Among the considerations why Lebron James referred to himself as the Greatest Of All-Time because of leading the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Championship was his overcoming the 1-3 series deficit to win the crown.
James would average 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals, and 2.3 blocks during that series.
Coming from just a game away from being eliminated against a team that had just recorded the best ever regular season record is not something to be just dismissed. It is one of a kind achievement.
However, while I always thought that was definitely one heck of an accomplishment, others also overcoming similar kinds of gigantic adversities to win a title:
Dirk Nowitzki: He did something similar before
I am of the belief that the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks was one of teams that had to overcome stacked odds going into an NBA championship series.
They were just the third seed in the West behind the San Antonio Spurs and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, whom they eliminated in the Western conference Semifinals. Then after eliminating the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Western Conference representative the following year, they are tasked to go against the much improved Miami Heat as heavy underdogs.
The Heat then boasts of James himself, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh and have home court advantage in a 2 home – 3 away – 2 home format.
The Mavericks quickly trail the series, 1-2, losing game three at home. It could have been 0-3 had not been a five point splurge Nowitzki dished in the dying seconds of Game Two that allowed Dallas to overhaul a 15-point deficit. He fire a triple with 26 seconds to go to give Dallas a three point lead and a left-handed lay-up for the winning basket after the Heat tied the score earlier.
Nowitzki would then lead the Mavericks to victories in Games Four and Five before getting a helping hand from diminutive Jason Terry in Game Six that completed a sweep of the final three games and give the Mavericks its only championship to date, a span that is now running over 40 years.
Nowitzki was named Finals MVP. Jason Kidd is the only Hall of Famer in the Dallas line-up.
Nowitzki averaged 26 points and 9.7 rebounds including 97.8 clip from the line during the series.
Nowitzki will never be considered as the GOAT but what he had done for the Mavericks is something similar to what James had done for the Cavaliers.
It’s a testament James’ accomplishment was not unique.
Michael Jordan: The Flu game
Jordan should not be in this category simply because he never faced the kind of adversities the other GOAT candidates have to face in his six championship run, a testament how dominant at the height of the Chicago Bulls 1990s dynasty. The only time the Bulls was trailing in a series was in 1991 when the Lakers took Game One at Chicago. It was an aberration as the Bulls will take the next four games to win their first title.
Being down in a series early is a sign of not dominating an opponent and is one of the reasons I had Jordan high in my rankings as the GOAT.
If I will be forced to pick a series where he had to overcome an adversity, it will have to be the Flu Game. The Bulls and Jazz were tied-up 2-2 and was about to play a pivotal Game Five at Utah during the 1997 Finals.
Jordan was so sick and suffering from flu-like symptoms that that caused him to stagger, be dehydrated and exhausted during the game. Jordan pushed himself to score 38 points against the Jazz to grab the 3-2 series lead and avert possible Game Seven complications.
He made a huge 3-pointer with just under 30 seconds to go to gave Chicago a lead it will not relinquish.
The Bulls proceeded to finish the Jazz in the next game, claiming their fifth title in as many finals appearances
“Probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” Jordan was quoted to describe what happened, best evidence by the famous video clip of Scottie Pippen clinging to him in assisting him off the floor.
Jordan averaged 32.3 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 1.2 steals during that series.
Larry Bird: “We played like Sissies”
Bird was facing Magic Johnson for the first time in the NBA finals during the 1984 NBA championship. The Celtics quickly go down in the series 1-2, including a blowout in Game 3. It could have been easily 0-3 had Gerald Henderson not stole a pass that allow him to convert the regulation tying layup and led the Celtics to claim the game in overtime.
With the Celtics seemingly unable to stop the Lakers’ showtime and the Purple and Gold having a chance to close the series with two more home game at hand, Bird will display one of the qualities that made him a candidate for the GOAT, his leadership.
He issued a straightforward challenge to himself and his teammates after Game Three in a manner that was never taken the wrong way: “they played like sissies”.
The Celtics were not the same after that call, something the Lakers could not adjust to. They played harder, more physical and more tenacious, the perfect antidote to the fastbreaking Lakers.
Bird would go after Kareem Abdul Jabbar after receiving an elbow to the face and pushed Michael Cooper falling into the baseline stands during an inbounding scuffle. Kevin Mchale took out Kurt Rambis by a clothesline. Cedric Maxwell antagonized the Lakers with a choke sign.
The effect was made evident when Johnson had two crucial errors in the dying minutes that cause Celtics fans to call him Tragic Johnson,
Bird connected a crucial jumper with under a minute in overtime to bag Game Four and reclaim home court advantage.
He will follow up these with a 34 point, 17 rebound Game Five and a 28 point, 14 rebound, 8 assist output in Game Six.
The Celtics would win the championship in seven games and Bird named the MVP of the Series where he would average 27.4 points, 14.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks including 66.67% shooting from three point land.
Magic Johnson: No Kareem, No Problem
Magic Johnson’s first attempt at an NBA title was a very memorable one, maybe the best of its kind because an injury to a key player occurred at the worst possible time and he had to do something presumably out of his norm to finish the job.
The Lakers faced the Julius “Dr. J” Erving-led Philadelphia 76ers during the 1980 NBA Finals and promptly took a 3–2 lead in the series behind the 33 point average of regular season MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He, however, sprained his ankle in Game 5 and could not play in Game 6.
That’s when Lakers Coach Paul Westhead decided to start the rookie Johnson at center in Game 6.
The Sixers jumped to an early lead and was still leading late in the second when the Lakers countered by imposing more of its presence in the paint for a 60 – all tie at the half.
Johnson recorded 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in a 123–107 win, while playing guard, forward, and center at different times during the game to become the only rookie to win the NBA Finals MVP award.
His impromptu playing of different positions and the way he responded is still regarded as one of the best ever in NBA history.
Johnson averaged 21.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, 8.7 assists, and 2.7 steals in the series.
Bill Russell: Black and White
Russell’s case is a little different because we have to include the entire season.
And again, I would put Russell on the toughest spot in terms of overcoming seemingly immovable obstacles in order to win a championship because he had to deal with not only coming out with an impeccable performance on the floor but also of distractions and things that are not involved outside the hardcourt.
The year was 1967-68 when he led the first ever reversal of a 1-3 deficit enroute to his first championship as a playing coach.
It started in 1966 Celtic legend Red Aurbach retired as Boston’s coach.
Aurbach installed Russell to become the first black to coach a professional team in the US, while playing at the same time at his advancing age.
Russell would put to rest the apprehensions on whether the Celtic’s whites would follow his instructions at a time when America was entering the Civil Rights Movement that included urban riots and about his play deterioration due to age.
Russell would struggle in his first year where he led the team to a 60-21 record, the best in his three-year tenure as a coach, but were eliminated in the second round.
His Celtics would be back in the playoffs during the 1967-68 as the second seed in the Eastern Division and had struggled mightily against the Wilt Chamberlain-led 76ers, falling 1-3 in their best of 7 series.
Russell, however, led them to win the next three games to wrap up the series, the first time a 1-3 deficit was erased in NBA history, before winning the championship 4-2 against the Lakers.
He would complete his coaching career with another title the following year, outlasting the Lakers 4-3 in the title series.
Russell averaged 17.3 points, 21.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists for the series.
This story from the book “The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball” by John Taylor gives a perfect picture of what Russell had accomplished during this three year period:
“After the loss [to Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers in the 1967 Eastern Finals], he [Russell] led his grandfather through the Celtics locker rooms, and the two saw white Celtics player John Havlicek taking a shower next to his black teammate Sam Jones and discussing the game. Suddenly, Jake Russell broke down crying. Asked by his grandson what was wrong, his grandfather replied how proud he was of him, being coach of an organization in which blacks and whites coexisted in harmony.”