LeBron James has faced every possible combination of a playoff series in his career. Through 11 seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, four seasons with the Miami Heat and now five seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron has faced it all.
He now faces the most daunting mountain any NBA star can face, the dreaded 3-0 series deficit. The Denver Nuggets have taken it to the Lakers thus far in the Western Conference Finals and are just one win away from the NBA Finals.
Can LeBron come back from a 3-0 deficit?
Can LeBron and the Lakers win four-straight games to come back and beat the Nuggets? NBA history says…no, they cannot. No team has ever come back to win a series after going down 3-0; all-time they are 0-149. For the Lakers to win they will need to do something no team has ever done.
Let’s start with a lower bar, then. Can the Lakers stay alive tonight to keep their season going for at least one more game? To answer that question, let’s look at both NBA history and LeBron’s time in Cleveland to see what might happen.
The history of NBA teams when down 3-0
149 teams have gone down three games to none in a seven-game playoff series, the first of which was the 1947 Washington Capitols going down 3-0 to the Chicago Stags. Most recently, the Denver Nuggets went up 3-0 on the Minnesota Timberwolves in this year’s first round.
Of those 149 teams, 91 went on to sweep the series outright. Another 44 won a single game before losing 4-1. That means that 135 of the 149 (90.6 percent) were gone by Game 5. Another 11 managed to get two wins before bowing out.
Three times in NBA history a team has forced a Game 7 after going down 3-0, and all three times they have lost the series. In 2003 the Portland Trail Blazers came back to force Game 7 against the Dallas Mavericks before Dirk Nowitzki shut the door to take the series. In 1994 the Utah Jazz went up 3-0 only for the Denver Nuggets to come storming back, only for Utah to take the final game.
The closest contest was all the way back in the 1951 NBA Finals, with the Rochester Royals taking a 3-0 lead over the New York Knicks before the Knickerbockers clawed back to win three straight close games. Game 7 was close too, with Rochester winning 79-75 to take home the title.
LeBron’s Cavaliers history when down 3-0
That’s how all teams have done with a 3-0 deficit, but how has LeBron James fared when going down in such a deep hole? Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t happened often, with this year’s Western Conference Finals just the fourth time James has faced it. The previous three all came with the Cleveland Cavaliers — and, interestingly enough, they all came in the NBA Finals.
Way back in 2007, a young LeBron James carried the Cavs to the NBA Finals where they faced the San Antonio Spurs, who went through Cleveland like a knife through butter. After going down 3-0, the Cavs gave it all they had in Game 4 but lost 83-82 as the Spurs completed the sweep.
The Cavs then went down 3-0 in consecutive series to the Golden State Warriors during LeBron’s second stint with the team. In 2017 and 2018 the Warriors, with Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry probably the best offensive pairing in NBA history, knocked the Cavaliers down to 3-0 deficits.
In 2017 the Cavs responded with a 21-point win in Game 4 before ultimately losing in Game 5. In 2018 James had less help and a broken hand, and he and the Cavs put up little fight in a 23-point loss.
NBA history suggests the Lakers have no chance of winning the series and little chance of even forcing a Game 7. LeBron’s history with the Cavs suggests even less of a chance of making this a long series.
After an impressive showing from a team that many thought was dead in the water, going from Play-In to Conference Finals, the Lakers might just be bowing out of this one early and turning their attention to an important offseason.