Advice for wayward teams

Updated: April 30, 2004, 1:34 PM ET
By Tom Tolbert | Special to ESPN.com

The Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and Dallas Mavericks are all in a situation that I only found myself in once. They're down 3-1 in a playoff series. Because I'm such a nice guy, I'm going to go ahead and give these teams a little bit of advice on how to possibly come back from this deficit.

Let me first give you a little background on my experience being down 3-1. It was during the 1990-91 season, which was so long ago that I had a full head of lovely hair. At the time, I was playing for the Golden State Warriors during the "Run TMC" heyday. We averaged about 116 points per game while giving up about 115 per game. As you can tell we were big fans of defense. We finished the season 44-38 and followed that with a first-round 3-1 win over the San Antonio Spurs.

In the conference semifinals, we faced a juggernaut in the Los Angeles Lakers. Though the Lakers had lost coach Pat Riley at the beginning of the season to a short-lived retirement, they still finished the season 58-24 under new coach Mike Dunleavy. That was thanks in large part to a roster featuring rookie center Vlade Divac, power forward A.C. Green, guard Byron Scott, forward James Worthy and point guard Magic Johnson. Needless to say, it was a tough team to face!

We were down 3-1 with the fifth and potentially deciding game in Los Angeles. It's always difficult to play in Los Angeles because of the distractions, but it's a little harder when you know if you lose that it'll be time to dust off the vacation plans.

That's where my advice comes into play. For a team to have any shot at coming back from a 3-1 deficit, it has to use a fighter's mentality. To use an old cliché, players literally have to take it one game at a time. Because in most instances, the team that's down 3-1 is simply the inferior team -- with the exception of last year's Detroit Pistons-Orlando Magic series -- and shouldn't have the audacity to think three games ahead.

In those cases, the losing team has to try and put blinders on and steal some games. Even though the pressure is on them right now, that pressure starts to shift as the series goes on.

For instance, if the Nuggets win the next game to make the series 3-2, the Timberwolves are going to start hearing whispers about their previous playoff exits. Those whispers will turn to roars if the Nuggets take Game 6. All of a sudden, every naysayer will come out of the bushes to hail the Nuggets and degrade the Timberwolves. The Nuggets won't have any pressure on them because it was such a valiant effort for them to even get to a seventh game. But on the flip side, Minnesota players will be left wondering how they let Denver back into the series. That's how teams are able to come back from 3-1 deficits to win. Honestly, I believe it's the only way.

Of course, none of these teams have to take my advice. We lost 124-119 in overtime to the Lakers to lose the series 4-1.

Tom Tolbert, who played in the NBA for seven seasons, is an NBA analyst for ESPN.

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