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Anatomy of a Comeback


There are some things in sports that you only get to see once: Kobe Bryant's 81-point game, the Stanford band running onto the field, Louis Oosthuizen converting a double eagle. Most things we get to see multiple times; as cool as a triple play or no-hitter is, seasoned sports fans have seen it enough times that it barely registers excitement. When Phil Humber pitched a perfect game a week ago, I'm sure a lot of people had the same reaction I did: "Again?"

Sunday's Grizzlies-Clippers game was something different. Yes, we've seen gigantic comebacks before in NBA games, and we've even seen them in playoff games. But we've never seen, and maybe never will again see, a comeback of that scope. The Grizzlies had a 24-point lead with a little over nine minutes left; the only way they could lose was if the Clippers played a flawless nine minutes of basketball, converting every shot and scoring every time down. And even then the Grizzlies would have to go on a cold streak of historic proportions; all they needed was two field goals over the final nine minutes to put the game firmly out of reach.

Somehow they only got one. Most teams don't even score 25 points in the fourth quarter, but Clippers managed to outscore the Grizzlies - a team that had been destroying them all game - to the tune of 28-3 over the final 9:12. The Grizzlies went seven minutes without a single bucket while the Clippers scored nearly every time down.

The Clippers were down 21 points to begin the fourth, which ties the record as the largest deficit overcome in NBA playoff history. And to put it in perspective, the other time a team started the fourth in a 21-point hole, that comeback wasn't nearly as improbable as this. The 2002 Boston Celtics made up 21 points against the Nets in the conference finals, but consider that the Celtics were at home in that game, that the lead never got higher than 21 in the fourth, and that with 9:12 remaining, the Celtics had already trimmed the lead to 10.

Is the loss an automatic death sentence to the Memphis Grizzlies? Maybe. There have been times that teams have lost in demoralizing fashion in Game 1, only to never play competitively again the rest of the series; the first example that comes to mind is the 1995 NBA Finals, where the Magic lost a game thanks to four straight missed free throws from Nick Anderson and then fit swept by the Houston Rockets. On the other hand, this isn't the first time a team has blown a game, though maybe not to this caliber. Teams have persevered. Hell, the Mavericks could have easily folded after giving away Game 1, but they still have Oklahoma City a fight in Game 2. If Memphis has serious championship aspirations, they should be able to overcome this.

Besides, history may actually be on their side. As weird as this is, the last three teams to blow an 18-point lead to start the fourth of a playoff game all wound up getting to the finals. So who knows - maybe the biggest chokejob in NBA history was a blessing in disguise.