Upsets aren't easy to come by in the NBA playoffs — the best-of-seven format means that the more talented team usually wins out, but sometimes the basketball gods grant good fortune to the underdogs. With the post-season kicking off on April 19th, we've compiled a list of some of the biggest upsets in league history to remind us that, no matter what the stat-heads say, there's still a reason why they play the games. By Jeremy Gordon
Bill Russell's Celtics were in the sunset years of their championship-collecting dynasty, and the Lakers had three of the best players of all-time in Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, and Elgin Baylor. But the Lakers would make ignoble history as West became the first — and only — player to win the Finals MVP for the losing team, and the Celtics squeaked by in seven games, giving Russell the last title of his career before he retired.
The Bullets had the best record in the league, and the Warriors weren't even playing in their own arena. (It's a long story.) But they pulled off the four game upset, and gave serial jerk/basketball genius Rick Barry the validation he needed after pissing off so many teammates.
Portland was making its first playoffs appearance after its first winning season — they'd been founded as an expansion team only seven years earlier. Meanwhile, the 76ers had one of the most exciting players of all-time in Julius Erving, had posted the best record in the East and won the series' first two games. But before he was a rambling, mystical color commentator, Bill Walton was a shot blocking, smooth passing, ball-hawking beast, and he sparked the Trail Blazers to four straight wins and the first championship of his pro career.
The Lakers were in the midstof their epic rivalry with Larry Bird's Celtics, and seemed pencilled in for another championship duel. But the Rockets, led by the Twin Towers of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, swept the Lakers in the Western Conference finals and denied the world their showdown with the best Celtics team of all-time, to whom they would lose in six games.
We know Michael Jordan as Michael Jordan — six-time champion, greatest of all time, in desperate need of a good tailor. But when he went head-to-head with Magic Johnson's Lakers in his first Finals appearance, he seemed like just another upstart due to be defeated by the late-period Showtime squad. Instead, Jordan coronated himself as the best by leading a convincing five-game victory, and so another baton was passed between generations: It was now MJ's league, and he'd win five more championships within the next seven years.
The Nuggets were the first eighth seed to win a playoff series, as they pushed the Sonics to five games and then gave NBA fans an iconic image: center Dikembe Mutombo, sprawled on his back and joyously gripping the basketball after winning the series-clincher in overtime.
The Rockets finished in the West as a middling sixth seed; even though they'd pulled off some upsets to make the Finals, they were facing a Magic team fielding Penny Hardaway in his brief prime and Shaquille O'Neal at his athletic apex who had just knocked off the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. But dazzling center Hakeem Olajuwon proved too tricky for Shaq to outmuscle, and the Rockets pulled off the surprising sweep.
Because of injuries and the lockout-shortened season, the Knicks were a poorly jelled mess and barely finished above .500. But they pushed the number one seeded Miami Heat to five games in the first round, and won it at literally the last moment as Allan Houston's floater fell in with less than a second on the clock, kick-starting the Knicks on their way to a surprise Finals run.
No matter the problems Kobe and Shaq had during their time in Los Angeles, it was usually assumed they'd get it together to cruise to another championship — which happened three times, and should be expected when two of the best players of all-time are teammates at their respective peaks. They'd added a pair of Hall of Famers in Gary Payton and Karl Malone, and it seemed like they'd roll over a star-less Detroit team. But defense stifles all, and the perfectly balanced Pistons put the Lakers in a chokehold and never let go — they won in five, and put the Kobe/Shaq partnership to bed for good.
The Mavericks had won the most games in the league and were led by MVP Dirk Nowitzki. The Warriors, in recent years, had been known more for prompting one to ask, "Where the hell is Golden State?" But Dirk was flustered by Golden State's physical defense, and wiley former Mavericks coach Don Nelson — who was then helming the Warriors — used all his know-how to pull off one of the more surprising eight seed upsets in NBA history.
This was the year that LeBron James and the Cavaliers finally put it together, finishing with the best record in the league and setting up what should've an epic clash against Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers. (Remember the commercials all but salivating over the possibility?) But the Cavaliers fell apart in the conference finals as Orlando center Dwight Howard broke loose for a monster series, putting the Magic in the Finals and giving us the first round of insufferable "LeBron = not clutch?" columns.
For the second year in a row, the Cleveland Cavaliers had the best record in the East and seemed poised to place LeBron James in the Finals. But their formula of LeBron plus some guys failed when the gritty, experienced Celtics, who were practically running on fumes by that point, threw a lifetime's knowledge of defense at King James and forced Cleveland's surprise exit. Infamously, LeBron was accused of giving up during a pivotal Game 5. When the Cavs went down without a fight, everyone knew he was on his way out of town.
Chalk it up to a matchup nightmare, the crappy health of the Spurs' Manu Ginobili, or whatever you want but eight seeds rarely topple one seeds, and the Grizzlies' managing to do so sparked their current run near the top of the West. The bruising team showed it could grit-and-grind with a post-driven offense against the free-flowing Spurs, and by extention every other squad in the league.
Miami's newly-minted big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh made the Finals in their first year together, and a swift victory over the supposedly-past-their-prime Mavericks seemed a foregone conclusion. But Dallas was deeper and led by the best/only sweet-shooting seven-foot German of all-time, Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs pulled off a couple comebacks and and clinched the six-game series in Miami. Can you blame Bosh for crying after it was all over?