Analyzing the largest comebacks in the NBA

(Note: If you are here to play with the cool interactive plots and want to skip the lengthy chit chat, scroll down!)

Now that the NBA regular season is over and the playoffs are well under way, I thought I’d share some data analysis I did recently about the largest comebacks in NBA history.

The idea of looking at this came up this past March, during a conversation with Tommy Powers from UW (who will be spending the summer with us as an intern) at ICASSP 2017 in New Orleans. The Boston Celtics at Golden State Warriors game was for some strange reason shown on TV in a bar where we were listening to some great blues band. The Celtics were ahead in Q4 and ended up winning with a large margin, but we were wondering at which point it would become hopeless for the Warriors to stage a comeback.

I thought it’d be fun to have a plot that showed, for any given time in a game, the largest score deficit that a team was in and still ended up winning. For example, at half-time, what was the largest score deficit that a team ended up overcoming? You could imagine the curve starting at 0 at the beginning of the game (games usually start at 0-0), going down as minutes passed to some minimum, and then creeping back up, because with less time left to play, it becomes harder and harder to overcome a large deficit and win.

I poked around on the internet for play-by-play data logs, and thought I’d have to write a scraper to get the data from some sports website, when I stumbled upon some reddit thread mentioning that  had an API from which the data could be accessed. Further googling with the magic word (“github”) quickly showed that (of course!) several people had already written some Python wrapper to do the heavy lifting. I decided to use statsnba-playbyplay, as it seemed to have the appropriate features.

A few (read: way too many) hours later, I was able to get the plots I wanted. They only cover the seasons from 1996-97 to 2016-17, because play-by-play data is not available for earlier seasons. I also arbitrarily decided to only consider regular season games, and to not show  overtime periods (of which I realized some games had many!).

Without further ado, here are the results for the largest comebacks overall from 1996 to 2017, with separate charts for games where the home team eventually wins and games where the away team eventually wins. You can hover over the plots (made with to see the list of games that correspond to the largest comebacks at each second.

So the Utah Jazz were able to overcome a 36 point deficit against the Denver Nuggets in 1996, at home. Conveniently, the largest deficit occurred at half-time. The largest comeback for an away team goes to the Sacramento Kings, who ended up beating in 2009 the Chicago Bulls, in Chicago,  even though the Bulls were 35 points ahead after 3 and half minutes in the third quarter: the crowd must not have been pleased!

Here are plots showing each season separately (this may take some time to load):

It’s pretty clear by comparing all seasons how the Nuggets at Jazz and Kings at Bulls games were outliers. We can also look at the distribution of scores in all games from 1996 to 2017, to show how rare such large comebacks are:

Distribution of score differences in all regular season NBA games, 1996-2017
These two games, which you can see as the little crumbs at the bottom of each plot, are literally one in over 10,000 games!
Finally, here is a list of the largest home/away comebacks for each season and the corresponding games:
Score Game Date Time of largest score deficit
Season Home / Away
1996-97 Home -36 Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz Wednesday, November 27, 1996 Q2 11’40” to Q2 11’56”
Away -27 Phoenix Suns at Dallas Mavericks Sunday, March 2, 1997 Q3 8’51” to Q3 9’32”
1997-98 Home -24 Chicago Bulls at Utah Jazz Wednesday, February 4, 1998 Q2 0’47” to Q2 2’28”
Away -24 Minnesota Timberwolves at Dallas Mavericks Saturday, January 17, 1998 Q3 6’7” to Q3 6’20”
1998-99 Home -23 Houston Rockets at San Antonio Spurs Sunday, April 18, 1999 Q2 1’4” to Q2 1’20”
Away -28 Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State Warriors Tuesday, April 20, 1999 Q2 2’22” to Q2 7’42”
1999-00 Home -22 San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks Tuesday, March 21, 2000 Q2 10’28” to Q2 11’39”
Away -23 Sacramento Kings at Los Angeles Clippers Saturday, March 18, 2000 Q2 3’29” to Q2 3’40”
2000-01 Home -24 Miami Heat at Sacramento Kings Sunday, December 10, 2000 at Q2 0’0”
Away -28 Sacramento Kings at Phoenix Suns Wednesday, March 7, 2001 Q2 8’36” to Q2 8’46”
2001-02 Home -23 Charlotte Hornets at New Jersey Nets Sunday, February 24, 2002 Q3 3’21” to Q3 3’25”
Away -25 Memphis Grizzlies at Portland Trail Blazers Monday, March 25, 2002 Q3 7’14” to Q3 8’39”
2002-03 Home -30 Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers Friday, December 6, 2002 Q3 0’40” to Q3 0’57”
Away -23 Los Angeles Lakers at Memphis Grizzlies Friday, April 4, 2003 Q4 0’0” to Q4 0’13”
Away -23 Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Monday, January 20, 2003 Q3 1’10” to Q3 1’31”
2003-04 Home -25 New Orleans Hornets at Cleveland Cavaliers Monday, February 23, 2004 Q2 4’15” to Q2 5’34”
Away -29 Phoenix Suns at Boston Celtics Friday, December 5, 2003 Q3 0’23” to Q3 0’49”
2004-05 Home -22 Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors Friday, February 4, 2005 Q3 3’40” to Q3 4’13”
Away -24 Los Angeles Clippers at Chicago Bulls Saturday, November 13, 2004 Q2 5’30” to Q2 5’41”
2005-06 Home -25 Charlotte Bobcats at Chicago Bulls Wednesday, November 2, 2005 Q3 3’22” to Q3 3’28”
Home -25 Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Thursday, March 16, 2006 Q2 8’37” to Q2 9’24”
Away -19 Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors Monday, January 23, 2006 Q3 8’10” to Q3 8’36”
Away -19 Philadelphia 76ers at Minnesota Timberwolves Sunday, January 22, 2006 Q3 10’2” to Q3 10’20”
2006-07 Home -27 New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets at Portland Trail Blazers Friday, November 10, 2006 Q2 0’20” to Q2 0’24”
Away -25 Seattle SuperSonics at Minnesota Timberwolves Tuesday, March 27, 2007 Q3 6’4” to Q3 6’17”
2007-08 Home -25 Portland Trail Blazers at Philadelphia 76ers Friday, November 16, 2007 Q2 8’20” to Q2 8’35”
Away -25 Denver Nuggets at Indiana Pacers Saturday, November 10, 2007 Q2 6’36” to Q2 6’48”
2008-09 Home -29 Minnesota Timberwolves at Dallas Mavericks Tuesday, December 30, 2008 Q3 1’34” to Q3 2’10”
Away -26 Philadelphia 76ers at Indiana Pacers Friday, November 14, 2008 Q2 0’26” to Q2 0’30”
2009-10 Home -24 Phoenix Suns at Indiana Pacers Wednesday, January 13, 2010 Q2 5’51” to Q2 5’58”
Away -35 Sacramento Kings at Chicago Bulls Monday, December 21, 2009 Q3 3’10” to Q3 3’26”
2010-11 Home -23 Sacramento Kings at New Orleans Hornets Wednesday, December 15, 2010 Q3 3’12” to Q3 4’8”
Away -25 Toronto Raptors at Detroit Pistons Saturday, December 11, 2010 Q3 6’9” to Q3 6’50”
2011-12 Home -21 Milwaukee Bucks at Sacramento Kings Thursday, January 5, 2012 Q2 10’1” to Q3 1’4”
Home -21 Los Angeles Lakers at Washington Wizards Wednesday, March 7, 2012 Q3 4’37” to Q3 4’49”
Away -27 Boston Celtics at Orlando Magic Thursday, January 26, 2012 Q2 8’49” to Q2 8’57”
2012-13 Home -27 Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks Friday, January 25, 2013 Q2 5’59” to Q2 6’14”
Away -27 Miami Heat at Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday, March 20, 2013 Q3 4’16” to Q3 4’47”
Away -27 Milwaukee Bucks at Chicago Bulls Monday, November 26, 2012 at Q3 9’10”
2013-14 Home -27 Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Tuesday, December 3, 2013 Q3 2’40” to Q3 2’48”
Away -25 Indiana Pacers at Detroit Pistons Saturday, March 15, 2014 Q2 8’36” to Q2 8’56”
2014-15 Home -26 Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Thursday, November 13, 2014 Q2 1’14” to Q2 2’1”
Away -26 Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics Sunday, March 1, 2015 Q2 5’7” to Q2 5’19”
2015-16 Home -26 Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Wednesday, April 13, 2016 Q2 11’1” to Q2 11’55”
Away -24 Chicago Bulls at Philadelphia 76ers Thursday, January 14, 2016 Q2 5’38” to Q2 5’55”
2016-17 Home -28 Sacramento Kings at San Antonio Spurs Wednesday, March 8, 2017 Q2 7’18” to Q2 7’26”
Away -24 Memphis Grizzlies at Golden State Warriors Friday, January 6, 2017 Q3 6’44” to Q3 7’19”

If you feel like playing with the data, I put both the code and the data on github. Here is how the code looks like:

That’s it!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.