Revenge of the Fallen: The Best NBA Finals Losers of the Past Decade
Nothing hurts more than making it all the way to sports' grandest stage only to come away empty handed.
To make matters worse, history can have the tendency to overlook the teams that fail to bring it all home, often denying them all-time great status.
Here, I'd like to do those teams justice.
Lets take a look at the best-second-best teams of this decade.
6) 2001 Philadelphia 76ers
Armed with the gritty hard-nosed defense that characterized successful Larry Brown-coached teams for years to come and the tiny offensive juggernaut and regular season MVP Allen Iverson, the blue collar 76ers managed to fight and scrap their way out of a rugged Eastern Conference only to run into a purple and gold brick wall immediately after.
The only team in NBA history to emerge from their conference undefeated, the Los Angeles Lakers had burst through the Western Conference like a bat of hell.
While the 76ers did succeed in ending the Lakers’ hopes for the NBA’s first ever perfect postseason by narrowly defeating them in a game one overtime classic, the Lakers virtually unstoppable interior presence and inhuman .48 three point shooting percentage simply overwhelmed the Sixers defense over the course of the series.
Allen Iverson’s 35 ppg series average simply wasn’t enough to compensate for the 76ers offensive deficiencies and Dikembe Mutombo’s usually stellar post defense had no effect on Shaquille O’Neal’s outright dominance.
Simply overmatched, the Sixers were forced to bow out of the series in five games.
5) 2004 Los Angeles Lakers
2003 had seen the Lakers fall in a playoff series for the first time since 1999, with both losses being to the Spurs. So, how did the Lakers respond to being denied a fourth straight title?
By adding all-time greats Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
Los Angeles’ historic offseason sent tremors throughout the rest of the NBA, and though they failed to reclaim the West’s No. 1 seed, they were widely considered favorites to win the Championship.
Though Los Angeles had suffered through frequent injuries during the course of the regular season and the playoffs, the Lakers still succeeded in avenging their previous playoff loss to the Spurs by ending their reign as Champions in six games in the second round, duplicating the exact manner in which San Antonio had ousted them the year before.
After defeating regular season MVP, Kevin Garnett’s Timberwolves in six games in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers once again advanced to the NBA Finals as overwhelming favorites.
Unfortunately, the weakened knee of Karl Malone, the ever worsening feud between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and the stifling defense of the upstart Pistons combined to overwhelm the Lakers’ offense and the series played out as a near inverse replica of the 2001 Finals as Larry Brown managed to avenge his Championship loss to Phil Jackson.
The Lakers quickly bowed out from the series in a “five game sweep,” their sole victory stemming from a miracle Kobe Bryant three pointer to force overtime in game two.
4) 2006 Dallas Mavericks
The 2006 Dallas Mavericks entered into the NBA Finals as substantial favorites, due in no small part to their upset of the then-reigning NBA Champion Spurs two rounds earlier.
The regular season matchups between the Mavericks and the new Eastern Conference Champion Heat, which the Mavericks won by an average of 24.5 points, foreshadowed the beginning of the NBA Finals as the Mavericks succeeded in winning the first 11.5 quarters of the Finals relatively easily.
However, a colossal meltdown opened the gateway for one of the biggest comebacks in NBA Finals history.
In possession of the commanding 2-0 lead on the series, the Mavericks managed to push themselves even closer to the coveted Larry O Brien trophy in game three by sporting a 10-point lead with just a little over five minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
Just as the Mavericks were on the verge of making their stranglehold on the series insurmountable, 15 fourth-quarter points from Dwyane Wade saved the Heat from certain demise. Then a lackluster performance from the Mavericks in game four led to a 20-point blowout loss in the Heat’s favor, drawing the series even at two games a piece.
From that point, Miami never looked back, winning the next two straight games, ending the series on a 4-0 streak and claiming the NBA Championship.
The following year, the Mavericks became one of only four teams in NBA history to win 67 games, yet also became the first team with over 63 regular season wins to ever lose in the first round of the playoffs.
3) 2005 Detroit Pistons
Already reigning Champions, the 2005 Pistons further cemented their status as one of the NBA’s greatest teams of the decade by again rising out of the Eastern Conference, defeating rivals Indiana and Miami along their way to facing the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals.
The Spurs had won the Championship the year before the Pistons had with a similar overall philosophy: emphasis on production on the defensive end and an overall balanced approach on offense.
After the Spurs jumped out to a 2-0 lead, the series quickly turned into a back and forth epic struggle for supremacy and eventually became the only NBA Finals series since 1994 to require a game seven.
This series was also widely regarded as one of the better defensive battles in NBA history. Only once did a team score over 100 points in the entire duration of the series (Pistons 102 points, game four).
In the end home-court advantage proved to be the deciding factor between the two evenly matched teams.
San Antonio’s game-five victory in Detroit marked a death sentence for the Pistons’ hopes for repeating as Champions as no team in NBA Finals history had ever overcome a 3-2 series deficit with the remaining two games on the road.
After finally losing to the Spurs in game seven by the score of 81-74, the Pistons managed to make the next three Eastern Conference Championships in a row, but never saw the Finals again.
2) 2008 Los Angeles Lakers
Having lost to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs for the previous two straight seasons, Kobe Bryant made his dissatisfaction with the team very public and demanded to be traded several times.
Fueled by the emergence of Andrew Bynum, the Lakers jumped out to a 25-11 start, surprising everyone, especially Bryant.
But a tragic mid-season injury to Bynum, which was later revealed to be season-ending, shot the Lakers morale and sent them on a streak of mediocrity, losing four of their next eight games.
A few weeks later, Mitch Kupchak pulled one of the greatest heists in NBA history in trading Kwame Brown and a few late round draft picks for the dynamic Pau Gasol.
The Lakers’ acquisition of Gasol drastically and immediately changed the landscape of the Western Conference, particularly in the playoffs.
The Lakers ended the regular season as the No.1 ranked team in the Western Conference for the first time since 2000 and in traditional Laker fashion, Los Angeles breezed through the playoffs dismissing the Nuggets in four games, the Jazz in six, and the then-World Champion Spurs in five.
The Boston Celtics emerged from their Conference in a much uglier fashion than the Lakers had, being pushed to the brink by mediocre teams Atlanta (38 regular season wins) and Cleveland (45 regular season wins).
The Celtics only started to regain the appearance of a Championship team in the Eastern Conference Finals by overcoming the Pistons in a grueling six-game series.
The Celtics underachieving ways led many to cast them as underdogs in the Finals, after all, the Lakers hadn’t been beaten four times in the entirety of the post-season combined and appeared to be the better team going in.
However, the end result couldn’t have been more to the contrary. Still without the interior defensive presence of Andrew Bynum and the perimeter defense of Trevor Ariza, the Lakers were unable to slow down any facet of Boston’s offense and were simply unprepared for Boston’s defensive ferocity.
Though the Lakers eventually succumbed out of the Finals in six games, the true measure of their failure came in game six. A particularly uninspired showing by Los Angeles, coupled with Boston’s decision to run up the score after seeing their opponent had all but thrown in the towel led to a 131-92 game 6 rout in favor of Boston.
The 39-point loss was the largest margin of defeat in a title-clinching game in NBA history.
Adding insult to injury, the Lakers were forced to endure the asininity of Celtic fans rocking the team bus and hurling objects at the windows. These images were likely engraved into the Lakers minds forever, and doubtless served them well during their title run the following year.
In 2009 the Los Angeles Lakers became the first team since the 1989 Pistons to redeem an NBA Finals loss with a Championship the following year.
The Lakers also swept the Celtics during the regular season, ending double digit win streaks on both encounters.
1) 2009 Orlando Magic
The only team in the NBA with four potential all-stars in the starting lineup, the 2009 Orlando Magic were an underrated bunch for the majority of the 2009 season.
A midseason injury to blossoming point guard Jameer Nelson put a bit of a damper on Orlando’s season until they were able to acquire Rafer Alston from the Houston Rockets. While Alston wasn’t able to completely fill Nelson’s shoes, he wasn’t needed to.
The dominating three point shooting of Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis combined with the absolutely ovewhelming sheer force of the young upcoming Dwight Howard was still enough to keep the Magic competitive in a top heavy Eastern Conference, and the Magic finished with 59 wins.
In the playoffs, the Magic bested the 76ers in six games, then faced Boston becoming the only team to ever beat the Celtics after conceding a 2-3 series deficit. In the Western Conference Finals, the Magic stunned the heavily favored Cavaliers in six quick games and moved on to the NBA Finals to face the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers, having lost last year’s Finals in embarrassing fashion wasted no time in taking control of the series as they blasted the Magic in game one, 100-75.
While the Magic would make the matchup a much closer contest in the
games to come than they had in game one, they simply allowed too many chances to slip out of their fingers and quickly lost all control of the series.
With the score tied at 88 a piece in game two's final seconds, a defensive breakdown by Los Angeles allowed Hedo Turkoglu to inbound a lob-in pass for Courtney Lee, leading him directly to the bucket where Lee simply failed to convert.
The Lakers went on to win the game in overtime.
Only three teams in NBA Finals history had ever overcome a 0-2 series deficit, but the Magic remained composed and took care of business on their home floor securing a 108-104 win (marking the first time in Orlando’s history that it had won in NBA Finals game).
In game four, the Magic were faced with the opportunity to even the series at two apiece or stumble to a 3-1 series deficit, something no team in NBA Finals history has ever overcome.
Strangely reminiscent of last year’s NBA Finals game four, the Magic dominated the first two quarters of play, entering halftime with a 12-point lead (exactly half the amount the Lakers had built over the Celtics last year).
The Lakers stormed back in the third quarter sparked by 13 points from Trevor Ariza, who had been missing in last year’s Finals. The Lakers managed to go into the fourth quarter with a four point lead where the Magic battled evenly with the Lakers until pulling ahead in the closing minutes of the game.
With a five-point lead under 40 seconds in the fourth quarter, the Magic again collapsed and two quick points from Pau Gasol and a classic three point shot from Derek Fisher sent the game to overtime where the Lakers ended the contest on a 12-to-4 run, taking a 3-1 series lead.
Game five saw the Lakers kick the doors of the Magic’s Championship hopes off of their hinges in a deceivingly close final score 99-86.
Though the Magic had failed to capture the Championship, they were the first team in NBA history to face three 60 win teams in the playoffs, leading some to believe that Orlando had been faced with the most difficult postseason schedule of all-time.
2010 Boston Celtics
In a rematch of the 2008 NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics were pitted against their archrival Los Angeles Lakers.
This matchup saw the Lakers dominate the Celtics in five gritty, hard fought games. Claiming victory on the same court where they had failed just two years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers ---
Oops. I was supposed to put this part out in June. Sorry.