There are far less upsets in the NBA playoffs compared to other professional sports like football, baseball and hockey. As I mentioned Wednesday while ranking the greatest NBA trios of all time, having the best player on the floor — let alone multiple great players — is a seismic advantage when only 10 guys can play at once.
However, the NBA has had no shortage of great playoff upsets and comeback victories in the postseason. Here are Matt Zemek and my favorite surprise playoff upsets (outside of the Finals) in NBA history.
JOE MANGANIELLO (@thatjoemags)
5 – KNICKS 4, PACERS 2 — 1999 EAST FINALS
The 1999 lockout pushed the playoff seedings completely out of whack — that’s what’s always forgotten about the Knicks’ otherwise improbable run to the NBA Finals.
Patrick Ewing played 38 out of 50 games during the regular season that year missing time dealing with an Achilles tendon injury. The Knicks couldn’t find their footing and fell to the No. 8 seed. But look at the playoff field: No. 4 seed Atlanta’s best player was Steve Smith; the No. 3 seed landed with the late-Penny Hardaway Magic. New York was much better than the eighth best team in the East.
No. 1 seed Miami was good, don’t get me wrong — Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway and Jamal Mashburn were all in their prime, and Zo was arguably the best player in the Eastern Conference. But New York had Ewing, Allen Houston, Larry Johnson and Latrell Spreewell — not too shabby — and Jeff Van Gundy’s club was the No. 4 defense in the NBA.
Upsetting Miami in round one in a 5-game series wasn’t wildly unpredictable. No offense to the Heat, but their inability to make it deep in the playoffs with that nucleus leaves me unsympathetic.
Instead, we should be celebrating New York’s run to the Finals without Ewing. After splitting the opening games of the East Finals with Indiana, Ewing was sidelined for good. But Johnson’s Game 3 heroics (see above) sparked New York, and the Knicks would advance to the Finals after winning Games 5 and 6.
The Pacers were clearly the better team, and had played like it all season. Unlike Miami, Indiana would finally break through the East in 2000, losing to the Lakers in a much closer series than many remember. Who knows? If the Pacers had made the Finals in 1999, win or lose, that experience could have been enough to trump the Lakers the following year. Perhaps Indiana would have won back-to-back Finals, and Reggie Miller would now be seen through a brand new lens.
Too bad for the Pacers, phantom foul or not, that Larry Johnson’s bomb and subsequent free throw go down on every replay.
4 – WARRIORS 4, MAVERICKS 2 – 2007 FIRST ROUND
Without Golden State’s upset of Dallas in 2007, basketball fans would have lost this moment:
Thank God for one of the craziest playoff upsets ever. And thank God Dirk redeemed himself four years later.
3 – CELTICS 4, CAVALIERS 2 — 2010 EAST SEMIFINALS
Here’s why this is an upset: (a) It involved Rajon Rondo outplaying the greatest small forward of all time over the life of a series, (b) it marked the end of the LeBron’s (first) stint with Cleveland — devastating the most forever alone sports city ever invented, and (c) it gave us this iconic NBA moment.
2 – GRIZZLES 4, SPURS 2 — 2011 FIRST ROUND
Remember when I picked Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as the greatest NBA trio ever? Right, so that almost didn’t happen.
In 2011, after the out-of-nowhere Grizzlies (subsequently fashioned Grit-N-Grind, and now one of the most beloved NBA teams ever) took care of the Spurs in round one, the belief was that San Antonio’s reign in the West was finally over.
Yeah, about that…
Two epic Finals with Miami and a fifth title for Gregg Popovich and Duncan later, it’s amazing to think (a) “the Spurs are done” was a thing just four years ago, (b) the Spurs ARE STILL A THING four years later, and (c) WILL ANYBODY BEAT SAN ANTONIO EVER AGAIN???!!!!
Sidebar: Shout out to Zach Randolph. He simply outplayed Duncan in this series. Z-Bo muscled his way to 21.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game.
1 – ROCKETS 4, LAKERS 1 – 1986 WEST FINALS
I’ll let Matt take care of this one for me…
MATT ZEMEK (@mzemek)
5 – NUGGETS 3, SUPERSONICS 2 – 1994 FIRST ROUND
This was only a best-of-five series, not a best-of-seven, so it rates lower on the list, but this was a landmark event, the first time a No. 8 seed had ever beaten a top seed in the 16-team (four-round) playoff era. Landmark upsets find this list.
What added to the weight of this upset? Seattle made the Western Conference Finals in 1993 and pushed the Phoenix Suns to a Game 7 before losing. This was a very good team with playoff experience. It went 63-19 in the 1994 season, a member of the rare “under-20-losses” club. The SuperSonics also won the first two games of this series without too much worry. Denver’s ability to not only rally, but win consecutive overtime games against a more accomplished opponent – including the deciding Game 5 on the road in Seattle – left observers speechless.
4 – WARRIORS 4, MAVERICKS 2 – 2007 FIRST ROUND
This is the other landmark upset, the first time an 8 seed beat a top seed since the first round moved to a best-of-seven format.
Even more than Nuggets-SuperSonics in 1994, this upset reverberated throughout the NBA. The 2007 Mavericks, unlike the 1994 Sonics, had reached the NBA Finals the year before. Dirk Nowitzki was setting his sights on the championship which somehow eluded him in the 2006 Finals against the Miami Heat. Typically, the NBA is a league in which teams that go deep into the playoffs and fall just short one year are able to go deep the next year. After the Mavericks went 67-15 in the regular season, they stood as the clear favorite in the Western Conference. The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol union in LakerLand was still a season away.
Yet, Baron Davis, Matt Barnes, and the rest of the Golden State Warriors – behind former Dallas coach Don Nelson (oh, how that had to sting the Mavs and their fans) – constantly flummoxed and rattled the Mavs with their energy and pace. Oracle Arena was louder then than it was during the Warriors’ championship run this past spring.
These were first-round upsets, though. The heavyweight upsets emerged in later rounds:
3 – WARRIORS 4, BUCKS 2 – 1973 WEST SEMIFINALS
The Warriors just happened to dominate this list. It’s just one of those things. That’s how the cards were dealt.
Before going on, let’s take a little time to discuss why certain upsets have not made – and are not going to make – the cut. This explanation will tie into 1973 Warriors-Bucks and why it belongs on the list:
1999 Knicks-Heat, an 8-over-1 upset, came in the season which was drastically shortened due to labor-management battles. That’s a throwaway season as far as upsets are concerned. A better upset candidate is 2011, when the Grizzlies beat the top-seeded Spurs. That’s a good choice, but realize this about the Spurs: They were still missing something, even though they rolled through the regular season that year. Kawhi Leonard was that missing piece. Furthermore, the Spurs were four years removed from their previous title and were a lower playoff seed (7) in 2010. Speaking of the 2010 Spurs, their 7-over-2 upset against the Dallas Mavericks doesn’t come across as a huge (enough) upset because… well, they were the Spurs, for gosh sakes.
Also on the list of legitimate upset candidates: the 1978 Bullets over the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals, an instance of a team with 11 fewer wins prevailing in the series. The reason why that series doesn’t quite rise to the top is that the Sixers had been upset the year before in the 1977 Finals by Portland. In 1973, the New York Knicks – with 11 fewer wins than the Boston Celtics – knocked off the C’s in the East finals. That’s not too huge an upset because the Knicks had 57 wins and were immersed in their prime period as a franchise.
The really great upsets emerge when the winning team had every right to expect (and be expected to) win big, based on very recent achievements or existing in its prime period, or both, AND the losing team did not have a right to expect similar results.
The 1978 Sixers (as a losing team in an upset) did not deserve as much of the benefit of the doubt as other teams should. The 1973 Knicks deserved more credit than engineers of an upset generally should, because of their stature in the present moment, when they beat the 68-win Celtics.
With the 1973 Warriors, it’s true that Rick Barry rejoined the team after a few seasons in the ABA, but the Warriors had not been too much of a threat to make the Finals. They’d reached the playoffs the year before Barry returned, but when Barry came back, the team actually regressed, going from 51 wins in 1972 to 47 in 1973. The Warriors lost one game in the regular season relative to the Bucks, who had won it all in 1971, pushed the 1972 Lakers (one of the great teams of all time) to six tough games in the West finals, and were one year away from returning to the NBA Finals (in 1974). The Bucks came within one game of winning the title.
This was supposed to be Milwaukee’s series. Another Bucks-Lakers West final was supposed to be in the cards.
The Warriors messed up a playoff bracket, as they’d do multiple times in the future on both sides of the divide.
What makes this series even more of an upset is that Milwaukee won Games 1 and 3 by 20 points apiece. The Bucks established how good they were. Yet, in a remarkable development – it is in the nature of a legendary upset to produce at least one if not more – the Warriors displayed all the poise in close games in this series. They won Games 2 and 5 in Milwaukee by three points, holding the potent Bucks under 100 points. They also won Game 4 by a mere five points, so even though the Warriors led the series 3-2 heading back to the Bay Area for Game 6, Milwaukee had outscored Golden State by 29 points in the series.
Then, in Game 6, the Bucks – rattled much as Dallas would be 34 years later against a Golden State team on the road – imploded on offense. They scored just 86 points, and the Dubs cruised to a 100-86 win, their easiest triumph of the series. Given that the 68-win Boston Celtics were about to get knocked out of the playoffs, the Bucks could have been in prime position to win the title heading into the conference finals.
The Warriors never gave them the chance.
2 – SUNS 4, WARRIORS 3 – 1976 WEST FINALS
These darn Warriors.
Just when they had established themselves as the class of the league by sweeping their way to the 1975 championship, and just when the rest of the NBA was as mediocre as it had ever been – with only two teams winning 50 or more games in the 1976 season (Boston with 54) – the 59-23 Golden State Warriors lost their nerve.
No team in the West other than the Warriors won more than 43 games in 1976. The NBA was that devoid of quality. The Phoenix Suns were able to make the playoffs with a 42-40 record, and they did not have to play a tough team in the West semifinals. When they got crushed by the Warriors, 128-103, in Game 1 of the West finals, not a soul on this green earth (Phoenix, of course, doesn’t have green earth; it has dirt or gravel, and that was even more the case in 1976…) thought the Suns would rise high enough to overcome Golden State.
What’s more is that the Warriors reasserted control of the series after losing Game 2 with a Game 3 triumph in Phoenix. The Suns won Game 4 in double overtime, but Golden State did spank Phoenix by 16 in Game 5. (Yet again, the higher seed won the blowouts, but the underdog somehow kept winning the close ones. It’s remarkable how that pattern seems to define great sports upsets in best-of-seven series.) Phoenix pulled out a one-point win to stay alive in Game 6, so while the Suns did get their shot to win the series, the Warriors had to feel very comfortable being on their home court. They had, after all, beaten a much tougher Chicago team at home in Game 7 of the 1975 West Finals.
So, what happened? Naturally, something out of left field.
The Warriors had scored 128, 101, and 111 points in the first three home games of the 1976 West Finals.
In Game 7, they limited the Suns to 94 points.
They lost… because they scored only 86, in a nightmarish game at the worst possible time.
The Suns and head coach John McLeod would discover the sting of losing playoff clinchers at home in future years – never more acutely than in 1979, when they had Seattle on the ropes, leading 3-2, and allowed Game 6 of the West finals to slip away – but in 1976, they made their way to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. The Suns have been back to the Finals only one time since then, in 1993.
1 – ROCKETS 4, LAKERS 1 – 1986 WEST FINALS
When the Houston Rockets knocked the Los Angeles Lakers out of the 1981 NBA Playoffs, the series was the best-of-three preliminary round, which lasted from 1975 through 1983. The Lakers had slipped to the No. 3 seed, forcing them to play that early-round series. To begin with, a best-of-three is a very small sample size, and furthermore, 1981 was the year when Magic Johnson just didn’t mesh well with head coach Paul Westhead – more a reflection on Magic’s immaturity than on Westhead himself. That was just one of those things.
The 1986 Rockets-over-Lakers upset was not.
The Lakers’ 1985 title was and still is the most special in franchise history. The team’s veteran core had defeated the Boston Celtics, winning the NBA Finals in Boston Garden. The Lakers chased away their demons, so when they powered into another West finals series after a 62-win regular season, the Rockets – young and the owners of only 51 wins – did not figure to stand in their way. Yet, Houston – after getting blown away by the Lakers’ open-court attack in Game 1, settled down and won three straight games by at least eight points. None of the wins were blowouts, but the Lakers couldn’t solve the Rockets.
The Lakers’ great trio of Kareem, Magic and Worthy all averaged at least 20 points per game in the series, but Houston’s prime players were better. Hakeem Olajuwon, at age 23, outplayed the 38-year-old Abdul-Jabbar. Dream went for 31 points, 11 rebounds, 2 steals, and 4 blocks per game in the series. Ralph Sampson averaged 20 and 9 with 4 assists and 2 blocks per game.
Houston also won the series with its depth. Rodney McCray (with numbers being rounded to the nearest whole number) averaged 11 and 7 with 8 assists. Mitchell Wiggins averaged 11.4 points per game as a sixth man. The Lakers, on the other hand, did not get much from Kurt Rambis or Maurice Lucas, and A.C. Green – just 22 at the time – did not get off the bench. He wasn’t part of the rotation.
Houston’s stars and its supporting cast were both great. The Lakers went home in five games, in a result no one anticipated. The Lakers, pounded on the boards by the Rockets, knew they needed to get tougher in order to reclaim top-dog status in the West. In the 1987 season, Green became much more of a force, and the arrival of Mychal Thompson provided Kareem with the rest he needed to manage the remainder of his career.
The 1981 Lakers were probably doomed to failure, but 1986 showed that the Houston Rockets could prevent Los Angeles from winning the Western Conference on more than one occasion in the 1980s.
The postscript to this massive upset: Houston didn’t return to the West finals (forget the NBA Finals) until the team’s first championship season in 1994. In many ways, the surprise of the 1986 Western Conference Finals isn’t even that the Lakers didn’t win it; it’s that Houston didn’t remain as formidable a team over the next several seasons.