Few things top the art of the comeback in sports. The beauty of a team coming from behind doesn’t erode when it’s a favorite pushing back against an underdog that has risen to the challenge, either. The old adage “whoever has the ball last is going to win” was made for last second, thrilling finishes. That narrative especially rings true when you don’t have a horse in the race, too.
Unless it’s your team thwarting off an insane comeback, you often will want to see the impossible come to fruition. Sports fans everywhere got to see that first hand recently, when the Cleveland Cavaliers stormed back from a 3-1 grave to shock the Golden State Warriors.
A monumentous, emotional and epic comeback like that has to rival for one of the greatest come from behind wins ever. There’s not doubt it’s near the top, but where precisely does it rank? We reflect on some of the greatest sports comebacks in history to find out:
Kentucky Outlasts LSU
The greatest comeback in college basketball belongs to the Kentucky Wildcats, who appeared to be completely toasted in a 1994 battle with the LSU Tigers.
Kentucky was down a ridiculous 31 points in the second half but used every bit of their energy and focus to get easy buckets, hit clutch jumpers and put the clamps down defensively.
It’s tough to give LSU a hard time for the loss, too, as they certainly brought it on the offensive end and matched Kentucky with 13 three-pointers made. The Wildcats had zero quit and smelled blood late, however, cutting the lead to two with just over a minute to go. The pressure got to LSU in the end and Kentucky was rewarded with a 99-95 win – as well as a spot on our list of greatest sports comeback of all-time.
Indians Survive Mariners
Baseball has had some pretty cool finishes (we’ll get to the best one later), but the best single-game comeback goes to the Cleveland Indians.
Cleveland was severely out of it when facing the Seattle Mariners in a 2001 regular season contest, with the Mariners owning a staggering 12-0 lead at one point in the game.
That wasn’t a problem for Cleveland, who ripped off three, four and five runs in the final three innings to force the game into extra innings, tied up at 12-12. Credit Cleveland’s offense for the elite, never-dying runs in three consecutive innings, but their defense was just as good to close out a clutch performance.
What made it even better was Cleveland finished the job with a 15-14 win in 11 innings, and the win also came against an elite Mariners team (116 wins that year). Yeah, that’ll make a greatest comeback list.
Aggies Don’t Quit
One of the craziest comebacks ever came pretty recently in the 2016 March Madness tournament. We’ve enjoyed some awesome college basketball comebacks, but in late March, we saw something we’ve never seen before.
Down 12 points to Northern Iowa with just 44 seconds left, the Texas A&M Aggies went forth with one of the most ridiculous comebacks any sports fan will ever see. Actually, to be more specific, it was without a doubt the best comeback with under a minute to go in college basketball – seeing as no team had ever successfully come back from a 12-point hole in less than a minute before.
The process itself was amazing, too, as everything had to go right for the Aggies to pull it off. Even crazier was that it came against a UNI team that was off of heroics just the game before. Texas A&M wouldn’t quit, though, using gritty defense and a little bit of luck (UNI has some awful inbounds plays and the refs probably should have called some falls that went without whistles).
Still, the Aggies dug in and kept at it, forced OT and moved on in the tourney because of it. If this were just a regular game, this would have been impressive. Coming at a time where all hope was lost and a trip to the Sweet 16 hung in the balance, Texas A&M deservingly makes our list.
The Celtics actually own two of the best comebacks the NBA has ever seen, but they make this list for virtually sealing up the 2008 NBA Finals in epic fashion.
Down 24 points against the Lakers in Los Angeles, the Celtics’ original Big 3 of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce came together to fight back and push Boston over the top. A series that could have quickly been tied at 2-2 with momentum favoring the Lakers turned into a 3-1 lead and eventually led to a Boston championship.
Boston’s other big comeback deserves a nod, too, as they overcame an even bigger hole (26 points) in a 2002 Eastern Conference Finals battle with the New Jersey Nets. Boston wouldn’t end up winning the series, but they at least gave the Nets something to think about and gave them their a comeback for the ages.
Bills Won’t Die
The Buffalo Bills were known for getting to Super Bowls in the 1990’s, but they’re also known for an insane (and improbable) comeback win over the Houston Oilers back in a 1992 AFC Wild Card contest.
Down 35-3, the Bills never quit and managed to pull off a miraculous come from behind win with backup quarterback Frank Reich leading the way. The craziest part? Buffalo didn’t even score their first touchdown until midway through the third quarter.
Buffalo did turn it on from there, however, as they torched the Oilers in the second half and held on to force overtime. The Bills would force a turnover in the extra period and went on to knock in a field goal to give them one of the wackiest NFL wins in league history.
As amazing as that Bills win was, there are two other NFL comebacks that were too good to not at least reference. They weren’t quite as meaningful or impressive, but it’s worth noting that the Colts did complete the second best comeback in playoff history in 2014, and the New York Jets stormed back and took down the Miami Dolphins in a 2000 regular season game.
Andrew Luck was brutal early in Indy’s first round playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs, but he turned his game up late to rally the troops from a 28-point second half hole.
The other game was meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it’s hard to remember another prime time game that was so one-sided, only to end up going completely the other way.
The New York Jets were embarrassed in every possible way against the AFC East rival Dolphins, going down 30-7 going into the fourth quarter.
New York rallied to tie the game at 30-30 with just under four minutes to go, only to see Miami strike a long touchdown to take back the lead less than a minute late. The Jets proved resilient, however, as they marched down the field and tied the game at 37 with less than a minute to go. That tie forced overtime, where the Jets went on to snag the win.
The comeback itself was clearly impressive, but what makes this game even more of a classic was how most fans had given up on the game before it was over.
Also known as “8 in 9”, this was an instant classic ending in a 1995 playoff game between the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks. Making this even nastier was the fact that Reggie Miller and the Knicks hated each other, but Miller went into full clutch mode by converting eight points in just nine timed seconds.
Indiana started the barrage down 105-99 with just over 18 seconds to play, and Miller Time went to work. Miller began the action with a three-pointer to get the clock rolling again and quickly sent the fans off the rails with a steal and another three to tie the game at 105, a piece.
That sequence gave Miller two straight trey bombs in literally five seconds and was the majority of his personal comeback against a team he loved beating. New York can’t love that he pulled that off back in 1995 and they can’t love that he makes this list now. Hey, at least he’s retired.
13 in 35
This one is less about a team completing a ferocious comeback, and more about Tracy McGrady single-handedly taking down the San Antonio Spurs.
It wasn’t a playoff game and in the long run it was meaningless, but McGrady was flat out unconscious to close out this game, putting his Rockets squad squarely on his back to get a win against a very good Spurs team.
McGrady started his onslaught in a 2004 contest down eight points with just under 40 ticks to go, and proceeded to score 13 points in 35 seconds to lead his team to an insane comeback. It was one filled with and-one’s and clutch three-point shooting. The dude could not miss and there was literally nothing the Spurs could do about it.
Flyers Make it Difficult
As impressive as some of the late game finishes and comebacks have been in past years, nothing really beats a team pushing back against the odds when things look bleak in a series.
It takes a lot more pride and fight to stay alive in a series that fans and experts alike write you off in, and when you’re in a 3-0 hole, it has to be awfully tough to feel you can win even one game.
The Flyers found themselves in such a situation in 2002, when they fell behind the Pittsburgh Penguins in round two, three games to none. The Flyers refused to give in to the huge lead, however, and buckled down to rip off three straight wins to to force game seven.
Even more impressive? The Flyers appeared to run out of gas in that emphatic game seven, quickly falling into a 3-0 hole and looking to be down for the count. Just like they’d done before, though, Philadelphia rallied, scoring four straight goals to steal the game seven win and claim the series.
Philly wouldn’t even make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, but no one can take anything away from what is easily the greatest comeback the NHL has ever seen and one of the top comebacks in sports history.
Red Sox Down Yanks
Nothing is better than taking down a hated rival, right? How about taking that bitter familiar foe in front of the nation with a trip to the World Series on the line?
That’s precisely what the Red Sox did against the AL East rival New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. Boston went down in a 3-0 hole and looked to be on their way to the offseason, but found a way to take it one game at a time and crawl back into the series.
It was an absolutely crazy series that included a comeback in game four that arguably sparked their epic run. What is even crazier is the Red Sox hadn’t won an MLB championship since 1919 – thanks to the Curse of the Great Bambino, to many – and would move on to do just that after taking down the Yanks.
Their title run was never to be without some heroic performances, however, as their bats came to life and their pitching stepped up in massive ways to combine for the best comeback ever seen in MLB history. This was a series that including stellar play from David Ortiz, Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, random outbursts from players who had been awful prior to this series and a blown save by Mariano Rivera.
When game seven finally rolled around, the Yankees were so sideswiped by the comeback that they barely showed up and Boston rode into the World Series without a fight.
Cavs Shock Warriors
LeBron James finally fulfilled his promise to the state of Ohio, as he willed the Cleveland Cavaliers to an unlikely title to cap a thrilling 2015-16 NBA season.
It was done in impressive fashion, as the Cavs overcame a 3-1 hole that no team had ever escaped from in NBA Finals history. That feat itself is tough to grasp, but James and co. upped the ante by claiming Cleveland’s first NBA title in team history, as well as the city’s first sports championship in 52 years.
This wasn’t just a random 3-1 series comeback, though. It being the first of its kind was insane. It happening at Oracle Arena, a place the Dubs had lost just four games all year was insane. It happening against the team that boasted a two-time league MVP and an NBA record 73 wins was, yep, you guessed it, insane.
But sometimes it takes insanity to force people to believe. Cleveland was #AllIn all year long, nabbed the #1 seed in the disrespected Eastern Conference, dodged questions about rifts and a LeBron James decline and heard about how their ticket was punched before the NBA Finals were actually over.
Instead of caving, Cleveland fought back, took it one game at a time and in more ways than one, made history. Game seven may go down as one of the greatest caps to an NBA Finals ever. The series itself probably won’t. But this comeback, with all of the trappings of a legendary player and a franchise – nay, an entire city – in sports purgatory – has to take the cake.