March Madness, NBA-style: plenty of big leads get lost… even by good teams

College basketball teams — not being as responsible as NBA teams — blow big leads all the time.

Over the past week of zany conference tournament action, Austin Peay overcame a 19-point second-half deficit to win the Ohio Valley Tournament. Northern Iowa led Evansville by 17 in the second half of the Missouri Valley Tournament final, only to briefly lose the lead before winning on a jumper at the buzzer. Even in non-tournament games, teams gacked away late leads. Colorado led Utah, 45-31, near the seven-minute mark of regulation. The Buffaloes then surrendered a 19-0 run and lost.

The claim itself is not wrong: College teams are very susceptible to mood swings and plot twists. Emotions — good and bad — turn into avalanches 19-year-olds are not always equipped to handle. Situations unravel for those in the lead, and turn into magic-carpet-ride opportunities for the teams whose tournament fates had seemingly been etched in stone. We can identify with and understand the big blown lead in the college game. It is a naturally fragile organism. Young people are learning how to handle in-game pressure. They will make mistakes in the process.

For the NBA, we’re not as conditioned to think that big leads are vulnerable. Yes, a lot of possessions fit into a 48-minute game with a 24-second shot clock. Yes, the 3-point-centric nature of the modern game (unlike the 1980s) has made more teams attuned to the long ball’s ability to change the scoreboard more quickly. Yes, being up a bunch against an excellent team — as the Boston Celtics were (by 18) against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday — offers no guarantee of winning. The Celtics were outscored by 35 after grabbing their early 18-point advantage.

However, it has been striking to see really good NBA teams — against opponents which might be equals at best, but often inferiors — gack away huge leads in the past few weeks.

It is as though March Madness has found its way into the NBA’s DNA.

Before March even started, Houston overcame a 21-point third-quarter deficit on the road to stun the Portland Trail Blazers. The Rockets had been demolished twice by Portland earlier in the month, so the idea they could rebound on the road — in the middle of what appeared to be another blowout loss — seemed preposterous. It happened. It felt like college hoops in that regard.

It’s true that with teams playing 82-game seasons, surrendering big leads is still less common than in college basketball, but it is always jarring when a really good team loses the plot, especially at home. This was never more apparent than in Game 6 of Rockets-Clippers last May in L.A. Exactly how did the Clippers not close down that game and playoff series?

Well, maybe because they will never fully acquire the airtight mindset of champions.

The Clippers, you see, showed their inattentive side again over the weekend.

Saturday night, against the Atlanta Hawks, they gained a 17-point lead in the second quarter. Atlanta had been treading water of late, so on that front alone, the Clippers should have been able to move in for the kill. Moreover, the Clippers had beaten the Hawks earlier in the season in Atlanta, precisely after Blake Griffin punched a staff member in Toronto. The Clippers didn’t play well in that game, but Atlanta played worse. Surely, Chris Paul and Blake and DeAndre Jordan would mind the store in this reunion with the Hawks.

If there was any doubt about the Clippers’ vigiliance, surely the fact that they had overcome a 22-point deficit on Wednesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder (which have been AWFUL at holding leads) would keep them awake. RIGHT?


That 17-point lead not only slipped through the Clippers’ fingers; Atlanta won with a measure of comfort at the end, 107-97. This wasn’t a fourth-quarter collapse, but it was still a sub-20-point quarter from the Clips, part of a three-quarter failure after a 37-25 first quarter. Blown leads seem to visit good NBA teams a little more often than we’re comfortable admitting.

As a postscript, the Toronto Raptors — undefeated at home since January 3 — took a 13-point second-quarter lead over the struggling Houston Rockets.

They did not win… not even against a Houston team which was playing the back end of a back-to-back on the road.

March Madness — it’s not just for the college kids this time of year.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.