Closer Look: Playoffs are producing comebacks at a historic level

May 03, 2021 by by Darius Garuolis Print

It is one thing to state that this, the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague's longest season ever, has also been its most competitive ever. To the tightest spread of victories to date between the top eight regular season finishers, we can now add the unprecedented fact that three best-of-five playoffs will be decided in winner-take-all Game 5s on Tuesday to reach the Final Four.

But when you realize that the 15 games contested over the first 11 days of the playoffs have doubled the record for huge comebacks at this phase, it takes an already historically competitive season to an even higher level of drama

A total of 181 games were played in 44 best-of-five series between 2009 and 2019. During that span, 10 games were won by teams rallying from 13 points or more behind on the scoreboard. That's an average of less than one such comeback per season, or 5.5 % of all those games.

This season, by comparison, four playoff games already have featured comeback wins by teams that faced 13-point deficits or. That's 26.6% of the 15 games completed so far in these playoffs. AX Armani Exchange Milan's 19-point comeback to win Game 1 against FC Bayern is the second-biggest comeback in playoffs history. Bayern returned the favor by making up a 13-point deficit in Game 4 to force their tiebreaker on Tuesday.

If you push the comeback threshold down to 12 points, which CSKA Moscow overcame in Game 3 to sweep Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul, this year's rate rises to 33.3% – 5 out of 15 games – while the 11-season rate before this one is 8.8%.

Dramatic as those victories over the last two weeks have been, they don't tell the entire story. That's because two teams in these playoffs actually came back from 17 points behind and still lost those games!

FC Barcelona got ambushed on its own court by Zenit St Petersburg in Game 1 and was looking at a 29-46 deficit in the minute before halftime. Barca slowly climbed back to take a 72-71 advantage with 1:09 to play, only to see Zenit prevail on a shot by former Barca player Kevin Pangos with 10 seconds left.

Anadolu Efes Istanbul fell behind 17-0 to start Game 4 on the court of Real Madrid, made up the entire difference and went ahead by 16 points, 31-47, before halftime, but then fell victim as Real came back to win again – just as the hosts had done from 15 points behind 48 hours earlier in Game 3.

That makes six games featuring comebacks of 13 points or more, whether the team that rallied ultimately won or lost, in the 2020-21 playoffs. That figure doubles the total of such games in any other season's playoffs phase. The next most-prolific comeback parade in the playoffs was three such games in the 2016-17 season.

Finally, for the sheer number of points tallied up in rallies, no previous playoffs season compares to this one, either. Four of the top 10 comebacks, win or lose, among what are now 196 best-of-five playoff games to date have occurred in the last two weeks. Together, four teams -- Real (twice), Milan, Bayern and CSKA - have erased 75 total points' worth of deficits to claim five victories by an average comeback of 15 points in each. The best average comeback victory for any other season, in half the games, was 13.7 points in 2016-17.

Finally, if you count beyond the playoffs to include all games played this century, only 3.0% featured comebacks from 15 or more points behind to win. Fully 20% of this season's playoff games, three out of 15, fit that description.

In other words, we are witnessing the greatest concentration of comeback basketball in the EuroLeague this century. And it's not over yet. Don't be surprised to witness more comeback fireworks on Tuesday.