First things first: no team has ever come back from being down 0-3 to win a series in the NBA Playoffs—not just in the NBA Finals, but in any postseason contest since the league’s inception 70 years ago. In fact, there have been 12 instances of teams starting the NBA Finals with three straight wins, and in eight of those instances, the more dominant team simply swept the series.
Of those remaining four series, only once did a team come back from being down 0-3 to force a Game 7: the 1951 New York Knicks.
To emphasize just how long ago that was, Harlem Globetrotters standout Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first black player ever signed by an NBA team at the start of that season, coincidentally by New York. That was the season the All-Star Game originated. Bob Cousy found his way to Boston via dispersal draft when the league trimmed down its roster of teams, and Red Auerbach coached his first year with the Celtics.
Despite the advent of Auerbach/Cousy in Boston, the Knicks actually swept the Celtics out of the first round of the playoffs that year in a best-of-three series, then eked out a series victory over the Syracuse Nationals in a five-game Division Finals series. This was a huge deal because it was the first time New York had reached the league’s championship round, which helped bring national attention to the NBA in a way it never had previously. As the sports and communication capital of the world at that time, New York’s success brought massive attention to a league that had dissolved six teams just before the season started.
In other words, people were paying attention.
The Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) handled their side of the bracket fairly easily and found themselves heavily favored heading into the Finals, so it surprised nobody when the Royals jumped out to a 3-0 series lead that April. Rochester was a veteran team at the time, led by Bobby Wanzer, Bob Davies and Arnie Risen, while the Knicks were considered a “college-style” team that played a very different, and apparently less successful, brand of basketball.
Still, New York stole Game 4 in New York, then Game 5 in Rochester. Both teams then headed back to New York to play Game 6, but since Madison Square Garden currently was occupied by a traveling circus, the Knicks had to host the game in a 5,000-seat armory instead.
They won, obviously, forcing the first-ever Game 7 in NBA Finals history.
New York was down by as much as 16 points in the first half, but the upstart Knicks battled back and actually found themselves with a small lead in the game’s final couple of minutes. The score was tied with 40 seconds to go when Davies was fouled on a drive and sank two free-throws that served as the go-ahead points in the game and the series.
The 1951 NBA Finals are, in a lot of ways, responsible for the league’s early booming popularity, and while there have been many great Game 7s since, this one apparently serves as the template for Cleveland’s quest to do the same.
The statistical reality, however, is that the Cavaliers don’t stand much of a chance. Not only has no team ever come back from such a deficit, the Golden State Warriors haven’t lost four games in a row since February 6 to March 2, 2013 and are healthy with two of the best three players on the planet currently battling on their roster.
Yes, Cleveland overcame a 3-1 deficit a year ago, and seeing that number again this season does something to churn up old feelings. However, Cleveland has to be flawless for the next three games against arguably the greatest NBA team of all time, and two of those games are in Oakland.
The 1951 New York Knicks couldn’t do it, but they’re ancient history. Now the Cleveland Cavaliers want to make some history of their own.
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