Biggest Playoff Collapses in NBA History, Ranked
In the postseason hothouse, everything is on the line. Status, rings, legacy, contracts, careers, you name it. Some players and teams thrive in the face of defeat — this year’s Denver Nuggets come to mind — while others inexplicably crumble under pressure (hello, 2014-2020 Clippers).
Below, we've ranked the playoff collapses that broke their fans' hearts into a million pieces. Where does the Clippers' latest collapse land on the list?
5. 1995 Finals: Orlando Magic Choke Away Game 1 to Houston Rockets
Holding a three-point lead in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals, Magic guard Nick Anderson was the free-throw line to potentially ice the game. Unfortunately, Anderson bricked the first two attempts but made an incredible hustle play to secure an offensive rebound only to get fouled again. And, you guessed it, he then missed the next two free throws as well.
With less than 10 seconds remaining, Kenny “The Jet” Smith sank a clutch 3-pointer to send the game to overtime, where the Rockets eventually won, 120-118. The Magic never recovered from Anderson's choke job at the charity stripe as they were swept by the Rockets.
Anderson’s free-throw percentage plummeted in subsequent seasons. Orlando never turned to the Finals again in the Shaq era.
4. 2006 Finals: Mavericks Lose a 2-0 Lead to Heat
There are many factors that make this loss excruciating for the Mavericks, apart from the fact they lost a series that, at one point, they had a 90% chance of winning. Even in Game 3, Dirk Nowitzki and Co. were leading by 13 points with six minutes remaining. However, a 24-year-old Dwyane Wade had other plans, going scorched earth in the final minutes, finishing with 42 points and 13 boards to keep the Heat alive.
Over the next three games, Wade eviscerated the Heat, averaging 38 points and a whopping 18 free throw attempts per game to put the series away in six games. It led Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to reportedly consult with the FBI to investigate what happened, although Cuban staunchly denied ever doing so.
Fortunately for Nowitzki and Cuban, they got their revenge when the two teams met up again in the 2011 Finals, upsetting the Heatles Big Three.
3. 2015 Western Conference Semifinals: Clippers Crumble to Rockets
The Lob City Clippers represented the unfortunate trajectory of so many young, exciting teams. Their high-flying years of consistently winning 50 games after decades of ineptitude were washed away after consistent playoff failures. Lob City's most brutal playoff washout was in 2015, to a Houston Rockets team that looked toast after losing Game 4 by an embarrassing 33 points. The Clippers never seemed so close to that elusive first Conference Finals, but they let their guard down in Game 5, and their spirit broke the following game.
Corey Brewer and Josh Smith — two veterans who had been ineffective all series — caught fire from beyond the arc and played the games of their lives. They combined for a ludicrous 38 points, including 29 in the 4th quarter. Lob City was leading by 13 heading into the final period of play, but they drowned in a sea of Smith and Brewer attacks. Not unsurprisingly, the Clippers were shell-shocked, and that game was ultimately their best chance at reaching the Conference Finals in the Lob City Era. They bowed out peacefully in Game 7, which might have been even more pathetic than their Game 6 performance.
2. 2020 Western Conference Semifinals: Clippers Collapse in the Bubble
Is there a little recency bias going on? Of course.
But that doesn’t mean this blown lead was any less crushing for Clipper fans, who have suffered for years, and even during the celebrated Lob City era, there were playoff heartbreaks galore. This time was supposed to be different. The Clippers had imported two-time champion Kawhi Leonard and a rangy two-way wing in Paul George. They had two of the league’s best bench players, and a deep, imposing roster and smart coaching staff.
And yet, it all went away. The Nuggets looked burned out after Game 4, but the Clippers’ 3rd quarter scoring efficiency plummeted like the 2008 stock market. Over the final three games of the series, the Clips were consistently outscored by an average of 10 points in 3rd quarters after holding double-digit leads in the 1st half. Come Game 7, absolutely nobody on the Clippers decided to show up. George and Leonard shot a combined 10-38, while Nikola Jokic dropped a triple-double and Jamal Murray scored 40 points.
Perhaps what makes this defeat hit harder for fans was that this year was supposed to be different ... and then it wasn’t.
1. 2016 Finals: Warriors Blow a 3-1 Lead to LeBron's Cavaliers
Up until LeBron James and the Cavs defeated the mighty Warriors in seven heart-pounding games, no team had ever come back from being down 3-1 in NBA Finals history. The King leveled up to a Super Saiyan in the final three games, averaging a preposterous 36.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 9.6 assists, three steals and three blocks on 50% from the field. Kyrie Irving averaged 30, and Kevin Love provided series-winning defense on Stephen Curry in key moments.
You had “The Block” and Kyrie’s cold-blooded 3-pointer in the final minute. You had years of Cleveland ineptitude and heartbreak wash away in one glorious moment, thanks to a herculean effort from the Cavs. You had a broadcaster Mike Breen hitting his signature "Bang!"
Golden State was a fledgling dynasty, having won the 2015 finals. And while their core has won a total of three rings, the 2016 Finals will stick with them forever.
Originally published on June 29, 2021.
Photo: Getty Images