The NBA playoffs are traditionally fairly predictable, at least when it comes to crowning a champion. Since 2000, a No. 1 or No. 2 seed has won 18 of 21 NBA Finals. A No. 3 team took home the Larry O’Brien Trophy those other three seasons.
Since higher seeds often own the NBA playoffs, it makes it even more remarkable when a true upset occurs. Some of the most memorable underdogs in league history are looked back on just as fondly as championship squads from the same franchise.
The Golden State Warriors know a thing or two about pulling off a major upset, but they missed the chance to pull off another one in 2021. Had they claimed the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference by knocking out the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA’s first Play-In Tournament, the Dubs would have battled the top-seeded Utah Jazz in the first round.
From first-round shockers to conference finals defeats, here are the top 10 upsets in NBA playoff history:
10. Philadelphia Sixers vs. Chicago Bulls, 2012 first round
This one lands on the list simply because it was a No. 8 seed beating a No. 1 seed. Looking back at Game 1, though, it's tough to call this one a legitimate upset.
Derrick Rose became the NBA's youngest MVP in 2011 at just 22 years old, and he followed it up by leading the Bulls to the top seed in the Eastern Conference with a 50-16 record in a lockout-shortened season. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, Rose's career, the series and the course of the Bulls franchise changed drastically.
Rose tore his ACL while making a play up as the Bulls were up 12 points with less than 1:30 left in regulation. It was the first in a string of long-term injuries that derailed his career, though he has emerged as an important player for the resurgent Knicks.
The Sixers went on to win the next three games en route to a 4-2 series win. Their season ended after falling in a seven-game series against the Celtics in the second round.
9. Chicago Bulls vs. Cleveland Cavaliers, 1989 first round
Two words: "The Shot."
That's all it takes to bring NBA fans back to the final moments of this series, where Michael Jordan hit the dagger jumper over Craig Ehlo at the buzzer in Game 5 to cap off a 44-point performance.
The series is remembered for The Shot, but it should also be remembered as an upset. The Cavs finished the regular season 10 games higher than the Bulls in the standings. Cleveland also went a remarkable 6-0 against Chicago in the regular season. Jordan led the Bulls to a Game 1 win in Cleveland and the teams alternated wins the rest of the way.
It's tough to look back and imagine Michael Jordan's Bulls as an underdog, but this series was a stepping stone before the team took over the 1990s.
8. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Seattle SuperSonics, 1995 first round
After getting bounced in the first round the year before (we'll get to that series later), the SuperSonics entered the 1995 playoffs as the No. 4 seed.
The Lakers were the No. 5 seed and went 48-34 that season, but they were actually outscored during the regular season.
Seattle looked like a team on a mission with a 25-point win in Game 1. Los Angeles turned the tide with a 84-82 win in Game 2 and proceeded to win Games 3 and 4 by four points each, so just like the regular season, the Lakers actually won the series three games to one while being outscored.
7. New Jersey Nets vs. Philadelphia Sixers, 1984 first round
Entering the 1984 playoffs, the Nets had not won a playoff game since moving to New Jersey in 1977. They got their first playoff win -- and playoff series win -- in an upset over the defending champions.
Led by Buck Williams and Michael Ray Richardson, the Nets won the first two games in Philadelphia. Moses Malone, Julius Irving and the Sixers bounced back with two wins on the road, leading to a do-or-die Game 5 on their home floor. Malone and Irving posted double-doubles, but it wasn't enough as the Nets snuck away with a 101-98 victory.
The No. 6 Nets proceeded to get bounced by the No. 2 Bucks in the second round.
6. Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 1986 Western Conference Finals
It was supposed to be a trilogy.
After matching up in the previous two Finals and winning one apiece, the Lakers and Boston Celtics were on a collision course to play for the title once again in 1986. Unfortunately for the Lakers, the Rockets had other plans.
The Lakers actually won Game 1 on their home floor before Hakeem Olajuwon and Co. took over the series, winning the next four games en route to a gentleman's sweep. Magic Johnson still averaged 22.2 points, 16.2 assists and 8.0 rebounds per contest in the series, but it was not enough to overcome Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson's dominance on the inside.
This series doesn't rank higher on the list because of just how formidable the 1985-86 Rockets were. They had the second-best regular-season record in the West and had two Hall of Fame big men. Still, besting the Showtime Lakers and getting in the way of a highly anticipated Finals rematch between Boston and L.A. was a major shock.
5. Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs, 2011 first round
The Grizzlies had not been to the playoffs the previous four seasons and were greeted by Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich and the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs.
Memphis pulled out a crucial Game 1 win in San Antonio and proceeded to win all three of their home games at the "Grindhouse" to finish off the Spurs in six games. The story of the series was the strength of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in slowing down Duncan, who averaged just 12.7 points per game in the series. The Grizzlies were knocked out in the next round, but the upset of the Spurs helped spark an eight-year playoff run for the franchise.
4. Houston Rockets vs. San Antonio Spurs, 1995 Western Conference Finals
The 1994-95 Rockets won the championship despite entering the playoffs as a No. 6 seed. They faced -- and eliminated -- the top three teams in the West en route to the Finals, where they dispatched the East's top seed, the Orlando Magic, in a four-game sweep.
Their entry here comes against the team with the top overall record that season, the 62-20 Spurs. Led by that season's MVP, David Robinson, San Antonio had only lost two games combined in the first two rounds of the playoffs. It became a Robinson-Olajuwon battle down low, and Olajuwon was a resounding winner. He averaged 35.3 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in the series and later won NBA Finals MVP following the sweep over the Magic.
To this day, they are the lowest seed to ever win the NBA title.
3. New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat, 1999 first round
The Knicks began their historic run to the Finals as a No. 8 seed with a big-time upset against the top-seeded Heat.
Jeff Van Gundy's squad went 27-23 in the lockout-shortened season and earned a first-round matchup against Pat Riley's Heat. The series was hard-nosed from the jump, as at least one team was held under 80 points in each contest. It all came down to Game 5 in Miami, where Allan Houston put the Knicks ahead with a floater in the final seconds to give them a 78-77 victory.
New York swept the Atlanta Hawks in the second round and beat Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals to become the first No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals, where they were bested by the Spurs in five games.
2. Seattle SuperSonics vs. Denver Nuggets, 1994 first round
The SuperSonics were primed for a run at an NBA title in the first season of Jordan's retirement, but it all came crashing down against the Nuggets.
Seattle had the best record in the NBA at 63-19 as Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp led the squad to the No. 6 defense and No. 5 offense that season. The team even won the first two games of its best-of-five first-round series against the No. 8 seed Denver, but the Nuggets came roaring back in Games 3 and 4 at their home arena. It came down to a Game 5 in Seattle that made it to overtime, where the Nuggets came out victorious by a score of 98-94 behind 40 combined points from Robert Pack and Bison Dele off the bench. Dikembe Mutombo also tallied 31 blocks across the five-game set.
It was the first time in NBA history a No. 8 seed had knocked out a No. 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs.
1. Golden State Warriors vs. Dallas Mavericks, 2007 first round
The upset of all upsets.
The Mavericks had won the Western Conference the year before and went 67-15 in the 2006-07 regular season to claim the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The Warriors, on the other hand, were just two games above .500 and squeaked into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. Dallas had the eventual MVP in Dirk Nowitzki, but the "We Believe" Warriors overcame the odds and upended the prohibitive favorite in six games. The Dubs ran away with Game 6 in front of a raucous Oracle Arena crowd, winning 111-86 while outscoring the Mavs 61-38 in the second half.
While Golden State was eliminated by Utah in the second round, the legacy of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and the "We Believe" Warriors lives on as the quintessential NBA underdog team.
Max Molski contributed to this story.