NBA Playoffs: Power Ranking 20 Best First-Round Matchups in League History

Shane DePutronCorrespondent IApril 13, 2011

NBA Playoffs: Power Ranking 20 Best First-Round Matchups in League History

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    With the 2011 NBA regular season entering its final day and the playoff seedings nearly set, there is certainly the potential for a few all-time great first-round matchups.

    But how will they be able to hold up against some of the best in league history?

    Well, only time will tell, but the following 20 slides will list their competition, power ranking the 20 best first-round playoff matchups in league history.

No. 20: 1991, Golden State Warriors over San Antonio Spurs 3-1

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    After winning the first game of their first-round matchup, David Robinson and the No. 2-seeded San Antonio Spurs looked like they would have no trouble knocking off the Golden State Warriors.

    However, behind the high-scoring trio of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin—nicknamed Run TMC—the seventh-seeded Warriors were able to string to together three consecutive wins to send the Spurs home.

    So by completing this highly improbable upset in a rather impressive fashion, outscoring their opponents by nearly 10 points per game in their wins, the Warriors' victory was one of the more exciting first-round matchups in history.

No. 19: 2008, Boston Celtics over Atlanta Hawks 4-3

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    The Boston Celtics entered the 2008 NBA Playoffs as the Eastern Conference's top seed, after earning a league-best record of 66-16.

    So when they matched up against the 37-45 Atlanta Hawks in the first round and won the first two games, it didn't look like it would be much of a contest.

    But that wasn't the case, as the Hawks took Game 3 and Game 4, tying the series at 2-2.

    The teams split the next two games, forcing a series-deciding Game 7.

    In the decisive game, the Celtics put on a dominant performance, winning by 34, while holding the Hawks to a mere 65 points on less than 30-percent shooting from the field.

    What's more, after this series, Boston played no fewer than six games in each round, eventually taking home their first NBA championship since 1986.

No. 18: 1984 Dallas Mavericks over Seattle Supersonics 3-2

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    The Dallas Mavericks and Seattle Supersonics met up for what looked to be an evenly-matched first-round series in the 1984 NBA Playoffs.

    And evenly matched is exactly what it was, as the total-point tally between the two teams was 486-485.

    What's more, the series was memorable because of a few weird occurrences which took place.

    Chief among those was the fact that the five-game series was played in four different arenas.

    Additionally, the series—which was split 2-2 after four games—was about to experience one of the strangest endings in playoff history.

    First, the Sonics appeared to be poised for the win, holding a six-point lead with less than 50 seconds to go.

    Then the Mavs staged a comeback, eventually tying the contest and forcing overtime.

    In this extra period, Dallas carried their momentum to a one-point lead with mere seconds remaining.

    Next, it appeared that they had finally pulled it off, as Seattle's Tom Chambers missed a last-second heave.

    However, the clock was never started, so the celebrating Mavericks were forced to return to the court and replay the final attempt.

    Luckily, that one was off the mark as well, allowing Dallas to walk away with the series. 

No. 17: 2006, Cleveland Cavaliers over Washington Wizards 4-2

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    The first round of the 2006 NBA Playoffs marked LeBron James' postseason debut—and and it was an impressive one at that.

    The series was back and forth in the early stages, as the two teams split the first four games, heading into Game 5 tied at 2-2.

    In a pivotal Game 5, the Wizards, powered by the trio of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, made a furious late-game comeback to force overtime.

    However, LeBron converted on a game-winning layup with less than a second remaining, swinging the series in the Cavs' favor 3-2.

    Game 6 was another hotly-contested matchup, as the Wizards blew an early lead and needed a deep, buzzer-beating three from Arenas to force overtime once again.

    This OT was also close, but as time wound down, it certainly appeared as if Washington was going to take the game.

    With 15.1 seconds remaining and his team up two, Arenas walked up to the line for a pair of free throws.

    Yet before attempting his first one, LeBron approached and whispered to him: "If you miss both of these free throws, the game is over."

    So what happened then?

    Arenas clanked both attempts, LeBron took the ball down the court, penetrated into the lane and passed to an open Damon Jones, who hit the game-winning three.

    In all, the series saw James notch a triple-double, hit two game-winning shots, dish out a series-winning assist and win the first of what was to be many future playoff series.

No. 16: 1970, Los Angeles Lakers over Phoenix Suns 4-3

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    After making two-straight NBA Finals appearances, the Los Angeles Lakers were expected to have a relatively easy time in their first-round playoff matchup against the Phoenix Suns.

    However, despite only posting a 39-43 record in the 1969-70 season, the Suns stormed out to a 3-1 series lead.

    But the possibility of elimination apparently woke up the star-studded Lakers, as they posted a gaudy 138 points in Game 5.

    Ultimately, behind Hall of Famers Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, Los Angeles was able to fully recover, stringing three consecutive wins together in order to win the series 4-3 and avoid what would have been one of the biggest upsets in history.

No. 15: 1995, Chicago Bulls over Charlotte Hornets 3-1

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    The fourth-seeded Charlotte Hornets and fifth-seeded Chicago Bulls matchup in the 1995 NBA Playoffs is not so famous for the battle between the teams, but rather because of an individual performance.

    That individual was Michael Jordan, who was appearing in his first postseason since the 1993 NBA Finals (after which he abruptly retired to pursue a career in baseball).

    So with having played only 17 regular-season games that season, Jordan stepped in, hardly missing a beat, and performed against the Hornets like the Jordan of old.

    In the first game, he posted 48 points in an overtime victory.

    The Bulls then dropped the next game, despite MJ's 32 points.

    Nevertheless, they took Games 3 and 4, with Jordan averaging a gaudy 32.25 points per game on the series.

    And although they didn't win a title that season, it was evident that Jordan and the Bulls were back.

No. 14: 2002, New Jersey Nets over Indiana Pacers 3-2

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    In the first round of the 2002 NBA Playoffs, the New Jersey Nets—which had earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference—survived quite the scare against the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers.

    After splitting the first four games, the two teams met in New Jersey for a series-deciding Game 5, and, throughout the game, it was apparent that neither team wanted to go home.

    In fact, Reggie Miller banked in a deep three to put the game into overtime, and then threw down a dunk to force double overtime, before the Pacers eventually ran out of steam and lost.

    The Nets then proceeded to advance the the NBA Finals that year, although a few different bounces could have led to one of the biggest upsets in history.

No. 13: 2006, Phoenix Suns over Los Angeles Lakers 4-3

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    In a season in which Steve Nash would take home his second-consecutive MVP award, the Phoenix Suns entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.

    Their opponents were to be the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, which were fresh off missing the postseason for the first time in over a decade.

    What's more, Lakers star guard Kobe Bryant managed to average over 35 points per game during the season, and consequently, many believed that he deserved the MVP more than Nash did.

    However, after dropping the first game, LA managed to take the next three—including a one-point overtime victory in Game 4—earning a 3-1 series advantage.

    But the Suns wouldn't give in.

    They convincingly won Game 5 by 17.

    Next, Phoenix overcame a 50-point barrage by Kobe, holding on for an overtime win to even the series 3-3.

    And in the deciding game—perhaps best-remembered by Kobe scoring 23 in the first half, while only attempting two shots in the rest of the game—the Suns dominated, winning by more than 30 points to seal their series comeback.

No. 12: 1986 Boston Celtics over Chicago Bulls 3-0

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    Michael Jordan missed the majority of the 1985-86 season after breaking a bone in his foot.

    Nevertheless, he made a late-season return—against doctors' orders—in order to make sure his Chicago Bulls qualified for the playoffs.

    And make the playoffs they did, although they only earned the eighth seed and were to face off against the two-time defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics.

    So, as expected, the Celtics handily defeated the Bulls in Game 1.

    But what occurred in Game 2 is what makes this series truly memorable.

    Jordan posted a still-standing postseason record of 63 points, pushing Boston to double-overtime, before dropping the contest by four, in what was one of the best playoff games of all-time.

    In fact, MJ's performance even prompted Celtics Hall of Famer Larry Bird to declare, "I didn't think anyone was capable of doing what Michael has done to us. He is the most exciting, awesome player in the game today. I think it's just God disguised as Michael Jordan."

    So while the Bulls proceeded to drop the third game and get swept, Jordan's first-round performance in a losing effort makes this one of the better playoff series in league history.

No. 11: 1995, Houston Rockets over Utah Jazz 3-2

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    After earning a 60-22 record in the regular season—good for second best in the NBA—the Utah Jazz were set to face off against the defending champion Houston Rockets, who had largely underachieved that year, in the first round of the 1995 NBA Playoffs.

    Nevertheless, Hakeem Olajuwon and Co. apparently knew how to put it all together when it counted, as they immediately raised their level of play entering the postseason.

    Behind the consistently strong play of Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Jazz took a 2-1 lead in the series, only needing one more win to advance.

    However, the Rockets were not about to lie down.

    Behind 40-point performances from Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the Rockets handily took the fourth game, evening the series at two games apiece.

    Then in the decisive Game 5, the Houston duo followed up with a pair of 30-point double-doubles, sealing a four-point series-clinching victory on the road.

    What's more, after surviving the Jazz, the Rockets went on to win their second-consecutive NBA title.

No. 10: 1981, Houston Rockets over Los Angeles Lakers 2-1

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    Although a three-game series isn't much of a series at all, this is the one example from that playoff format which deserves to be mentioned.

    Finishing the season with a sub-.500 record, the Houston Rockets were to face off against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the 1981 NBA Playoffs.

    What's more, the Lakers star guard Magic Johnson had just returned from injury prior to the series, so it was expected that Magic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LA would make short work of the Houston squad.

    Nevertheless, behind Moses Malone, the Rockets hung with the Lakers, ultimately taking the matchup 2-1, in a series in which none of the games were decided by more than five points.

No. 9: 2003, Detroit Pistons over Orlando Magic 4-3

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    After leading the NBA in scoring, Tracy McGrady and his Orlando Magic came out firing against the top-seeded Detroit Pistons in the 2003 playoffs.

    They took the first game, dropped one and proceeded to win two more, earning a 3-1 series advantage.

    So with the eight-over-one upset within reach, McGrady—who had never advanced past the first round—proclaimed that it felt good to "finally be in the second round."

    However, this was a terrible mistake, as the Pistons were far from defeated.

    Detroit proceeded to blow out the Magic in Game 5, holding them to 67 in a 31-point win.

    Additionally, the Pistons overcame McGrady's 37 points in Game 6 to even the series at three apiece.

    So with their seasons on the line, the two franchises met in Detroit for Game 7.

    Here, the Pistons held McGrady to a mere 29.2-percent shooting performance, clinching the series with a 15-point victory.

    And to this day, McGrady has still never been on the active roster of a team that advanced past the first round.

No. 8: 1984, New Jersey Nets over Philadelphia 76ers 3-2

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    The Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets entered the 1984 NBA Playoffs with extremely different track records.

    The Sixers, behind Moses Malone and Julius Erving, cruised to an NBA championship the year before.

    The Nets, on the other hand, had not won a postseason game since joining the NBA.

    And it was this drastic disparity that led Erving to boast to the media: "You can mail in the stats."

    However, New Jersey certainly got the 76ers' attention after taking the first two games by a total of 29 points.

    Philadelphia woke up, however, and answered back with two victories of their own, evening the series at 2-2.

    But the Nets wanted it more, ultimately fighting back and holding on for a three-point road victory to win the series.

No. 7: 1984, New York Knicks over Detroit Pistons 3-2

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    In the 1984 NBA Playoffs, the matchup between the fourth-seeded Detroit Pistons and fifth-seeded New York Knicks looked rather promising, but in fact, it turned out to be one of the best of all-time.

    The teams alternated winning and losing through the first four games, eventually meeting in a series-deciding Game 5.

    One reason why the game was notable was because it was played in Detroit's Joe Louis arena, where a malfunctioning air-conditioning system forced the contest to be played in almost-unbearable heat.

    But really, that is only a small part of the story, as the final game was a fiercely competitive thriller, forced into overtime by the Pistons' Isiah Thomas scoring his team's final 16 points in the last 94 seconds of regulation.

    What's more, Knicks star forward Bernard King was on the court leading his team, despite playing with two dislocated fingers and a fever soaring above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

    And despite these limitations, King still managed to drop 44 points and seal the 127-123 victory.

    Additionally, King posted a five-game series record of 213 total points—good for a per-game scoring average of 42.6.

    So with all of these factors going for it, Knicks-Pistons 1984 is easily one of the best first-round matchups in the league's history.

No. 6: 1990, New York Knicks over Boston Celtics 3-2

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    Despite only one seed separating the No. 4 Boston Celtics and No. 5 New York Knicks, they were entering the 1990 NBA Playoffs in drastically different fashions.

    The Celtics had won 11 of their final 13 games, cruising to a record of 52-30.

    On the other hand, the Knicks had dropped 15 of their final 22 games, finishing a full seven games behind Boston in the standings.

    And after Boston won the first two games by an average of 20 points—including a Game 2 where they scored a whopping 157—it appeared as though these two teams would continue their respective streaks.

    However, the Knicks squeaked out a three-point victory when Game 3 returned to New York.

    But with the Celtics still only needing one game to advance, it appeared unlikely that this game would mean anything.

    Nevertheless, the Knicks fired out of the gate in Game 4, going on to defeat Boston by 27 points and tie the series 2-2.

    And in the final game, New York held on—capitalizing on a missed dunk attempt late in the contest by Larry Bird—to earn an eight-point series-clinching victory.

No. 5: 1999, New York Knicks over Miami Heat 3-2

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    After an NBA lockout shortened the 1998-99 NBA season, it just so happened that a pair of rivals would meet again in the postseason.

    However, with the Miami Heat as the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference and the Patrick-Ewing-less New York Knicks in the eighth slot, it appeared that this would finally be the year for the Heat—who had been upset by the Knicks the previous season.

    But after New York achieved a 20-point road victory in Game 1, that particular line of thought appeared to be in doubt.

    Nevertheless, the team alternated games in which they notched decisive victories until it was tied 2-2.

    Then, in the deciding contest, the teams finally found themselves in a close game down the stretch.

    Nevertheless, it was Knicks guard Allan Houston who threw up a last-second runner, which bounced around a couple of times before falling in and sealing the eight-over-one upset.

    What's more, New York carried the momentum from this victory into an Eastern Conference championship, before eventually falling short in the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs.

No. 4: 1994, Denver Nuggets over Seattle Supersonics 3-2

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    Behind the superstar tandem of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, the Seattle Supersonics breezed through the regular season, earning an NBA-best 64-18 record.

    So with their first-round matchup against the 42-40 Denver Nuggets, it was generally expected that the Sonics would advance with little effort.

    And that appeared to be the case through the first two games, as they won them by an average of 17 points.

    However, the Nuggets fired back, earning a 17-point win in Game 3, followed by an overtime victory in Game 4.

    So in the decisive Game 5, the Nuggets looked to be in charge late, before a Kendall Gill basket eventually forced another overtime.

    Nevertheless, Denver still managed to crank out a four-point victory, coming back from down two games and marking the first time an eighth seed had ever beaten a one seed.

    And besides that, the series is perhaps best known for a young Dikembe Mutombo—who finished two points and two blocks shy of a triple-double—emotionally clinging to the ball on the floor following the final game.

No. 3: 1989, Chicago Bulls over Cleveland Cavaliers 3-2

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers finished the 1988-89 NBA season a full 10 games ahead of the Chicago Bulls in the standings, and they beat Chicago in all six of their matchups.

    So when the No. 3-seeded Cavaliers played host to the No. 6-seeded Bulls in the playoffs, they were clearly expected to win.

    Nevertheless, the teams split the first four games of the series, setting up a pivotal Game 5 matchup.

    And this down-to-the-wire game has now become the stuff of legend.

    With six seconds remaining, Jordan hit a jumper to give the Bulls their first lead of the game.

    However, the Cavs Craig Ehlo answered, converting on a go-ahead basket with only three ticks left.

    Nevertheless, the game was far from over, as Chicago inbounded to Jordan, who ran across to the middle, jumped, hung in the air until his defender cleared his line of sight and released the shot.

    Needless to say, it went in, the Bulls celebrated and this first-round matchup became one of the early chapters in the legend of Michael Jordan.

No. 2: 2009, Boston Celtics over Chicago Bulls 4-3

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    Heading into the 2009 NBA Playoffs as the second seed, the Boston Celtics—who had earned a regular-season record of 62-20—were to face off against up in the first round against a young-but-talented Chicago Bulls team that had ended the year with a .500 record.

    And while this didn't appear to be the best matchup on paper, the outcome was quite the contrary.

    Game 1 saw the Bulls upset the Celtics in overtime, behind Derrick Rose's 36-point performance.

    This was followed by Boston overcoming Ben Gordon's 42, in order to achieve a three-point win.

    So with it tied at 1-1, the Celtics attempted to take control of the series with a 21-point blowout.

    Nevertheless, Chicago refused to give in, answering back with a three-point, double-overtime win to even the series again.

    In Game 5, Boston was again forced into overtime, but this time they eked out a two-point victory.

    Game 6 marked the third consecutive OT game, although this one went into triple-overtime and saw the Bulls win—despite Ray Allen's 51 points—by one, to force a Game 7.

    Game 7 was perhaps the worst part of this series, as it ended in a routine, 10-point victory for the Celtics.

    However, with a total of seven overtime periods played and five of the games not over until the last possession, this series is easily one of the best first-round matchups ever.

No. 1: 2007 Golden State Warriors over Dallas Mavericks 4-2

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    In 2003, the NBA changed their playoff structure back to a best-of-seven format, effectively making it more difficult for a team to pull an upset.

    However, that fact did not bother the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors in their 2007 first-round matchup against the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks, which finished the year with a 67-15 record (ninth-best of all-time).

    Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson adjusted his lineup and his team's style of play heading into this series, in an attempt to match the Warriors uptempo style of play.

    However, this is exactly what Golden State coach Don Nelson (Johnson's predecessor in Dallas) wanted.

    Consequently, the Warriors racked up two double-digit victories in the first three games.

    Furthermore, they followed this up with another win in Game 4, putting them ahead 3-1.

    The series then returned to Dallas, where the Mavs were able to put it together enough to earn their second win.

    Nevertheless, when the Warriors were given the chance to capitalize and seal the victory at home, they did exactly that, marking the first time that an eighth seed defeated a No. 1 seed in a best-of-seven series, and additionally, the first time an eight beat a one without needing to play a full series.

    Consequently, this was likely one of the biggest upsets in NBA history, thereby making it easily one of the best first-round matchups ever.