Biggest Upsets in NBA Playoff History

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistApril 28, 2013

Biggest Upsets in NBA Playoff History

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    If you're anything like me, you probably start rooting for a monumental upset whenever you don't have a vested interest in the outcome of an NBA playoff series. 

    I usually root for four different things: the Atlanta Hawks, a handful of my favorite players to watch, history and the underdogs (although the last two often go hand in hand). Something tells me that most of you aren't too different, except I seriously doubt there are many Hawks fans among you.

    It's why these next 10 series, the biggest upsets in playoff history, are so ingrained in our memories. When a David slays a Goliath, we tend to remember it for a long time. 

    Anyone who watched Dikembe Mutombo collapse to the floor in 1994, Allan Houston drain a series-winner in 1999 or Jamal Mashburn take revenge on his old team in 2001 can attest to that. These flashbulb memories allow you to reminisce about where you were and what you were doing when the historic events came to pass. 

    How long will it be before another series works it's way into the top 10? Again, if you're like me, you're hoping it's sooner rather than later. 

    Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference.com.

1969 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics over Los Angeles Lakers

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    If it seems strange to see the Boston Celtics featured as the victorious team in an upset during the 1960s, it should. 

    After all, the C's were virtually synonymous with excellence during that decade, winning championships every year but 1967. And even still, they were the clear underdogs in this series against the hated Los Angeles Lakers. 

    Bill Russell, the legendary player-coach whose defense had sparked so many titles, no longer had functioning knees. Sam Jones was going to retire after the season. The dynasty was clearly coming to a close, as indicated by the 48-34 regular-season record. 

    Meanwhile, the Lakers were only gaining steam after adding Wilt Chamberlain to an already potent lineup.

    Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West stormed out to a 2-0 series lead and appeared ready to close it out even sooner than expected. However, Boston came back and forced a Game 7 in the Forum. 

    In one of the most ill-fated decisions in basketball history, L.A. owner Jack Cooke hung thousands of balloons in the rafters, all displaying the phrase "World Champion Lakers."

    Those balloons never dropped, and Russell retired in the same spot he'd spent so much time throughout his incredible career: on top.  

1975 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors over Washington Bullets

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    This series was supposed to be a sweep, and after four games, that prediction became a reality. The problem was that it was the Washington Bullets who were supposed to be doing the sweeping, not the Golden State Warriors. 

    Behind the dominating frontcourt of Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, Washington knocked out the Boston Celtics to reach the 1975 NBA Finals. Then they got to play a team they'd already beaten three times during the regular season.

    Meanwhile, the Dubs needed rookie guard Phil Smith to spark a come-from-behind victory in Game 7 against the Chicago Bulls to advance.  

    Once the two squared off against one another, though, Rick Barry refused to let his team lose.

    Using his underhanded free-throw stroke and deadly shot from the outside, the shooting guard averaged 29.5 points per contest during the four-game series, highlighted by his 38-point outburst in Game 3. 

1977 NBA Finals: Portland Trail Blazers over Philadelphia 76ers

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    Blazermania swept threw Portland throughout the 1976-77 season as Bill Walton captivated the Trail Blazers faithful with his red hair and flashy play in the post. It was a young team, one that was easy to get behind. 

    Most people didn't give the Blazers much of a chance when they matched up against the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1977 NBA Finals, though. The powerhouse Sixers had Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins and George McGinnis. The Blazers, well, they didn't.

    Everything went according to plan as Philly won the first two games, but the Blazers would win each of the next four. Walton's 20-point, 23-rebound game in Game 6 cemented his place in NBA lore.  

1981 First Round: Houston Rockets over Los Angeles Lakers

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    Magic Johnson's performance at center during the final game of the 1980 NBA Finals had helped the Los Angeles Lakers win a title, and they went into the 1980-81 season as the defending champions and true title contenders yet again. 

    They earned the No. 3 seed, despite Magic missing some serious time due to a knee injury, but couldn't match up against the Houston Rockets' duo of Moses Malone and Calvin Murphy. Even though Houston only won 40 games during the regular season, they finished with a winning record in that first-round matchup. 

    Remember, this is back when you only had three games to prove your superiority in the first round. Anything could happen, and it did. 

    The Lakers were a mainstay in the Finals during the late 1970s and the entirety of the 1980s, but this year proved to be the exception. 

1984 First Round: New Jersey Nets over Philadelphia 76ers

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    Let's look at the situation going into this series. Bear with me and pretend that you're back in 1984, just before the start of this first-round clash between the New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. 

    The Sixers had just won a championship, losing only one postseason game in the process, and still prominently featured Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Moses Malone on the roster. They had gone 52-30 during the regular season. 

    Meanwhile, the Nets were the upstarts. 

    New Jersey finished fourth in the Atlantic Division, putting together a 45-37 record. Although they were only seven games behind the Sixers in the standings, they were much further back in terms of public perception. 

    Why? 

    The Nets weren't the defending champions, and they hadn't even won a single playoff game in the history of the franchise. 

    Obviously, that changed rather quickly.

1994 First Round: Denver Nuggets over Seattle SuperSonics

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    The Seattle SuperSonics won 21 games more than the Denver Nuggets during the 1993-94 NBA season, and Gary Payton's squad was the overwhelming favorite to advance through the first round of the playoffs. 

    However, when the postseason rolled around, the Nuggets had something the Sonics didn't. 

    That would be Dikembe Mutombo, who averaged an insane 12.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.2 steals and 6.2 blocks per game. That's not a typo. Mutombo got to wag his finger 6.2 times per contest during the five-game series. 

    When the big man laid on his back, clutching the final rebound above his head in the now-famous pose, he rejoiced, knowing that he'd helped the Nuggets become the first No. 8 seed in NBA history to win a playoff series. 

1999 First Round: New York Knicks over Miami Heat

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    Allan Houston sealed this first-round series with a runner in the lane, and the dramatic way that the ball entered the basket truly summed up this five-game battle in just a few seconds. The rock insisted on creating tension, bouncing off the front of the rim, caroming off the glass and finally dropping through to give the New York Knicks the right to advance. 

    Even though the toppled Miami Heat were a No. 1 seed, the Knicks had overcome their own seed and more than a few deficits in the series. 

    Questions remain about the extent to which this was a historic upset simply because of the circumstances. This came at the end of the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign, so the Knicks and Heat may not have been true top and bottom seeds. 

    However, these two squads—teams that definitely didn't like each other, by the way—still weren't exactly considered evenly matched going into Game 1. 

2001 First Round: Charlotte Hornets over Miami Heat

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    Jamal Mashburn was the scapegoat for the Miami Heat's previous playoff exits, so it must have been nice for him to get revenge against his former team. 

    Even with Mashburn on the roster, the Charlotte Hornets still didn't seem to be on the same level as the team prominently featuring Alonzo Mourning, Anthony Mason, Brian Grant, Eddie Jones, Bruce Bowen, Tim Hardaway and Tim Hardaway's crossover.

    Surely that type of rotation was going to prove superior in the playoffs. 

    Mashburn had other ideas, though, and it only took him three games to prove it. After all, that's the length of a sweep. 

    The Hornets small forward averaged 23.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game while shooting 44 percent from the field, 66.7 percent from downtown and a perfect 100 percent at the charity stripe. 

2004 NBA Finals: Detroit Pistons over Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers three-peated in 2000, 2001 and 2002, but the San Antonio Spurs ended their reign atop the NBA in 2003. So, what did the Lakers do? 

    Nothing special.

    They just added two ring-chasing future Hall of Famers to the roster: Karl Malone and Gary Payton. The Glove and The Mailman were supposed to be valuable contributors and veteran presences, even if they weren't still going to play like the prime versions of themselves. 

    With Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal still on the team as well, the Lakers weren't just the favorites against the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals. They were the overwhelming choice to win and seemed to be about as close to a lock as you could have at this stage of the postseason. 

    The Pistons would have none of that, using a suffocating defense and a number of players formerly considered hand-me-downs to upset the men wearing purple and gold. 

2007 First Round: Golden State Warriors over Dallas Mavericks

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    It's only fitting that the epic Golden State Warriors-Dallas Mavericks series in 2007 takes up the final slide in this article. Even though these upsets have been presented in chronological order, we're still saving the best for last. 

    After all, the six-game series victory by the Dubs is usually called the biggest upset in NBA history. It was the first time that a No. 8 seed took down a top-seeded squad in a seven-game series, and it didn't even take the full seven games. 

    During the regular season, the Mavs had accumulated a sparkling 67-15 record. Led by Dirk Nowitzki, the MVP that year, Dallas was the prohibitive favorite to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy at the conclusion of the postseason. 

    Meanwhile, the Warriors needed all 82 games to even earn a playoff berth. 

    Baron Davis was just fantastic throughout the series, Stephen Jackson couldn't miss and the rest of the team all exceeded their own individual expectations as the home crowd raged. 

    It will be a long time before anything manages to top this one, but "we believe" it'll happen someday.