The Greatest Comeback: ’16 Cavs Or ’04 Red Sox?

In the immediate aftermath of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ history-making championship, I wondered if this was now officially The Greatest Comeback in sports history. As a Red Sox fan, the Boston rally to defeat the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS remains a huge source of pride and is widely given that honor. So which is better—’16 Cavs or ’04 Sox?

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Let me begin by first acknowledging that this debate focuses exclusively on best comebacks in a series. Fans in Buffalo might be rightly agitated if we overlook the Bills’ incredible rally from a 35-3 deficit to beat the Houston Oilers in a 1992 NFL playoff game. Since single-game comebacks and series comebacks are entirely different animals, I’ve chosen to separate the two. The Bills have the single-game honor. It’s the series award that’s up for grabs here.

My gut instinct after Cleveland’s Game 7 win was that this was now The Greatest Comeback. I’ve had some second thoughts, so here’s a walk through the various factors I’ve been thinking about…

Fact: The Cavs’ rally was from 3-1 down while the Red Sox came all the way from 3-0

Analysis: I’m okay with conceding this point to Cleveland for this reason—a basketball series has a completely different dynamic than a baseball one. Pitching matchups vary and it’s a part of Boston lore that Red Sox players knew that if they just won Game 4, they were coming back with Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling the next two nights.

Basketball is much harder—you have to beat the exact same team that you’ve just lost three of four too. Furthermore, for reasons I can’t entirely understand, winning on the road has been proven historically tougher in the NBA than in MLB—and by a lot. A home game in the NBA playoffs often seems like an automatic win. Cleveland had to win twice on the road. If they’d only had to get one road win (like Golden State did in their Western Conference Finals comeback against Oklahoma City), I’d be less impressed. But taking two on the road? Now we’re talking.

Fact: Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5

Analysis: This is the real fly in the ointment for giving Cleveland the belt for Greatest Comeback. The suspension itself was pure garbage, based on the NBA’s own precedent set in allowing Green to play during the OKC series after a far worse incident than the one they sat him down for in Game 5. You can make a very good case they effectively took away one of Golden State’s home games.

To be sure, the Cavs still had to defend their home floor in Game 6 with Green in the lineup and then become the first team since 1978 to win a Finals Game 7 on the road, so I’m not trying to knock what Cleveland did. But we still can’t ignore how big this suspension was and there’s nothing remotely comparable in the 2004 ALCS.

Fact: The Red Sox were pushed closer to defeat amidst their comeback

Analysis: It’s not just that Boston was down 3-0 in games. They also trailed Game 4 in the bottom of the ninth with Mariano Rivera on the mound. They were down 4-2 in the eighth inning of Game 5. Cleveland won comfortably in Game 5 & 6, while Game 7 was anybody’s game down to the end.

Admittedly, it seems strange to use the Cavs’ own great play in two games against them, while rewarding the Red Sox for going further towards the edge. But isn’t that the point of this whole exercise to begin with? By definition, any team in this conversation is digging out of a hole of its own making. The Red Sox were closer to the abyss than were the Cavs.

Fact: The Cavs’ made their rally against a record-setting team

Analysis: If the Red Sox took the lead with the last two points, the Cavs come roaring back here. Cleveland had to rally against a team that won an NBA-record 73 games and had been tested by the superior Western Conference in the playoffs. They had to beat the back-to-back league MVP in his own gym in front of one of the most raucous crowds in sports.

By contrast, the 2004 Yankees were seriously flawed, at least by the high standards set in the Joe Torre era. They lacked starting pitching—Jon Lieber was the #2 starter and they had to turn to the corpse of Kevin Brown to pitch Game 7. It was quite a different staff than the one that wheeled out Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite and David Wells just a year earlier. As a Sox fan, I don’t want to be ungrateful, but there’s a big part of me that wonders what the heck we were ever doing in an 0-3 hole to begin with or how, with Pedro & Schilling at the top of the rotation, we didn’t win the AL East.

So after ten days of thinking about this and 800-plus more words ruminating about it, I admit that I’m not much closer to making a decision than I was in the immediate aftermath of the game. I’m going to stick with the 2004 Red Sox as the team who made The Greatest Comeback, with the decisive factor being having to rally against Rivera in the ninth inning of Game 4. But I’ll admit to my bias and would be curious to hear what anyone who doesn’t have a dog in the fight might think.