Top 10 Most Surprising Playoff Runs in NBA History
Everyone loves a good underdog story.
For better or worse, you don't see many deep runs by underdogs in the NBA Playoffs. With an 82-game season to decide the seeding, and the grueling string of best of sevens that teams need to survive in order to advance, the top seeds are tough to beat in the NBA.
To qualify for this list, a team must have advanced at least two rounds. One win is an upset—you need to have beat two higher-seeded teams to have a run.
In honor of the Memphis Grizzlies falling just one win short of continuing their playoff journey, let’s count down the 10 most-surprising postseason runs in NBA history.
10. 1984 Phoenix Suns
The '84 Suns came into the playoffs with the sixth seed and were only a .500 team.
Led by Walter Davis and Larry Nance, the highlight of the Suns' season before their postseason run was Nance winning the NBA’s first slam dunk contest.
When the playoffs started, Phoenix upset Portland and Utah before losing to Magic Johnson and the "Showtime" Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
9. 1989 Chicago Bulls
“Shot over Ehlo….GOOD!”
Michael Jordan and the '89 Bulls gave us one of the most memorable game-winning shots in NBA history.
After "The Shot" got them past Cleveland, the sixth-seeded Bulls bested the Knicks in the second round to get to the Conference Finals.
Serving as Jordan’s coming-out party, the 1989 playoffs were just a teaser for the greatness he had in store.
8. 1987 Seattle Supersonics
Led by Tom Chambers, Dale Ellis and "the X-Man" Xavier McDaniel, the '87 Supersonics came into the playoffs as the seventh seed and didn’t even have a winning record.
Once they got into the playoffs, Chambers, Ellis and McDaniel caught fire and led the team to a first-round upset of the Dallas Mavericks. The Sonics then beat the Rockets in the second round before losing to the eventual champion—the Lakers—in the Conference Finals.
7. 2010 Boston Celtics
With their core players showing their age, the 2010 Celtics limped into the playoffs as a No. 4 seed. It looked like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen had nothing left in the tank.
Instead of sputtering out of the playoffs, the Celtics fed off the energy of their young players, especially point guard Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics played a classic seven-game series against their archrival—the Lakers—in the Finals. Despite their efforts, they didn’t have enough to win it all.
6. 1978 Seattle Supersonics
The Sonics started the '78 season with a dismal 5-17 record. Their dysfunctional roster looked like they weren't even good enough to make the playoffs.
Their fortunes turned around when they replaced their head coach with Lenny Wilkins. He focused the team and led them to the No. 4 seed (out of six) in the West.
The playoffs were an uphill battle as the Sonics had to go through the defending-champion Trailblazers before facing the second-seeded Denver Nuggets.
Seattle came up one game short of the championship, losing Game 7 of the Finals to the Washington Bullets.
5. 1981 Houston Rockets
The sixth seed in the West, back when six was the lowest seed in each conference, the '81 Rockets beat the No. 3 Lakers before defeating the then-No. 2 Spurs.
Then, they got some luck when they only had to face the No. 5 Kings.
The Rockets were led by Moses Malone, who put up 26 points and 14 boards a game during their playoff run.
4. 2006 Dallas Mavericks
This was the closest Dallas has come to a championship during the Cuban/Dirk era.
The Mavs entered the 2006 playoffs as the fourth seed in an insanely stacked Western Conference.
They had to go through the team that always seemed to get the better of them—the No. 1-seeded Spurs. It took seven grueling games to get past them—Game 7 was a classic, overtime thriller.
As if that wasn’t enough punishment, they had to beat the run-and-gun Suns, led by ex-teammate Steve Nash.
Despite taking a two-game lead on the Miami Heat in the Finals, they lost the next four to come up just short of the championship.
3. 1999 New York Knicks
The only No. 8 seed ever to make the NBA Finals, the '99 Knicks made an impressive run.
Major points have to be deducted though because the season was shortened due to a prolonged work stoppage. With only 50 games played, the seeds in the 1999 playoffs have to be taken with a grain of salt.
A fun team to watch, the '99 Knicks had an elder statesman All Star in Patrick Ewing, and who didn’t love watching Larry “Grandmama” Johnson?
2. 1995 Houston Rockets
Hakeem "the Dream" and Clyde "the Glide."
The '95 Rockets reunited two members of the famous Phi Slamma Jamma Houston Cougars' team of the mid-'80s.
The move proved to be a risky one though, as the Rockets limped into the playoffs with only the sixth seed. They found their stride when the games counted the most and eventually went on to sweep the Finals.
Olajuwon led the team with one of the best individual playoff runs in league history, cementing the "Dream Shake" as one of the signature moves in NBA history.
1. 1969 Boston Celtics
The Celtics came into the 1969 playoffs with the last seed in the Eastern Division.
They beat three teams with better regular season records, including the vaunted Lakers squad in the Finals. The Lakers featured the first “Big Three” in league history, adding Wilt Chamberlain to a team that already had Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
With John Havlicek, Sam Jones and Bill Russell, the Celtics were also a veteran team with plenty of talent. Determined to make their championship run as difficult as possible, the Celtics lost the first two games of the Finals before eventually winning Game 7 in L.A. by only two points.