5 Greatest Comebacks in 7-Game Playoff Series

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You don’t have to be a Cleveland Cavaliers fan to think the Cavs might have just made the most improbable comeback ever in a seven-game playoff series. They not only rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals — something no other team had ever done — they beat the team that set the single-season record for victories this season. And they had to win two of those three games on the Warriors’ home court. Is it the greatest comeback ever? It’s certainly on a very short list of incredible comebacks that nobody could have predicted … except die-hard fans and the players who refused to quit.

 

5. Kansas City Royals (1985 World Series)

How hard is it to overcome a 3-1 deficit to win a championship? Before Cleveland beat Golden State to win the 2016 NBA title, the Royals were the last to accomplish the feat in a U.S. professional sport, 31 years earlier. It’s happened only once in the NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals, 75 years ago.

St. Louis won an MLB-high 101 games in 1985, 10 more than the Royals. So after taking a 3-1 lead over cross-state rival Kansas City, everyone assumed the Cards would win the “Show-Me Series.” But the Royals won Game 5, then benefited from a bad call by first-base umpire Don Denkinger to rally for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to win Game 6. The Cards, still furious about the blown call, came unhinged in Game 7, losing 11-0.

 

4. Detroit Tigers (1968 World Series)

The Cardinals put the Tigers in a 3-1 hole, thanks in large part to two victories by Bob Gibson, whose 1.12 ERA during the regular season still stands as the modern-era standard. But the Tigers had two great pitchers of their own that year, in 31-game winner Denny McLain and left-hander Mickey Lolich. After Lolich won Game 5 in Detroit, the Tigers pitched both McLain and Lolich on two days’ rest in games 6 and 7, respectively. The Tigers won both games in St. Louis, with Lolich outdueling Gibson in Game 7.

 

3. Boston Celtics (1981 Eastern Conference Finals)

The Celtics overcame a 3-1 series deficit against a 76ers team led by the legendary Julius Erving and with a supporting cast of a half-dozen other All-Star-caliber players. The Celtics roster had the talent to match, not just the budding Larry Bird/Kevin McHale/Robert Parrish frontline that would power the team during the 1980s, but also Nate Archibald and 1981 NBA Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell.

What’s remarkable here is that the Celtics not only fell down 3-1 in the series, but they had to pull off incredible rallies to win the final three games. The 76ers should have clinched the series in Game 5, but were outscored 8-0 in the final 1:51 to lose. The Celtics rallied from 15 down in the third quarter to win Game 6, and overcame a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter in the series finale. It’s certainly one of the most exciting playoff series in NBA history, with five of the seven games decided on the last play. Almost as an afterthought, the Celtics would go on to beat Houston for the championship.

 

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (2016 NBA Finals)

Until the Cavs’ miracle comeback, 32 teams had found themselves in a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals. Not one had ever rallied to win the title. As noted earlier, the Cavs did that against the team that had set the NBA regular-season mark with 73 victories, and they won two of the final three on the road. It’s even more remarkable that the Cavs maintained their focus despite all the distractions over those last three games: the Draymond Green suspension, all the talk about LeBron James not being able to deliver a championship to Cleveland, conspiracy talk that the NBA wanted the series to go seven games, etc.

 

1. Boston Red Sox (2004 American League Championship Series)

This is an easy No. 1, for several reasons. First, the Red Sox remain the only team in MLB history to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. The Red Sox not only accomplished that by winning four in a row, they won Games 6 and 7 at Yankee Stadium. It’s hard enough beating even a bad team four games in a row, let alone the Yankees, who had won an AL-leading 101 games that season. At one point in Game 4, the Red Sox had to score a run off superstar closer Mariano Rivera in the ninth just to avoid a sweep. Curt Schilling’s gutsy “bloody sock” performance in Game 6 seems as improbable in retrospect as it was watching it live. And the Red Sox did all this while ignoring the infamous championship drought that had been hanging over the team for 86 years. The Sox buried that ”Curse of the Bambino” by beating the Cardinals in the World Series.

 

One More: Pittsburgh Pirates (1979 World Series)

Many fans know the basic storyline of the 1979 World Series, how 39-year-old slugger Willie Stargell was the offensive and spiritual leader of the “We Are Family” Pirates. (Sorry, that song will be stuck in your head the rest of the day.) But those Pirates trailed the Orioles 3-1 in the Series. The Orioles appeared in full control in Game 5, with 1979 AL Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan on the mound against journeyman left-hander Jim Rooker for the Pirates. The O’s were up 1-0 through five innings. But the Bucs rallied, and held the Orioles to only two runs in the final three games, winning two of those in Baltimore, to win the series.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.