’20 is the old 12:’ Why no lead is safe in the NBA anymore

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VICTOR WEMBANYAMA TOOK his seat behind a small table inside the Phoenix Suns visiting media room.

The San Antonio Spurs had just given up a 27-point lead to the Suns before Wembanyama himself led a furious effort in the final four minutes to secure an 11-point victory on Nov. 2.

Two nights prior against the same Suns in Phoenix, the Spurs trailed by as many as 20 points before storming back to win on a layup by Keldon Johnson with 1.2 seconds left. It was San Antonio’s only lead in a 115-114 win.

Just five games into his NBA career, Wembanyama was asked what he’d learned about the league.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned,” the then-19-year-old phenom said after the two wins against the Suns, “is a 20-point lead is nothing.”

His words proved prescient when the Spurs returned home three days later and jumped out to a 22-point lead against the Toronto Raptors, looking to string together a three-game win streak. But as they had done in the second game against Phoenix, the Spurs let the lead slip away, and this time they lost in overtime, 123-116.

In three games, the Spurs overcame a 20-point deficit, watched a 27-point lead disappear but came back to win, then watched a 22-point lead vanish completely in a loss.

It’d be easy to chalk this stretch up to San Antonio being one of the league’s youngest — and worst, based on the standings — teams, but the Spurs are far from the only team blowing 20-point leads this season. In fact, with more than a month left to play, 2023-24 has already seen the second-most 20-point come-from-behind victories in a single season since 1996-97, when play-by-play data began being recorded.

It took Wembanyama two weeks to learn what everyone in the NBA has realized: No lead is safe.


IN THE FINAL regular-season meeting on Feb. 28 between the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers as co-tenants at Crypto.com Arena, the Clippers took a 21-point lead 15 seconds into the fourth quarter.

Such a lead used to mean a guaranteed win, but not on this night.

LeBron James outscored the Clippers 19-16 in the final 12 minutes, leading the Lakers to a 116-112 victory. The 21-point margin marked the largest James has overcome in the fourth quarter in his 21-year career.

“I don’t think that’s ever happened in my career since I’ve been coaching to lose a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue told reporters following the game. “But LeBron got hot.”

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Lakers triumph over Clippers after 21-point comeback in 4th

Despite a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter, the Lakers fight their way back to a 116-112 win over the Clippers at Crypto.com Arena.

Whether it’s one player or a team effort, big comebacks are happening on a near nightly basis.

Two decades ago during the 2003-04 season, which was James’ rookie season, there were only 12 games in which a team overcame a 20-point deficit to win. Two seasons later, that figure dropped to five games.

This season, there have already been 29 games in which a team won after trailing by 20 points or more, one shy of the record set just last season.

Six of the past seven seasons have had at least 20 20-point comebacks. The one year that didn’t, 2020-21, was a shortened season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and still racked up 19 such comebacks.

The frequency of 10-point and 15-point comebacks has increased as well. In 1997-98, teams that fell behind by double digits had an .181 winning percentage. That climbed to .250 a season ago and is at .233 this season, meaning nearly one in every four games in which a team takes a double-digit lead ends with the other team winning.

The year before James entered the league in 2002-03, a team that trailed by 15 points in a game had a .060 winning percentage. This season, that mark has more than doubled to .133.

“That’s what you’re trying to find,” Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox said. “Whenever you get up, how can you stay up, how can you put your foot on their neck, maybe turn a 20-point lead to 30, 30 to 40 — and that’s where it can be difficult.

“But if you want to be a really good team in this league, you have to find a way to be able to do that.”

Fox’s Kings got to see both ends of this trend just last week, overcoming a 19-point first-quarter deficit to defeat James’ Lakers, then watching a Spurs team without Wembanyama erase a 20-point deficit before the Kings were able to pull out a dramatic win in the final minute.

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De’Aaron Fox ties career high with 44 points vs. Lakers

De’Aaron Fox scores 44 points, tying his career high, to lead the Kings to a win over the Lakers.

That game marked the 53rd time this season a team led by as many as 20 points, then found itself either tied or trailing later in the game. That’s the second-most in the play-by-play era (since 1996-97) behind 55 games in 2016-17. The number was as little as 11 in 1997-98.

“You’d rather not get down 20,” Fox said. “But when you are down 20, especially when it’s not in the fourth quarter, if it’s in the first half or third quarter, how can you find a way to get three or four stops in a row, two or three baskets in a row, call a timeout and turn 20 into 12, and 12 into 8? And now it’s a different ballgame.”

Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle is well aware of how much of a different ballgame the NBA is now. He has been in the league for almost 40 years, first as a player, then as an assistant coach, and for 22 of the past 23 seasons as a head coach.

As one of just 12 coaches with 1,750 regular season games under his belt, he’s watched first hand how the game has shifted in the last 30 years.

“It’s a different game,” Carlisle said. “It’s really become more compelling. In the old days, ’90s, early 2000s, you got a 10-point lead in the first six minutes of the game, it was potentially a lot of play calling and ball going into the post and holding it. You could work the game a little differently. You can still do those things, but it’s likely going to take you off what your normal attack is.”

Carlisle’s Pacers are at the forefront of the game’s new style of play. The Pacers lead the league in points per game (123.1), which is the eighth-highest total in NBA history for a season.

Teams are playing faster — the number of possessions per game has jumped from 90.1 in 1996-97 to 98.9 this season — and more of those possessions are ending in 3-point attempts, leading to faster swings in scores.

In Carlisle’s first season as a head coach (2001-02), the Boston Celtics led the NBA with 23.7 3-point attempts per game. This season, the Lakers rank last in that category with 30.7 attempts per game.

“Just about everybody in the league now is playing a pace-like game,” Carlisle said. “And so the emphasis is on playing fast and getting high value shots. Shots at the rim, good catch-and-shoot threes. You get a 10 point lead and it can disappear in four possessions just like that.”

When Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch was coaching in the then D-League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers from 2009-11, the affiliate of the Houston Rockets, Finch’s squads led the league in 3-point attempts over the two-year span. In his second season, the Vipers hoisted up nearly 200 more 3s than the next team.

He said the 3-point shot and how volatile the results of those are have a big effect on the leads in today’s NBA.

“You see a lot of unpredictable results regardless of the point differential and the margins of the score like, ‘Wow, how’d that team beat that team?’ And then you look at the column and they made 22 3s,” Finch said over the All-Star break.

“There was a time where you weren’t taking 20 3s in a game. It’s all down to that. Momentum, too. These guys…got into the league through being an offensive player or an offensive-minded player. And when those guys get hot in the league, it’s a sight, it’s really hard to stop.”


STEVE KERR HAS been the Golden State Warriors‘ coach for 10 seasons now, and has seen the league change in many ways, including how difficult it is to hold a lead.

When he began his tenure, the Warriors strung together 114 consecutive wins when holding a lead of at least 15 points, a record-setting streak that ended in 2016 in the midst of the Warriors’ record-setting 73-win season.

Now, eight years later, the longest active win streak when taking a 15-point lead is just 33 by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“I think teams are much smarter now than we were 10 years ago in terms of understanding what’s a good shot and what’s not,” Kerr said. “Way more early possession 3s now. It just feels like you are up 12 and the other team gets two quick stops on you and they race down, they throw it ahead and they hit two 3s. It’s a six-point game now. So 20 is the old 12; 12 is the old seven. I mean, there’s definitely an awareness from everybody that leads are not safe.”

Not even the league’s best teams are immune to letting big leads slip away. Last week on March 5, the East-leading Boston Celtics, who sport one of the best point differentials in league history, gave up a 22-point lead in a 105-104 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Any given night, you can lose,” Celtics guard Jaylen Brown told reporters after the game. “It’s the league, the NBA, anything can happen.”

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Cavs end Celtics’ win streak as Dean Wade leads furious comeback in 4th

Dean Wade scores 20 points in the final period to help the Cavaliers erase a 22-point fourth-quarter deficit and snap the Celtics’ 11-game winning streak.

The following night on March 6, the Cavaliers trailed by as many as 21 against the Atlanta Hawks in the third quarter but took the lead before that quarter was over, only to stumble down the stretch as Atlanta came away with an 11-point win.

But elsewhere in the NBA that night, two other teams dropped 20-point leads (the Rockets to the Clippers and the Washington Wizards to the Orlando Magic) and another lost a 15-point lead as the Philadelphia 76ers lost to the Memphis Grizzlies. The Kings capped the night off with their 19-point comeback against the Lakers.

It marked the fourth time this season that four teams came back from 15-point deficits to win on the same night. It was also the fourth time since 1997-98 with three 19-point comebacks in a single day — three of those four instances have come in the past four seasons.

When Wembanyama addressed reporters in Phoenix at the beginning of November, he had a little more than five NBA games under his belt, but had been representing his native France in international competitions for years at that point. And what he saw from Team USA mirrored what he saw in the NBA.

“This is also something we see in FIBA when we play Team USA and scout Team USA,” Wembanyama said. “You’re going to be up 15 and in a blink, you’re going to be down and you don’t know what happened because they ran the fast break like crazy and got some stops.

“So yeah, the NBA it’s the same. I believe a 20-plus [point] lead is nothing.”



Source : ESPN