DB’s Weekly Take: The infamous history of the 3-1 lead

Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, left, is fouled by Denver Nuggets’ Gary Harris during the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game, Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo.

The Denver Nuggets are on the brink of history. After coming back from being down 3-1 in their first-round series against the Utah Jazz, the Nuggets found themselves down 3-1 again, this time to the heavily-favored Los Angeles Clippers. But Denver responded with huge wins in Games 5 and 6 to extend their season and force a Game 7, becoming the first team in NBA history to force a Game 7 twice in the same postseason after being down 3-1. 

With a win on Tuesday night, the Nuggets would become not only the first NBA team to erase two 3-1 series deficits in the same postseason, but just the third team in major North American sports history to do so. The 1985 Kansas City Royals were down 3-1 in the ALCS to the Toronto Blue Jays when they won three straight games to advance to the World Series. Then in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Royals went down 3-1 again only to come back and win the series in seven games for their first title in franchise history. 

The 2003 Minnesota Wild accomplished the feat as well, recovering from a 3-1 deficit in the first round of the playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche to move on to the conference semifinals against the Vancouver Canucks. In that series, the Wild went down 3-1 again before coming back to win the series for a most unlikely appearance in the conference finals. 

That is exactly what the Nuggets are looking to do on Tuesday night at 9 p.m.: Become one of the most unlikely Final Four teams in NBA history by overcoming back-to-back 3-1 series deficits. 

This begs the question: How rare is overcoming a 3-1 series deficit? We already know it’s almost unheard of for a team to do it twice in the same season, but in the grand scheme of NBA history, it has been done 12 times, including the Nuggets’ triumph against the Jazz this year. It has also happened 13 times in MLB history and 29 times in NHL history for a grand total of 54 blown 3-1 leads in North American sports history.  

That may seem like a lot when you compare it to the number of blown 3-0 series leads, which is only five; four in the NHL and one (shoutout to the 2004 Boston Red Sox) in the MLB. It has never been done in the NBA. 

But, when you look at the fact that there have been 256 instances in NBA history where a team had a 3-1 series lead and only 12 times, the team lost, it’s clear how rare of a feat it is. That means when an NBA team is up 3-1 in a series, based on historical data, they have a 95.3% chance of winning the series. But don’t tell that to Jamaal Murray, Nikola Jokic and the rest of this year’s Nuggets team because they are looking to add to the 4.7% of cases where the 3-1 deficit was overcome. 

Breaking it down even further, when a team has been up 3-1 in a series, in about 60% of the cases, the team ended the series in five games. In another 27% of cases, the series was over in six games, meaning that only 33 out of 256 teams that have been down 3-1 in NBA history, or 12.9%, have even forced a Game 7. For those who have, 12 out of the 33, or 36.4%, have completed the comeback. 

This means the Nuggets have already done the hardest part by forcing a Game 7, and even though history still isn’t on their side, the 36% chance of winning the series now compared to the 5% chance just a few days ago puts Denver in a much better position than one might think. 

Don’t get me wrong, the Clippers should win this game. They will be favored to win the game, and history shows that they are over 63% likely to win it. But the fact that it comes down to a Game 7, where we know anything can happen, should make the Clippers and their fans a little nervous. 

All the pressure in this game is on the Clippers. The Nuggets have nothing to lose as the underdog, but the Clippers, who turned themselves into title favorites with the acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, will never hear the end of it if they blow this series. Adding to the pressure, the Clippers have never advanced past the conference semifinals in franchise history. They have lost in this exact series seven different times, three in the 1970s as the Buffalo Braves and four times in the last 15 years.  

In fact, in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals, the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Houston Rockets. Blowing another one in the conference semifinals this season to the Nuggets would only add to the legend of the Cursed Clippers. 

So Tuesday night’s game is a big one with some truly historic implications. If the Nuggets can make history with a second 3-1 comeback in a row, they will give new meaning to the term “Cinderella team.” And as for the Clippers, it’s pretty hard to live down blowing a 3-1 series lead, especially when you’re considered the superior team. Just ask the 2016 Golden State Warriors. 


  1. The obvious reason that coming back from a 3-1 deficit is rare is that in the vast majority of cases the team that is up 3-1 is simply a superior team. When a 58-win NBA team takes a 3-1 lead over a 42-win NBA team, the reason they win is NOT because they were up 3-1, but because they’re simply a better team.

    If you laser out all of the 3-1 leads held by teams that were, according to consensus, simply much better than their opponents, then the proportion of coming back from 3-1 gets much higher. In other words, there’s nothing special about being up 3-1; teams that are up 3-1 tend to win not because 3 wins is close to 4, but because they were, in most cases, the better team all along.

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