Some of the best NBA Playoff Upsets

The NBA playoffs provide the moments in basketball’s history that we relish in for years to come. After an already lengthy 82 game season, 16 teams compete for the Larry O’Brien trophy. Though not as pertinent, as a single game elimination tournament, the first round of the NBA playoffs in the past have included some stunning upsets. Collegiate basketball has yet to provide us with the vaunted 16th seed defeating a 1 seed in their postseason tournament, however in the NBA, while on both sides of the bracket, the lower seeds being placed at 8 have defeated the number 1 seeds on a couple of rare occasions. Here are a few other upsets: 

2011 NBA Playoffs: #8 Memphis shocks #1 San Antonio

In their 10th season in Memphis since relocating from Vancouver, The Grizzles had yet to win a playoff game.  Just winning one game in the series was an accomplishment, but winning 4 out of 7 against a dominant Spurs team who had reigned as champs 3 times during the decade, was an achievement of epic proportions. The Grizzles were lead by Zach Randolph series average of 21 points and nine rebounds per game. This upset made Memphis the fourth 8th seeded team in NBA history to beat a number one seed in the first round the playoffs.

2007 Playoffs: #8 Golden State Warriors defeat #1 Dallas Mavericks

Sure the Warriors are a tough team to beat now but 10 years ago they barely made it into the NBA post-season. Led by Baron ”B.Diddy” Davis the 2007 Golden State Warriors faced off against a Dallas Mavericks team that looked poised head back to the NBA Finals after losing in the previous season. Golden State were surely lambs to slaughter in most cases statistically speaking as they finished the season 2 games above .500 while Dallas led the league in wins. However, it was Davis’s near triple-double in game one victory in Dallas that set the tone for the series and sent a message that they weren’t just practice dummies for the Mavs. The Warriors would shock the world and win the series 4 games to 2, making them one of four teams to beat a one seed as an 8th.

1995 Eastern Semi-Finals: #1 Orlando Magic defeat #5 MJ’s Bulls

During the 90’s, Michael Jordan returned to playing basketball after taking a brief hiatus to play baseball. While the decision added to the paradox of Jordan’s career, losing to the Orlando Magic added depth to the mystery of what was going on with the league’s best player. No Surprise to the Magic tho, they would eventually go on to the NBA Finals after beating the Bulls 4-2 in the second round of the playoffs. What’s often overlooked in this conversation is that the Magic were a number 1 seed in the east at the time, with a team that had Shaq and Penny Hardaway. It’s considered an upset because it was a series the pitted a youthful team in the Magic vs an experienced team in the Bulls…youth prevailed.

2004 NBA Finals: Detroit Pistons shock the World beating the LA Lakers 4-1

Gritty and Aggressive were some of the few words to describe the 2004 Detroit Pistons. They were a team with 2nd team All-NBA selections but their play suggested much more. They made a case for being more than just a competitive team so modestly, by upsetting the LA Lakers in the 2004 NBA finals, a team that did have 1st team All-NBA Selections, garnished with two future NBA Hall of Famers. Pistons Center Ben Wallace was outweighed by Lakers big man Shaquille O’Neal by almost 75 lbs., but that didn’t stop Wallace or the aggressive tone that brought the Pistons to the Finals that year. Using that emotion as a pillar in this championship run placed the Pistons back on good terms with their fans and were once again the Bad Boys of the NBA while pulling off the momentous upset.

2011 NBA Finals: Dallas Mavericks defeat Miami Heat

After running through the NBA Eastern Playoffs with ease the Heat, with their newly formed Big 3, Miami looked to cap off the first of what they assured would be multiple championships in South Beach. Unfortunately for them, Dirk Nowitzki, previously having his postseasons spoiled after having great regular seasons it was his turn to return the favor. Dirk would suffer no more and become an NBA champion defeating the Heat 4-2. While the NBA was appalled at the efforts of the Heat, fans were amazed at the clutch shots Dirk hit to crush the dreams of the prematurely crowned Heat team all while being named finals MVP. 

1999 Eastern Conf Quarter-Finals: NY Knicks defeat Miami Heat, starting their magical run

The Knicks struggled to find their identity all throughout the 1998 NBA season, but it was their first round match-up with the Miami Heat that placed them in a league of their own. Thanks in part to a critical late game shot from Allan Houston, The Knicks revived the spirit of basketball in the big apple. After taking the Heat to the wire in what was at that time a five-game series, the Knicks would eventually ride the momentum of the upset all the way to the NBA finals making them the first NBA team with an 8th seed to reach the championship series.

1994 Western Conf Quarter-Finals: Denver Nuggets beat Seattle Supersonics

The first time an 8th seed defeated a 1 seed in the NBA playoffs happened in 1994. The Seattle Supersonics were primed to be in the NBA finals that summer and were ready to try to prove to the world that they belonged as one of the elite teams in the west. The only problem was that the Sonics ran into a 7 footer, who’s signature finger waggle was essentially the gesture that denied them advancement into the next round. The Denver Nuggets lead by Dikembe Mutombo ruined the Sonics dream season beating them 3-2.

2009 Eastern Conf Finals: #2 Orlando Magic beat #1 Cleveland Cavaliers

The 2009 NBA postseason was hyped for a full year, promoting the NBA finals as a dream match between two high school superstars who had proven ground in the NBA. Even through a Nike Campaign called the MVP puppets, LeBron James, and his Cavaliers were to face off with their Western counterpart – lead by the world famous Kobe Bryant and his Laker teammates. Both player’s squads hurled over their first two opponents convincingly but it was James’ squad who couldn’t get the job done as they fell to a Magic squad lead by another high school Phenom in Dwight Howard. Howard didn’t do it alone tho, he was accompanied by several marksmen from outside the 3pt line. The Magic would go on to face Kobe and the Lakers in the finals after upsetting the Cavs 4-2 in the Eastern Conference finals.

2001 Eastern Conf Quarter-Finals: #6 Charlotte Hornets defeat #3 Miami Heat

A playoff match-up between a 3 seed and a 6th seed would constitute that the two teams playing against each other aren’t too much separated by talent. During the first round of the 2001 eastern conference playoffs, when the Heat faced off against the Hornets it seemed like there was a big gap competitiveness at least with one team. The Heat had perhaps the veteran leadership and style that would be enough to give them the edge if the series came down to clinching games, but the young Hornets proved to be too much and shocked everyone by sweeping the old men Heat 3-0, thanks in part to their ex-teammate from the year prior in Jamal Mashburn.

2016 NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers come back from 1-3 deficit to beat the Golden State Warriors

It’s been the butt of all sports related jokes for almost a year now but, yes the 2016 NBA finals was indeed an upset of epic proportions. Despite the fact that the Warriors were favored to win against the Cavilers for the title after completing the best record in NBA history, they blew a (wait for it) 3-1 lead to the LeBron James lead team and were cast as one those teams that choked on the big stage. On the other end tho, it finally took pressure off the back off one team and their city’s inability to hoist a championship trophy in any major sport in almost 50 plus years.

John Davis
John D. Davis is a native of Durham, NC. He has been featured and freelanced for The Charlotte Post, Fox Sports 1340 AM and The Sports Fan Journal

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