NBA Playoffs: The 10 Biggest First-Round Upsets in History
We all love upsets. It's what makes Round 1 worth watching. If the higher seed won every time, the playoffs would be no fun. It doesn't mean we don't want the best teams to win, we just like to see the playoffs shaken up a bit.
Every few years we see one of the true title contenders knocked off in Round 1. It's simultaneously the worst possible fan experience (for the favorite's fans) and the greatest thing to ever happen (to the underdog's fans).
Winning a title when you're supposed to is great, but knocking off the team that should when nobody gave you a chance? That can't be matched.
Here are the 10 biggest first-round upsets in NBA history.
10. Dallas over Utah in 2001
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This really wasn't a huge upset on paper. It was only a matchup between fourth- and fifth-seeded teams, and the Mavericks had proven in the regular season that they were for real.
This was what I like to call a coming-of-age upset. It's when a young team finally gets together and makes the jump from up-and-comers to true contenders. We see this every so often. Some times it's a complete team effort like Golden State in 2007 (who we'll get to later). Other times it's a singular talent making the leap like LeBron's Cavs (also in 2007) against the Pistons.
This was the first playoff series win for Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley. The trio would never win a title together, but all three went on to have memorable careers. Nowitzki took home his first title last spring.
Beating Karl Malone and John Stockton in the playoffs wasn't easy for anyone, but the Mavs did it. This series was when the league took notice: Dallas was for real.
9. Houston over Utah in 1995
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This is one of the weirder upsets of all time.
Utah won 60 games and was widely considered a title favorite along with San Antonio. Even with Michael Jordan's return to Chicago and Shaquille O'Neal's rise in Orlando, most thought the champion was coming out of the West. They just didn't think it would be Houston.
It's hard to call the defending champions underdogs in any series, certainly not in the first round, but that's how the chips fell in a particularly strong year for the Western Conference. Even with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the Rockets only finished the playoffs as the sixth seed.
It was an incredibly close series that saw three road wins. But in the end Houston rallied and won Game 5 in Salt Lake City (which was no easy task). Houston would go on to win its second consecutive title that June.
8. Charlotte over Miami in 2001
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This series still baffles me. Most upsets have some sort of rhyme or reason, some sort of hidden advantage the underdog can unleash on the favorite to shock them.
But looking back on this series, only one thing is really clear. The Heat were a better team by a fairly significant margin. They were at the height of their powers with Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway and Pat Riley.
Yet when they actually took the court, the Hornets completely dominated the Heat, even on their home court. They had a nice mix of youth (Baron Davis) and experience (Jamal Mashburn and P.J. Brown). Still, nobody actually expected them to beat Miami.
But that's what happened. They won the first two games by 26 points each and completed the sweep with a 15-point blowout in Game 3. I guess some upsets aren't meant to make sense.
7. New York over Miami in 1998
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I really can't give this upset too much credit, despite me being a Knick fan and it being a No. 8 seed winning the series.
First, this series came in a lockout year. As we'll see this spring (and have already started to see), weird things happen in lockout years. Second, even though the Knicks were the No. 8 seed and Miami was No. 1, there was only a six-game difference in their record.
Putting all that aside, this was just a flat-out awesome series. The Knicks and Heat completely despised each other, and it showed with all of the flying elbows and hard fouls. And, oh yeah, there was a bench-clearing brawl. No big deal.
The series boiled down to a classic Game 7 defensive duel ending in an Allan Houston runner at the buzzer to win the series for the Knicks. The Knicks and Heat would go on to meet in the playoffs the next two years, with the Knicks winning both years.
6. Houston over the Lakers in 1981
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The Lakers were the defending champs! They had Magic and Kareem! They couldn't possibly lose, right?
Well, they did. In Round 1. To a below .500 team in the Rockets. On paper, this upset makes no sense, but looking at it a bit closer shows how it happened.
Magic Johnson spent most of the season hurt, and when he returned, then-assistant coach Pat Riley called the team "divided." Reintegrating a star is tough, especially one who needs the ball as much as Magic did.
The Rockets didn't have Magic or Kareem, but they did have Moses Malone, a Hall of Famer in his own right. Moses was fantastic in the series, and with help from Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich, the Rockets were able to stun the Lakers in three games.
In hindsight, the aftermath of this series was what makes it so interesting. The Lakers signed Magic to a 25-year extension in the offseason, but he demanded a trade the next season because of his feud with coach Paul Westhead.
Westhead would be fired as a result, leading to the ascent of Pat Riley. So in a way, the Lakers losing led to them finding one of the greatest head coaches in NBA history. Funny how things work out sometimes.
5. Seattle over Dallas in 1987
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This series was actually fairly simple in hindsight.
Seattle's stars (Xavier McDaniel and Tom Chambers) produced. Dallas' star (Mark Aguirre) did not.
It's hard to boil a series down to something so simple, but that was really what happened. Dallas relied heavily on wing scoring from Aguirre, who was struggling with strep throat. Without his production, they went from a 55-win contender to a mediocre team.
Seattle, meanwhile, was a much stronger team than they appeared. After beating Dallas, they would go on to beat Hakeem's Rockets in Round 2. History doesn't remember McDaniel kindly, largely due to his lack of longevity as a star and a fight with Charles Oakley. But at the time, he was lethal.
Dallas squandered several championship chances in the '80s, but none remain as frustrating as this one. If Aguirre had been healthy, they probably would have won the series, but some things were just out of their control.
4. Memphis over San Antonio in 2011
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I like to think of this as the series as the one in which Zach Randolph reminded everyone, "Hey, I'm really freaking good."
To be honest, I didn't view this as much of an upset. (In fact, I even predicted it on Facebook). San Antonio looked flawed all year and not entirely comfortable with its new offensive identity. Tim Duncan was a shell of himself in this series, and was not at all equipped to guard Randolph or Marc Gasol.
The Grizzlies' duo dominated the paint and made the Spurs looked old and small. It took one of the greatest buzzer-beaters of all time just to send this series to a sixth game. In the end, San Antonio couldn't contain those big men and lost because of it.
A side note: This series also showed everyone what Memphis was capable of as a basketball town. I was among those who thought it was an absolute travesty that Memphis had an NBA team and Seattle didn't. Then this series happened and the world realized, "Those fans are awesome!"
This series made NBA basketball relevant in Memphis. For that reason alone, this series deserves to be remembered as one of the biggest upsets in playoff history.
3. New Jersey over Philadelphia in 1984
This one is absolutely stunning to this day. That Sixers team was absolutely loaded. They still had the same core of Moses, Andrew Toney, Dr. J and Bobby Jones that won them a title the previous year. And they lost to the Nets?
The Nets, led by Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins, were only a 45-win team. Their leading scorer was Otis Birdsong (you'd really have to be an NBA diehard to know that name). Michael Ray Richardson had such a terrible cocaine problem that he was banned from the NBA for life just two years later. I'm completely confounded by this.
Before this series, the Nets had never won a playoff game. Up until their back-to-back finals appearances in the early 2000s, you could argue that this series was the highlight of their entire existence. Yup, it's been a long four decades in Jersey. Hopefully Brooklyn treats them better.
2. Denver over Seattle in 1994
The image of Dikembe Mutombo lying on the ground clutching the ball, a smile plastered on his face, has become the iconic image of one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
Nobody gave the Nuggets a chance. Seattle was a 63-win juggernaut poised to claim the title with Michael Jordan playing baseball. They dominated the first two games at home. They had two of the league's biggest stars in Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.
But the Nuggets wouldn't give in. They took Games 3 and 4 at home, forcing a finale in Seattle. Gary Payton got hurt early, Kemp was ineffective, and the rest is history.
This was the first time a No. 8 seed had beaten a No. 1. It also served as the primary example of a playoff upset until...
1. Golden State over Dallas
We believe. That was the rallying cry Golden State used to create the biggest upset in NBA playoff history.
Dallas was not just the title favorite. They were unbeatable. They won a league-high 67 games and very easily could have become the first non-Bulls team ever to win 70. After losing in the finals the previous year, they looked poised to steamroll through the playoffs and capture their first title in team history.
But the Warriors were in the way. They split the first two games before heading to Oakland for Games 3 and 4. That is when we saw the single greatest fan performance in NBA history.
The fans absolutely took over Oracle Arena and the series. The Warriors started raining threes and the fans went wild. Slowly but surely, they started to believe.
Every game went down to the wire, and whenever the Warriors needed a big play, Baron Davis seemed to come up with it. By the end of the series he had become something of a folk hero in Golden State. The Warriors won Game 6 and the series, sending Oakland into a frenzy. For the first time in more than a decade, the Warriors actually meant something in the NBA.
We all know how it ended. The Warriors would go on to lose to Utah in Round 2, finding out that when you live by the three you die by the three. Dirk Nowitzki would later accept the single most awkward MVP award we'll ever see.
Not even losing can take away what happened during those three glorious nights in Oakland. If only for a little while, Warriors fans believed. The result was the greatest playoff upset we've ever seen.