It stands to reason that the more games you play in any match-up, the more likely the better team is going to win the series. It’s the reason why NFL playoffs can be so electrifying, and MLB, NHL and NBA playoffs can occasionally be. . . well, monotonous. In the NBA you can end up with match-ups of sub-500 teams playing champions, like the Heat playing the Bucks last year in the first round. It was channel-changing bad.
Except for the times that the miraculous happens. It starts with one upset win, then two, then all the sudden the series is upside down. When these extreme underdogs battle their way to victory against overwhelming odds, it’s nothing short of incredible.
In the NFL, it almost doesn’t matter what your seed is, beyond getting a first round bye. Given the divisional seeding format, it’s not strange for powerhouse wild card teams, or even underdog wild card teams to carve a swath through the field and win a championship. When the series go best of seven like in the NBA today, well, the odds are severely against the underdog. It’s easy to understand why the league changed playoffs from best of three or best of five to all best of seven series; more games means more money. But the Cinderella stories are so much harder to come by when overmatched teams have to grind out 16 wins to claim a championship.
For the list hereafter, many of the upsets mentioned are more recent– because upsetting a seven game series is just so much harder to do.
10. 2009 Eastern Conference Finals: Magic over Cavaliers
Orlando vanquished Cleveland 4-2 in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals, in a battle of young stars: LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Even though the seeding wasn’t anything astounding, Orlando the #3 seed and Cleveland the #1 seed, the toppling of the regular season dominant Cavaliers and the greatest player in the NBA was upset central. The first game of the series was an ill omen for King James, as he scored 49 points and led the team with 8 assists, but couldn’t get enough help to win. They lost 106-107, and would never regain their footing. Despite having a strong 18 point lead in game 2, the Cavs nearly lost that game, save for LeBron hitting a desperation 3-pointer for the win. Dwight Howard was a force in this series, scoring 155 points on an incredibly efficient .651 field goal percentage. LeBron James outscored him, with 231 points at a .487 field percentage, but was outrebounded by Howard, 50-78. Despite LeBron’s ridiculous 48 assists in the series (31 more than Howard), he just didn’t have as much help around him as Howard did. The Cavaliers’ league leading, insane 66-16 regular season record didn’t save them from a more complete team.
9. 1975 Finals: Warriors defeat the Bullets
The Golden State Warriors may have been the #1 seed, but they were truly huge underdogs going into the finals, according to the media and experts everywhere. The Warriors were #1 seeds in the much weaker Western conference, with only a 48-34 regular season record– the Bullets had a dominant 60-22 record, and were still a #2 seed because of the dominant Boston Celtics. The Washington Bullets had crushed the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, who were the reigning champs with John Havlicek. Everyone expected the Finals to be a cakewalk, a Washington sweep. It was a sweep; Washington got swept 0-4 right out of the finals. Small forward Rick Barry powered the Warriors through the finals, averaging 29.5 points per game and winning MVP honors. Sports experts everywhere were reminded that expert was a funny title for someone who didn’t actively play the game.
8. 2013 Western Conference Semis: Grizzlies upend the Thunder
Freshly coming off a stinging NBA finals loss to LeBron James and the Heat the year before, the #1 seeded Thunder were determined for a rematch. Until Russell Westbrook tore up the meniscus in his right knee, and the Thunder had to face the reality of the playoffs without him. Whether Westbrook’s presence or not would have changed the series is never to be known– the Grizzlies have had a reputation for being a hard-nosed team who could rumble with anybody, powered by the old man ball of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Gasol led the team to a 4-1 series win with 97 points, but was truly part of a power trio with Randolph scoring 92 and Mike Conley scoring 90. On the flip side, Durant scored 144 points, with the next closest Thunder player having just 72– Kevin Martin. The loss of James Harden to free agency and Westbrook to injury had doomed them to the fate of a team with a superstar and not much else. 5th seeded Memphis was the more well-rounded team, despite being huge underdogs both in the public eye and in standings. It’s for that reason this 5 seed over 1 seed isn’t ranked higher.
7. 2001 Eastern Conference 1st Round: Hornets sting the Heat
Jamal Mashburn had been exiled from the Heat the past year, often blamed for their playoff shortcomings. He had landed in what seemed like a massive downgrade in Charlotte. His revenge would be sweet. The #3 seeded Heat had a roster consisting of names like Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, and Bruce Bowen. The 6-seed Hornets had. . . a weird franchise. And no real playoff success to speak of. That didn’t stop them from sweeping the Heat right out of their own building. It wasn’t even close. Charlotte won game 1 in Miami, 106-80, game 2 in Miami 102-76, and game 3 at home 94-79, winning by a total of 67 points. Mashburn led the series in scoring with 71 points, with Baron Davis scoring 61 as his trusty sidekick. Those are probably the only two names you maybe have heard of on that team. Yeah, it was that kind of an upset.
6. 2004 Finals: Pistons put an end to the Lakers dynasty
With the eye-popping star power of Kobe Bryant, Shaq, and Karl Malone just to name a few, the Lakers were The Choice: of course they’d win: a predictable sports story. At least, in the eyes of anyone in the sports media. Except they got slapped around by Detroit. The Lakers had won rings in three of the past four years, and the Pistons were just one of those playoff teams that hadn’t won it all since the 80s. And thus, sports predictions prove to be nothing more than ostentatious hand-waving. The Pistons, led by gritty heroes Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince, bulldogged their way to a 4-1 stomping of the Lakers. If it weren’t for a miracle game-tying 3 by Kobe in game 2 to force overtime, the Lakers would have gotten swept. With a strangling defense that powered them through the entire season and postseason, the Pistons held the Lakers to only 81.8 points per game in the Finals. They made everyone remember that defense, not history, wins championships.
5. 2011 Western Conference Semis: Mavericks vanquish Lakers
Seven years later, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers have the whole Dynasty thing going for them again. Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant as a coach-player combo are looking for another ring. It would be the third in a row– Jackson’s 12th, and Kobe’s 6th.
It would never happen. The workmanlike Dirk Nowitzki desperately chases the promised land, wanting to taste the supremacy he deserves at least once. Jason Terry becomes a 3-point machine. The Mavericks would go on to sweep the Lakers in stunning fashion. Most everyone predicting the series imagined it would be tough, drawn win for the Lakers at worst. Even though it was a 3 seed vs. 2 seed matchup, everyone as usual favored the pedigree. Instead, the Mavs piled on the Lakers with a crushing sweep; four of the top five players for the Mavericks shot over 50% from the field, if you can imagine: Dirk (.574) Jason Terry (.587, an astounding .684 from 3) Peja Stojakovic (.524) and JJ Barea (.500). The offense was just too much to handle. Game 4 wasn’t even close; Dallas won by a 36 point margin. The Mavericks would go on to beat LeBron and the Heat to finally get their coveted championship.
4. 1999 Eastern Conference 1st Round: Knicks beat the Heat
Divisional rivals, #1 seed vs. #8 seed, a gritty, defensive, grind out series. There’s many, many reasons why this upset is so epic. Detractors will say that the lockout shortened season that year skewed the seedings. I say, it is what it is. 50 games is plenty, crybabies. Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, and the aforementioned Jamal Mashburn faced an aged Patrick Ewing, Marcus Camby and Allan Houston. It was perfect. At least, for a Knicks fan. The series went back and forth. New York won game 1 in Miami, the Heat responded by winning game 2, then the Knicks won game 3 at home, then Miami took one on the road as well on game 4 after a surging comeback. Then game 5, a drawn out, defensive battle is in the waning few seconds, with an in-bound play for the Knicks down 76-77. Allan Houston takes the ball upcourt from the 3 point line on the inbound, hounded all the way. He lets loose a running floater with time running out. It softly ricochets off the front iron, pats the square on the backboard, and falls in. It was a series-winning shot, and the 8th seeded Knicks would march all the way to the Finals. It would end there, with the Tim Duncan-driven machine winning it all. But the Knicks’ epic 1999 playoffs would show why NBA playoffs sometimes can pull the rug out from under our feet, and we love it.
3. 2011 Western Conference 1st Round: Grizzlies topple Spurs
0-12 was the Memphis Grizzlies’ playoff history up until 2011. Three playoff appearances, three times they were shown the broom. The San Antonio Spurs were, well, the Spurs. One of the most successful, if not the most successful franchise in NBA history. In 6 games, the 8th seeded Grizzlies beat the #1 seeded Spurs at their own game. With fundamentally sound big men in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and a solid backcourt of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and O.J. Mayo off the bench, they were like a younger, slightly altered version of the Spurs’ recipe for prolonged success. Powered by Randolph’s 129 points over the six games, the scoring was consistently well distributed throughout much of the team. The Spurs on the other hand, relied heavily on the success of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, but the rest of the team (mostly the bench) couldn’t pull through. It’s easily one of the most epic 8th seed over 1st seed upsets in NBA history, not only because of the season, but the pedigree of both teams. The Grizzlies had changed from a history of failure to playoff dominance in one series.
2. 1994 Western Conference 1st Round: Nuggets stun the Supersonics
The 8th seeded Denver Nuggets had limped their way into the playoffs, and the #1 seed Seattle Supersonics were the overwhelming favorites; the way 1 vs. 8 seed matchups usually are. No 8th seed had ever beaten a #1 seed before. Everyone was waiting for the 3 game sweep. Fans held up pictures of brooms as Seattle crushed Denver in games 1 and 2. Denver looked in disarray, the bench was sullen, and the Sonics’ Shawn Kemp said in a postgame interview, “we could go to Denver and get the sweep and get some rest, it would be good for us.” But Dikembe Mutombo had other ideas. Denver would deliver a smacking to Seattle in game three, winning 110 to 93. Seattle woke up, but lost in game 4 as well in overtime, 94-85. Back in Seattle for game 5, Denver delivered the gritty overtime win, 98-94. The NBA world had been shocked, and the playoffs electrified like never before. Incredibly, Dikembe Mutombo had 31 blocks over the 5 game series. 31. That’s 6.2 blocks per game. Epic finger wagging going on.
1. 2007 Eastern Conference 1st Round: Mavericks get blown up by Warriors
It is widely regarded as the greatest upset in NBA history. #1 seed fell to a #8 seed in a seven game series in the first round for the first time. Baron Davis (he sure shows up on weird upset teams often) and Stephen Jackson were electrifying in the series, and drove the Warriors to the series victory in only 6 games. The Mavericks had an powerhouse 67-15 regular season record led by league MVP Dirk Nowitzki, and the buzz around the team was deafening. All anyone in the media could talk about is how this was the year Dirk and the Mavs would march to the finals and win it all. The Warriors had barely clawed away the Clippers by 2 games, settling into the 8 seed at the very end of the season with a 42-40 record. The Mavericks had won 30% more games than the Warriors in a full 82 game season. But the playoff record starts 0-0, and the Warriors proved that’s all that matters. Energized by the fanatical home crowd, the Warriors played way over their head for 4 games and accomplished the most unprecedented playoff upset in NBA history, giving us all that much more of a reason not to sleep on the ‘gimmie’ series. Can’t wait to see what upset will dethrone this one someday.