The 8 Biggest Upsets in the NBA Playoffs Since 2000

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJune 6, 2021

The 8 Biggest Upsets in the NBA Playoffs Since 2000

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    Baron Davis
    Baron DavisMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Of the Big Four professional sports leagues in the United States, the NBA tends to have the chalkiest playoffs by far.

    Dating back to 2000, five wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl, six wild-card teams have won the World Series and there have been nine cases of an NHL team reaching the Stanley Cup Finals despite ranking sixth or worse in its conference standings. But in the NBA, you have to go back to 1999 to find the last time a No. 6, No. 7 or No. 8 seed made the finals, and back to 1995 to find the last time a team won it all as a No. 4 seed or worse.

    Still, there have been quite a few substantial upsets since the turn of the century, including a trio of No. 8-over-No. 1 first-round stunners.

    In keeping with the eight-team format within each conference, we've ranked the eight biggest upsets in order of how flabbergasting they were both at the time and in retrospect. We're also going to start with eight honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

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    DeMar DeRozan and LeBron James
    DeMar DeRozan and LeBron JamesTony Dejak/Associated Press

    No. 6 Charlotte Hornets over No. 3 Miami Heat (2001 First Round): As we'll discuss again shortly, a No. 6 over a No. 3 typically isn't shocking. But this one was ruthless. Not only did the Hornets sweep the Heat in the best-of-five series, but they won by an average score of 100.7 to 78.3.

    No. 7 San Antonio Spurs over No. 2 Dallas Mavericks (2010 First Round): This is the only time in NBA history that a No. 7 seed ousted a No. 2 seed in a seven-game series. However, it wasn't even an upset. As far as Sports Reference's Simple Rating System is concerned, the Spurs were the fourth-best team in the NBA that season, while the Mavericks were the worst of the eight Western Conference squads in the playoffs.

    No. 4 Boston Celtics over No. 2 Orlando Magic (2010 Conference Finals): The real 2010 Celtics upset was knocking out LeBron James and the No. 1 seeded Cavaliers in the previous round. That one will appear in our top eight. But this one almost made the cut, too.

    No. 3 Dallas Mavericks over No. 2 Miami Heat (2011 Finals): In the first year of the LeBron-Wade-Bosh regime, the Heat won each of their first three postseason series in five games. However, the veteran MavsDirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd were each at least 32 years oldmanaged to win in six. Probably could/should have cracked the top eight, though this has to be one of the few times in history where a 57-win team from the Western Conference beating a 58-win team from the Eastern Conference would count as a big upset.

    No. 8 Philadelphia 76ers over No. 1 Chicago Bulls (2012 First Round): A gigantic upset, no doubt, but with two gigantic asterisks. Asterisk No. 1—2010-11 MVP Derrick Rose tore his ACL in Game 1 and the Bulls lost four of the next five games. Asterisk No. 2—2011-12 was the lockout-shortened, 66-game season, in which those games were crammed into a 120-day window. Most teams were just trying to survive the rigors of the schedule, so records and standings were a bit wonky.

    No. 5 Memphis Grizzlies over No. 1 Oklahoma City Thunder (2013 Second Round): Similar to the 76ers beating the Bulls, a major injury played a huge role in this upset. The Thunder lost Russell Westbrook to a torn meniscus in the previous round, and, try as he might, Kevin Durant (28.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists per game) couldn't beat the Grizzlies on his own.

    No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers over No. 1 Golden State Warriors (2016 Finals): Not a seeding upset, obviously, but the mid-2010s Warriors were one of the best teams in NBA history. This 73-win iteration was particularly unbelievable. From late-November 2013 through mid-March 2017, GSW only endured one three-game losing streak: Blowing the 3-1 series lead in these Finals.

    No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers over No. 1 Toronto Raptors (2018 Second Round): As is the case with the just-mentioned 2016 Finals, it's kind of hard to argue that LeBron James winning a series should count as a top-eight upset of the past two-plus decades. And at 34.0 points, 11.3 assists and 8.3 rebounds per game, he was especially dominant in this series. All the same, this was a pretty shocking sweep of the winningest team in Raptors history.

8. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets over No. 3 Toronto Raptors (2014 First Round)

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    Joe Johnson and DeMar DeRozan
    Joe Johnson and DeMar DeRozanFrank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Though the last time a No. 6 seed won multiple series in the same postseason was all the way back in 1995, the No. 6-over-No. 3 first-round upset is relatively common. There have been nine such upsets since 2000, most of which weren't all that surprising.

    One major exception to that rule, though, was the Nets knocking off the Raptors in the first round in 2014.

    This was the infamous year that the Nets mortgaged their future in hopes of making a title run. They had won 49 games the previous season with a core of Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez and decided to trade away five players (three of whom started more than 20 games in 2012-13) and three future first-round picks to acquire 37-year-old Kevin Garnett, 36-year-old Paul Pierce and 36-year-old Jason Terry.

    To put it lightly, things didn't go according to plan. Pierce was still relatively effective, but his All-Star days were clearly behind him. Meanwhile, Garnett's and Terry's careers dropped off a cliff upon arrival in Brooklyn. One year after the trio combined for 43.5 points per game while each appearing in at least 68 games, that scoring average plummeted to 24.5 points. Garnett missed 28 games, and Terry only played in 35 before they shipped him and Reggie Evans out to Sacramento.

    Factor in Lopez playing in just 17 games before suffering a season-ending foot injury, and Williams missing 18 games of his own, and it's a miracle this team even made the postseason. As far as Sports Reference's Simple Rating System is concerned, the Nets were by far the worst team in the playoffs that year, and their expected win-loss record was 38-44.

    Their first-round opponent was the breakout team of the year. The Raptors had gone 79-151 over the previous three years, but they tightened up their rotation, started relying more on their dynamic duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and turned a corner that would last for seven years.

    Toronto should have cruised to a series victory over the falling-apart-at-the-seams Nets, but despite a combined 45.0 points per game from DeRozan and Lowry, the Raptors fell short in the seven-game series.

    In that decisive seventh game, Garnett stepped into a time machine for five offensive rebounds in what was his first double-double in more than three months, Johnson scored 13 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, and Pierce was massive in the clutch with a block of Lowry's do-or-die shot attempt at the buzzer to preserve a 104-103 Brooklyn victory.

7. No. 4 Boston Celtics over No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers (2010 Second Round)

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    Rajon Rondo and LeBron James
    Rajon Rondo and LeBron JamesMark Duncan/Associated Press

    2010 was supposed to be the year that Cleveland finally got its ring with LeBron James. After winning 66 games the previous year and still falling short in the playoffs, the Cavaliers brought in Shaquille O'Neal over the summer and traded for Antawn Jamison just before the February deadline.

    About a week after making that deal, Cleveland began a stretch of more than a month in which it won 17 of 19 games to lock up the No. 1 seed in the East. For once, it felt like James might have enough around him to get it done. And it was a "now or never" situation with his free-agency "Decision" on the horizon.

    However, James' improved supporting cast wasn't enough to oust Boston's band of brothers.

    It's rather fitting that Cleveland was the No. 1 seed to Boston's No. 4 seed, because it often felt like James was playing 1-on-4.

    He scored 35 points in Game 1 and another 38 in Game 3, each of which Cleveland won. For the series, he averaged 26.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.2 assists. But when he was unable to score in the mid-30s, Cleveland was no match for the collective force of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo.

    "Playoff Rondo" was particularly unstoppable. He racked up 19 assists in Game 2, had a monster triple-double (29 points, 18 rebounds, 13 assists) in Game 4 and averaged nearly 21 points and 12 assists in the six-game series. In fact, Rondo had exactly 21 and 12 (and five steals) in the series finale, leading the Celtics to victory in spite of James posting a triple-double.

    Boston subsequently defeated the No. 2 seed Orlando Magic to reach the NBA Finals, where it lost to Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in a grueling seven-game series. Even though the Celtics had just won it all in 2008, this was arguably the most impressive postseason run by an underdog in recent NBA history.

6. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks over No. 4 Orlando Magic (2011 First Round)

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    Jamal Crawford
    Jamal CrawfordJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    In most years, a No. 5 seed knocking off a No. 4 seed can hardly be considered an upset. Heck, in the past 13 years, 2019 was the only time that there wasn't at least one No. 5 seed in the conference semifinals.

    But this particular series was supposed to be an effortless victory for the No. 4 seed.

    From 2007 to 2011, the Orlando Magic were loaded. Led by a young and physically unstoppable Dwight Howard, they won at least 52 games in each of those four seasons, reaching the NBA Finals in 2009. In this particular season, they traded for Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu in December, won 36 of their final 54 games and looked like the Eastern Conference's best hope of shutting down the first year of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh Miami Heat regime.

    At the very least, the Magic were expected to take care of an Atlanta Hawks team which posted a negative scoring margin for the season, entered the playoffs on a six-game losing streak and lost 14 of its final 21 games.

    Howard more than carried his weight for Orlando, averaging 27.0 points and 15.5 rebounds for the series. In fact, he led all players in both points and rebounds in four of the six games, including a Herculean, all-for-naught, 46-point, 19-rebound effort in the Game 1 loss.

    But while Howard averaged 5.5 turnovers per game and Orlando shot a pathetic 26.2 percent from three-point range, Atlanta's sixth-man extraordinaire, Jamal Crawford, had the playoff series of his career. He scored at least 23 points in each of the first four games, including almost single-handedly winning Game 3 with a dozen points in the fourth quarter alone. He also had 19 points off the bench in the series finale.

    In between those strong performances by Crawford, "Iso" Joe Johnson carried the Hawks to victory in Game 4. He scored the team's final 10 points in a narrow 88-85 win. Had the Magic been able to pull off that fourth-quarter comeback attempt, it felt like the series would have inevitably swung back in their favor. Instead, Johnson rose to the occasion at that crucial juncture.

5. No. 5 Miami Heat over No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks (2020 Second Round)

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    Jimmy Butler steals the ball from Giannis Antetokounmpo
    Jimmy Butler steals the ball from Giannis AntetokounmpoMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    On the one hand, it doesn't feel right to include anything that transpired during the 2020 NBA Bubble. Not only was there no home-court advantage, but teams were still working their way back into a rhythm after a hiatus of more than four months because of COVID-19. Add in the emotional/mental toll of trying to use their platform to fight social justice issues and scarcely being permitted to leave their hotel rooms while in the bubble, and let's just say it was a most unusual postseason.

    On the other hand, what the heck happened to the Milwaukee Bucks?

    They had an 18-game winning streak early in the season. By early March, they were 52-8, outscoring opponents by nearly 13 points per game. Simply put, it was shaping up to be one of the greatest seasons in NBA history.

    However, they lost four out of five games before the pandemic paused the season, and they went just 3-5 during the regular-season portion of their time in the bubble. As a result, they suffered more losses in their final 13 games than they did in the first 60. Even though they clinched the East's No. 1 seed with room to spare, clearly this was not the same juggernaut from the first four-plus months of the season.

    But Miami also went 3-5 in its pre-postseason bubble games, including a 14-point loss to the Bucks. Thus, after four consecutive wins by double digits over the Orlando Magic, it felt like Milwaukee was gearing up to stomp a mudhole through the Heat.

    Instead, it was Jimmy Butler who did the stomping. The founder of Big Face Coffee went off for 40 points in Game 1, made a pair of clutch tie-breaking free throws at the end of Game 2 and scored 17 of Miami's 40 fourth-quarter points in Game 3, turning a 12-point deficit into a 15-point victory. Bam Adebayo (17.2 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 4.4 APG) and Tyler Herro (13.2 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.6 APG) also had more than their fair share of fun in a 4-1 series victory over the Eastern Conference favorites.

    Miami subsequently took care of Boston in the next round to become the first team seeded No. 5 or worse to reach the NBA Finals since 1999.

4. No. 3 Detroit Pistons over No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers (2004 Finals)

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    Shaquille O'Neal and Ben Wallace
    Shaquille O'Neal and Ben WallaceMICHAEL CONROY/Associated Press

    Throughout NBA history, there haven't been many stunners in the Finals. Fifty of the 71 NBA championships were won by a team that was a No. 1 seed in its conference. Even when the Houston Rockets became the lowest-seeded team to win it all as the West's No. 6 seed in 1994-95, their sweep of the East's No. 1 Orlando Magic wasn't that astounding. They were the reigning champs, they dealt with a bunch of minor injuries throughout the season and they traded for Clyde Drexler in the middle of the year.

    But the Pistons knocking off the Lakers in the 2004 Finalsin just five games, no lesswas a major surprise.

    For starters, it came at a time when it felt like the Western Conference Finals were the actual NBA Finals.

    Over the previous five years, the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers had a combined record of 20-6 in the Finals, routinely decimating whichever sacrificial lamb the Eastern Conference offered up that year. Thus, when the Lakers eliminated Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2004 Western Conference Finals, the subsequent series against the Pistons felt like more of a formality than a legitimate hurdle.

    Second, the Lakers still had Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant leading the way. That duo won titles in each of 2000, 2001 and 2002, and after a brief misstep in the 2003 Western Conference Semifinals, it looked as though they were back with a vengeance to claim that fourth ring.

    By comparison, Detroit was woefully lacking in star power. To that point in their careers, neither Chauncey Billups nor Richard Hamilton had been selected to an All-Star Game. Ben Wallace had, but no one really expected a low-scoring center known for his defense and rebounding to legitimately contain Shaq. Tayshaun Prince was only in his second year in the NBA. And by 2004, Rasheed Wallace was mostly famous for his propensity for technical fouls.

    But those no-name Pistons sure were a menace on defense.

    Shaq and Kobe combined for 49.2 points per game, but the rest of the team managed just 32.6. The Lakers exploded for 99 points in their lone win of the series but were held to 77.5 in the other four contests. Meanwhile, Billups and Hamilton seemingly couldn't miss, each averaging at least 21 points for Detroit.

    Fun fact: As far as the data is concerned, this actually wasn't an upset. Sports Reference's Simple Rating System for that season rated Detroit (5.04) slightly better than Los Angeles (4.35). From that perspective, the biggest upset in 2004 was actually the Lakers beating San Antonio (7.51) in the second round. At the time, though, it felt like L.A.'s star power (they also had past-their-primes Gary Payton and Karl Malone) made the Lakers huge favorites.

3. No. 3 Orlando Magic over No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers (2009 Conference Finals)

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    Dwight Howard and LeBron James
    Dwight Howard and LeBron JamesJeff Haynes/Associated Press

    LeBron James has had more than his fair share of tough exits from the NBA playoffs in his illustrious career, but this was the most inexplicable of the bunch.

    The 2008-09 Cleveland Cavaliers were a juggernaut. That team won 66 games and had a Simple Rating System score of 8.68. To put that number in historical perspective, it was easily the highest mark of any team with James on the roster, and it would have been the second-highest mark in Los Angeles Lakers history, trailing only the 1971-72 team that won 69 games with Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich.

    Furthermore, those Cavaliers opened the postseason with eight consecutive victories by double digits.

    Meanwhile, the Lakers had the best record in the West by an 11-game margin and had also won each of their first two postseason series. Thus, by the time the conference finals began, a LeBron vs. Kobe Finals pairing felt inevitable.

    But despite playing without 2009 All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson because of a torn labrum suffered in early February, the Orlando Magic had other plans.

    James scored 49 points in Game 1 of the series, but Orlando's Rashard Lewis shot a perfect 5-of-5 from the field in the fourth quarter, including the go-ahead three-pointer with 15 seconds remaining. Controversially, it was Delonte West and Mo Williams who attempted (and missed) Cleveland's subsequent game-winning tries in the 107-106 Magic victory.

    That theme of LeBron being sensational but still not quite enough carried on throughout the six-game series. It was easily one of the five best postseason series of his career, as he averaged 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists. He made a buzzer-beating game-winner in Game 2 and missed from just inside midcourt in an identical situation in overtime of Game 4. 2008-09 was the first MVP season of his career, and his fingerprints were all over this series.

    Unfortunately for Cleveland, Dwight Howard also had a dominant series (25.8 PPG, 13.0 RPG) with a supporting cast that contributed significantly more than James' did.

2. No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies over No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (2011 First Round)

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    Zach Randolph
    Zach RandolphMark Humphrey/Associated Press

    If both teams had been healthy, this upset wouldn't have been all that shocking. The gap between Memphis and San Antonio in this particular season was not as wide as we typically see in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 series. At any rate, compared against all of the other No. 1 and No. 8 seeds of the past two decades, the Spurs were average at best while the Grizzlies were considerably better than most.

    However, Memphis lost one of its biggest stars (Rudy Gay) to a shoulder injury in mid-February and still managed to pull off one of the few No. 8-over-No. 1 upsets in NBA history.

    While the injury bug left them without Gay, the Grizzlies did get a little bit of help when San Antonio's Manu Ginobili was forced to miss Game 1 with an elbow injury. With that clutch player unavailable for the Spurs, Memphis mounted a late comeback to win the opener and steal away home-court advantage. After that, they took care of business at home to win the series in six games.

    The biggest surprise here was how poorly San Antonio shot the ball. The Spurs led the league in three-point percentage during the regular season at a 39.7 percent clip. Meanwhile, Memphis ranked in the bottom 25 percent of the league in three-point defense, allowing 36.9 percent. Yet, the Spurs couldn't buy a triple on the road, shooting a collective 12-of-55 (21.8 percent) in the three games in Memphis.

    Well, actually, the biggest surprise was that the Grizzlies' postseason drought came to an end against such a successful franchise.

    From their 1995 inception in Vancouver through the 2009-10 campaign, the Grizzlies had not won a single playoff game in 15 years of existence. They did reach the postseason in each of 2004, 2005 and 2006, but they were swept out of the first round each year. During that same 15-year window, San Antonio won four titles and a combined total of 111 postseason games.

    None of that history mattered to Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley Jr., though.

1. No. 8 Golden State Warriors over No. 1 Dallas Mavericks (2007 First Round)

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    Baron Davis and Dirk Nowitzki
    Baron Davis and Dirk NowitzkiJeff Chiu/Associated Press

    With the exception of the Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors destroying anything and everything from 2014 to 2017, the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks were perhaps the best regular-season team of the past two decades.

    A 28-year-old Dirk Nowitzki averaged 24.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists en route to MVP honors. Jason Terry had the best three-point shooting season of his career (43.8 percent). Josh Howard made the only All-Star appearance of his career. And the Mavs were tough as nails on defense while winning 67 games.

    However, the Warriors were their kryptonite.

    The Mavericks only lost 15 times during the regular season, but they had an 0-3 record against the Warriors. Two of those three losses to their former head coach (Don Nelson) came in blowout fashion. Suffice it to say, they were less than thrilled to draw the Warriors in the Western Conference's No. 1 vs. No. 8 first-round series.

    Baron Davis darn near had a triple-double (33 points, 14 rebounds, 8 assists) in the Warriors' Game 1 victory. Stephen Jackson put up 30 points in Game 2 and Jason Richardson went for 30 in Game 3. As great as Dallas' defense was during the regular season, it had no answer for that trio. Davis, Jackson and Richardson had a combined average of 67.3 points while winning the series in six games.

    Because of how things played out between these teams during the regular season, you could argue this result wasn't that surprising. But it's worth remembering that Golden State was a dumpster fire for more than a decade prior to this series win.

    The Warriors had finished at least six games below .500 in each of the previous 12 seasons, and they had to win nine of their final 10 games just to sneak into the postseason. They had all the telltale signs of the team that's just happy to have gotten there before getting swept into oblivion. Instead, they thoroughly took care of business against the best team of the decade, winning three of the four games by double digits.

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