The thrill, and terror, of a comeback

Posted: January 6, 2014 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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I have no way to prove this. It’s like an alibi no one can verify. I was alone in my apartment. Watching TV. I didn’t say it out loud or tweet it or text my thoughts to anyone. But when the Chiefs went ahead 38-10 against the Colts on Saturday, I had a fleeting thought, something of a vision. I saw the Colts coming back. Maybe it had to do with Andrew Luck’s penchant for rallying his team or the fact there was still so much time left. And when the Colts quickly scored to cut it to 21, I thought, here we go.

Again, this is hardly unique. It’s an absurd notion for anyone to believe they can actually predict something like that because for every rare time it happens, a hundred other times your sterling premonition proves worthless and the team still loses by 24 points.

But while Saturday might have done nothing to prove my football knowledge or clairvoyance, it was another in a not-so-long-line of stunning comebacks that all seem to follow a familiar pattern. And whether you enjoy the outcome or loathe it or are indifferent and only want a crazy ending, there’s nothing like a great rally. It makes us love sports — or hate them.

Football comebacks share common themes: An offense that looked like a Ponder-led attack for two or three quarters becomes unstoppable. It’s inexplicable — how can a unit look so terrible for so long and then march up and down the field time and again? After the first score — which cuts the deficit to 21 or maybe 17 — the team in the lead doesn’t get too nervous. It’s still a three-possession lead, the announcers are still telling amusing anecdotes they break free from the glass in case of blowouts. If the trailing team is at home, even the crowd remains a bit listless. But another score changes everything. Two scores are nothing, especially in today’s NFL, where every offense has times when it looks like the ’98 Vikings. When it all starts falling apart — when the turnovers start and the lead eventually disappears for good — there are always countless shots of the coach who’s watching his team implode. The coach must know the cameras are trained on him so they often stand motionless — unless it’s say, Tom Couhglin, but his antics happen regardless of game circumstances. They grimace, or slowly shake their head, perhaps end it by flinging the headphones to the ground.

Unlike football comebacks, which are more teamwide collapses by the losing side — the line falls apart, followed by the quarterback, who’s failed by a receiver who can’t catch and then the entire defense stops making any stops — baseball rallies almost always have an easily identifiable goat: The pitcher. It won’t always be one pitcher, of course. When a team loses a six or seven-run lead, no manager is leaving the same guy in there the whole time. But at some point we’re going to see the poor pitcher sweating on the mound, looking back to the fence in disbelief as yet another home run flies over the fence, crouching down when one of his fielders boots a grounder.

Basketball comebacks are the easiest to pull off, though that doesn’t make them less thrilling. In basketball an individual player can singlehandedly rally his team, turning a 20-point deficit into a single-digit one with a quick 12-0 run. The 3-pointer makes it easier for a team to overcome a large deficit. Coming back from 15-20 points really isn’t anything these days, especially in the NBA. 20-point comebacks in the third quarter and fourth quarters still impress and, like in the other sports, start innocently enough. Maybe a three-pointer takes a lead from 25 to 22 and a standard 3-point lead now has it to 19. It still seems relatively meaningless — if the team that’s ahead can simply score a couple of baskets, it puts the lead back up to nearly 25 and takes 2 more minutes off the clock.

High school’s a bit different, much harder to pull off because of the lack of a shot clock. The eternal debate there is whether or not to stall. Do you keep attacking, which is how the team got the lead, or do you drain the clock, robbing the offense of its aggressiveness? Not everyone was capable of running Dean Smith’s Four Corners.

What should a coach do when their team starts losing it? How many timeouts can you call to stop the momentum? And do the timeouts even work? You’ll often see coaches burn two or even three timeouts in those situations but then leave themselves with none in the final minute, when they might need them, if the collapse has actually been completed.

Not surprisingly my favorite hoops comebacks often involve the Lakers. Their biggest rally came in 1989, in the playoffs against Seattle. In Game 4, with the Lakers leading 3-0, Seattle jumped out to a 43-14 lead. LA gradually rallied and it was already only an 11-point deficit by halftime. The Lakers finished it off with a 97-95 victory and won the series.

As stunning as that victory was, it wasn’t like other rallies. The Lakers still had nearly three full quarters. No, the most memorable comebacks happen in the fourth quarter or perhaps start late in the third. The Kobe-Shaq Lakers started to patent those types of victories, in meaningless regular season games against the likes of Memphis and the Mavs but more memorably in playoff victories over the Blazers in Game 7 in 2000 and in Game 4 against the Kings in 2002.

Kobe is the one who usually took over in those situations, while the likes of Brian Shaw, Derek Fisher and Robert Horry hit key three-pointers. Two of the most memorable Kobe-led comebacks didn’t lead to victories. In Game 2 of the 2008 NBA Finals, Kobe helped the Lakers cut Boston’s fourth-quarter lead from 24 with less than 8 minutes left to only 2. But, the evil men in green and white prevailed and, two games later, had their own comeback from 24 down — the difference being they finished it off and a few nights later did the same to the Lakers’ season. Five years earlier, in the 2003 Western Conference semis, as the Lakers searched for their fourth straight title, Kobe led LA back from 25 down to a 1-point deficit. Robert Horry missed a shot at the buzzer and the Spurs routed LA one game later, on their way to a championship of their own.

But comebacks are only memorable to the masses if they end in a victory. Portland’s collapse in Game 7 of the 2000 WCF remains stunning, a result that altered Western Conference history. The Blazers almost certainly would have cruised past the Pacers in the finals and who knows what would have become of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers if they’d suffered another postseason flameout, this time under Phil Jackson. Portland’s collapse was relatively simple: The Blazers stopped making shots. That’s it. The Lakers didn’t surge back from 17-down immediately; their offense struggled all game and even in the fourth. It wasn’t about Kobe taking over or Shaq finally dominating. Instead they chipped away. I worked that night and the TV in our newsroom was tiny and black and white. I refused to turn it on, not wanting to watch Pippen and his mates gloat. So I turned it on at one point just to see how it ended and was shocked to see the Lakers up 4. I turned the TV on right as Kobe was getting ready to set up Shaq with the most famous alley-oop in NBA history.

All great comebacks are different in small ways, but all of them carry the same question: Is it more about the losers or the winners? Do you blame the team that collapsed or credit the team that rallied? It seems like they’re usually more remembered for the team that chokes away a lead — the Oilers of 1993 seem to be better known than the 1993 Bills, even though it was Buffalo who rallied from 32 down. If the Colts go on and win the Super Bowl, surely we’ll remember their Saturday victory more than the Chiefs’ collapse. More likely? Our lasting image will be of big Andy Reid, all decked out in red, motionless on the sidelines except when asking for a timeout, helpless to stop what everyone else can see coming — even if an hour earlier, no one saw it coming.

Except for me. Really.

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