Heat comeback now tops in Finals history

Updated: June 21, 2006, 3:07 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- It was official on this scorecard even before these Finals went final.

Yet it has to be a slam dunk now for any hoops historian.

The NBA Finals have never produced a more stunning turnaround/collapse than what we just saw. Never. The Miami Heat's 95-92 triumph over the Dallas Mavericks in Tuesday night's Game 6 cements it.

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It's just the third time ever that a 2-0 lead in the Finals failed to result in a championship. The Mavericks, though, didn't just win the first two games. They also blew a 13-point lead in the final six-plus minutes of Game 3 to squander a likely 4-0 sweep.

Miami followed up its Game 3 escape by winning the next three games, too, vindicating Pat Riley after all the heat he got for his roster choices . . . and saddling Dallas with the most epic meltdown in Finals annals.

The following top-five list details the competition in this category: Most dramatic momentum shifts on the Finals stage, 1947-2005.

1. 1977 Finals: Portland Trail Blazers 4, Philadelphia 76ers 2
This wouldn't be the unofficial home of Buffalo Braves bitterness if I didn't preface the following by suggesting that none of it would have been possible if the great Dr. Jack Ramsay hadn't been driven away to Portland by Braves owner/saboteur Paul Snyder, in the first of many donations to the rest of the league that landed my Braves in San Diego barely two years after Ramsay's departure.

However …

The Blazers' comeback in the 1977 Finals can't be otherwise diminished. If the Mavs had forced a Game 7 by winning Tuesday night and the season finale, '77 would remain the only Finals in league history in which the eventual champs won four straight games after falling behind 0-2.

As ESPN.com historian Ken Shouler reminds, Portland had nearly 10 days off after beating the Lakers in the West finals and then waiting for the Sixers to finish off the East-no-more Houston Rockets. Heavily-favored Philly pounced on Portland's rust from the opening tap -- when a certain Dr. J went in for a windmill dunk -- and won the first two games rather comfortably.

Yet the series actually spun late in Game 2, when a series of scuffles erupted into a full-scale brawl. Sixers center Darryl Dawkins and Blazers forward Bobby Gross were the principals, but Portland enforcer Maurice Lucas jumped in with a right that caught Dawkins.

It's impossible to know how the series would have played out in today's NBA, given that Dawkins and Lucas (and probably others) would have been suspended. Not necessarily for just one game, either. Back then, though, all parties were allowed to keep on playing after marginal fines ... and Portland was a different team thereafter.

Seeing Lucas confront the fearsome Chocolate Thunder emboldened the Blazers, who won Games 3 and 4 at home by a crushing total of 54 points. Unlike Mavs-Heat -- and thus a big reason why the '06 Finals are bound to claim the top spot when we amend this list -- there was no hint in those games of the shell-shocked Sixers getting close to a 3-0 lead.

In Game 5 back in Philly, with the 2-3-2 format still almost a decade away, Portland countered Julius Erving's 37 points with 25 from the unheralded Gross and 24 boards from eventual Finals MVP Bill Walton to keep the Sixers sliding. A two-point home win in Game 6 clinched it for Portland in front of the "Blazermaniacs," who, three decades later, aren't so maniacal about a franchise that looks about as stable these days as the post-Ramsay Braves.

2. 1969 Finals: Boston Celtics 4, Los Angeles Lakers 3
Jerry West opened the '69 Finals with two games Michael Jordan could envy. The NBA's Logo Man rang up 53 and 41 points as L.A., with what seemed to be its best-ever chance to finally topple the hated Celts, took a 2-0 edge over an aging Boston squad that had won just 48 games during the regular season.

The Celts predictably rallied at home to even things at 2-2, but even a trademark dose of Celtic Mystique -- Sam Jones winning Game 4 with a clumsy buzzer-beating jumper -- didn't deter West's Lakers. They recovered from that heartbreaker to win Game 5 back at the Fabulous Forum, but the Celts won Game 6 at home. So for once the Lakers had a chance to close Boston out on their home floor in the Game 7 decider.

It didn't matter. In a story you've surely seen more than once on ESPN Classic by now, Boston's players learned before the Game 7 tap of the elaborate celebration plans arranged by Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke. Not that the Celts could miss the balloons hanging in the Forum rafters overhead, waiting to be released at the final buzzer.

You surely know the rest as well. West was so good on a tweaked hamstring that he finished with 42 points, 13 boards and 12 assists ... so good that he became the first (and only) Finals MVP from the losing side. But the fired-up Celts tortured West yet again by taking a 17-point lead into the fourth quarter and hanging on for a 108-106 triumph after (a) Wilt Chamberlain was controversially benched for the final five-plus minutes; (b) L.A. missed 19 free throws, including nine by Chamberlain, and (c) Stein Line favorite Don Nelson hoisted that crazy free-throw line jumper that hit the rim, bounced straight up and dropped back through.

It was the first time any team had overcome a 2-0 deficit in the Finals and it was Bill Russell's farewell after his unparalleled run of 11 championships in 13 seasons.

3. 1985 Finals: Los Angeles Lakers 4, Boston Celtics 2
I'll never forget watching Game 1 with the fellas, mainly because of a guy in our rugged South OC high school gang named Scott Weidman.

Weidman was one letter away from greatness, in other words.

Game 1 of the '85 Finals was the famed "Memorial Day Massacre," in which Scott Wedman came off the Celtics' bench to shoot 11-for-11 from the field in Boston's 148-114 runaway.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, meanwhile, scored a whopping 12 points, masking the fact that Magic Johnson managed only one rebound and raising the media volume on the idea that Abdul-Jabbar, at 38, was finished.

Cue dramatic turnaround.

The Lakers resuscitated themselves to win four of the next five games, avenging their seven-game defeat in the '84 Finals and toppling Boston at last after a run of eight straight losses to the Celts in the championship round.

Kareem? He averaged merely 30.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.0 blocks in the Lakers' four victories to earn Finals MVP honors ... setting a very high bar for Shaquille O'Neal in the 2010 Finals.

4. 1995 Finals: Houston Rockets 4, Orlando Magic 0
How can a Finals sweep include a dramatic turnaround?

My response: Do you remember Game 1 of the '95 Finals?

In what was presumed to be the first of many trips to the title round for O'Neal and Penny Hardaway, Orlando got there by halting Michael Jordan's comeback from baseball in Round 2 and routing Indiana by 24 points in Game 7 of the East finals. The Magic then responded to the notion that all this was happening too fast for a 23-year-old Shaq and a 22-year-old Penny by rolling up a 20-point lead on the defending champs in Game 1.

The inexperienced Magic even managed to regain the lead after blowing all of that 20-point cushion and clung to a three-point edge in the final minute. But Nick Anderson infamously missed four consecutive free throws -- two with 10.5 seconds left and two more after pulling in an offensive rebound -- to frame one of the most painful collapses in the sport's history.

That Game 1 defeat in OT, after such a promising start, uncorked a long, vicious spiral for the Magic that some Orlando observers believe still grips the franchise.

The heart-of-a-champion Rockets steamrolled the crushed kiddies in the next three games. The midseason reunion of Phi Slamma Jamma's Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and the support of stellar role players (Robert Horry, Sam Cassell, Mario Elie and Kenny Smith) enabled Houston to emerge as the lowest-seeded champion ever (No. 6 in the West) and the first titlist to beat four 50-win teams in the playoffs.

Yet it was merely the beginning of the suffering for the Magic. They could never again count on a broken Anderson and held onto Shaq for just one more season before he defected to the Lakers in free agency. The Magic's 10 seasons of mediocrity since -- marked by five first-round playoff exits, another messy parting with a franchise player (Tracy McGrady) and Grant Hill's years of injury misfortune -- have been referred to as the Curse of the Shaqino.

(Editor's note: Detroit's 4-1 dismantling of the Lakers in the 2004 Finals, when the Pistons swept the three middle games at home to break up the Shaq-Kobe Bryant-Phil Jackson triangle, was also strongly considered here. The problem? Dramatic as the consequences were for the losers -- since this was the Laker team that also had Gary Payton and Karl Malone and won four straight resurrection games itself in the second round after falling behind 2-0 to San Antonio -- L.A. never had control of the Detroit series. Not even for the bulk of one game like the '95 Magic did. The Lakers needed Kobe's miracle triple to force overtime and steal Game 2 at home and were convincingly snuffed out of the other four games by the Pistons at their T-E-A-M peak.)

5t. 1951 Finals: Rochester Royals 4, New York Knicks 3
1996 Finals: Chicago Bulls 4, Seattle SuperSonics 2

This combined entry is the twosome that gets bumped when Heat vs. Mavs slides into the top spot.

For one simple fact.

The turnarounds were indeed stunning ... but incomplete.

I don't have a lot of details to share about the '51 Finals, but this much I do know: Rochester went up 3-zip, which almost never happens, then dropped the next three, which happens even less. The Royals eventually beat the Knicks at home in a 79-75 thriller (we assume) in Game 7, with the final four points (two each from Bob Davies and Jack Coleman) coming in the final minute to clinch it.

As for 1996, I'm guessing you won't need to look at Ken Shouler's "Total Basketball" to recall some of that series. MJ's Bulls jumped to a 3-nil lead over the Sonics, winning the first game in Seattle by 22 and looking like they were going to cap their 72-10 season with the sweepage it deserved.

But Payton and Shawn Kemp, in what wound up as their only shared shot at a ring, forced the Bulls to close it out at home by dragging the Sonics back to 3-2.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics