Ranking the Biggest NBA Playoff Cinderellas
Some exciting NBA playoff Cinderellas have played over the years. These homely teams eked their way into the postseason only to give their favored opponents a scare or worse—an early ticket to next season.
Most, though, never made it to the ball and even fewer—almost none—were crowned.
You know when it’s mid-April and you’re sweating out those last games, praying for that eighth or seventh seed or hoping for that sliver of an edge with a sixth or fifth seed?
Don’t bother. Only one team seeded lower than No. 4 has ever won it all. And only one fourth seed has ever won it, too.
What we’re saying is, of the 66 NBA champions, 64 of them were either a No. 1 seed (47), a No. 2 seed (10) or a No. 3 seed (7).
That’s not to say an eighth or sixth seed hasn’t sneaked its way into the NBA Finals. Or that other low seeds advanced to rounds they shouldn’t have. Or that there haven’t been some stunning postseason upsets over the years. There most definitely have been.
But which "worst" teams went the farthest?
10. 1977 Portland Trail Blazers, No. 3 Seed
The Portland Trail Blazers failed to record a winning season or a playoff berth in their first six years of existence. Then, in their seventh, they won it all, besting Dr. J’s favored Philadelphia 76ers.
The Blazers were led by third-year peaking (and finally injury-free) center Bill Walton and ABA All-Star refugee Maurice “Mo” Lucas at the 4.
Walton led the NBA in rebounds (14.4) and blocks (3.2) while averaging over 18 points during the regular season. Lucas averaged more than 20 points a game.
The No. 3 seed in the West, Portland cut a swath through the conference en route to the NBA Finals, taking out Artis Gilmore’s sixth-seeded Bulls (a West team then) before dismantling the top two seeds in the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers.
This was the year of the ABA-NBA merger. The Denver Nuggets were arguably the best team in the ABA the season before but were upset in that league’s last Finals (by Dr. J’s underdog New York Nets).
The Blazers welcomed the Nuggets to the NBA with another upset, a lopsided 4-2 semifinals defeat.
Then, Portland beat LA—the NBA’s best team, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Cazzie Russell—in an unforeseeable sweep to win the Western Conference.
After dropping the first two games of the NBA Finals to the Sixers, the Blazers took the next four to wrap up their first (and only) championship before the series could return to Philadelphia for a Game 7.
9. (Tie) Three No. 8 Seed Upsets
When a No. 8 seed upsets a No. 1seed, it's always a big deal.
Cinderella, though? Maybe if the team lasts longer than a single round. Almost all the time, though, it doesn’t.
Still, these three teams gave us all a big thrill with their first-round knockouts of the conference favorites—and then they took the semifinals to seven games, just to prove it all wasn’t a fluke.
2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers
Leading-scorer Louis Williams, Jrue Holiday, Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand and the Sixers beat the 50-16 Chicago Bulls once Derrick Rose went down with his ACL tear.
Then they gave the Boston Celtics a scare in the semis. Each team won one of the first two games by a point. They swapped wins two more times, until Rajon Rondo’s triple-double in Game 7 helped dispatch the 76ers.
2010-11 Memphis Grizzlies
Zach Randolph and the Memphis Grizzlies arrived in 2010-11 as a team to be taken seriously—a potential contender.
They shocked the No. 1 seeded (and old-looking) San Antonio Spurs, 4-2, in Round 1.
Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder broke out in 2011, too, but almost slipped when the Griz gutted out a Game 6 win at home to force a Game 7 in the Western Semifinals. The Thunder advanced and then lost to the eventual champions, Dallas Mavericks.
1993-94 Denver Nuggets
Dikembe Mutombo and a bunch of Denver Nuggets most people have never heard of (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith) pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NBA playoff history.
After losing the first two games in the Round 1 best-of-five against Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton and the 63-19 Seattle SuperSonics, Denver won three in a row.
In the semifinals, the Utah Jazz won the first three games against the Nuggets, but tenacious Denver won the next three!
The Nuggets missed becoming the only NBA team to come back from a 3-0 series deficit by 10 points. The Jazz won Game 7 at home, 91-81.
8. 1994 Indiana Pacers, No. 5 Seed
Five major players—four starters—on the 1993-94 Indiana Pacers shot over 50 percent from the field for the regular season: Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Dale Davis, Antonio Davis and Derrick McKey.
Indiana also won its last eight games to secure the No. 5 seed.
That’s a dangerous team to meet in the postseason, and the Pacers proved it, sweeping Shaquille O’Neals up-and-coming, 50-win Orlando Magic in Round 1 and knocking off the No. 1 seeded, 57-win Atlanta Hawks in the semis.
Miller and the Pacers then faced the Atlantic Division champs, Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks, in the Eastern Finals. The two met in the postseason for the first time in 1993—the Knicks won in Round 1.
So, the Pacers were looking for revenge in ’94 and proceeded to put the Knicks on the ropes with a Miller-inspired (25 points in the fourth quarter) Game 5 win that gave Indiana a 3-2 series lead.
New York was forced to win Game 6 in Indiana. It did, and Game 7 at home also, to end the Pacers’ first big NBA playoff run.
After four straight first-round exits for the Pacers, the secret was out. Indiana would get its revenge in 1995, taking New York out in the semis, 4-3.
7. 1984 Phoenix Suns, No. 6 Seed
The 1983-84 Phoenix Suns finished 41-41, enough to take the No. 6 seed out West.
The Suns hung around the postseason all through the late 1970s and early 1980s, never quite making it to the big one. They compiled three Round 1, three Semifinals and two Western Conference Finals exits between 1978 and 1985.
Walter Davis (borderline Hall of Famer?) was the face of the Suns through those years and a decade in total. In 1983-84, the SG/SF averaged 20 points a game and 5.5 assists.
Davis was joined by Larry Nance, who earlier that year won the first Slam-Dunk Contest. Nance finished the season averaging 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds. Journeyman Mo Lucas added another 10 rebounds a game.
James “The Buddha” Edwards and future Phoenix coach Paul Westphal were also members of this Suns team that took down the three-seeded (yet second-best team in the West) Portland Trail Blazers in a deciding Game 5 on the road in Round 1.
The Suns rolled over the Midwest Division-winning Utah Jazz 4-2 next to reach the Conference Finals and a meeting with the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers which finally sent them packing, 4-2.
6. 1989 Chicago Bulls, No. 6 Seed
Before the six titles, the Chicago Bulls were finding their way in the postseason for a good six years. Michael Jordan was quickly becoming the best player to never win a championship, a la LeBron James.
By 1989, Jordan and the Bulls had collected three Round 1 exits and a semifinals appearance in the prior season, thanks in part to the addition of Scottie Pippen.
But '89 was a setback. The Bulls fell to fifth in the Central Division from second in 1988, and the competition in the East was deep. Chicago worked out the No. 6 seed.
The Bulls met the three-seeded, 57-win Cavaliers in a Round 1 that went to a deciding Game 5 in Cleveland. The Bulls won it 101-100 when Jordan hit the winner with 11 seconds left. NBA history changed forever after “The Shot.”
Jordan’s Bulls would make it to their first Eastern Conference Finals in 1989 and never fall short of them again (except for his two “retirement” years).
First, though, they had to get past the New York Knicks. Thanks to Patrick Ewing, the Knicks had won the Atlantic for the first time since 1971.
This was the first time these two met in the playoffs, and Jordan’s Bulls won, as they always would in this rivalry.
They would be stopped in the Eastern Finals, though, running into Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson, Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman and the Detroit Pistons.
Jordan and the Bulls would have to wait. The Pistons won it all in 1989 and again in 1990 (again beating Chicago in the conference finals).
5. 1987 Seattle SuperSonics, No. 7 Seed
What is it about Maurice Lucas and Cinderella teams? Here he shows up for a third time, now as a member of the 1986-87 Seattle SuperSonics, alongside Dale Ellis, Tom Chambers and Xavier McDaniel.
The ‘Sonics failed to make the playoffs following the 1984-85 and 1985-86 seasons, finishing 31-51 both years. They eked out a playoff berth by three games in 1986-87, sweating out the seventh seed after finishing the regular season under .500 (39-43).
Their first task was to deal with Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman and the Midwest Division champion Dallas Mavericks (55-27). The Mavs exploded in Game 1, 151-129.
The ‘Sonics won Game 2 in Dallas by two points, 112-110, and took the next two at home without much struggle.
The sixth-seeded Houston Rockets—of the Hakeem Olajuwon-Ralph Sampson years—pulled off an upset of their own, beating the favored Portland Trail Blazers, only to run into the red-hot ‘Sonics in the semis.
Seattle jumped to a 2-0 lead. Houston clawed back but lost in the end, 4-2.
The SuperSonics became the worst seed to make a Conference Finals.
Too bad they got spanked 4-0 by Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the rest of those guys from the dynastic Los Angeles Lakers of the mid-'80s.
4. 1981 Houston Rockets, No. 6 Seed
The previous worst team to make a Conference Finals were the 1980-81 Houston Rockets, a No. 6 seed. They did one better, though—they won.
Moses Malone, Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy and future coaches Rudy Tomjanovich and Mike Dunleavy trampled through the Western Conference in the playoffs after finishing the regular season 40-42.
The Rockets dispatched Magic, Kareem and the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1 in a best-of-three series. After two close, split contests (by four and five points, respectively), the Rockets won Game 3 in LA by three, 89-86.
The best-of-seven semifinals against George Gervin and the No. 2 San Antonio Spurs also went the distance. Again, Houston clinched a series on the road in a nail-biter (105-100).
Then the Rockets lucked out a bit. Instead of having to face the No. 1 Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals, they met the No. 5 Kansas City Kings. The Kings laid out two upsets of their own to get there.
The Rockets bounced the Kings in five. Then they themselves were bounced, 4-2, by Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and a new era in Boston Celtics basketball—the first of three titles.
3. 1999 New York Knicks, No. 8 Seed
Sixth seed to the NBA Finals? That’s OK, I guess.
It’s no eighth seed—like the 1998-99 New York Knicks. They’re the only No. 8 to get to the NBA Finals. It happened during that awkward 50-game, lockout-shortened season.
Only two players were left from the Knicks’ 1995 run to the Finals in 1999: Patrick Ewing and Herb Williams. Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Charlie Ward—they and everybody else had joined the team within the last four seasons.
This would be the last Finals appearance and shot at a title for all 14 players (unless Thomas and Camby somehow get rings in 2013).
After the great New York-Miami melee in the 1997 postseason that saw the beginning of one of the NBA’s greatest rivalries (and the Heat advance), the Knicks set about embarrassing the Heat two postseasons in a row.
In 1998, the Knicks were a seventh seed; in 1999, they were an eighth seed. They upset the Heat both years in Round 1 (and in Miami for the final games).
In the 1999 Game 5 clincher, Allan Houston bounced a soft shot in with less than a second on the clock for the classic 78-77 win.
After that, the No. 4 Atlanta Hawks were swept away in a no-contest semifinals.
Rival Reggie Miller and the Central Division champion Indiana Pacers awaited New York in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The first three games were decided by three, two and one points, respectively, with the Knicks taking a 2-1 lead. Indiana tied it up in Game 4, but New York took the last two games convincingly to take the East.
Too bad the Knicks got completely outmatched in the championship 4-1 by Tim Duncan, David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs—that franchise’s first of four titles.
2. 1969 Boston Celtics, No. 4 Seed
By the 1968-69 season, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics already had 10 titles. Now came the era’s swan song.
For the first time in his career, as age and injury were wearing him down, Russell averaged less than 10 points per game during the regular season. After 13 years finishing first or second in the East, the Celtics ended 1969 in fourth place, snagging the final playoff spot.
They dominated the favored Philadelphia 76ers, which managed a single three-point win, in the Eastern Semifinals.
They spoiled Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and the New York Knicks’ championship dreams (for one more year) next in the Eastern Finals. Two of Boston’s wins in the 4-2 series were by a point.
Then the Celts stuck it one more time to Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals in seven.
Russell ailed throughout. John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Em Bryant and others helped Bill to his 11th ring.
Each team had won on its home court through six games. The Celtics won Game 7 in L.A., 108-106.
That made the Boston Celtics the lowest seed to win a title…until 1995.
1. 1995 Houston Rockets, No. 6 Seed
Can a reigning champion be considered a Cinderella?
If it drops from first to third in its division, wins 20 percent fewer games, finishes 15 games behind and takes the No. 6 seed, maybe.
Either way, the 1994-95 Houston Rockets, led by champions Hakeem Olajuwon, Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell and midseason transplant Clyde Drexler, are the lowest seed to win an NBA title.
This wasn’t a bad team by any means. They finished 47-35. But the West also had the 60-22 Utah Jazz, the 59-23 Phoenix Suns and the 62-20 San Antonio Spurs—the top three seeds.
That was the order, too, in which the Rockets exiled each from the postseason.
After Karl Malone and John Stockton, Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson, David Robinson and Dennis Rodman, the Orlando Magic were an easy mark.
Not even Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway could stop the destined back-to-back champions from breaking out the broom, 4-0, in the NBA Finals.
Are the 1994-95 Houston Rockets the biggest NBA playoff Cinderella of all time?
What do you think?
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