The Happening: How the Mailman and the Jazz Delivered the Biggest Comeback in NBA History
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Vinny Del Negro’s postgame quote drew the rath of Chicago Bulls fans, who didn’t have as merry of a holiday season following the on-court catastrophe that occurred on Dec. 21, 2009. It no doubt still angers those who remember it well as one of the lowlights of Del Negro’s coaching tenure that ended up 81-81 with a pair of first-round playoff exits.
What was the big deal? Saying ‘it happens’ gives the impression that something occurs from time to time. Maybe it goes down every now and then or every once in a while. It might even pass as an expression for something that happens once a year or once in a blue moon.
But when the Bulls held a 35-point lead with 8:50 left in the third quarter before watching it evaporate in a 102-98 loss to the visiting Sacramento Kings that night, Del Negro said: “It happens. It’s happened before. It’s frustrating. It’s difficult. But what are you going to do?”
He’s right. It has happened, but not every once in a while or once a season or even once in a blue moon. It had actually only happened one time previously in the history of the NBA that a team had blown a lead that massive.
When it Happened
The 1996-97 season was still young on Nov. 27. Coming off a Game 7 loss to the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1996 Western Conference finals, John Stockton, Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz were considered one of the clubs to beat in the West. And they looked like it with a 9-2 record and seven straight wins despite wearing new purple and light blue uniforms that looked more ’90’s NFL Europe than NBA.
Sadly, the Denver Nuggets had ditched their famous rainbow skyline and mountains uniforms three years earlier and moved to a copper and dark blue look with certainly less character. The roster, however, held some promise after the team had acquired Mark Jackson and Ricky Pierce from the Indiana Pacers, Sarunas Marciulionis from the Kings in the offseason and signed center Ervin “Not Magic” Johnson in the offseason.
But after stumbling out to a 4-9 record, the Nuggets were dealing with some adversity. Bernie Bickerstaff, who was in his third season in Denver and the second of his five head coaching stops, was fired for not doing more with a club that included not only veterans Jackson, Pierce and Dale Ellis, but also talented younger players Antonio McDyess, LaPhonso Ellis and Bryant Stith.
The Nuggets believed they had their answer in veteran coach Dick Motta, who was brought in for his last head job at age 65 the day before the game in Salt Lake City. Motta had coached the Bulls (1968-76), Washington Bullets (1976-80), Dallas Mavericks (1980-87), Kings (1990-91) and Mavs (1994-96) again before joining Denver. He also had an NBA title to his name after guiding the Bullets to the 1978 championship.
It was a special night for Motta at the Delta Center. Not only was it his second game with the Nuggets, but he was back in his home state of Utah, where he attended high school in Sandy before going to college at Utah State and landing his first head coaching job at Weber State in Ogden.
So the biggest question at this point was: After beating the winless Phoenix Suns in Motta’s debut a night earlier, would the Nuggets continue to take advantage of the mythical new-coach boost that’s often seen when a new head guy comes in and infuses a bit of a fresh start?
They certainly would – and then some. For one half of basketball, the Nuggets played to their utmost potential and were cruising to an impressive one-sided road victory against an NBA title contender.
But then, something happened.
How it Happened
In the 10th season of a 17-year NBA run, Jackson knew how to ride a hot hand at this point of his career. A traditional pass-first point guard, Jackson had a bunch of hot hands to feed throughout the first half against the Jazz. In the first 12 minutes alone, he piled up nine of his 10,334 career assists – which ranked second all time to Stockton when he retired following the 2003-04 season. It’s now fourth behind Stockton (15,806), Jason Kidd (12,091) and Steve Nash (10,335).
Dale Ellis was one of the beneficiaries, hitting 7 of 9 from the field, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range and 5 of 6 from the free-throw line, on the way to a game-high 21 points at the break. Bryant Stith, who would go on to average a career-high 14.9 points in 1996-97, added 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting with three 3s in the first 24 minutes.
Ellis was a sharpshooter before the league became filled with sharpshooters. He was in the midst of a renaissance campaign, finishing 1996-97 with a 16.6 scoring average that was the highest of his final seven seasons in the league. When Ellis retired after the 1999-2000 season, he ranked second all time with 1,719 3-point field goals behind Reggie Miller’s 1,867. Analytics and “Moreyball” have since changed the game to the point that Miller now ranks third on the all-time list and Ellis has fallen all the way to 25th.
Back to this contest. When Denver raced out to a 27-10 lead before the Jazz could even break a sweat, the road club’s announcers noted: “I think this crowd is stunned. I think the Jazz players are stunned as well.” The Nuggets made 14 of their first 15 shots from the floor en route to a 73.0 field-goal percentage in the first half. They also hit 9 of 14 from 3 and led 70-36 after Utah center Greg Foster’s two free throws with two seconds left cut into the visitors’ soon-to-be-historic 36-point lead.
The Nuggets announcers had some fun at Jazz owner Larry Miller’s expense when they said he was probably thinking “I’m paying Stockton and Malone $15 million a year for this?” Denver’s players also had to be feeling good – really good – in the locker room. Yep, the kind of feeling a mouse has while enjoying some peanut butter right before the trap comes down.
“When you are 34 points ahead, you’re basically obligated to go on and win,” Motta, who had coached in nearly 2,000 regular-season games at that point, told the Deseret News.
The data certainly backs Motta’s “obligated to go on and win” comment. As far as we can tell by digging into the history books, there have only been six 30-point regular-season comebacks in the history of the league. Since 2000-01, there have been 308 comebacks from at least 20 down (1.2%) but only four from 30 down in the 25,104 games (0.02%) over that span.
Speaking of rare, there was a rare scattering of boos from the home crowd as the Jazz walked off at halftime. Jeff Hornacek and Malone had 13 and 10 points, respectively, to lead the Jazz, but they were shooting a combined 10 for 25. Stockton had four assists and three steals but just two points on 1-of-4 shooting.
Bryon Russell, who was more than a year away from being the guy Michael Jordan victimized in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals to sink his final shot with the Bulls, had more turnovers (three) than field-goal attempts (two) and Utah’s bench shot a combined 2 for 12 from the field.
Stith said the Nuggets “expected them to make a run and to have a comeback in the second half,” but they probably thought they’d respond much like a mother pats her riled-up child on the head and says, “OK, that’s enough.”
But after likely receiving an earful from the fiery Jerry Sloan during the intermission, the Jazz came out a little testy and Greg “The Big O” Ostertag got into it with McDyess early in the second half, resulting in double technicals. It also seemed to awake the Delta Center faithful.
At the 9:24 mark of the third, McDyess, who was at the start of a breakout second season of a career that would last until 2011, made an eight-foot jumper to give Denver a 72-41 advantage. The Nuggets, however, wouldn’t have another field goal until McDyess scored again with 38 seconds left.
And all at once, it was as if an avalanche was plummeting down off the Rocky Mountains and the Nuggets were helpless to stop the snow from rushing through. Malone bullied his way to 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting as Utah outscored Denver 36-15 in the third. He had begun setting up camp in the post directly under the basket time after time down the floor. With less than a minute left in the quarter, the Jazz had put the Delta Center crowd into a frenzy by pulling to within 80-70 by outscoring the Nuggets 20-0 in the paint. Hey, sometimes things happen and the mailman delivers late.
After making seven field goals during his red-hot start, Ellis had none in the second half while missing all six of his shot attempts – five of them from beyond the arc. Denver made 27 field goals in the first half, but only eight while shooting 26.7% in the final 24 minutes.
“We looked like deer in headlights,” Motta said.
At this point, the once jovial Denver announcers weren’t having such a good time anymore. They began bellyaching about the officiating as Malone seemed to be freely hammering Nuggets at one end but was going to the free-throw line for getting breathed on after powering his way under the basket. But remember, this was the era when the stars truly did get the star treatment – especially on their home floor.
Still, all appeared to be OK when Stith, the only Nugget who seemingly didn’t forget where the hoop was in the second half, sank a 3 to lift Denver back up 88-74 with 10:25 left in the game. But Chris Morris, a longtime New Jersey Net who was in his second season in Utah, had seven points during a 12-0 run that sliced the deficit to two with 6:25 remaining. He hit two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter after missing his first 12 attempts of the season.
It had been nearly 50 years since the NBA banned zone defense and it would be five more before it was reintroduced, but this Denver team proved to be a throwback of sorts. Or a team ahead of its time, depending on how you look at it. With 5:46 remaining, Stockton knocked down Utah’s third technical free throw of the game because of an illegal defense call to make it 90-87 and his 3-pointer with 2:24 remaining gave Utah a 98-97 lead.
This was not one of Stockton’s best games. He finished with nine points on 2-of-12 shooting, but he found other ways to contribute to the historic comeback with 10 assists and four steals. By the time he retired in 2003, the NBA’s all-time assist leader ended up with 848 dimes against Denver – his third-highest total versus an opponent after Dallas (880) and Houston (852).
The Mailman delivered 31 points, 17 rebounds and six assists, but it was steady Hornacek who made a 3 that gave the Jazz the lead for good with 43 seconds remaining. The veteran guard and future coach of the Phoenix Suns (2013-14 to 2015-16) and New York Knicks (2016-17 to 2017-18) played an unsung hero role in the 107-103 win with 16 of his 29 points in the second half. He added seven assists, five rebounds and two steals.
With the game wrapped up, Miller was shown out at midcourt dancing with Utah’s Sasquatch-looking mascot, prompting the comment from the now-bitter Denver announcers: “How many owners do you see dancing with their mascot? Only in Salt Lake City, I’m afraid.”
The Jazz shot 61.0% from the field and had 19 assists to the Nuggets’ four in the final 24 minutes while outscoring the shell-shocked visitors 71-33. That made for plenty of upset stomachs at dinner tables in Denver in the days that followed.
“This is a bad way to go into Thanksgiving,” said Stith, who had 15 of his team-high 31 points in the second half while his teammates totaled 17 on 4-of-21 shooting.
What Happened in the Aftermath
For the Jazz, this was part of a magical two-year stretch in which they reached the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history before getting there again at the end of the 1997-98 season. Unfortunately, Jordan and the Bulls’ dynasty got in their way both times.
But perhaps with the memory of this effort still fresh, Utah came back from a 24-point deficit to become the first Western Conference team to sweep a regular-season series from Chicago in three years with a 101-93 win on Feb. 4, 1998.
This was right about the time “Stockton to Malone” was becoming legendary in Salt Lake City and a cringe-worthy phrase for opponents. In 1996-97, the Jazz would extend their winning streak to 15 after beating the Nuggets before posting another 15-game run from March 12 to April 11 on the way to a franchise-record 64-18 record. Malone took home MVP honors.
On the other hand, the Nuggets seemingly never recovered, losing their next nine games and finishing a dismal 21-61. They were dismantled before and after losing 26 of their final 30 games.
At midseason, they traded Jackson back to Indiana and Pierce to the Charlotte Hornets. Afterward, Denver dealt McDyess to the Suns, Ellis to the Sonics and Ervin “Still Not Magic” Johnson to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The following year, they finished 11-71 to equal the second-fewest victories in an 82-game season in league history. It’s now tied for third after the 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers went 10-72.
As for this night, in contrast to Del Negro’s “it happens,” Motta confessed: “I’ve seen a lot of things over the years, but that’s got to be the biggest comeback in NBA history.”
Of course, it was and remains so almost 25 years later.
Research support was provided by Stats Perform’s Sam Hovland. Design by Matt Sisneros.