The Most Significant Meltdowns in NBA History

By Jason Fryer

Thanks to the San Antonio Spurs for late game collapse during the 2013 NBA Championship in the final 30 seconds of game 6, I felt this would be a good time to analyze the top 10 in game collapses of the past 30 NBA Playoffs. I decided to not place game 6 on this list, but had I included it, it would have been slotted as the most significant meltdown ever because it was a championship clinching game, no other game on this series has that on their resume.

Honorable Mention:
Nets @ Bulls Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Ok, I know it was a first round game between the most overachieving and underachieving teams of the 2013 season, however, this matchup provided us with one of the best and unlikeliest performances ever. With the Bulls down 14 (and should have been 16) with under 3 minutes left in the game, Nate Robinson put on his cape and transformed into Superman as he led the Bulls on a 16-2 run to send the game into overtime. If that wasn't enough, the majority of the Bulls had fouled-out (Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Nate Robinson, and Marco Belinelli) during the three overtimes. So you would think the more talented and healthy Nets would be able to win this game…no quite. With the Bulls up 4 with 20 seconds remaining in the game, Carlos Boozer missed the second of two free-throws and Brooklyn was unable to box out Nazr Mohammed as he recorded a 3 point play to give Chicago the win and a 3-1 series lead. This game showed us the Bulls TWTW (The Will ToWIn) and Brooklyn lack of urgency (which was also present during game 7, but that's for another time) throughout this first round matchup.
Mavericks @ Blazers Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Western Conference Quarterfinals: This 2011 first round game was the defining moment for the Dallas Mavericks and Brandon Roy for two completely different reasons. Lets start with Roy who had one last memorable performance scoring 18 fourth quarter points (24 overall) and lead the Blazers back from a 18 point fourth quarter deficit to winning the game 84-82 in regulation. It seemed the old Brandon Roy had returned and the Blazers were going to be a serious threat to the Mavericks in the first round. Unfortunately for Roy and the Blazers, it was the last dominant Brandon Roy performance Rip City and the NBA world would see as a few months later, the 2006-07 rookie of the year winner was forced into retirement with a chronic knee injury. On the other hand, game 4 became the defining game for the Dallas Mavericks as following that loss, the Mavs went onto win 14 of their next 17 games en-route to the 2011 NBA Championship. The old Dirk would have folded down the stretch (as shown by the #2 collapse on my list), but the new Nowitzki regrouped and helped lead the Mavericks to their first ever NBA Championship.
10. Pacers @ Knicks Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals: The Reggie vs. Spike Lee game is only number 10 on my list? How? Ok Pacers and Knicks fans, let me first set the stage. The Knicks won both games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in Madison Square Garden by 11 points (100-89 and 89-78) and the Pacers followed that by returning the favor in games 3 and 4 of the series. Game 5 of the series had the Knicks with a 12 point lead to start the third quarter and it seemed the Knicks would take a 3-2 lead back to Indiana. As the 4th quarter began, Pacers star guard Reggie Miller started chirping with someone in the front row in addition to hitting hitting every shot on the floor. The more Reggie talked, the more he he would make, and in the 30 for 30 documentary titled: Winning Time Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks, Hall-of-Fame Coach Pat Riley said all he could do was call timeouts and during the timeouts he would tell his players to "get up, no more airspace, take his airspace away." It didn't work as Miller would go onto score 39 points (25 in the 4th quarter) as the Pacers went from 12 down to start the 4th to winning by 7. Indiana had taken the momentum, home court. and looked poised to win game 6 and advance to the NBA Finals.

Why is this #10 on the list? Simple, the Knicks won the series. Had the Pacers gone on to defeat the Pacers and advance to the NBA Finals, then this "meltdown" would be much higher on the list but with the Knicks advancing, I have to put this towards the back.

9. Pacers @ Knicks Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals: There's a reason there was a documentary made about the legendary 1990's Pacers-Knicks series as we saw two of the most memorable series of all time. With 18.7 seconds left, the Pacers called a timeout attempted to extend the game by finding Reggie for a quick three and then fouling to extend the game. The first part of the plan worked as Jackson found a somehow open Miller for a open 3 on the left-side of the court and then the Knicks melted down. For some reason, New York decided to make Anthony Mason the inbounds man with no timeouts. Mason panicked and thew a pass right into Millers hand (after Miller threw Greg Anthony to the ground, but that's for another time) and steeped back behind the 3 point line and made a game tying 3 with 13.2 second remaining in the game. You would think that was the end of the collapse, either the Knicks would regulation or the game would go into overtime…not quite. Following a crazed sequence, Sam Mitchell decided to foul, sending John Starks to the free-throw line. Starks continued the tragedy by missing the next two free-throws and then Starks fouled Reggie Miller who would hit his free-throws, and the meltdown was complete as Greg Anthony stumbled, lost control of the ball and the Knicks lost the game.
Why is this #9 on the list? Though it is one of the most memorable and remarkable collapses of all time, IT WAS GAME ONE OF THE EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS. If this was the 7th and deciding game of the series or an NBA Finals game, this would have been in the top 10, but with this being a game at the beginning of a series, I felt this was a memorable collapse, but not one of the top 5 most significant NBA meltdowns ever.

8. Pistons @ Celtics game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals: Oh Larry Legend had one more trick up his sleeve. With 8 seconds left in the game, Bird drove to the basket and was meet by 3 Pistons, eventually blocked by Dennis Rodman and in the mad scramble, the ball eventually went off current Celtics GM Danny Ainge. Detroit wanted to inbound the ball quickly so Isiah Thomas passed it to what appeared to be open Bill Laimbeer at the baseline but before it could get into his hand, well I'll leave the rest up to the legendary voice of the Celtics, Jonny Most:

The Celtics would win game 5, and eventually the series thanks to another terrific game 7 performance by Larry Bird which included 37 points, 9 rebounds, and 9 assists.

Why is this #8 on the list? This was an Eastern Conference Finals game and Boston went on to win the series so that's why I ranked this game ahead of games 9 and 10 on this list. Had Boston lost this game, I feel Detroit would have returned to the Pontiac Silverdome and won game 6 to advance to the NBA Finals. However, this meltdown showed us why the Pistons were almost ready for the big stage and just as it looked they were able to meet the Lakers in the Finals, Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson stole the game and series. So why isn't this higher on my list? Because it was game 5 of the conference finals. Had Detroit won game 5, they still would have had to win game 6 or game 7 to win the series. This game was also played in the Conference Finals and not the championship series and I feel that had Detroit gone on to win the series, I still feel the Lakers would have won the NBA Championship (remember the Lakers defeated the Pistons in the 1988 NBA Finals).
7. Lakers @ Celtics game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals: This game changed the 2008 NBA Finals, as even with the Celtics winning games one and two in Boston, LA knew they were going home. As Pat Riley once said, "No playoff series truly begins until the road team wins a game.” With the Lakers finding a way to win game 3 of the Finals, and having a 24 point 2nd quarter lead (45-21), it looked like the Lakers were going to tie the series and take control. This game showed us why you play 2 half as by the end of the 3rd quarter, the Celtics came just about all the way back (down 73-71), and would continue their game 4 comeback by defeating the Lakers by 6 and take a commanding 3-1 series lead. Los Angeles would go on to win game 5, but the Celtics would dismantle the Lakers in game six, 131-92 en-route to the 2008 NBA Title.

Why is this #7 on the list? Game four of this series completely transformed the 2008 NBA Finals. Had Los Angeles found a way to win game 4, I feel they would have won game 5 and had an excellent chance to win either games 6 or 7 in Boston. The Celtics didn't just win a road finals game, they put together one of the best road finals game comebacks of all time and it seemed that there was no way LA could recover from a loss of this magnitude. With the win, the 2008 series was over and Boston knew that it was only a matter of time until they lifted the Larry O'Brien Trophy. I decided to place this game at number 7 on this list because this wasn't a 4th quarter collapse, it wasn't a championship clinching game, and the Lakers were able to recover and win game 5 of the series before losing by 39 in game 6.
6. Mavericks @ Heat Game 2 of the 2011 NBA Finals: Just like the previous game on my list, game 2 changed the perception of this series and provided that the so called invincible Heat were beatable after all. Prior to game 2 of the NBA Finals, Miami had a perfect 8-0 record at home and had only lost 2 games in the first three rounds of the playoffs. With the Heat up 88-73 and in the driver seat to go up 2-0 in the series, Dallas looked lost (prior to a Jason Terry hitting a jumper with 6:20 remaining in the 4th) and unable to keep with the Heat, but then Dallas decided to go on one of the greatest in game runs in the history of the finals. Down 15 with 6:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Mavs went on a 22-5 run to end the game defeating the Heat by 2 points. Though Miami would recover and win game 3, the Mavs never seemed fazed by the moment and Miami never recovered from this loss as Dallas went on to win 4 of the 5 games to win the championship.

Why is this #6 on the list? Although it was only game 2 of the series, this game completely changed the outcome of the rest of this series. The next few games showed us that if Miami wasn't able to get out in the open court with their transition and dictate the tempo of the game, then at that they wouldn't be able to defeat the Mavericks that series. That's exactly what happened in all but one (Dallas dominated game 6) of the series; Miami would continually found ways to collapse down the stretch.
5. Rockets @ Magic game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals: The 1995 NBA Finals saw the Number 1 seeded Magic go up against the reigning champs and 6th seeded Rockets. Orlando was seen as the leagues best up and coming team that featured two of the leagues brightest young stars in Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway along with Nick Anderson, Horace Grant, Dennis Scott, and Brian Shaw. The NBA world felt that the athleticism of the Magic would be too much for the older Rockets to handle. Houston on the other hand featured two of the games greets at the Peeks's of their career in Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. The previous year, the Dream won both the league and Finals MVP and established himself as one of the top players in the NBA. As glorious as the 1993-94 season was for the Rockets, the 1994-95 season was anything but easy as Olajuwon missed 10 games, Vernon "Mad Max" Maxwell missed 18, and onFebruary 14th, the Rockets tried for one last hope to give their team energy as they traded Tracy Murray, Otis Thorpe, and a future 1st round draft pick for former Hakeem Olajuwon's former college teammate, Clyde Drexler.

The Rockets finished 6th in the Western Conference and had to go the distance in both the first and second rounds of the playoffs (Houston was down down 3-1 in the series vs. the Suns and won two of the final three games in Phoenix) and then went on to defeat the number 1 seed and 1994 MVP Award Winner (David Robinson) San Antonio Spurs. In game 1, Orlando jumped out to a 20 point second quarter lead and looked to be in control. Just as Orlando was looking that they were going to take a 1-0 series lead, Houston showed why they were the defending Champs as they outscored the Magic by 18 in the 3rd quarter to take a 4th quarter lead.

You would think that was the end of the meltdown…not quite. With 10.5 seconds remaining in the game and a 3 point lead, the Magic had Nick Anderson at the free-throw line needing him to make one and probably end the game. It didn't happen as Anderson missed both but he was able to gain his own miss and was fouled again sending him back to the free-throw line and resulted in the same outcome, missing both free-throws but this time Houston got the rebound. Houston decided to draw up a game tying 3 for Kenny Smith (who was 7-11 from beyond the arch) as he was able to avoid the outstretched arm of Penny Hardaway, sending the game to overtime. Houston would eventually win game 1 by 2 and sweep the series.

Why is this #5 on the list? Game one of the 1995 NBA Finals completely changed the series and it seemed like the young and inexperienced Magic didn't know how to recover from a loss of this magnitude. Had Orlando won game one, I believe this would have been a 6 or 7 game series but instead it seemed the Magic became more were nervous and immature once Nick Anderson missed the four free-throws and Kenny Smith hit the shot to send the game to overtime.
4. Lakers @ Celtics game 2 of the 1984 NBA Finals: The Celtics and Lakers were meeting in the NBA Finals for the first time since their memorable 1968 matchup that saw the Celtics win in 7 games. In game 1 of the series, the Lakers speed was too much for Boston and they won game one by six points. Game two of the series had the Lakers up by two late in the fourth quarter but Boston's Kevin McHale was at the free-throw line with a chance to tie the game but missed two free throws and Magic Johnson grabbed the rebound. With 18 seconds left, it looked as if the Lakers on the brink of returning back to LA with a 2-0 lead in the series with the Lakers now having the ball and preparing to go to the foul line to make it a 2 posession game. Following a timeout by the Lakers, James Worthy threw the ball into Magic Johnson, who threw the ball back to Worthy into the corner, and Worthy decided to pass the ball crosscourt where the pass was intercepted by Gerald Henderson and he laid the ball in to tie the game with 13 seconds. The Lakers would go on to lose game 2 in Overtime by 3 points and the series in 7 games.

Why is this #4 on the list? This ended as the 4th biggest meltdown of the past 30 years on my list because had the Lakers held on to win this game, Bird would have been down 0-2 to Magic (remember Indiana State vs. Michigan State) and people would start to question if Bird would ever be able to defeat Magic in a big game. With this win however, it was Bird receiving all the praise and Magic getting destroyed by the media for his play in the 1984 NBA Finals. Magic would get his revenge on Larry and the Celtics as he defeated Bird in the 1985 and 1987 NBA Finals.

3. Kings @ Lakers Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals: The Kings started off the game on fire as they put together a twenty points at the conclusion of the first quarter and midway through the second built it up to a twenty-four point margin. The two time defending champs started chipping away at the lead, cutting the Kings lead to 14 at Halftime and down to 7 prior to the start of the 4th quarter. With 11 seconds left and the Lakers down 2, the ball went into Kobe Bryant who drove down the right side to the basket and missed, Shaq tried to tip it back in but was unsuccessful, and then the ball was tipped to the top of the key where Robert Horry was open for 3 and once again big shot Rob delivered hit a game ending 3. With the win, the Lakers were able to tie the series and would eventually win in 7 games.

Why is this #3 on the list? The Sacramento Kings joined the 1989 Seattle Supersonics as being the only two teams to have have a 20 point first quarter lead and lose. Though the Kings would return to Arco Arena and win game 5, they would end up losing games 6 and 7 as the Lakers would go on to sweep the 2002 Finals against the New Jersey Nets. Had the Lakers lost game 4, I believe the Kings would have taken a commanding 3-1 lead in the series and I would have won the series in 5 games. This game cost the Kings a championship as Sacramento hasn't returned to the Western Conference Finals since and had the Lakers lost this series, the leagues most drama filled team (at the time prior to the Miami Heat) would have considered splitting up with the problems going on between the leagues biggest stars.

2. Mavericks @ Heat Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals: The first two games in the 2006 NBA Finals saw the Mavericks dominant the Heat in the first two games of the series (90-80 and 99-85). For Miami, game 3 became a must win for the Heat and just like the previous two games of the series, Miami found itself down by double digits (89-76) midway through the forth quarter. WIth the Heat on the brink of going down 0-3, they needed to make a quick run or they knew this series would be history. As he did all finals long, Dwyane Wade took the game over, scoring 41 points but it wasn't Wade that took the clutch go ahead shot, instead it was taken and made by another future Hall-of-Famer, Gary Payton. With Dallas now down 2, Dirk Nowitzki took the ball to the basket and missed but a foul was called. Nowitzki would make the first and miss the second with Wade holding onto the rebound and was fouled. Like Nowitzki, Wade made one of two at the line and with Dallas down 2, they would have one second to set up a play to tie the game but the pass towards the basket was broken up by who else…Wade and the Heat won the series. Miami would continue their winning ways as they would win the next 3 and the franchises first NBA Championship.

Why is this #2 on the list? Had Miami lost game 3 of this series, we would have had to rewrite the rest of history and the perception of a number of individuals. First,  let me start by saying had the Heat lost game 3 of the series, I believe this series was over as no team in the history of the NBA has comeback from down 0-3 in a best of seven series. Second, had the Mavs won the series, Dirk Nowitzki would have dropped the "soft" label much earlier (this stigma stayed with him until he won the 2011 NBA Championship) in his career. The final other significant change within the outset of the Mavericks would have been the coaching situation in Dallas. Prior to losing game 3, Avery Johnson was seen as one of the best young coaches as in his second season (and first full season), he won coach of the year and took the Dallas Mavericks to their first NBA Finals appearance. Following the game 3 loss, Johnson would only win 3 more playoff games during his Mavericks tenure and was out as head coach with the Mavs following the 2007-2008 season.

As for the winners of game 3 and the 2006 NBA Finals, had the Heat not won the series, things would have been different on their end. How would we have viewed the Shaquille O'Neal trade? How would Dwyane Wade been viewed for the next few seasons? Would he be seen as another Carmelo Anthony, great player and scorer but unable to win the big game? Remember, the Heat's previous season came to an end when they loss game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Detroit Pistons. With an aging roster and a star player (Wade) that had a number of shoulder problems the following season, who knows if Wade and Shaq would have won a title in the Shaq-Wade era? Remember, the Spurs were still a major power out west and the big 3 in Boston was about to form in the east. Lastly, if Shaq was unable to win his 4th championship and Kobe would have won his 2 titles, then the basketball world might have viewed the legacy of Shaq in a greatly different manor. Some might (though not me) have said that Shaq needed Kobe to win championships. This is one of the most forgotten and important games in NBA history for what came out of it the next few seasons.

1. Blazers @ Lakers Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals: Wait, wait, wait. A conference finals (not NBA Final) is seen as the most important meltdown game (prior to game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals) of all time. Yes, and I promise I'll explain. But first let me set the stage. The 1999-2000 Lakers had a completely new look that included a new coach (Phil Jackson) and new stadium (Staples Center). LA had one of the best regular seasons records in the history of the NBA, finishing with the leagues best regular season record (67-15), the leagues MVP (Shaquille O'Neal), and were the heavy favorites to win the NBA title. The playoffs got off to a rocky start as they had to win a win or go home game 5 against the 8th seeded Sacramento Kings which they were able to overcome with a 117-107 win. The Lakers would go on to win 7 of their next 9 games and were on the brink of the NBA Finals with a close out game 5 at Staples Center.

The Lakers were unable to close out the Blazers on their home court and would also go on to lose game 6 in Portland setting up another win or go home game with a chance to have home court in the NBA Finals against the Indiana Pacers. Through 3 periods, it looked like the Lakers dream season would come to an end as with 9:42 remaining in their season, the Lakers were down 13 (75-62) to an experienced Portland Blazer team. In the 4th, the Lakers stars (Bryant and O'Neal) along with role players (Brian Shaw, Ron Harper, Glen Rice, Robert Horry, and Brian Shaw) made huge plays on both ends of the court and finally with 4:00 remaining, Brian Shaw made a 3 to tie the game at 75 and it seemed the experienced Blazers were crumbling under the pressure. The final nail in the coffin came with Portland down 4 and Kobe Bryant finding Shaquille O'Neal for a one handed alley-oop to seal the game and series.

Why is this #1 on the list? Most would believe that an NBA Finals game should be higher on this list than a conference final game. So why did I place this as the most significant breakdown of the past 30 years? For one, if LA lost this game, some feel we might have seen the breaking up of Shaq and Kobe. Had the Lakers failed to reach the finals again, this would have been Shaq and Kobe's 4th season together without being able to reach the NBA Finals, let along win a championship. People would have started questioning wither the Shaq-Kobe combination would work or if either would be able to show up in the big games (remember Kobe's first big playoff moment). WIth this comeback win (or meltdown by the Blazers) no one would question Shaq or Kobe for the remainder of their careers as they kept the team together, and a dynasty was born. Had they lost, who knows maybe Dallas, Indiana, Portland, San Antonio, and/or Sacramento would have won the championship between the years of 2000-2002. In the end, this didn't happen and the Lakers created a dynasty and went to the finals 4 of the next 5 years, winning 3 of time times.

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