The 3 Greatest 1st-Round Upsets in NBA Playoff History

Marshall ZweigContributor IIApril 22, 2013

The 3 Greatest 1st-Round Upsets in NBA Playoff History

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    What makes a first-round upset one of the very greatest?

    I say it's more than just a low seed beating a high one—though that's certainly part of the equation. But what's more important is the quality level of the team being upset.

    For example, if the favored team's best players are hurt, the upset is certainly less of an upset; heck, sometimes it becomes a foregone conclusion. It wouldn't make the list.

    Similarly, an overrated team falling would curry less favor as well.

    They say the bigger they come, the harder they fall, right? All I'm saying is a Goliath has to do the Humpty Dumpty to make an upset a real doozy.

    With that parameter set, here are my bronze, silver and gold-medal entrants, along with a long list of near-extraordinary opening-round shockers as well.

Honorable Mentions

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    You might be one of those who believe seedings dictate greatness; in other words, in your book, only an No. 8 seed upending a No. 1 seed constitutes a great upset.

    I don't agree. But to give equal time to alternative points of view, I give you these classic No. 8-over-No. 1 shockers:

    Philadelphia upsets Chicago, 2012: Notable because it was one of a handful of No. 8 over No. 1 upsets. But truthfully, once Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first game, this series was in doubt. When Joakim Noah sprained his ankle in the third game, the upset became the likely—and then eventual—outcome.

    Memphis upsets San Antonio, 2011: The Spurs went into a slump late in the regular season and never really got untracked. Nothing against the Grizzles, who played well, but even their most devoted faithful have to admit their team caught a break in catching the great Spurs at a not-so-great time.

    New York upsets Miami, 1999: Admittedly, this was a riveting series, featuring two of the league's best centers in Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, with former Knicks coach Pat Riley once again battling his erstwhile team. Moreover, this was the hottest rivalry in sports outside of the Detroit Red Wings/Colorado Avalanche feud. 

    But to be fair, 1998-99 was a strike-shortened season, meaning the teams didn't have the full 82 games to determine who was truly the better team. In fact, if you look at the records—No. 1 seed Miami won just six more games than No. 8 seed New York—and the closeness of the final outcome, it's easy to see this was not the stunning upset it felt like at the time.

    Patrick Ewing was heroic in Game 5, scoring 22 points and grabbing 11 rebounds while playing injured. And no one will soon forget watching Allan Houston's 14-foot runner bounce around before falling to give the Knicks the one-point victory in the finale.

    But unlike that shot, this one just misses.

Runner-Up: Denver Nuggets Upset Seattle Supersonics, 1994

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    This comes closest to making the list for several reasons.

    It was historic, being the first time a No. 8 seed beat a No. 1 seed in NBA history. It was also monumental, as the Sonics had won 63 games to Denver's mere 42.

    Finally, it featured a terrific comeback, as Denver lost the first two, then roared back behind the superb play of Dikembe Mutombo to take the next three, including the final one on Seattle's home court, where they had lost just four games all season.

    My issues with the upset are twofold. First, how good were the Sonics if they got upset in the first round the next year as well? Yes, they eventually made one NBA Finals, but that other first-round upset makes me question their roster.

    So does the fact that they really only had one future Hall of Famer on their roster: Gary Payton, who injured his foot during the playoffs, greatly limiting his effectiveness.

    The unforgettable Shawn Kemp was a beast, but this is far from a legendary squad. A good team, certainly, but it's difficult to label them as great.

    Mutombo was unreal in the series, blocking 6.2 shots per game. And take nothing away from this upset's place in history, nor from the iconic shot of Mutombo grinning blissfully while laying on the Seattle Center Coliseum floor, the game ball clutched overhead in his victorious hands.

    But it narrowly falls short of inclusion as one of the three greatest upsets.

No. 3: New Jersey Nets Upset Philadelphia 76ers, 1984

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    The Philadelphia 76ers lost in the Finals in 1980 and 1982, and won the title in 1983. Their lineup was virtually unchanged from their championship season, boasting future Hall of Famers Moses Malone (three years removed from leading the Rockets' upset over the Lakers—see next slide) and Julius "Dr. J" Erving, plus Hall-qualified Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks.

    They were matched up in the first round with the 45-win run-and-gun New Jersey Nets, whose leading scorer was a guy named Otis Birdsong. Their All-World guard, Micheal Ray Richardson, had been suspended for drug use, and his off-court problems limited him to just 48 games.

    The Nets had never even won a playoff game.

    It figured to be a blowout. And it was.

    Just not the way anyone expected.

    The 76ers lost their three games at home, the first two by double digits. They clawed their way back to even with two victories on the road. But the Nets took the final and deciding game with a three-point victory in Philly.

    These Sixers were legendary. They had been to four NBA Finals and two conference finals in the previous seven seasons, and would return to the conference finals the following year.

    The Nets, on the other hand, won just 42 games the next season, then fell below .500. Those two years—which ended with first-round losses—were followed by the team failing to qualify for the playoffs again for another five years.

    Birdsong, Richardson, Buck Williams, Darryl Dawkins and Albert King were all solid to good NBA players. But as a team, they never achieved anything after this upset.

    That's why this underdog takedown has to rank as highly as it does.

No. 2: Houston Rockets Upset Los Angeles Lakers, 1981

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    Back when the first round lasted a mere—if more appropriate—three games, the lowly Rockets scored a knockout punch on the defending champion Lakers in a shocker of an upset.

    The defending champion Lakers would have likely won far more than their 57 regular-season games had Magic Johson not missed more than half the season with a knee injury. The team boasted three future Hall of Famers in Johnson, back at full strength for the playoffs; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who scored more than 25 points a game and haued in more than 10 boards per contest; and smooth small forward Jamaal Wilkes.

    About the biggest problem on the Lakers were minor squabbles between Norm Nixon, a borderline Hall of Famer in his own right, and Johnson—hardly a harbinger of hard times in Hollywood.

    On the other side of the ball were two future Hall of Famers as well. But though Moses Malone (three years before he fell victim to the Nets' upset) was at the height of his career, Calvin Murphy was nearing the end of his, and the Rockets barely qualified for the playoffs with a 40-42 record.

    The Rockets also featured two future coaches in Rudy Tomjanovich—later the longtime Rockets head coach—and Mike Dunleavy.

    Malone vs. Jabbar was an intriguing matchup, but otherwise, Rocky was given more of a chance of beating Apollo than Houston was of stopping the Lakers from winning their second straight championship.

    And yet...the Rockets won the first game and the third, pulling off the unlikeliest of upsets, and parlayed their good fortune all the way to the NBA Finals before falling to the Boston Celtics.

    Considering the Lakers won the championship again the following year, and in fact won the title or lost in the Finals a remarkable 10 years out of 13 beginning in 1979, this upset deserves more of a mythic reputation than it currently enjoys.

No. 1: Golden State Warriors Upset Dallas Mavericks, 2007

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    It's not just that this was the first No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in a seven-game series in NBA history, it's how fully this series captured the public's imagination.

    That season, the Dallas Mavericks were an absolute machine. They won a league-best 67 games, and could have become only the second team to reach 70 had they not rested their starters and slacked, going just 6-4 in their last 10 regular-season games.

    So here you had this ridiculously good Dallas team, a true Goliath of a roster, chock-full of top-drawer NBA talent like 2007 MVP and future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki; Hall-credentialed Jason Terry; Josh Howard, who at the time most thought would be a future Hall of Famer; Jerry Stackhouse, who just a few seasons earlier had scored more points than anyone in the league; and Devin Harris, who looked like one of the league's future superstars at the point.

    Further, the Mavs were fresh off a loss in the NBA Finals the previous season. The NBA world all but conceded that 2007 was their year, their turn.

    By contrast, the Warriors were Davids in so many ways. They had won a remarkable 25 fewer games that season; they needed until the final day of the regular season to clinch a playoff berth; they were from Oakland, San Francisco's red-headed stepsister; and only the most ardent NBA fans could name anyone on their team besides Baron Davis, as Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington had been acquired midseason.

    Their slingshots were the maize-colored Warriors t-shirts bearing the phrase "We Believe." Yellow is the color of caution, so the shirts seemed more the hesitant hopefulness of a fringe franchise than a portent of things to come.

    And yet as the series dawned, the Warriors gave reason for their fans to believe: Harrington and Jackson, helped Davis to a split in Dallas before returning home to a zealously supportive home crowd.

    Oracle Arena's roof was rattling as the Warriors faithful cheered their hometown heroes on. In response, the team starting hitting from downtown at an astonishing rate, stunning and overwhelming the less-prolific Mavericks.

    The story lines were plentiful. You had reformation in Jackson, who rehabilitated his fan-brawling, gun-toting image with terrific play. In the final game, for example, Jackson hit seven straight three-pointers en route to scoring 33 points.

    You had heart in Davis, who tweaked his hamstring in the first quarter of the final contest but stayed in and scored 20 points while hauling down 10 boards.

    And you had vindication in Warriors coach Don Nelson, who, playing the role of master, beat student Avery Johnson while exacting a measure of revenge against former boss Mark Cuban.

    Given its reliance on steroids, history now looks on the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run battle with scorn. But at the time, the duel brought a ton of fans, including myself, back to baseball.

    This series had a similar effect in the post-Jordan era, bringing new fans to the NBA, and making disenchanted former fans into…well, believers.