Celtics, you should expect to see it happen soon. The league has changed and introduced more variance thanks to the heavy reliance of 3-point shooting, and injuries to star players are usually a significant story in each postseason now.

But that increase in the 3-point shot in the last decade does seem to have a direct impact on making the results more volatile in this league. Leads just aren’t as safe as they used to be:

  • Only 13 teams have come back from a 3-1 series deficit in playoff history, but 5-of-13 instances have happened since 2015, including once in the NBA Finals when the Cavaliers beat the 73-win Warriors in 2016.
  • Against the Knicks, the 2024 Pacers became the 28th team to come back from a 2-0 series deficit in a best-of-7 series, but 12 of those 28 teams have happened since 2016.
  • In Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals, the Houston Rockets missed an NBA playoff record 27 straight 3-pointers as the Warriors came back to win that game and advanced to the Finals.
  • In 2019, the Clippers erased a 31-point deficit in Game 2 of the first round against Golden State for the largest comeback win in playoff history.
  • This postseason, the Cavaliers had an 18-point comeback against Orlando to set a record for the largest comeback win in a Game 7. It was broken in the next round when Minnesota erased a 20-point deficit in the third quarter of Game 7 to win in Denver in the semifinals.
  • While home teams win Game 7 roughly 75% of the time in NBA playoff history, home teams are 4-8 (.333) in Game 7 since 2021.
  • Since Cleveland’s historic Game 7 win in Golden State in the 2016 Finals, the home team is 11-15 (.423) in Game 7.
  • Before the 2016 NBA Finals, the home team was 101-24 (.808) in Game 7 in NBA playoff history.
  • On May 19, 2024, two teams (Pacers and Timberwolves) won a Game 7 on the road on the same day for the first time in NBA history.

This is not your parents’ NBA. We are in a new era, and we should see a team come back from a 3-0 deficit this decade.

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