Celtics’ 2002 win over Nets ranks among greatest NBA playoff comebacks

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Celtics’ 2002 win over Nets among greatest NBA playoff comebacks originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

What a week for comebacks in the NBA playoffs.

It began on Monday with the Atlanta Hawks coming back from 18 down in Game 4 of their second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Brooklyn Nets then completed a 17-point turnaround against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday behind a herculean performance from Kevin Durant.

And things were just getting started.

The Atlanta Hawks took things a level higher by climbing back from a 26-point deficit against the Sixers at Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday. Joel Embiid hit a pair of free throws to put the Sixers up 72-46 with 8:31 left in the third quarter, but the Sixers managed to score just 34 points over the final 20 minutes.

On Friday, the Los Angeles Clippers reached their first ever Western Conference finals behind a 25-point Game 6 comeback at home against the Utah Jazz. Terance Mann led the charge with 39 points for the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers, who also won four straight games to overcome a 2-0 series deficit.

The Hawks’ and Clippers’ comebacks -- as well as the Sixers’ and Jazz’s collapses -- rank among the largest in NBA playoff history, but they don’t come out on top. Here are the six biggest come-from-behind wins in the postseason:

T-4. Boston Celtics 94, New Jersey Nets 90 | 2002 Eastern Conference Finals Game 3 | 26 points

The Celtics returned home for Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals after stealing Game 2 on the road. Led by Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, the Celtics were looking for their first NBA Finals appearance since 1987.

Unfortunately for Boston, Game 3 on their home floor didn’t start off as planned. The Celtics were outscored by the Nets in each of the first three quarters, falling behind by as many as 26 points. Entering the fourth quarter down 74-53, the Celtics outscored the Nets 41-16 in the final period to complete one of the greatest comebacks in postseason history. Pierce scored 28 points (21 in the second half) while Walker added 23. The excitement of the comeback was short-lived, however, as the Nets won the final three games of the series to win 4-2.

T-4. Cleveland Cavaliers 119, Indiana Pacers 114 | 2017 Eastern Conference first round Game 3 | 26 points

In their first series after completing the epic 3-1 comeback against the Golden State Warriors, the Cavaliers had one of the most difficult sweeps in recent memory. Cleveland defeated the seven-seeded Pacers at home by one point and six points in the first two games, respectively.

Game 3 was a much different story. The Pacers raced out to a 25-point halftime lead, jumping ahead of the Cavs by as many as 26 points. LeBron James took over in the second half, dropping 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds while playing all 24 minutes. Cleveland outscored Indiana 70-40 in the second half to win by five as it took a commanding 3-0 lead in the series.

T-4. Atlanta Hawks 109, Philadelphia 76ers 106 | 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals Game 5 | 26 points

The Sixers’ implosion against the Hawks might have felt like deja vu for Doc Rivers. His 2014-15 Clippers squad blew a 19-point late-third-quarter lead to Corey Brewer, Josh Smith and the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of the West semis (before losing the series in seven games), and the head coach watched something similar happen Wednesday night.

After building a 26-point advantage in the third quarter, the Sixers completely crumbled on both ends of the floor. Trae Young went off for 25 points and six assists in the second half as the Hawks shot over 60 percent from the field for 69 points against the NBA’s No. 2-ranked defense.

Meanwhile, the Sixers committed 10 turnovers, missed eight free throws and shot under 38 percent after halftime. Their bench was outscored 30-2. Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris combined to shoot 0 of 5 for two points. Seth Curry and Embiid were the only players who made at least one field goal, scoring 38 of their team’s 44 points. Yikes.

Now Rivers needs to win two straight games to avoid another embarrassing playoff exit.

3. Los Angeles Clippers 99, Memphis Grizzlies 98 | 2012 Western Conference first round Game 1 | 27 points

After the Clippers came back to win after trailing by 27 late in the third quarter, Blake Griffin told reporters, "We put a mask on and robbed that one.”

The host Memphis Grizzlies went up by 20 in the first quarter and increased their lead to 84-57 with 1:50 remaining in the third. The Clippers trailed by 21 heading into the fourth, going on to tie the NBA record for largest deficit overcome after three quarters. The Clippers shot 76.5 percent in the fourth, making 5 of 6 3-point attempts, to close the game on a 28-3 run.

Nick Young hit back-to-back 3 to make it a one-possession game at 96-93 with 1:47 to go. Griffin hit a pair of free throws to pull L.A. within one with 1:30 left. On the next Clippers possession, Reggie Evans converted a layup off a feed from Chris Paul for a 97-96 lead with 50.3 seconds remaining. Rudy Gay then put the Grizzlies back on top after hitting a jumper. Seconds later, Paul was fouled and hit both free throws with 23.7 seconds left for a 99-98 lead L,A. would not relinquish to steal the opener on the road.

The Clippers went on to win the series in seven games.

2. Los Angeles Lakers 97, Seattle SuperSonics 95 | 1995 Western Conference semifinals Game 4 | 29 points

The Seattle SuperSonics went from being up 29 points to being eliminated. 

Trailing 3-0 in the Western Conference semifinals to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Sonics held L.A. to 4-for-20 shooting in the first quarter and led 43-14 just 14 minutes into the game. During a timeout shortly after, Magic Johnson was heard saying "Let's just cut it to 15" before halftime. They did better than that, closing the half on a 16-0 run to cut the Sonics' lead to 11.  

The Lakers continued to chip away in the second half and went in front with 6:14 remaining on a pair of free throws by Orlando Woolridge that made it 82-81. James Worthy, who hit just two 3-pointers during the regular season, later drained a corner 3 to increase the lead to 88-83. The Lakers hit some late free throws to seal the comeback win and advance to the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns.

Worthy finished with 33 points on 15-for-19 shooting. Johnson added 17 points, nine rebounds and nine assists. 

The Lakers swept their way through the West in the playoffs, winning 11 straight. They were then swept in the NBA Finals by the Detroit Pistons.

1. Los Angeles Clippers 135, Golden State Warriors 131 | 2019 Western Conference first round Game 2 | 31 points

The greatest single-game comeback in NBA playoff history came against one of the most stacked squads of all time.

Durant, Steph Curry and the Warriors were two-time defending champions and favorites to three-peat in 2019. After winning Game 1, the Dubs had a commanding 94-63 lead with 7:31 left in the third quarter. Then the Clippers went ballistic in the second half.

L.A. scored 85 second-half points behind two star reserves. Montrezl Harrell went a perfect 9-for-9 for the game and finished with a 25-point, 10-rebound double-double. The real star of the comeback was a player who also helped spark the Hawks’ turnaround on Wednesday: Lou Williams. The 2019 NBA Sixth Man of the Year erupted for 36 points and 11 assists off the bench to help the team claw back and even the series. Golden State went on to win the series in six games before falling to the Toronto Raptors in the Finals.

The game also marked another crazy rally involving Rivers, who seemingly attracts major comebacks and collapses wherever he goes.

Mike Gavin, Max Molski, Eric Mullin and Logan Reardon contributed to this story

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