Did the Celtics have the easiest road to the NBA Finals ever? Photo Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports The Celtics celebrate sweeping the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Photo Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

No team that has ever played in an NBA Finals had a truly easy road to get there. That said, plenty of previous NBA Finals participants likely envied the road that the Boston Celtics just had.

In fact, even before the Celtics defeated the Indiana Pacers, there was chatter that Boston’s road to the Finals might be the easiest of all time. Between a generally weaker Eastern Conference and some key injuries that either weakened a Boston opponent (Jimmy Butler, Tyrese Haliburton) or maybe even prevented a matchup against a stronger opponent (like the New York Knicks), it was a smooth road. Boston lost only two games en route to reaching the NBA Finals.

But is that the easiest road of all time? Not exactly. Between weak conferences, injuries to key opponents, complete dominance or some combination of those factors, other teams have had roads to the Finals that were as smooth and in some cases, even smoother. But before we look at those teams, let’s establish the criteria.

First off, we’re only going back to 1984. That was the first year of the current, 16-team postseason model. Since then, the NBA has made tweaks like making the first round best-of-seven instead of best-of-five and more recently, the addition of the play-in tournament. But we can still fairly compare the Celtics — who played three series to make the Finals — with teams that maybe only had to play two or in some cases, one.

Second, since the Celtics only lost two games, that’s our cutoff. If a team lost three playoff games before the Finals, even if it was otherwise dominant, it’s not eligible for this list.

The Celtics benefited from the circumstances around them. These teams all did the same.

Two Losses (Both losses in one series)

The two-loss teams have a division that the one-loss and undefeated teams don’t have in that there are two distinct ways to lose two games in the Conference Playoffs. One is to sweep two different series and go to six games in another. The other is to sweep one series and lose once in two others. You can decide for yourself what the easier path is. But these are the teams in the former group.

1989 Detroit Pistons

  • Round 1: Defeated Boston Celtics 3-0
  • Round 2: Defeated Milwaukee Bucks 4-0
  • Round 3: Defeated Chicago Bulls 4-2

Not only did Michael Jordan and the Bulls take two games off of the Pistons but they actually led the series, winning Game 2 in Detroit and Game 3 in Chicago. But Jordan and the Bulls weren’t ready to take down Detroit in a series — and neither was anyone else in 1989. The bad breaks that went against the Pistons in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals and the 1988 NBA Finals tilted their way in 1989. The Bad Boys got to the Finals and once there, swept another team we’ll be going over a little later.

1993 Chicago Bulls

  • Round 1: Defeated Atlanta Hawks 3-0
  • Round 2: Defeated Cleveland Cavaliers 4-0
  • Round 3: Defeated New York Knicks 4-2

After making short work of the Hawks and Cavaliers, the Bulls appeared to hit a roadblock, falling behind the Knicks 2-0. New York had taken Chicago to seven games in 1992 (one of only two times that happened to Michael Jordan in his championship seasons) and even after winning Games 3 and 4 in Chicago, faced a potential Game 7 at Madison Square Garden in 1993. Nursing a one-point lead at the end of Game 5, the Bulls repeatedly blocked Charles Smith’s game-winning shot attempts.

Should a foul have been called? Decide for yourself. No foul was called, though. The Bulls went up 3-2 and finished the series at home in Chicago in Game 6. They went on to defeat the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals, completing the first three-peat since the Bill Russell-led Celtics of the 1960s.

2003 New Jersey Nets

  • Round 1: Defeated Milwaukee Bucks 4-2
  • Round 2: Defeated Boston Celtics 4-0
  • Round 3: Defeated Detroit Pistons 4-0

A year after getting swept in the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history, the Nets stormed their way back. The best challenge from the East came early, as New Jersey and Milwaukee traded wins in the first four games of the postseason. The Nets found their footing from there, though, firing off 10 straight wins to earn a return trip to the finals — this time against the San Antonio Spurs. The overmatched Nets fought the Spurs to a draw through four games but ultimately couldn’t keep up, losing in 6.

2013 San Antonio Spurs

  • Round 1: Defeated Los Angeles Lakers 4-0
  • Round 2: Defeated Golden State Warriors 4-2
  • Round 3: Defeated Memphis Grizzlies 4-0

Make no mistake, the Spurs probably would have gotten through the Lakers and Warriors anyway. But Kobe Bryant suffering a season-ending injury late in the regular season and Steph Curry spraining his ankle in Game 3 of the series with the Warriors (though he didn’t miss any games) made the path clear. Additionally, the Oklahoma City Thunder (who beat the Spurs in the Conference Finals the year before) didn’t get back, thanks largely to Russell Westbrook suffering a season-ending injury in the first round.

Once in the Finals, the Spurs came about as close as a team can come to winning a championship without actually winning it. Still, it’s important to remember, for as much as went wrong for the Spurs in Games 6 and 7 against the Miami Heat, a lot went in their favor en route to the Finals.

2015 Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Round 1: Defeated Boston Celtics 4-0
  • Round 2: Defeated Chicago Bulls 4-2
  • Round 3: Defeated Atlanta Hawks 4-0

Of all the teams in this group, this is probably the one that had the toughest road. The Bulls led the conference semifinals 2-1 and Game 4 in Chicago looked to be headed for overtime — only LeBron James had other ideas.

And sure, we know what the Cavaliers did after falling behind 3-1 a year later and those Warriors were much better than these Bulls. But remember, Cleveland lost Kevin Love for the season in Game 4 against Boston. Being down 3-1 is tough, even with LeBron. Making that comeback with a shorthanded team is even tougher. Ultimately, though, no team in the East could stop LeBron’s complete dominance of the conference, as he reached his fifth straight NBA Finals — ultimately losing to the Warriors in six games.

2016 Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Round 1: Defeated Detroit Pistons 4-0
  • Round 2: Defeated Atlanta Hawks 4-0
  • Round 3: Defeated Toronto Raptors 4-2

While the Raptors did take two games from Cleveland in the Conference Finals, there was a big difference between this and what happened against Chicago the year before. The Cavs never trailed in the series and while Toronto defended its home court in Games 3 and 4 to tie the series 2-2, Cleveland took control back in Game 5 with a 116-78 win — a far cry from a buzzer-beater to avoid overtime and a potential 3-1 deficit.

As we all know, 2016 ended differently for the Cavs than 2015. With no injuries and a less serious scare, the path through the Eastern Conference to the NBA Finals was much smoother, as well.

Two Losses (One in two different series)

This is the group that the Celtics are in. If you believe in omens, that’s a good one for Boston as the previous two teams both won championships.

1985 Los Angeles Lakers

  • Round 1: Defeated Phoenix Suns 3-0
  • Round 2: Defeated Portland Trail Blazers 4-1
  • Round 3: Defeated Denver Nuggets 4-1

Los Angeles defeated Phoenix by an average of more than 20 points a game in the first round. The Lakers then went up 3-0 in the next round and while the Blazers avoided a sweep in Game 4, Los Angeles posted a decisive 19-point victory in Game 5 to close the series out. Denver actually managed a road win in Game 2 but the Lakers responded with one of their own in Game 3, winning by 18 points. After pulling out a tight Game 4 win to go up 3-1, Los Angeles pummeled the Nuggets 153-109 in Game 5.

There’s no nice way to put this. The Lakers completely choked the NBA Finals away in 1984. A year later, they were on a revenge tour and nobody in the west could do much about it. Los Angeles also broke its curse against the Celtics, defeating them in an NBA Finals for the first time in nine tries.

1997 Chicago Bulls

  • Round 1: Defeated Washington Bullets 3-0
  • Round 2: Defeated Atlanta Hawks 4-1
  • Round 3: Defeated Miami Heat 4-1

The Bulls scored 84 and 75 points, respectively, in the first two Games of the Eastern Conference Finals. They won both games by seven points. The first-round series against Washington was higher scoring, with both teams cracking 100 points in Game 2 — a rarity for that era. Chicago won both. The Bulls won the NBA Finals in six games despite not scoring 100 points once in the series.

We could probably argue that the Knicks would have given the Bulls a better series than the Heat did were it not for the suspensions that came out of their fight. But while it might have been a better series, the Knicks never beat Jordan in the playoffs. It’s hard to think this would have been any different.

One Loss

1986 Boston Celtics

  • Round 1: Defeated Chicago Bulls 3-0
  • Round 2: Defeated Atlanta Hawks 4-1
  • Round 3: Defeated Milwaukee Bucks 4-0

One of the greatest teams of all time faced arguably the worst playoff team of all time in the first round. And while Michael Jordan did put on a show with a playoff record 63 points in Game 2, the Celtics dominated the series. Atlanta fought off a sweep in Game 4 of the second round but the Celtics routed the Hawks in Game 5, winning 132-99, outscoring them 36-6 in the third quarter. The Bucks, meanwhile, only stayed within single digits of the Celtics once in the Conference Finals.

As Los Angeles was the year before, Boston was on a revenge tour in 1986. The Celtics didn’t get that revenge against the Lakers but defeated the Houston Rockets in six games to win what would be the franchise’s last championship for 22 years.

1987 Los Angeles Lakers

  • Round 1: Defeated Denver Nuggets 3-0
  • Round 2: Defeated Golden State Warriors 4-1
  • Round 3: Defeated Seattle SuperSonics 4-0

Much like the Celtics in 1986, the Lakers didn’t need a smooth path to the Finals in 1987. But they got one. Los Angeles’ three Western Conference opponents had an average record of 39-43. Only the Warriors had a winning record — at 42-40. Were it not for a historic second-half performance from Eric “Sleepy” Floyd in Game 4 of the series with the Warriors (Floyd scored 39 points in the second half, 29 in the fourth quarter) the Lakers probably would have swept their way to the Finals.

In the Finals, the Lakers won their three home games against the Celtics by an average of 15 points. Those wins, combined with a thrilling comeback win in Boston in Game 4 gave the Lakers their fourth championship of the decade.

1991 Chicago Bulls

  • Round 1: Defeated New York Knicks 3-0
  • Round 2: Defeated Philadelphia 76ers 4-1
  • Round 3: Defeated Detroit Pistons 4-0

Not only did the Bulls only lose once on their way to the Finals. But, outside of their two-point loss to the 76ers in Game 3 of the second round and a five-point win in the clincher of that series, they really weren’t even challenged. The Pistons, who defeated the Bulls in the two previous Conference Finals and three straight years in the playoffs, just didn’t have the team to contain Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

Really, not having an answer for Jordan and Pippen would be the theme of the decade. The Bulls lost the first game of the NBA Finals at home to the Lakers. But after evening the series in Game 2, they won three straight in Los Angeles to win their first NBA Championship. It was also the first of what would be three in a row. Speaking of the first championship of a three-peat.

1996 Chicago Bulls

  • Round 1: Defeated Miami Heat 3-0
  • Round 2: Defeated New York Knicks 4-1
  • Round 3: Defeated Orlando Magic 4-0

Miami was not at Chicago’s level, losing all four games by double digits. The Knicks were more competitive but still were no real threat. The big matchup was against the Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway-led Magic, who defeated the Bulls the year before. It ended up being their swan song as a duo. Chicago had a big comeback in Game 2 to go up 2-0 and really, that was the end of the series. The Bulls routed the Magic in Game 3, then won a closer Game 4, completing the sweep.

Of course, the Bulls capped off their dominant season in the Finals. While the Sonics made it interesting, winning two straight games after falling behind 3-0, the Bulls closed it out in Game 6.

1999 San Antonio Spurs

  • Round 1: Defeated Minnesota Timberwolves 3-1
  • Round 2: Defeated Los Angeles Lakers 4-0
  • Round 3: Defeated Portland Trail Blazers 4-0

The first of our one-loss teams whose one blemish did not come in the second round. San Antonio’s run to the NBA Finals did not start smoothly, as the Timberwolves beat the Spurs by nine points in Game 2 of the first round. That was pretty much it for roadblocks, though. San Antonio’s wins over the Lakers and Blazers followed similar paths. In both cases, the Spurs pulled out two close wins at home to open up a 2-0 series lead. And in both cases, the Spurs won by double digits on the road in Games 3 and 4.

San Antonio went on to defeat the Knicks in a five-game NBA Finals series. Neither team cracked 100 points in the series, the Spurs were the only team to hit 90 (in a 96-89 win) and the clinching game was a 78-77 victory for San Antonio. The Spurs enjoyed a smooth ride both to and through the Finals, but it wasn’t an especially pretty ride.

2017 Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Round 1: Defeated Indiana Pacers 4-0
  • Round 2: Defeated Toronto Raptors 4-0
  • Round 3: Defeated Boston Celtics 4-1

Indiana actually played Cleveland reasonably tough, with all four games being decided by six points or fewer. The second round was far more decisive, with Game 4’s 109-102 series clincher being the closest game. The Cavaliers were heavy favorites against the Celtics going into the series. Things got even tougher for Boston when Isaiah Thomas suffered a season-ending injury in Game 2. While the Celtics pulled off a win without him in Game 3 in Cleveland, the series belonged to the Cavs.

This is the last of our one-loss teams and the only one to not win a championship. Cleveland’s Finals opponent? The Warriors, a team we’ll be talking about shortly. It’s safe to say that the 2017 postseason wasn’t exactly the most dramatic in NBA history.


1989 Los Angeles Lakers

  • Defeated Portland Trail Blazers 3-0
  • Defeated Seattle Super Sonics 4-0
  • Defeated Phoenix Suns 4-0

In 1988, the Lakers had two seven-game series in the Western Conference playoffs and another in the NBA Finals. In 1989, every series was a sweep. Los Angeles blitzed through the West sweeping a 39-43 Portland team in the first round, then doing the same to more formidable Seattle (47-35) and Phoenix (55-27) teams. With that, the Lakers were back in the NBA Finals for a third straight year and for the second year in a row, the opponent would be the Pistons.

A lot went the Lakers’ way in their seven-game win over the Pistons in 1988. In 1989, it was a much different story. Los Angeles guard Byron Scott was injured before Game 1 and missed the series. Magic Johnson was hurt in Game 2, barely played in Game 3 and missed all of Game 4. This would have been a tough series for the Lakers with a healthy roster. With Scott and Magic out, they had no chance. As we said, every postseason series the Lakers played in 1989 was a sweep.

2001 Los Angeles Lakers

  • Defeated Portland Trail Blazers 3-0
  • Defeated Sacramento Kings 4-0
  • Defeated San Antonio Spurs 4-0

A year after having a tremendous regular season and grinding through the playoffs, the Lakers went the other way. Portland couldn’t get to within 13 points of Los Angeles in a first-round sweep. The Kings had only one double-digit loss but still fell short. Then, despite the Spurs having home-court advantage, the Lakers won Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio by 14 and 7 points, respectively. The games in Los Angeles were ugly, with the Lakers winning by 39 and 29 points.

An otherworldly effort from Allen Iverson in Game 1 of the NBA Finals was the only thing that kept Los Angeles from sweeping the entire postseason. Instead, the Lakers had to “settle” for a 15-1 postseason and a second of what would be three straight championships.

2017 Golden State Warriors

  • Defeated Portland Trail Blazers 4-0
  • Defeated Utah Jazz 4-0
  • Defeated San Antonio Spurs 4-0

The Warriors were really never tested in the first two rounds, with Game 3 against the Blazers being the only one of the eight decided by single digits. The Spurs were a 61-win team and led by 25 points in Game 1. But Kawhi Leonard, already playing with an injured ankle, landed on Golden State center Zaza Pachulia’s foot. That ended his series and effectively his Spurs career. Golden State came back to win Game 1 by two points then routed San Antonio in three straight to sweep the series.

Remember when we said that the 2017 NBA postseason wasn’t high on drama? The Warriors posted decisive wins in Games 1 and 2, then came-from-behind to win Game 3. Behind 13 threes in the first half and 24 in the game (both postseason records) Cleveland scored 49 points in the first quarter, 86 points in the first half (also both records) and won Game 4 137-116. But while the Warriors couldn’t cap off the perfect postseason, they regained the NBA title with a 129-120 win in Game 5.

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