Raptors' Title Had Twists and Turns, but Was It Most Unpredictable Finals Ever?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistJune 14, 2019

Raptors' Title Had Twists and Turns, but Was It Most Unpredictable Finals Ever?

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    On Thursday night, the Toronto Raptors finished off the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in six games to win their first NBA championship in franchise history. The Warriors were down reigning Finals MVP Kevin Durant for all but 12 minutes of the series, but their dethronement was still a major upset, one of the few in the history of the NBA Finals.

    Finals upsets are uncommon—seven-game series have a tendency to filter out fluky events. They can happen in individual games, but it's unlikely they'll happen four out of seven times in a series. The Raptors' defeat of the Warriors, one of the great dynasties in the history of the NBA, is in rare company.

    Here are the five biggest upsets in NBA Finals history when superpowers were dethroned unexpectedly. Where do this year's Raptors fall into the mix?

5. Houston Rockets over Orlando Magic (1995)

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    If it's possible for a defending champion to pull off an upset, this is it. The 1993-94 Rockets stepped into the void created by Michael Jordan's temporary retirement and won 58 games on their way to defeating the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals. The 1994-95 team won 11 fewer games and was the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

    The ascendant Orlando Magic, on the other side, had a dominant regular season (57-25) powered by the emerging superstar duo of Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway. In a post-Jordan NBA, they had the look of the next dominant force in the Eastern Conference, and the 1994-95 season was when they came into their own as a contender.

    The Rockets, bolstered by the trade-deadline acquisition of Clyde Drexler from the Portland Trail Blazers, pulled off one of the most impressive and unexpected playoff runs in NBA history, defeating teams with better records in all three rounds of the Western Conference playoffs en route to a Finals matchup with Orlando. The resulting series was a competitive four-game sweep, featuring a Game 1 that went into overtime and a game-sealing three-pointer in Game 3 by Robert Horry, which helped earn him the "Big Shot Bob" nickname that stuck throughout his career.

4. Detroit Pistons over Los Angeles Lakers (2004)

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    PAUL SANCYA/Associated Press

    This was the last gasp of the turn-of-the-century Lakers dynasty. As the relationship between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant continued to deteriorate, Los Angeles brought in high-profile reinforcements. Karl Malone left Utah after 18 seasons for one last shot at a ring, and nine-time All-Star Gary Payton signed on as well.

    Malone aggravated a knee injury in Game 2, which effectively ended the Lakers' chances against the Pistons, one of the most unlikely NBA champions of the modern era. This Detroit team, led by Tayshaun Prince, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and deadline acquisition Rasheed Wallace, didn't feature a conventional superstar, but it was deep, versatile and ferocious on the defensive end. To this day, the Pistons are routinely held up as the exception to the rule that superstars win championships.

    This Finals loss officially spelled the end of the Shaq-and-Kobe era. The Lakers traded O'Neal to Miami and dealt Payton to Boston that offseason, while Malone retired. Detroit remained a power in the East for the next half-decade, reaching the Finals again in 2005 and staying in perennial playoff contention until 2009.

3. Toronto Raptors over Golden State Warriors (2019)

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Raptors president Masai Ujiri made an all-or-nothing bet last summer, trading DeMar DeRozan for a one-year rental of Kawhi Leonard, who reportedly had no desire to play in Toronto. The gamble paid off exactly the way Ujiri imagined as the Raptors won their first NBA title.

    The 2018-19 Warriors earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference but were a clear step below the unbeatable teams of the previous two years that featured Kevin Durant. Those teams blew out the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in two straight Finals. Except for a seven-game 2018 Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets, they were never in serious danger of losing a series.

    These Warriors were different. They lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn quad in the first round against the Los Angeles Clippers and Durant to a calf strain in the second round against the Rockets. Despite all of that, they swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals. That, combined with the Raptors' reputation as disappointing playoff performers, made it tough not to give Golden State the benefit of the doubt coming into the series despite being undermanned.

    We all know what happened next. The Raptors were dominant at both ends of the floor. Leonard took home a second career Finals MVP trophy, and supporting players like Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam had big moments in different games.

    Durant came back in a do-or-die Game 5 and suffered a torn Achilles in the second quarter that will keep him out all of next season. In Thursday's closeout Game 6, Klay Thompson tore his ACL, which will also force him to miss an extended period of time.

    It's not the ending to the Warriors' five-year run of dominance that anyone envisioned or wanted, and their future is up in the air.

2. Dallas Mavericks over Miami Heat (2011)

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The first year of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh era in Miami had no shortage of drama and growing pains, but by the end of the regular season, they had rounded into something close to the juggernaut everyone thought they'd be. They made it through the Eastern Conference playoffs fairly easily, beating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in the conference finals.

    The Mavericks team they faced did not look on paper like a title threat. With only one true superstar in Dirk Nowitzki, surrounded by a collection of role players, they didn't have the star power of the Lakers or the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder, both of whom they defeated convincingly in the Western Conference playoffs on their way to the Finals.

    The Finals series between the Heat and Mavs was payback for their 2006 matchup, which Miami won as Wade ascended to superstardom. The story this time was a rare and inexplicable disappearance by James, who averaged just 17.8 points per game in the series and scored a mere eight points in Game 4, which Dallas won by just three points. It's arguably the one true black mark on James' long and illustrious postseason resume (more on that later).

    Dallas' title changed the way Nowitzki is thought of in NBA history and bolstered the reputations of the likes of Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea, all of whom parlayed the title into big contracts. Miami won the next two titles behind dominant performances from James.

1. Cleveland Cavaliers over Golden State Warriors (2016)

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    This is the greatest comeback and biggest upset in NBA history.

    The 2015-16 Warriors were the greatest regular-season team of all time, winning a record 73 games, including 24 in a row to begin the season. Stephen Curry became the first unanimous MVP in league history after putting together one of the greatest offensive seasons of all time. After four games, Golden State held a commanding 3-1 lead over the Cavaliers.

    Then everything fell apart.

    Draymond Green was suspended for Game 5 after hitting LeBron James in the groin in Game 4, and a knee injury in Game 5 took Andrew Bogut out of the series. James posted one of the most dominant runs of his career, culminating in an iconic chase-down block of Andre Iguodala in Game 7. Coupled with a dagger shot by Kyrie Irving and some crucial defense by Kevin Love on Curry in the final minute of the clinching game, Cleveland became the first team ever to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, stunning what had looked to be one of the most inevitable champions-to-be of all time in the 73-win Warriors.

    Arguably nothing James has done in his career has been as impressive as this, while the Warriors' collapse stands as a black mark on what has been an otherwise historic dynasty.