NBA Playoffs greatest upsets
1975 NBA finals: Golden State Warriors defeat Washington Bullets, 4-0
The Bullets, led by Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, finished the 1974-75 season at 60-22 and were the favorites to win the NBA Championship along with another perennial power, the Celtics. The Warriors earned the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed with a 48-34 regular season record, but were the clear underdogs in the Finals. In a shocker, the Warriors swept the Bullets to capture the franchise’s first, and to this point, only NBA championship.
1976 Western finals: Phoenix Suns defeat Golden State Warriors, 4-3
The defending champion Warriors finished the regular season at 59-23 and looked primed to get back to the Finals. The Suns had other ideas. Led by Paul Westphal, the Suns defeated the Warriors in one of the league’s greatest playoff series with the highlight being a Game 4 double-overtime victory, 133-129. The Suns would eventually lose in the Finals to the Celtics, but not before playing what is widely considered the greatest single game in NBA history: a triple-overtime loss in the old Boston Garden, 128-126. This was the last NBA season played before the NBA-ABA merger.
1978 Eastern finals: Washington Bullets defeat Philadelphia 76ers, 4-2
In the waning years of the careers of NBA Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, the Washington Bullets put together a two-year stretch with the Seattle Supersonics where they met in the NBA finals in consecutive seasons (1977-78, 1978-79). In 1978, the Bullets' feat was more impressive due to their regular season record of 44-38 and quality of opponents they defeated in the playoffs. After knocking off the 52-30 San Antonio Spurs, led by Hall of Famer George “The Ice-Man” Gervin, the Bullets defeated the 76ers, who finished the regular season at 55-27, in the Eastern Conference finals. The Bullets had the fewest wins of any NBA Champion.
1981 Western quarterfinals: Houston Rockets defeat Los Angeles Lakers, 2-1
The Los Angeles Lakers, led by future Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, were looking to defend their 1980 NBA Championship. The Rockets, led by future Hall of Famer Moses Malone, barely made the playoffs with a 40-42 record during the 1980-81 regular season. On paper, the Lakers were heavy favorites, but in a short series, the Rockets stole the first game and then the third game. The Rockets would eventually lose to the Boston Celtics in the 1981 NBA finals.
1984 Eastern quarterfinals: New Jersey Nets defeat Philadelphia 76ers, 3-2
The Nets went their first seven years in the NBA without a playoff win. In the first game of the opening round of the 1984 playoffs, led by Darryl Dawkins, the Nets upset the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers led by Hall of Famers (former Net) Julius Erving and Moses Malone. The road team would win each of the five games, and the Nets not only won their first NBA playoff game in franchise history, but their first series as well.
1987 Western quarterfinals: Seattle Supersonics defeat Deallas Mavericks, 3-1
The Dallas Mavericks finished the 1986-87 season as the second best team in the Western Conference at 55-27, while the Sonics, despite being led by the trio of Dale Ellis, Xavier McDaniel and Tom Chambers (pictured), who all averaged more than 20 points per game, finished 39-43. In an upset, the Sonics became the first 7-seed to defeat a 2-seed since the 16-team playoff alignment went into effect in 1984.
1989 Eastern quarterfinals: Chicago Bulls defeat Cleveland Cavaliers, 3-2
Up until this point, the Cavaliers, led by Ron Harper, had cemented their dominance over the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. The Bulls entered the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s No. 6 seed against the No. 3 seed Cavs. The Cavs had swept the season series, winning all four games. In a series that would require all five games, Game 5 is known for one of the greatest moments in the history of the sport. With just seconds to go, Michael Jordan hit his infamous buzzer-beater, which has come to be known as “The Shot.”
The Bulls made a run to the Conference finals where they eventually lost to the Pistons in six games. “The Shot” propelled Jordan to superstardom as he won six NBA championships with the Bulls, while the Cavs struggled throughout the 90s. “The Shot” seemingly changed the courses of two franchises forever.
1994 Western quarterfinals: Denver Nuggets defeat Seattle Supersonics, 3-2
The Supersonics finished the 1993-94 season at 63-19, setting a franchise record for victories during the regular season. The Nuggets, led by Dikembe Mutombo, entered the playoffs at 42-40 and were considered an afterthought going into their first round series with Seattle. The Sonics won the first two games on their home court, but the Nuggets won three straight games, including a dramatic 98-94 overtime victory in Game 5 back in Seattle to win the series.
The Nuggets would take the Jazz to seven games in the next round proving that their temporary run wasn’t entirely a fluke. This was the first time a No. 8 seed had defeated a No. 1 seed under the 16-team playoff format, and it is still regarded as the biggest upset in NBA playoffs history.
1995 NBA playoffs: Houston Rockets
Besides the Bullets, if there is any particular team that qualifies for “most-unlikely” NBA champion it is the 1994-95 Houston Rockets, which sounds wacky because they were, in fact, the defending champions. Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler and solid starter Otis Thorpe were in the twilight of their respective careers. The team was filled with historically good NBA role players such as Sam Cassell, Mario Elie and Robert Horry, but a balanced, “good” roster was only good enough for a regular season record of 47-35 and the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference.
Despite their record, the Rockets would eventually play the league’s top four teams in consecutive series in the playoffs: the Jazz, Suns, Spurs and Magic, in that order, en route to a second consecutive NBA Championship.
1999 Eastern quarterfinals: New York Knicks defeat Miami Heat, 3-2
The 1998-99 NBA season was shortened to 50 games due to the players' strike. The Knicks struggled for a good portion of the season and limped into the playoffs with a record of 27-23 and were the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed. In the NBA’s best example of “getting hot at the right time,” the Knicks, powered by in-season trades for Latrell Spreewell and Marcus Camby, became the first team in NBA history to reach the NBA finals as a No. 8 seed. In the first round, the Knicks met the 33-17 Miami Heat.
In what is widely-regarded as one of the league’s best opening round series ever under the old five-game format, the Knicks defeated the Heat, 3-2. The series’ most memorable moment came when Knicks guard Allan Houston made the series-winning jumper with 0.8 on the clock.
2001 Eastern quarterfinals: Charlotte Hornets defeat Miami Heat, 3-0
The adversity that Alonzo Mourning went through in 2001 when he was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a life-threatening kidney disease, was nothing short of extraordinary. Mourning played in only 13 games during the 2000-01 NBA season. “Zo” faced his former team, the Charlotte Hornets, for the first time in the playoffs since the team made him the second-overall selection in the 1992 NBA draft. Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn proved to be too much for the Heat as the Hornets swept the series 3-0, winning by a margin of 22.3 points per game.
2004 NBA finals: Detroit Pistons defeat Los Angeles Lakers, 4-1
On paper, the Lakers went into the finals as the heavy favorites with a star-laden team that rivaled the 1980s “Showtime” Lakers teams: Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton were all on the squad. The Pistons, led by General Manager Joe Dumars and head coach Larry Brown, were constructed rather differently, almost a throwback to the nasty “Bad Boy" Pistons teams of the late 80s and early 90s. With a balanced starting five of Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace, the Pistons' defense suffocated the Lakers.
Despite losing Game 2, the Pistons looked so dominant that the series became known as the “five-game sweep.”
2006 Western quarterfinals: Los Angeles Clippers defeat Denver Nuggets, 4-1
Since owner Donald Sterling took over as owner in 1981, the Clippers have the worst winning percentage of any team among the four major North American professional sports leagues. Despite their recent success, the Clippers winning percentage is still just .382. In 2006, a team led by a starting five of Shaun Livingston, Cuttino Mobley, Corey Maggette, Elton Brand and Chris Kaman finished over .500 (47-35) for the just the second time (1991-92, 45-37) under the “Clippers” moniker. The team faced the Denver Nuggets, led by Carmelo Anthony, in the first round of the playoffs.
The Clippers, surprisingly, easily took care of the Nuggets in five games and would go on to face the Suns in an incredibly underrated, seven game, back-and-fourth (literally, each team alternated wins) series in the Western Conference semifinals.
2007 Western quarterfinals: Golden State Warriors defeat Dallas Mavericks
Among the more recent upsets, this one was considered, perhaps, the most shocking because the Mavericks entered the playoffs coming off a 67-15 regular season where Dirk Nowitzki also won MVP. The Warriors had made the playoffs for the first time since 1994, so nobody expected them to win this series. Despite the enormous magnitude of the upset, signs were there of a possible upset. The Warriors had swept the season series, something pundits decided to overlook when predicting the series. The Mavericks led the Heat in the previous year’s NBA finals, only to drop four in a row, including Game 6 at home.
The conditions were there, and the upset ended up playing out. The Warriors won the series 4-2 before losing to the Jazz in five games in the second round.
2010 Western quarterfinals: San Antonio Spurs defeat Dallas Mavericks
It’s very rare that you’d see the Spurs on a list like this. The Mavericks-Spurs rivalry has been one of the NBA’s best over the past decade-plus. The two teams have now met in the playoffs on six separate occasions since 2001 (2001 – Spurs victory, 2003 – Spurs victory, 2006 – Mavericks victory, 2009 – Mavericks victory, 2014 – series tied at 2-2). In 2010, with the series at the time tied at 2-2, the Mavericks entered the postseason as the Western Conference’s 2-seed and the Spurs as the 7-seed.
The Spurs defeated the Mavericks in six games, once again bringing up the question of whether the Mavericks' championship window had officially closed.
2010 Eastern semifinals: Boston Celtics defeat Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-2
In 2010, questions began to mount for LeBron James in Cleveland. Would he remain a Cavalier through the end of the season? Would he opt out of his contract and become a free agent? The Cavaliers had come off a disappointing Eastern Conference finals loss to the Magic the year before, and James had more to prove than ever before. After a tough Game 2 loss on their home floor, LeBron and company put together their best game of the entire season, handing the Celtics their worst playoff loss on their home court ever, 124-95.
The Cavaliers would lose Games 4-6 and bow out to the eventual Eastern Conference champions in a 4-2 series loss. More questions began to mount for LeBron. He answered them by “taking his talents to South Beach” and the rest was history.
2011 Western quarterfinals: Memphis Grizzlies defeat San Antonio Spurs, 4-2
In an upset NOBODY saw coming, the Grizzlies manhandled the Spurs, winning the series 4-2. The Grizzlies stole Game 1 in San Antonio behind a 25-point, 14-rebound performance by forward Zach Randolph. The tough, rugged defensive style led by Tony Allen and Marc Gasol contributed to a performance that made it hard for Spurs veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginboli to consistently play well on the floor at the same time.
The Grizzlies' series win was monumental, as it was the first in the history of the franchise and established “Z’Bo” (Randolph had bounced from the Trail Blazers to the Knicks to the Clippers before finally arriving in Memphis) as one of the team’s core players moving forward.
2011 NBA finals: Dallas Mavericks defeat Miami Heat, 4-2
Not one… not two… not three… The first season of the united Miami Heat “Big Three” went down largely as expected. The Heat finished 58-24 but finished as the Eastern Conference’s second best team during the regular season behind the Chicago Bulls. The Heat gelled at the right time, and through the first three rounds of the 2010-11 NBA Playoffs, compiled a 12-3 record, defeating the 76ers, Celtics and Bulls each in 4-1 series victories.
The 2011 NBA finals was a rematch of the highly questionable 2006 NBA finals, which featured some “questionable” officiating to say the least. With 6:21 remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 2, the Mavericks trailed 88-73 and looked to be heading to a 2-0 series deficit. The Mavs went on a 22-5 run to close the game, led by Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki. The Heat won Game 3, but the Mavs won Games 4-6, capping an improbable run to the franchise’s first NBA Championship.
2012 Eastern quarterfinals: Philadelphia 76ers defeat Chicago Bulls, 4-2
The 76ers upset the Bulls in six games, but the story of the series wasn’t the mighty upset; it was the severity of superstar point guard and former MVP Derrick Rose’s torn ACL in his left knee. Rose has been the subject of criticism since the series because of the conservative and, at times, reluctant precautions he has taken on and off the court to properly rehabilitee the knee injury. On Nov. 22, 2013, Rose tore the meniscus in his right knee and underwent surgery three days later, confirming he would miss the rest of the 2013-14 season.
2013 Western quarterfinals: Golden State Warriors defeat Denver Nuggets, 4-2
The young, upstart, run-and-gun Nuggets, led by George Karl, and fueled by an offseason Dwight Howard four-way trade in which Aaron Afflalo was traded to Orlando and Andre Igoudala came to the Mile High City, believed they were ready to make, as Pat Riley refers to, “the jump.” It wasn’t meant to be. The Warriors presented the right matchup problem, and Stephen Curry had his coming out party, averaging 24.3 points and 9.3 assists per game in the series.
Denver fired Karl on June 6, 2013 and subsequently missed the playoffs in 2013-14.