Before Wednesday only ten NBA teams that had begun a series down 0-3 had ever forced a Game Six. By early Thursday morning that list grew to 12 teams, as both the Boston Celtics and the Houston Rockets staved off elimination with road wins against their favored opponents. Now two teams that were left for dead are two wins away from doing something that has never been done in the NBA playoffs: actually winning a series after falling behind 0-3.
Now “being left for dead” is usually just a cliche, but that’s exactly how the New York Knicks felt about the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night. Before the start of Game Five at Madison Square Garden, word came out that Knicks players were wearing articles of black clothing to commemorate what they were convinced would end up being a funeral for the 2012-13 Boston Celtics. To be fair, it looked prescient when the Knicks began the game with a 11-0 run, but Boston was able to bounce back, eventually beating the Knicks 92-86. Now the Celtics are headed back home, where they play significantly better than on the road, for a crucial Game Six on Friday. After the unexpected loss, the Knicks’ J.R. Smith, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year who had a disastrous shooting night, admitted that the Knicks’ strategy had backfired, saying:
“We was going to a funeral but it looks like we got buried.”
As a New York based team they really should have known better than counting out a Boston team out after putting them in a 0-3 hole. This series between the Celtics and the Knicks has started to feel a little like the 2004 American League Championship Series between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees won the first three games of that series, including a road blowout in Game Three, before the Red Sox rattled off four straight wins to become the first team in MLB history to pull off such a comeback. If the Celtics need inspiration to do what no other team in their sport’s history has ever done, they need to only take a quick trip to Fenway Park.
A few hours after the Celtics somewhat shockingly extended their series against the Knicks to six games, the Houston Rockets followed suit when they defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 107-100 at Chesapeake Arena. If the Thunder have struggled to put away the Rockets after starting the series with three straight victories, they at least have a valid excuse. Without point guard Russell Westbrook, who the Thunder lost to a meniscus tear midway through the series, the Thunder look and play like a completely different team than the one who clinched the top spot in the Western Conference.
With Westbrook out, the once formidable Thunder has become Kevin Durant and a ragtag group of role players, lacking a strong second option on offense. Now Durant, considered by many the second best player in the league, is quite capable of putting his team on his back and carrying them through the playoffs, but there are signs that it is affecting his game. A major reason the Rockets were able to win on Wednesday night was that they managed to keep Durant scoreless in the fourth quarter. (At the very least, these last two losses have put a temporary end to the absurd “the Thunder would be better without Westbrook” argument.)
If Westbrook’s injury had happened last postseason, the Thunder could have relied on James Harden, normally their number one option of the bench, to pick up much of the offensive slack. However, the Thunder traded Harden to this Houston Rockets team before the start of the regular season, something which would make a series loss doubly painful for Thunder fans. Imagine the possibility of Harden himself leading the Rockets to victory by capitalizing on the fact that he’s no longer on their roster. There’s some amount of irony in that, or at least irony if we’re going by the Alanis definition.
Because of the Westbrook injury, the Rockets probably have a better shot of making it out of the first round than the Celtics. The Celtics have benefited from Carmelo Anthony having a few off-nights and by the fact that J.R. Smith hurt the Knicks in back-to-back games (first by being unavailable for Game Four and then by being available in Game Five). Boston cannot expect either of these trends to continue. Houston, on the other hand, will be facing a team that has partially replaced its second best player with a guy who was retired and working for the Players’ Union at the start of the season.
Still both of these teams have a legitimate shot to make NBA history by becoming the first team to win a playoff series after starting out 0-3. Considering how many teams make the NBA playoffs though, it’s a tad surprising that a team hasn’t accomplished this already. As mentioned earlier, the Red Sox accomplished the feat in the MLB nearly a decade ago, and three NHL teams, most recently the Philadelphia Flyers, have pulled it off in the NHL playoffs. It almost seems as if the NBA is due for a team to pull off what would be the ultimate comeback.
Now, the main reason that this comeback hasn’t happened before is quite simple: most of the teams that drop the first three games in their series aren’t that good. This is especially true in the earlier rounds of the NBA Playoffs when top-seeded teams often make quick work of their lower-seeded opponents (just ask the Milwaukee Bucks how that goes). This stat could also be a reflection on how the NBA has less parity than the other leagues. At the start of every season, only a handful of teams ever have a legitimate chance of reaching the NBA Finals. Even among the teams that make the playoffs, there is typically a gap between legitimate title contenders and the rest of the field. In other words, the teams that are good enough to win four straight games in a playoff series very rarely face opponents capable of winning the first three games against them.
However, it’s not like there’s any sort of curse here preventing it from happening, and the law of averages tells us that eventually a NBA team will come all the way back from 0-3 to win a playoff series. So, who knows, this could be the year. First, of course, one of these teams has to force a Game Seven, something only three NBA teams have ever done in their position. With the Celtics and Rockets both heading back home for Game Six, the pressure entirely on their opponents, that list could grow longer in the next few days.